Emotional Terrain: Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Vanessa Blakeslee’s first short fiction collection Train Shots was recently published by Burrow Press. In it we meet characters ranging from a drug-addicted doctor to a Britney Spears-like “pop princess” in places ranging from Costa Rica to Pennsylvania to Florida. Vanessa recently took time from her reading tour and Edward F. Albee Foundation residency to talk about the collection, her characters, and the burgeoning Orlando literary scene.

Emotional Terrain: Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Toasted Cheese: We discovered that we kind of traded places (I grew up all over Florida and moved to Pennsylvania; you moved to Florida from a different part of Pennsylvania). “Barbecue Rabbit” technically could take place anywhere but it’s set in Pennsylvania and feels like a Pennsylvania story down to the bones. Pennsylvania also dips a toe into the title story as well. I’m curious about the perspective of someone who isn’t shaking Pennsylvania from her boots the same way I can’t shake Florida. Do you think there’s something particular that stays with you when you make a geographic or culture change or is it simply our life experience in play?

Vanessa Blakeslee: It’s uncanny that you ask this because right now I’m revisiting a project that I’ve been working on over the past few summers set in northeast Pennsylvania, where I grew up. For a while I didn’t think Pennsylvania was an itch I wanted to scratch as a fiction writer but while at Vermont College, I wrote a story called “Shadow Boxes” that took place in my hometown. The story later won the Bosque Fiction Prize and got shortlisted for a number of others. This prompted me to consider that maybe there was more to mine in the subject matter (apparently so). I’m two or three stories away from a completed first draft. I’m still early in the process—and who knows how the manuscript may change—but so far the project feels very much in the tradition of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, both books I greatly admire.

Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee

I think when you’ve spent a significant portion of your life somewhere, those particulars of place can’t help but stay with you. You undergo moments of humiliation and joy in an array of locales, from the grocery store where you landed your first job (and maybe your first love), say, to the woods where you walked with your grandmother, to the school parking lot where you got beaten up. Those memories become ingrained in the landscape, whether your returns are real or imagined. At the same time you’re shaped by the natural world—even if that world is New York City—down to the climate and weather, and the cultural milieu that is inhabited by the people there. You can’t escape those factors, nor should you; they’re what knit inhabitants together across economic divides, the insular peculiarities of individual families, age, and time. And over time, it’s as if the heaviness of memory pressurizes one’s sensory knowledge of a place with the emotional terrain—that’s when you’ve got real gold to mine from, as a writer.

TC: It seems like you’re being tagged specifically as a “Florida writer.” It never feels dismissive but it doesn’t feel complete when I read it. How do you interpret “Florida writer,” if not simply “I live and write in Florida?”

VB: Again, I think this has more to do with the emotional terrain in my fiction rather than the concrete specifics of place. Most Floridians are from somewhere else, many from the Northeast who chose to make Florida their home for a number of reasons—so you have a vast number of residents who didn’t spend their childhoods there, and are in some way deliberately starting a new chapter in life. There’s a sense of displacement there, of transition—perhaps even frontier. Transplants set out to move there with hope and optimism, if only for the weather and lifestyle—so you’ve got everyone from college students to retirees showing up, brimming with desire and dreams. We’re now the third largest state; all of this growth happened so quickly that you have radically different people colliding on one narrow peninsula. All of this makes for unique conflict scenarios as well as emotional terrain for fiction.

As for the label, I don’t mind being called a Florida writer because I do write a lot about my adopted state—just watch out if I move somewhere else! Because I write what I write, and I certainly don’t feel pressure to be a “Florida writer.” If that’s how others chose to see my work, fine, but ultimately labels fall short and backfire. Literature is vastly bigger than any convenient labels we can come up with.

TC: There’s incredible diversity in the state (people, backgrounds, geography). What do you find inspiring about Florida?

VB: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my eyes peeled for what happens in my backyard, or my neighbors’ backyards. But Florida, and Orlando in particular, has such a variety of establishments, parks, neighborhoods, malls, etc., in part due to the tourist economy, that I think the city offers plenty in terms of choosing lively backdrops for fiction. PR’s, the Tex-Mex restaurant, was an obvious one since I worked there for five years. I wasn’t surprised when the restaurant worked into my imagination, both in “Clock In” and “Train Shots” (also in “Arthur and George: The Quest” which didn’t make it into this collection but is available online at Drunken Boat).

The landscape and climate inspire me a great deal. In the case of “The Lung,” I had fun setting that story during a summer of raging wildfires rather than a more expected scenario. There’s no “hurricane story” in the book, for example, and I kind of like that. I like bringing readers into the real world of a place, and the reality is that Florida’s chilly winters and torrential summer downpours are much more evocative of what life is like here than the occasional devastating hurricane season.

TC: What do you wish more non-residents knew?

VB: That the literary scene in Orlando has really taken off. We have our longstanding traditions, like the annual Winter with the Writers festival at Rollins College, which brings in A-list poets and writers every February. Over the past five years, I’ve noticed a renewed energy and enthusiasm within the writing community. The University of Central Florida now offers the MFA in Writing, plus the University of Tampa has a low-residency program. The Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project hosts a new writer every three months; those residents come from every corner of the globe and bring new lifeblood. Burrow Press, the publisher of Train Shots, showcases noteworthy talent several times a year at its up-and-coming reading series, Functionally Literate. Peruse the weekly event listings during the school year and you’ll find the calendar packed with literary events—so many, you’ll often find yourself missing out.

I love where the Orlando lit scene is at right now. It’s just big enough that we’ve got a considerable pool of varied and burgeoning talent, yet small and intimate enough that most of us know each other and love nothing more than cheering each other on, absent of petty jealousies and competition. I’m not claiming that we’re the Brooklyn of the South yet—maybe in another eight or ten years—but we’re definitely on our way. I couldn’t be happier to be here right now, because I deeply sense that we—not just as a literary scene, but as a city—are fast approaching coming into our own. Ultimately the lit scene will change as Orlando grows; the egos will flare up as the intimacy dies. I hope that doesn’t happen for a long time yet. I can only describe our literary scene as being a place of true community, love and support. I’m ever grateful for it, and excited for its future.

TC: No matter where your story is set, your settings are specific and vibrant (“Welcome, Lost Dogs” struck me in this way). Do you think of setting as a character in its own right or more of a backdrop for particular situations or people?

VB: It depends on the story. My fiction arises very much from setting. I’m not so much an image-driven writer; often I find myself fascinated by hearing anecdotes of people stuck in unusual circumstances, and my stories grow out of exploring those predicaments. Setting very much drives a story such as, “Welcome, Lost Dogs” or “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” In “Princess of Pop” setting looms so large, it functions almost as another character: the pop star is falling apart, she chooses to hole up in the hotel where Joplin died, and the story pretty much remains there.

In others, where the setting takes more of a backseat to the conflict—“Ask Jesus” comes to mind, as well as “The Lung” and even “Hospice of the Au Pair”—I crafted the setting to create a certain desired effect. I suppose a premise has to contain a certain peculiarity for me to set it in Florida—a juxtaposition of the inherent natural beauty abundant in this state, as well as an extreme, perhaps comically absurd, element of the grotesque—one might call it the New Southern Gothic, or even Florida Gothic, who knows? For instance, “The Lung” could have taken place anywhere. But since it’s a story about smoking, disease and the impermanence of nature, I set it in Florida during a summer of raging wildfires. Likewise, I chose for the protagonist to work in the field of environmental protection and have a green thumb.

Conversely, “Hospice of the Au Pair,” about a WASPy middle-class girl who falls in love with a morphine-addicted doctor, was originally set in Florida but something about the premise and setting rang as too expected, somehow. Maybe it came off too consciously as “another kooky Florida story,” and therefore gimmicky. In that case, changing the backdrop to Costa Rica injected the story—if you don’t mind the pun—with just the right unusual details to make it truly fresh and believable.

TC: Some of your characters aren’t written to provoke sympathy or likeability but they’re compelling and realistic (Sam in “Hospice of the Au Pair” stands out to me). When writing short fiction, how deeply do you get into your characters? Do you let their backgrounds evolve as you work or do you begin with their histories in mind?

VB: Short fiction doesn’t leave much room for backstory so I don’t spend too much time on characters’ histories aside from nailing down the immediate situation they’ve just come out of offstage, which has propelled them into the crisis they’re facing now. Much of the time this is very thin, just a couple of lines at the outset. Then, as the story progresses and a gap opens up where a bit of backstory information is called for to shed light on the present situation, I’ll make something up that is ideally both idiosyncratic to the individuals, setting, etc., and also inevitably fitting.

For instance, I don’t know much about Sam, the expat doctor in “Hospice of the Au Pair,” but in the final scene in the yard, he notices the blazing colors of the tropical trees. Why does he notice them? What’s the significance of this gesture? I tied it back to the autumns of his boyhood in the northern United States, a purer time which he very much yearns to return to now, via his own, albeit fractured, family. So I feel that I do get into characters as deeply as when writing a novel, but you’re just in and out so quickly with the short form. And in a way it’s very freeing, not having to come up with as much backstory to fuel the narrative moment. Although I’ll add that even with a novel, writers usually don’t need as much character history as they think they do—a story centers on what’s happening now, after all, not back then. There, too, I find myself making up the material I need as I plug along. With novels, I feel like there’s more of a sense of character history but that’s an element best left to the subconscious to work on. In composing first drafts, I’m hyper-focused on pushing the action forward.

TC: Your characters seem to come from a place of great empathy and insight. I’m curious about how and where you observe people for inspiration.

VB: Thank you. I draw upon people I meet in real life as a starting point for my characters but often I combine traits from different individuals. If you’re writing character-driven literary fiction, then as you craft motivation and plot you have to exaggerate or diminish certain traits of a protagonist as he or she navigates the situation and the obstacles flung in front of them. To what degree you manipulate those traits and to what effect, therein lies the art. Characters, even ones rooted in real life, inevitably take on their own shape because the form demands that you invent and embellish.

The characters I felt closest to while writing the stories were the narrator in “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” the pop icon protagonist in “Princess of Pop,” as well as the female heroines in “The Sponge Diver” and “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” I also felt close to P.T., the engineer in “Train Shots.” While all of the characters I just cited are female with the exception of P.T., I wouldn’t say that sharing the same gender has as much to do with “closeness,” however—rather, it’s a certain emotional terrain that we occupy, or that those characters spring from. I have lived, in brief spurts, the isolating experience of being an expat “caught between countries.” I have been in romantic relationships with varying degrees of power dynamics, for good and for ill. As fiction writers we talk a lot about what we “reveal and conceal” on the page, and I’m fascinated by how relationships operate that way, too—how much of privacy contains secrecy, and when does secrecy cross over into deception?

The character of Margot in “The Lung” I found a bit slippery to capture at first, because I see her as so different from me. She’s very much the strong, no-nonsense woman I aspire to be; perhaps, in recent years I’ve made strides toward becoming more like her. The troubled Ethan was often hairy to handle in scene—figuring out exactly what his objectives were, and where his motivations were coming from. Same thing with Jono, the love interest in “The Sponge Diver.” In revision, it became apparent that the story’s quiet power lay in the potential to make both of the characters responsible for their relationship’s demise, but getting that to happen, pinpointing and rendering vivid those tiny moments of miscommunication and masquerade that build to bring it down, was tricky.

While my life is a far-cry from that of a celebrity or train engineer, in emotional terms we’re not so different. That’s what I aim to do in my fiction—illuminate how we all struggle with loneliness and disenchantment even when we are “living the dream,” whatever that dream is, and often especially after we achieve expertise or status. Doubt, despair, feeling like a fraud, whether in our vocation or in our efforts to love others—I don’t think any of us escapes our time on this planet without grappling with these things. At what point does the despair become too much? P.T. wonders in “Train Shots”—a poignant and worthwhile question, one which echoes back to the protagonist’s crisis in “Princess of Pop.”

TC: Looking back weeks after reading Train Shots, “Princess of Pop” is the story that stayed with me most strongly. I was just telling my husband about it over the weekend. I think it’s because it’s a character we think we already know.

Speaking of characters, I have to ask: is Erica in “Ask Jesus” the same Erica, mentioned but never seen, from “Clock In?”

VB: I’ll say this: I did deliberately chose the name Erica for both stories so that the reader might have the option to make that connection. But it’s up to the reader to decide.

TC: There’s a romantic or sexual relationship in every Train Shots story, whether currently happening in the center (“Ask Jesus”) or the periphery of the story (“Train Shots”) or in the past but looming over the characters (“Uninvited Guests”). I feel like a lot of writers, particularly in short fiction, stay away from sexuality in the story unless it’s directly involved in the plot instead of acknowledging that it’s primary to human nature.

VB: Biological impulses and sexual desire drive the world; we like to believe we’re more sophisticated than that, but it’s naïve to believe so. Literary fiction, at its most basic level, is about connection and disconnection between men and women, and while all stories don’t have to be centered on love and sex—that would be rather mundane—its absence in storytelling is as noticeable as an elephant in the room.

Writing literary sex, whether funny or awkward or passionate or violent, is just like facing any other scene you’ve got to capture; there’s no need for gratuitous detail, but you have to stare. Sex—the lack of it, the yearning for it, and the messy consequences of our romantic pursuits—occupies a great deal of our adult lives. That concept of emotional terrain crops up. Would P.T., the engineer in “Train Shots,” be so distraught if not for his longtime companion having broken up with him three days before the young woman’s suicide? How much of the Princess of Pop’s turmoil is wrapped up in her status as a sex symbol, her identity stolen by corporate interests and molded into a pawn from when she was barely a teen? No doubt her hypersexualized image influenced Erica, the character from “Ask Jesus” in some way, in how she chooses to modify her body to fit what the culture deems sexy—which plays with her head and takes a toll on her marriage.

So maybe it’s just the way I see the world, that sex and sexuality are integral to the messes we get ourselves into even when a situation doesn’t overtly appear that way. What do human beings long for most but freedom and intimacy—how do we go about pursuing both? What do we sacrifice? I’m fascinated by this.

TC: One example of a story with a sexual relationship is “The Sponge Diver,” which was originally published in Toasted Cheese. Most (all?) of the stories in Train Shots are previously published. Did you do much or any rewriting between the previously published versions of the stories and the versions that appear in the collection? How did you prepare the stories for the collection? Did you do your own editing or collaborate with an editor or publisher?

VB: I started many of these stories, including “The Sponge Diver,” as an MFA student at Vermont College. In the years since, I kept revising them as they were accepted for publication in literary journals and along the way, kept sending out the manuscript to small press contests for book-length collections. Twice, the full manuscript placed as a finalist, although under different titles.

I kept playing with the stories to include, the order and the title. Just as I found myself exhausted of submitting it through the contest system, Ryan Rivas (the editor at Burrow Press) approached me about possibly launching my debut collection. At the time I was writing a craft blog for the Burrow Press Review. He had come to know me as a hard worker and an active member of the literary scene and he knew I’d been publishing in well-regarded places. He read the manuscript in January 2013 and afterwards contacted me with a firm offer. For the next several months, we went back and forth deciding which stories to swap out and which to include.

Train Shots

Train Shots (Burrow Press, 2014)

Ryan’s philosophy is that assembling a story collection is a lot like putting together a music album, and he’s absolutely right. We left out certain stories not because they lacked merit but because the ones chosen must speak to each other in a particular, resonating way. I’d describe the process as very hands-on; I absolutely loved the thorough scrutiny we both brought to the manuscript as a team. On my own, I’d never been able to come up with a satisfying order. Ryan had a terrific eye—and ear, I might add—for which stories belonged where, a vision of the book as a living, breathing whole. Whereas I’d worked on the stories for so long on my own, I think I’d become too close to them. So I’d say I was ultimately surprised and thrilled by the final “playlist,” not to mention profoundly grateful.

I was also surprised by how heavily we edited, and even revised in some cases, certain stories. All of them had been published before. I think it’s easy for emerging writers to assume that once a journal has published a story, there’s no more work to be done, which is far from the case. This is the stage where you have the opportunity to refine and bring your work to the next level, so you’re really presenting your best—to zero in on repeated diction and unwieldy syntax, to make sure the final notes of each story truly sing. We had a deadline, of course, but we took our time. I believe our efforts paid off.

I had always wanted to include the flash fiction, “Clock In,” as the opening, as it uses second person and literally invites the reader into the world of the book. “Train Shots” is one of my most memorable and usual stories, so we knew we’d include that one from the beginning; the tone and theme made it a ready contender for final spot, and usually the placement of the title story bears weight, so that made sense—Train Shots. But also there’s a double-meaning to the phrase “train shots.” In one sense, the collection is a journey, the reader peering in on different characters in various settings, glimpsing a “shot” of these individuals’ lives before the train zooms on. Then in the title story itself, P.T. eats dinner at a dive bar alongside the tracks in Winter Park, where the bartenders offer “train shot” drink specials when the trains go by.

As for the order, we probably considered twice as many stories than what ended up making the final cut. We eliminated ones that would contain beats or subject matter too similar to others, and sought a balance in narrative perspectives and moods, from light to dark. I recommend to anyone who is seriously putting together a collection to get together with a trusted writer friend or teacher and employ another pair of eyes, at least, to help you select and juggle the order—doing so would have saved me a lot of grief and time.

TC: Travel and transition are themes in Train Shots and the pieces seem to have a sense of motion to them. What has been your journey as a writer so far? How did you begin? Who encouraged you? How long have you been publishing?

VB: I’ve been writing since I was six. As a child I made up stories constantly—whether by playacting with Thundercats action figures or sitting down at my mom’s electric typewriter until I used up all the ribbon. By high school and my first year of college, I had largely set aside my own imaginative writings. My sophomore year I studied abroad in Australia, and I can only describe my time there as a spiritual awakening of sorts, the kind born from travel and spending time intensely with a congenial group of very different people. When I came back, I enrolled in my first creative writing workshop and within the first few classes, knew that this would be my path. Still, I didn’t publish my first story until 29—“The Lung” which appeared in Cimarron Review.

Two short essays of mine provide a fairly succinct snapshot of my writing journey leading up to Train Shots: “The Corner Booth” and “Paradise Lost,” both of which can be found online at The Paris Review Daily. They are also far more lyrical and lively than any answer I could supply here.

TC: Where is your next journey? More publishing? Short fiction? A novel? Another collection? Do you like to plan where you’re going or see where fate takes you?

VB: All of the above. At the moment I’m at the Edward F. Albee Foundation residency in Montauk, NY and will be working on what I envision will be a novel-in-stories set in Pennsylvania. In between, I’ve been working on essays, book reviews, and the occasional poem. Lately I’ve been drawn to speculative and dystopian fiction, and hope to write a futuristic novel—although not until the book promo for Train Shots dies down, because the new novel project requires research and a trip or two. My agent is currently shopping my first novel, so with luck that will get picked up soon.

TC: Where can we find you online?

VB: For events and book news, vanessablakeslee.com. For my thoughts on the writing life, interviews, book reviews, guest blog posts and the like, visit Vanessa Blakeslee: On Writing. You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and my new favorite, Instagram.

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