Swetha Amit interviews Venita Blackburn about her short story collection HOW TO WRESTLE A GIRL and the art of the short story.
What inspired How to Wrestle a Girl?
My initial role was to write a micro novel based on some of the characters from my first collection. Three of them have the same world, going through grief and coming into their sexuality. I wanted to do more of them, and my goal was to 100-125 pages of flash fiction. When I started writing it, I found that I was writing other stories between these larger stories. I realized that they all belonged together and didn’t want to separate them. That’s how I ended up with the structure of this book.
How do you decide upon the form and structure for each story?
I thought about the structure first before I put the story in it. I didn’t have an already written story and tried to fit it in a container. I started with the container. With the story Grief Log, I wanted to do a table just like how athletes do, where they record all their games and exercises. I was fascinated with how they were committed to changing their bodies. They know what it takes to achieve something. I wanted to take that graph of journaling and put the actual story into that. It’s the story of a character experiencing unfulfilled love. I tried to put all that in a rigid format and see what happened.
When you initially think of an idea for a story, how do you decide upon the length, whether it will be flash fiction, a 3000-word story, or longer?
I discovered something unique when I was editing for my MFA journal. I realized we rejected many stories as we didn’t have room for them. Then we had little stories, and we would usually take all of them as they were all good. Flash Fiction has a publishing advantage. When I got more into it, I began to enjoy writing it even when it had scant respect twenty years ago. It’s gaining its momentum now, considering the collective ADHD going on. As an editor, I did learn that I can create both big and small stories. So, I started practicing with both forms. I’d try and see how I could make a 3000-word story into 700 words. Once we start editing, we begin to recognize issues and work around them.
Some of your stories are in the first person, while others are in a close third. How do you decide on the point of view for each story?
I have completed some workshops about writing the others, which is not your experience. I often think about how far my mind from the character and voice is. I am a voice-driven writer. If I do not hear the sound, rhythm, and cadence in their speech in the character’s voice, they are not natural to me. If I can get to their voice, I can write in the first person. I could only access it briefly; then, I decided on a third person. I do a third person or first-person plural if I am writing outside my spot, gender, or sexuality. That is fun as you get immediate authority over everything, a collective perspective.
You mention writing outside your identities. What would say your challenges, and how do you write about other identities without offending them?
Offending people is the risk you must be willing to take on when you go into their space. But you can minimize your risk by doing research, by being very thoughtful, considering your point of view, or how you are entering that world. Think about whether you are entering from an outsider’s perspective or entering deep into a character using I. Also, think about your knowledge and sense of authority. At the same time, art is art, and we are students of humanities. If you are observant, you can study people, capture dialect by listening carefully, and recreate it. Dialect is important and the region matters. My parents were southern -that rhythm has a different kind of cadence. I grew up in a region with international voices. It’s challenging to capture dialect on paper. You must mess with grammar and punctuation, and willing to break our words so they are phonetic. Listen to people you are trying to represent. If all this is done well, it will never be questioned.
How do you decide on when to bring conflict?
I am considered a flash fiction writer, so there are rules. You must insert the conflict right away. You don’t have time to wait and create the setting, unlike in the story The Dead, where we wait until the last page to find out the story. The first line must have the character, circumstance/and conflict. I just watched the documentary about Kurt Vonnegut and how he started as a journalist. In journalism, you must bring your central situation, conflict, or drama right away for your reader. You give them the details on the following page and explore what you already told them on the final page. I like that approach and don’t believe in holding my readers hostage by mystery or anything. I want to let them know what is going on and why. The ‘why’ is the actual story.
How do you see the role of dialogue in short or flash fiction?
Dialogue is essential when it’s very distinct. It must be exciting and not sound plain when you allow your character to speak. Capture how their brain works and make sure the way they talk is unique. In flash fiction, you don’t have the opportunity to use dialogue unless the story is structured entirely in dialogue. Besides distinct voices, the situation in which you use dialogue must also be unique.
How much time do you spend on characterization in a flash or longer short fiction?
Everything is character. The story doesn’t have any significance unless we have a person we care about or hate or want to see how they tune out. I am not writing action stories about anybody. The action doesn’t matter as much as the person. And its effect on how we feel about being the person. I am investigating grief, love, and all these emotions. And that comes through investigating the frame of mind of characters.
How do you plan your pacing?
It depends on what is going on. I don’t think of pacing as much as I think about the moment’s urgency. For instance, in my story Smoothies, the entire story takes place within two seconds. The pacing is very condensed. I also feel sentences can create this urgency. It’s interesting how short sentences do something to the brain. So, you might want to think about syntax whenever you think about pacing.
Who are the authors who inspire you?
My literary heroes are James Baldwin terms of essayists. He is so poised and eloquent that I also try and approach my nonfiction writing based on his style. My other idols are Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, and ZZ Packer. Of course, all my contemporaries as well.
Lastly, are any more books in the pipeline?
I am writing a novel. While it’s about lesbian assassins at the end of the world, it’s also about us. It has this ambitious voice, and I am playing around with structure. It’s coming out hopefully next year.
Works by Venita Blackburn have appeared in thenewyorker.com, Harper’s, Ploughshares, McSweeney’s, the Paris Review, and others. She received the Prairie Schooner book prize in fiction for her collected stories, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, in 2017. She is the founder of the literary nonprofit Live, Write (livewriteworkshop.com), which provides free creative writing workshops for communities of color. Blackburn’s second collection of stories is How to Wrestle a Girl, 2021, a finalist for a Lambda Literary Prize. She is an Assistant Professor of creative writing at California State University, Fresno.