I’ve never met Vanessa Blakeslee, except in the digital realm. Here’s what my online interactions with her and what her Facebook page tells me she’s like: Vanessa lives in central Florida; she’s very patient and thoughtful; she studied at a fine arts college; she seems to be an easy-going person; her hometown is in Pennsylvania, about an hour’s drive south of my wife’s hometown; she lived for most of one year in Costa Rica; she has many Facebook friends, which makes me think I’m right about the patience and easy-goingness she seems to exude over email; and she seems aware of the many social ills plaguing our nation/culture, and she seems interested in doing what she can to alleviate those problems; her debut story collection, Train Shots (due to be released in March of 2014) features bookend stories set in the same location, which—not to say that all the vast intricacies in this book do not themselves merit attention—was key to my enjoyment of the collection’s structure.
Here’s what I think I know about Vanessa Blakeslee based on the stories in Train Shots: She worked hard at getting the stories that make up this collection into magazines, and was successful (they appeared in wide-ranging journals, from Cimarron Review to Flash Fiction On-line); she writes about women and men who find themselves stuck, yearning for a way out of their present situation, but reluctant to break away for obviously real and human reasons; take, for example, Melissa, who’s dating the deaf and much older titular sponge diver, and who’s now realizing the tensions between her desire for the material things this man provides versus her self-consciousness about his deafness and his visible hearing aid in public spaces, all of it compounded by this man’s ability to make Melissa do things she normally would not, like using a riskier form of birth control.
Blakeslee’s easy-to-read prose makes you focus on her characters and their predicaments. I first read her book in a single sitting of about three hours. I then took a week to reread it, and I had to force myself to do that. I wanted to push forward, to move easily from page to page, but I made myself slow down to absorb her stories, to take in all the little details. And there are plenty of those: an alcoholic restaurateur who makes inappropriate comments from the bar to his servers; someone OCDing on a gag-gift fortune-telling doll; a woman desensitized to the plight of poor native people living around her in her expat country; a boy with all the hallmarks of a future serial killer; Christian zealots working under the guise of charity; an older man who still subscribes to High Times; a morphine addicted widower; Brittany fucking Spears—or at least a character very much like her; To Kill a Mockingbird, the play; Jerry Garcia ties (remember those?); and train-maimed humans and other animals.
I’m grateful that we at Atticus Review have the opportunity for this peek at Blakeslee’s work, and that we get to share it with you. You’ll be happy that you picked up a copy of Train Shots for yourself, come March.
An Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee
Jamie Iredell: Some of the stories in Train Shots feature American expats living in Costa Rica. Does this stem from personal experience?
Vanessa Blakeslee: For much of 2008 I lived in Piedades de Santa Ana, Costa Rica, in the suburbs of San Jose, and traveled the country on weekends. Most of my time was spent in the company of North American and British expats, some of whom had been living in Central America for years. Whether they were horse-breeders back in the Central Valley or owners of a boutique hotel or mechanic shop in Jaco Beach, these were people with colorful pasts and stories—ready subject matter for fiction. I still have material and images from my stay there that haven’t made it onto the page, and maybe never will, but who knows? Writing fiction is an ever-mysterious and unpredictable undertaking.
JI: Your prose style is very readable—clear descriptions tossed in with some common colloquialisms, like “shit-eating smile.” Do you spend a lot of time working on sentences to get them right?
VB: When I initially sit down to draft, I do my best to fall into a rhythm and capture it without too much scribbling-over and crossing-out, which can turn into a kind of stalling. In the next drafts, I’m usually focusing on bigger concerns of plot and character development. But yes, in the final revisions and editing phase, I become happily obsessed with tinkering on the sentence-level, getting the words right.
JI: The opening story of Train Shots, “Clock-In,” is formally different than the other stories in the collection. How did you come to the form for that story, and in what ways would you say it fits with the rest of the collection thematically?
VB: “Clock-In” stemmed from a writing exercise that focused on a second person speaker instructing someone about a task. From this mock-training-turned-gossip session, a world emerged. To me, second person is immediately engaging but difficult to sustain for long—there’s a gimmickyness about it—but it’s perfect for snapshot situations like this one. I was delighted by how an entire cast of characters, setting, and tensions arose so quickly and succinctly; “flash” in the truest sense of the form. I think “Clock-In” sets the tone of the collection, with the second person literally inviting the reader in to this world of diverse characters in idiosyncratic situations. Embedded alongside the humor there’s bleak, sometimes pathetic, tragedy. Some characters will find their way to brighter futures; others will find themselves trapped. Yet almost all of them will find a way to go on. In this way the book comes full circle, for the restaurant setting of “Clock-In” is the same dive-bar where P.T. ends up in “Train Shots,” although this is only implied, not stated explicitly.
JI: I’m curious about your feelings on the second person. What to you feels “gimmicky” about it? What are your thoughts about Lorrie Moore’s Self Help, or Robert Kloss’s The Alligators of Abraham? Whether or not you’ve read these books, what to you makes the second person a less successful point of view?
VB: I have read Self-Help, a stellar collection; I haven’t read Kloss’s novel. What I feel is inherently gimmicky about second person is that direct address packs a powerful punch and inherently calls a lot of attention to itself—you’re essentially calling upon the audience to play the character of the “you,” and the reader, of course, knows he or she isn’t that person. The author is demanding that the reader participate in a way they aren’t used to signing up for when they encounter a text. I wouldn’t necessarily call the POV less successful; I just see second person as posing an added challenge, that the longer a second person narrative goes on, the more pressure there is on the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”
JI: In “Ask Jesus,” at the beginning of the story I felt strongly that the narrator was a female. Later we find out that Erica is the narrator’s wife. But we’re still never sure about the narrator’s sex. Obviously, there’s nothing barring the narrator from being a female. In other stories, like in “The Lung,” you write very convincingly male characters. Did you want the sex of the narrator in “Ask Jesus” to purposefully be vague? Why?
VB: That’s interesting, because I never intended the narrator to come across as anything but male—I wrote this one around the same time as “The Lung.” And certainly in no way did I intend for the gender to read as purposefully vague. However, more than a few readers have commented that this was their take on the story, too, or they at least questioned the speaker’s gender. Now, after the fact, I consider this a plus that the gender isn’t as clearly defined and the story could possibly be read that way, as two women in a relationship—it makes for a potentially more complex read.
JI: Is “Jesus Surfs” part of a larger body of a work? A collection of stories that feature magical realist-like qualities?
VB: I hope so—that is, I’ve got a handful of stories that could be classified as speculative, more in the tradition of Poe, Jules Verne, and possibly H. P. Lovecraft. “Clinica Tikal” which is one of my personal favorites, published online at Ascent, belongs to that story cycle. A collection of magical and speculative work would be quite different from this first collection; I’ve got a few more story ideas I’d want to develop and include, so we’ll see.
JI: Do you write in other genres? What else are you at work on now? More stories? Nonfiction? A novel?
VB: While I’m married to fiction, I’m afraid I’m not a very faithful spouse. Recently I participated in the Transit Interpretation Project based in Orlando, where artists from all different mediums each signed up for a route on the city’s bus service, LYNX, then rode all day. 30 days after the ride, each participant turned in an artistic response to his or her experience—sort of an ethnographic project. I thought I’d write flash fiction inspired by my TrIP, but when I sat down I ended up composing a pantoum, a ghazal, and a poem in free verse. So I think of myself as an occasional poet. As far as nonfiction goes, I’ve become a fairly regular book reviewer for the Kenyon Review Online, and hope to keep up that gig for the time being; I enjoy the task and find immense pleasure in seeing a thoughtful, thorough review essay of mine finding its way into the world, and hopefully shining a light on a deserving book. And I love guest blogging and writing more journalistic pieces from time to time, for places like The Paris Review Daily. But all of this is a procrastination of the fiction, which I find to be as mentally and emotionally exhausting to draft as it is thrilling and satisfying. So I’m a productive procrastinator, I suppose!
That said, my first novel, which took nearly 4 years to write, is making the rounds at publishers. A vision is coming together for my second novel, but it’s early and I’m still in the research and world-building phase, not anywhere near ready to set down a first draft yet. I know it will be dystopic, though, and I am excited for that narrative to come together—a futuristic literary novel will be a completely different challenge from anything I’ve done before. Novels come to me slowly; I’ve found I can’t rush them. I simply work on other projects, often short stories, and let my subconscious simmer, until I can see the basics of plot and structure. I’ll probably always write short stories; they’re like little incubators where I try out different technical approaches and subject matter. A constant interplay exists between form and content which is crucial to the liveliness of art, and my interest in these elements is varied and ever-shifting. I wouldn’t be surprised if I veered into writing for HBO or films one day; as long as I’m working on high-caliber storytelling, the medium doesn’t matter so much to me. Fiction comes to me visually, like a movie, but also there’s a feeling, a certain mood that compels me to write a story down. You’ve got to show up at the desk, but you also can’t rush the process.