Vanessa Blakeslee writes stories that stay with you. Whether it’s a pop star on the verge of suicide, a drug-addicted doctor struggling with a wife’s death, or the loving mother doing her best to cope with a troubled son she both fears and wants desperately to save, Blakeslee’s first book Train Shots hits the reader again and again with soul-stirring prose.
Vanessa lives in Maitland, Florida and earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing has appeared in Green Mountains Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Paris Review Online, Split Lip Magazine, The Southern Review and many others. She was the winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, and has been awarded grants and residencies from The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, Yaddo, and the Ragdale Foundation. In 2013, she received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.
I recently had the good fortune of meeting Vanessa at Functionally Literate in Orlando, where she was reading one of the stories from her new book, Train Shots, now available from Burrow Press. We set up this interview for a few days later.
Coe Douglas (Tampa Review Online): After reading Train Shots, I noticed that many of the stories deal with primal issues – life and death, spirituality and morality, in a sense, an interesting sense, sex, identity. All the really good stuff! Do you draw on life experiences as catalysts for your fiction? Or, what other cues act as catalysts for your stories?
Vanessa Blakeslee: One of the best teachers I ever had was Doug Glover, who teaches at Vermont College. I studied with him my second semester into the program, and at the time I had really hit a wall when it came to choosing situations to write about. I hadn’t yet really learned to ask myself, “What matters?” In one of his letters to me, he asked, “Where are the great stories about love and death?” I remember reading that and sitting back, awestruck. Where were they, indeed? I see this in my undergrad students all the time; they’ll come up with a thin conflict scenario between two or three people, and either skim the surface of what the real issue is driving the story or evade it altogether. That’s because diving into and exploring the gritty ugliness in the ways human beings act toward one another is uncomfortable, often scary.
VB: So I suppose once that sank in, I realized there was no way of shirking those subjects anymore — if I wanted to become the writer I wanted so desperately to be, I had to find the courage within to do so. Isn’t it Flannery O’Connor who has that great quote about the artist having to stare at the ugliness in life?
CD: I believe so. And this does offer a deep reservoir for fiction.
VB: But yes, to answer your question, I draw on life experiences and make them up. From my life, the lives of those around me, stories in the news media, you name it. So watch out!
CD: A story like “Barbecue Rabbit” is dark but so deeply compelling because we can all feel the anguish of the mom as she struggles to love this troubled son at all costs. Huge potential costs.
VB: That story is a great example of what we were just discussing, in terms of inspiration. I based it on a few anecdotes I’d heard over the grapevine of two different cousins, one who is very troubled and was later diagnosed as bipolar, but that wasn’t known then. Couple that with all the shootings happening in our culture by disturbed young white males, and I got to wondering what family circumstances might start a kid off on that
direction. And how much power or blame a parent may or may not have within that circumstance.
CD: You capture that beautifully. It’s a haunting story.
VB: Thank you. I also wrote it in October, intending for it to be somewhat of a Halloween story – not so much a tale in the tradition of Poe, but psychologically thrilling.
CD: Another aspect of the stories I really enjoyed was the strong sense of place. Central Florida for sure. But also Costa Rica. I was curious about your process in that regard. And, how that might color the story. I read somewhere that “Hospice of the Au Pair” began in Florida and you moved it. Good choice I think.
VB: Yes, oh, it changed dramatically. Recently I came across the old drafts of where the idea first began, and you wouldn’t even recognize that story. At first I was writing about a college girl au pair who was stealing from her wealthy employers and gets caught. It was called, “The Scholarship Student Learns about Debt” and it was just awful.
In its next incarnation, I abandoned that part and just wrote about the morphine addicted doctor with the dying wife, who getting the young twenty-something au pair pregnant — again, set in Florida — and it was just too Real Housewives or something.
My advisor at the time, Robin Hemley, asked me why didn’t I try setting the story in Costa Rica, since I was living there that semester. And bingo, the story snapped into place.
I think you have to look out for that as a writer – maybe your writing itself isn’t cliche, but the scenario is. How might you change it up to make it fresh and interesting?
CD: There is a great lesson here in perseverance as well. Sticking with a story, even when it seems off track.
VB: Oh yes. Like I said, you wouldn’t even recognize the early drafts of it. Keeping work around in drawers, taking it out later and changing it up drastically can be really worthwhile. Another twist on this approach is to change up the characters in some big way: gender, age, social class, etc.
CD: It really gets at finding those techniques that spark and fuel the imagination.
VB: You can really have fun with it. The sky’s the limit. And the fun is what breathes life into writing you might otherwise perceive as dead on the page, dead to you.
CD: Giving ourselves as writers room to play.
VB: That’s paramount. I’m a big believer in the Robert Frost saying, “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader,” etc. But if you’re having fun on the page, chances are that will invigorate your language, too, and then, look out, you’re really having a good time! And guess what, so is the reader.
I’ll add that you should look for that quality in the writers you read and study, too – look for who is really having fun on the page. I was reading Barry Hannah at the time, and his work definitely influenced that story and a few others. He reawakened my own sense of kookiness and it showed up on the page.
CD: He’s on my ever-expanding MFA reading list!
VB: Great. He’s so good!
CD: So, you work hard on these stories. Workshop them, publish them, and then it’s book time. Your first collection has gotten great reviews, made lots of lists including being named one of the five books to take on a flight, most anticipated reads of 2014, you were listed as one of ten women writers we should all know. How did it come about with the great folks at Burrow Press.
VB: Well, it’s a good example of the importance of saying yes to small things, and small things leading to something bigger. Shortly after I first met Ryan Rivas – I can’t remember if this was before or after I was solicited to take part in the “15 Views of Orlando” anthology, but around that time – he asked me if I’d be up for writing a blog column for their online journal, the Burrow Press Review. At first I hemmed and hawwed, said how I didn’t really think I had time, was focused on another revision on my novel, going to such-and-such residency, etc. But Ryan didn’t let me off that easily; he was looking for good bloggers. I gave in and came up with “The Shimmying Writer” column, where I talked about how writing and dance were similar to each other (I was in a dance troupe at the time). And I loved it, had no problem turning in essays every month, sometimes every couple of weeks. So through that experience, I think Ryan came to know me as a hard worker who could meet deadlines and take editorial direction, for one. At the same time it helped that I kept placing stories in well-regarded journals. Eventually the column ended when Burrow Press Review changed their online format, and Ryan and I talked in summer 2012 about him taking a look at my collection.
Now, might that have happened anyway even if I hadn’t written the blog column for Burrow Press Review? Maybe. But it certainly paved the way for us to get to know each other as writer/editor and know that we had a good working relationship.
CD: Writing is truly a relationship business. Not only with publishers and editors, but with the people we hope will read our work.
VB: And that makes sense, doesn’t it? For what is the act of writing and reading, if not human connection?
CD: It’s what I like best about fiction. The collaboration between writer and reader to animate the universe we’ve put on the page.
VB: Yes, I think that’s where the power lies. I feel like we often talk about fiction and the “why” behind it as uncovering some kind of greater truth, but what we don’t talk about as often is that intimacy between writer and reader – the magic of two minds meeting across time and space.
CD: Couldn’t agree more. And when reading for an audience this takes on a different vibe. I actually got to see you read last weekend at Functionally Literate in Orlando.
VB: That’s right. What a varied and engaging show.
CD: Great event. I enjoyed hearing you read “Welcome, Lost Dogs.”
VB: Thank you. It felt like the right audience and venue for that story.
CD: So, now with a book out. Is there a tour coming? More readings?
VB: There’ll be many more stops this year. For the remainder of April and beginning of May, I’ll be reading throughout central Florida, at Books & Books in Miami, and then heading up to Charleston to read at Blue Bicycle Books on May 7th. Charleston’s got a great lit scene, I hear, so I hope we get a good crowd.
Not sure where summer will bring me yet, but in the fall I’ll likely be back in Florida and visiting the areas I haven’t gotten to yet: namely Tampa and the Other Words Conference in St. Augustine, and hopefully a few more locations.
CD: Great. And what’s your next writing project?
VB: I’ve got a couple of them on the back-burner, since most of my energies right now have been going to getting this baby into the world. I’ve almost got enough stories for a second collection, so I’m planning on revisiting those as soon as I can, when the semester’s over. Then I have a novel-in-stories of Italian-American fiction to finish. I also have a vision for a dystopic novel set in Florida, akin to Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam series, that I’m really eager to get down. But I like novels to brew for awhile – like years – so I’m okay with waiting.
CD: Lots to look forward to. I want to thank you for taking the time to chat. The new collection is fantastic.
VB: Thanks so much. It was a pleasure talking with you. It’s very humbling and rewarding to have the collection so well received by so many readers.
CD: See you around the writers’ circuit! Maybe the next Functionally Literate?
VB: You will if I’m in town. Or maybe I’ll swing by the Tampa residency!
CD: Yes! That would be great.
Keep up with Vanessa at vanessablakeslee.com.