Chicago native Charles Blackstone, author of the novel The Week You Weren’t Here(LoFi 2005), has published short stories in The Journal of Experimental Fiction, Bridge, The Evergreen Review, and others. After teaching his novel in two classes at two very different universities, I became interested in the ways in which Charles thinks about his writing, the writings of others, and publishing on the Internet. This conversation occurred over a two week period via e-mail, Charles’s preferred method of communication.
Jill Talbot: Charles, as you know, I’ve taught your novel, The Week You Weren’t Here, in both an experimental postmodern fiction course as well as a multi-cultural course. In the first course, we focused on the experimental aspect of your novel, and in the second, we focused on the portrayal of Hunter Flanagan (the protagonist) as an American male in an exploration of contemporary depictions of gender in literature. One other way in which I have contemplated positioning your novel in courses is within the theoretical framework, not only because your novel would offer a non-traditional text for theoretical inquiry but also due to Hunter’s allusions to critical theory, along with specific nods to Irigiray and Derrida. Did you ever consider that your novel would be “taught,” and what do you think about your work being examined as a critical exercise?
Charles Blackstone: It’s interesting to me how much audience plays a part when writing, or how much it should play a part and yet writers still choose to ignore that fact when writing. I don’t know that I really considered this at all when I was working on the initial drafts of this book. I’d like to say that this was because I was so interested in this character and the writing happened so effortlessly, how could I not have kept it going? Really, I just didn’t know any better. I’m speaking somewhat in jest here; I did know then that experimental stuff was a harder sell and chick-lit and the rest was starting to poke its head through the curtain, but I liked to think then, and still like to believe now, that if something interests me as a writer, then the same thing has to have a reader out there somewhere.
This may be true, but if there’s only one singular reader, or even two or three, that’s not going to make for a book that’s going to be commercially or academically viable. I think if you really expect a book to be published, mainstream, independent press, micropress, whatever, you need to consider audience at every turn. Obviously for the more mainstream work, you’re looking at readers of a certain demographic, an age group, a gender group, a socio-economic bracket. I know it’s somewhat antithetical to think about such things for capital A-artists, but seriously, it’s an issue. If you don’t ask who’s going to read the thing, the potential publisher will, and if nobody can see a viable market, the book’s not going to reach anybody, at least not via conventional channels. This is not to say the only work getting written and published and read is mainstream, easy-to-categorize and sell, genre fiction.
Experimental fiction still has readers. And for my work, and a lot of my colleagues who write avant garde fiction (and really you could consider any serious fiction to be avant garde these days), the readers are students (and their teachers). This is not to say that nobody else has or will read my book, or a book like this. I just went to meet a book group in a suburb of Chicago last week. The book group participants were women, probably around 45-50, mothers of children, likely not those in the midst of existential crises, and yet they still really got Hunter and were challenged by the book, and asked as interesting questions as any of the college students whom I had the chance to interact with. And we did address some theoretical issues, both within the text in terms of Hunter’s relationship with literary theory and criticism, and also because as a recovering academic, I know no other good way to discuss writing that we’re not critiquing in a workshop (not that there’s not overlap between the two at times). But, still, for the most part, it is thanks to the teachers of lit courses, like you, who are helping build audiences for work like this, and it really means a lot to me.
JT: I want to address the epigraph of your novel next. When I’m in a bookstore and searching for a new read, I always flip to the beginning to see if the author has included one. So many times, the epigraph becomes the deciding factor—whether I purchase the novel or not. The epigraph to your TWYWH is from Franz Kafka’s The Castle: “It amuses me,’ said K., “only because it gives me some insight into the ridiculous tangle that may under certain circumstances determine a person’s life.” Why Kafka and this particular novel, this particular passage?
CB: Funny you should ask about the epigraph. Recently someone asked me, quite offhandedly, what the purpose of epigraphs was, how they originated. I don’t know that I’d ever thought about why we had them, since they’ve been so prevalent for so long. My initial (haltingly delivered) response was that the epigraph was a way of connecting the text with the larger literary conversation, that it was through the epigraph that we acknowledge there is a world that existed prior to this novel, and that the epigraph sums up a book (even though Flannery O’Connor probably wouldn’t have liked that answer, since she felt that any attempts to summarize a novel were beside the point).
I think Kafka’s interest in the mundane, banal elements in life, and his unique brand of narration, where characters aren’t necessarily following a plotted course of action, but are instead very immersed in and only concerned with their immediate events resonates with me, and very much describes what this book is about. The mode also informs much of my writing in general. Kafka didn’t care about plots as much as he cared about providing, via his fiction, a vivid and textured experience. The Castlereally typifies this, in my mind—a circuitous narrative about a wandering character who really wants nothing more than to prove that nobody sees him, and yet, despite that, or because of it, is an amazing journey for the reader. The line itself, I thought, really synopsized The Week You Weren’t Here, too. The book is about the ridiculous tangle, and though that tangle exists within the framework of a larger story, it still is, in many ways, the tangle itself. I think [Ron] Sukenick said that a novel wasn’t about something, it just was the something, which, if you extrapolate, is a very Kafkaesque notion. I think the same could be said for this book.
It’s not about Hunter’s struggle for definition or meaning or whatever, it just is that struggle. That a book like The Castle exists, that Kafka exists, gives me permission to write such a book, so in that way, the epigraph serves as the imprimatur, and so that’s why it’s there as well.
JT: What are a few of your favorite epigraphs from other books?
CB: Without books in front of me, I will have to rely on the few that I can immediately recall, and hope not to paraphrase those too badly. This will actually be a good test to see which epigraphs have left a lasting impression and which have eluded my memory entirely. A few of Bret Easton Ellis’s come to mind first, as it was probably when reading his books early on that I first began to think of how epigraphs worked and maybe which ones I’d choose for future books of my own. Less Than Zero uses Led Zeppelin’s “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west.” The Rules of Attraction has a line from Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, about how facts only make sense when beaded on a chain, but lose their—cohesiveness, I guess, when taken out of context. Something like that. Bright Lights, Big City has a line from The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s oft-quoted exchange about how Mike went broke in two ways, gradually and then suddenly. Ellis’s American Psycho uses quotations from Miss Manners and Talking Heads as its epigraphs. The latter, “And as things fell apart/Nobody paid much attention” both always hung around in my head as a really powerful line, and also prompted me to go out and buy the Talking Heads album that had the song “Nothing (But Flowers).” Now when I see the quote, I hear David Byrne singing it in my head. Oh, and Thomas Beller’s first collection, Seduction Theory, quotes our mutual hero, J.D. Salinger: “The most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” Okay, so much for memory. I went to Google for that one.
Epigraphs are like tattoos, or really any decision one makes when writing a book, whether it be the choice of scene or line or synonym or character affectation. What you choose (and, thereby, ruling out all the other possibilities for said choice) seems like a really good idea at the time, and may remain as such in your aesthetic, a week later, a year later, but you also run the risk of returning to the choice at any given point and being horrified, find yourself saying something along the lines of, god, what was I thinking? Perhaps somebody should use that as an epigraph.
JT: Speaking of tattoos: do you have any? If not, what is your “tattoo”?
CB: I don’t have any tattoos. When I was in high school, a friend of mine had gotten a shamrock on her pelvis and I thought that would be cool to have as well (I think I also thought I was Irish at the time), but am glad I didn’t go under the pen. How ridiculous would a shamrock in my crotch look now? The closest thing I have, I guess, is my closed-up pierced ear. I got it when I was 15. At the time, the thought of the permanent bump in my earlobe seemed hard to comprehend. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to cross a physical rubicon with such indifference (nor, in retrospect, can I picture myself quite so impulsive), but I proceeded without caution. Now, long since the earring fell out of fashion for guys, I’m glad that I can feel the bump and remember who I was then. I also have a Chicken Pox scar, which reminds me of both being 25 and probably running a pretty good risk of dying when unvaccinated, uninfected me ended up with an outbreak, and being in between my first and second year of grad school, which I was at the time. I also have a lot of souvenir shit in my wallet, receipts and other garbage mostly, but I don’t know if that really counts, since I could easily, theoretically, dispose of those things.
JT: I’m thinking how books can be like tattoos, representations of a psyche, a passion, a past time. Yet so many of those books, unlike tattoos, may be claimed by multitudes and cross generations, becoming timeless. When you write, short stories or novels, do you consider this element of “timelessness” in your work, or do you lean toward a more specific time stamp?
CB: Well, I’d have to disagree about the tattoo analogy—how many countless 22 year-old girls have identical tribal art sprays across their lower back, or, as they are affectionately known, the tramp stamps? But seriously, I think books are even more indelible tattoos, because as soon as you engage them, they take residence within your consciousness and, whether you know it or not, reside permanently. I recently came across a line of Martin Amis’s, which really struck me—”No matter how much you admire a novel, after about a year you forget everything in it.” I think this is true, on certain literal levels, but also untrue.
I think part of what lasts has very much to do with time, but maybe more of the time that we read the book, versus the time in which the story takes place. Embarrassingly, I probably would have trouble recounting much of Moby-Dick in anything stronger than the vaguest generalities, but I do vividly remember those afternoons on the couch in the Reynolds Club reading room when I first read the book back in college. I think that’s significant, and, again, I believe that I’ve logged those eight hundred pages somewhere in my mind, in my writer and critical reader files, and probably have used the information in support of something, somewhere. If Amis is right, then it is up to the literature to chronicle and preserve time, because we not only will need to reread the books later, but also re-experience the former world that we’ve rewritten with time. I think this time-preservation has always been very important to my work. I’ve always written (and, primarily been interested in reading and thinking about) contemporary stories, with characters who either resembled me at the time I was writing them (e.g., college stories in college, intellectual, yet empty trust fund kid stories in grad school) or were people I’d been at some point, or maybe would become in the near future. I like the current moment’s iconography, vernacular, agendas, personal electronic devices. I think there’s a big difference between life before and after Caller ID. Technology defines us in more ways than just our routines. Though more or less explicitly unstated, TWYWH takes place in the spring of 2001, which, coincidentally, was also the time I was writing the initial drafts. After September 11th—arguably a generation-defining, or –demarcating moment if ever there were one—when everybody started talking about how we were after versus how we were before and trying to figure out who the key players on either side were, I was glad that the my novel was safe from all of that, that its story would be forever protected because the book had everything to do with the before and wasn’t at all affected by the after. I’ve heard several stories about other writers who abandoned novels they began before the after began, and of course it didn’t take long for the September 11 and beyond novels began to come out, but I think our collective innocence—to the extent I even believe in such a notion—is very crucial to the telling of TWYWH. Maybe the aftermath of the upending of the WTC would have rendered some of Hunter’s issues irrelevant, or smaller? I did write a 9/11-themed story, “Terrorist Tantrums,’ about a guy who gets pissed off at the relentless and pointless TSA screening at the airports and decides to skip his flight back to grad school and move into the airport as a form of protest, but that was about it. In November-December 2001, that’s all anybody was talking about, so it really had no other choice than to pervade my writing psyche.
My new novel is set in 1994, and working on a time period so far after the fact is something pretty new for me, has required an almost opposite approach (instead of letting the present pervade, I’ve had to try to block out 2007 and channel 1994), which has been challenging to say the least, but I’m pretty satisfied with how it came out. Time was a big issue, there, given the distance between me and the characters, in spatial terms. Emotional terms, too; they’re also a lot younger. In trying to pull off this sort of time-machine writing, the key thing not to forget is what you have and what you don’t have. I can’t make a character think things that he wouldn’t have thought, things that would have been too complex for me to think, for example, when I was 20, but are very much a part of my current day attitudes and perceptions. The times when the thoughts or perceptions in the story are probably the points when I’m not experiencing the world as the character, and those should be lined out with a good red pen as quickly as possible and considered carefully and then reworked in revision.
JT: I associate novels with the places I was when I read them, as well as whom I was then. For me, Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House will always be a summer in Colorado, a backyard and a lawn chair, and my attempts at cutting ties with an older man. What I think about that work and so many, as you mention, is the line, the phrase that stays with me. Once, I started a reading journal, writing down my impressions of a particular novel while also relating it to where I was in my life. I stopped after one entry; it felt too contrived, plus I like finding a book on my shelf and remembering an impression, not details.
You mention “Terrorist Tantrums,” and I’m thinking how we live in a culture that demands writers put their imprimatur on a national disaster or catastrophe (anthologies about New Orleans, poems about school shootings in The New Yorker) in order to make sense of it. And you’ve said that you like that much of your writing is free from that, yet I’m also wondering about a novel set in 1994 (time travel through writing). What can readers take from a novel with such a definitive timeline, and how might it cross such chronological barriers?
And while you’re addressing the 1994ness of it all–did you do research on 1994 or did you work from memory?
CB: I always try to keep the bookmark I’m using in the book after I finish it and return it to the shelf. I like receipts the best. I used to write notes in the margins of books. Sometimes, I’d start drafting stories right there, if whatever I was reading inspired me to do such. I think that happened some years back reading Hemingway’s In Our Time. I started finding (not literally) lines in his stories that I was able to use in the story I was working on at the time. Where better to record those things than in the place where you first made the discovery? I guess that works less well when you discover things in books you’ve borrowed from others. But I tend to borrow books and never return them, so I’m not usually too concerned about that.
As far as why readers should care in 2008 or 2009 about a book set in 1994—well, I suppose it’s sort of the same thing as how I can read a book with a female protagonist, Amy Sohn’s Run Catch Kiss, for example, or a book about a widower reflecting on his marriage of 40 years, like Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, or a book about a dude in Paris who gets a call from his ex after five years on the day that Michel Leris died, Gregoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest. The magic of the work is that it takes you to where you need to be, it makes you who you need to be, in order to not just read the book but to become a part of the story. We can see ourselves in Murakami’s Tokyo, or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County without any problem, if we allow ourselves to. The same is true, I hope, of my 90s Chicago. Some people will have seen the place before, others appraising it for the first time, but there’s an experience to be had regardless.
I think we’re most reluctant to want to travel in books to places we think we’ve seen, be reminded of times in our lives when we were less sophisticated or hip or indoctrinated than we are now, but I think it’s exactly that resistance that makes the literature so necessary. Any book is as tied to its time and place as the reader wants it to be. Again, I’m not Japanese, I’m not a 23-year-old Brooklyn girl, nor am a 70-year-old New Yorker columnist, but with a few beautiful sentences, I’m willing to transform. Just as long as I don’t have to wear platform heels. And I don’t mean to say that a reader needs to just be willing to leave himself behind at the beginning of chapter one. I’ve never read any book and not found myself somewhere in it. You can’t spend a week or two weeks with someone and not start to feel yourself become that person a little, hear yourself start to sound like the person, maybe see the world a little through that person’s eyes, right? And to a writer, that’s a very important exercise—a welcome opportunity to add details and experiences to the character bank. So why wouldn’t we want the same thing to happen with a book? I think we do, but we limit the search criteria sometimes, and often for illogical reasons, or some readers do, anyway. This one doesn’t, and is grateful for that.
The process of creating 1994 (and I’m hesitant to say “re-creating,” if Hemingway is watching me type this) actually involved all of the above. I remembered things. I imagined things. I looked at school papers and things I wrote at the time and old clothes. I listened to the songs, many of which I liked at the time and still cared about, others that I’d somehow missed. I thought about the films. I think once you get the characters down, you don’t really need to do a lot. And you wouldn’t want to do a lot. A fight with your roommate is the same in 1994 as it is in 2007 as it was in 1944. You’re pissed, you’re trying to make a point, the roommate sees things a different way, won’t give in, won’t apologize, etc., etc. Yeah, some colloquialisms change. Yeah, in 1944 the fight couldn’t have been over a misplaced cell phone or unpaid cable bill, but I think the more seamless the era, the more authentic. I think when something tries to recreate the time period, that effort will almost always come across as contrived, inauthentic, a caricature, like That 70s Show. I’ve only seen maybe 2/3 of an episode, and that was in a later season, but I’m guessing that in the beginning the show relied on stereotypes in order to prove its 70s-ness. I could imagine leisure suits and characters saying “Groovy” every other sentence.
But if you look at a show actually filmed during the 70s, like, say, Three’s Company, the only times the decade shows through, as it were, is when Larry came in wearing a shirt with a gigantic collar or Jack had on a pink skinny tie or someone used a rotary-dialed payphone. Another thing people often forget is that the music people listen to at a particular time isn’t only Billboard’s Top Ten hits for that year. One thing I wrestled with was that in early drafts the characters listened to a lot of 80s music, because at the time 80s music was a big thing. As more time passed between the setting and the present, I realized that I would have to insert more actual 90s music or run the risk of the book feeling too 80s. Music is a small part of what makes a time a time, but it’s pretty important to consider.
JT: You mention this (re)creation as a means of authenticity. What do you think makes writing authentic? (Choose a few of your favorite authors). Since you’ve already addressed the importance of time-specific details (a la Jack, Janet, and Cindy), discuss how you strive for authenticity in your language.
CB: I’d say authentic writing is when the writing is transparent. Though I’m a tad apprehensive about using the term “transparent” because the writing I’m thinking of that would fall into this category of transparent, seamless prose, where everything is so vivid and right and working like an intricately choreographed ballet, is at once transparent and anything but. The prose works so well and so perfectly that it completely exposes itself as writing, because what in nature could be so flawless? Maybe the writing I’m thinking of is transparent, maybe it does allow a reader to simply experience the story and the characters and the setting and the dialogue, without having to stop and remember that the thing is an artificial construct, but just not for this reader, since I read for content and craft simultaneously, as any good writer should. Philip Roth. Haruki Murakami. Scott Spencer. Even NYT book reviews by Francine Prose. And of course authenticity, in writing, is inextricably linked to language—what other currency do we have? The art on the cover doesn’t count. We only have words and sentences to use, so they’d better be good. I take this dictum to another level by adding “they’d better be the character’s.” One of the biggest mistakes students of writing make is that they write as themselves, not as the characters. I’m not just talking about dialogue, either, though that, too, often is very difficult for students to get right. When the writing is working best, the voice belongs to the character. Not to a philosophical trope. Not to CNN. Not to the writer. This is paradoxical, because we’re always telling students to work on finding their unique voice. Maybe this is more relevant when there’s less of a distance between writer and narrator, like, say, in personal essay. I know my writing has a voice, but I don’t think it’s mine, so much as the piece’s. I remember having a lot of trouble—I forget when this was; perhaps in middle school or high school or college or maybe even when I was teaching developmental reading at community college—trying to figure out how to write (or explain writing) geared to a specific audience. I never recalled writing anything in any different of a way for an essay for a class or a letter to a friend or a shopping list. It was the content that varied in each case, and the content (or you could substitute story here) is what determines everything about a piece of writing. Who is the POV character? What does that person want or need to do? What are the obstacles? How do things end up? These are the questions that determine what the thing is going to sound like. Another thing that determines what the thing is going to sound like is how the first draft ends up. You might have one idea about what’s going to happen and then the writing leads you in an entirely different direction. And why would anybody consider that a bad outcome? Being true to the story, writing the story the way it wants to be told and not the way you think you want to tell it is a way of being authentic, or at least heading in an authentic direction. This is not to say that the writer need not be in control of what happens. The writer needs to be very much in control. Control, but not interfere. Maybe that’s a good way to put it. Another thing about dialogue: for it to sound real, it cannot attempt to fill in parts of the story that are missing. That’s when it rings false. The other morning, trying to keep from boring myself into an elliptical machine oblivion, I turned the TV to the Soap Channel and watched for about two minutes. In those two minutes, I was given everything I needed to know about the relationship between the characters, their names, ages, occupations, what happened previous to this moment, what was going to happen after this moment, thus allowing me to enter into the story without having felt like I missed anything. Handy, yes, but there’s a reason we call dialogue like this “soap-opera” dialogue. People don’t talk that way in real life. People don’t remind their cousins of how they’re related to each other. People don’t say, “Well, Joe, as my gynecologist, what do you think I should do about my ex-husband, Montel’s philandering?” While a good narrative can typically be excerpted and have the section retain the shape of the full piece, the way it achieves this is not by giving every single detail at every single turn. By trying to approximate the dialogue of real life, complete with its non-sequiturs, its conflicting information, its vagueness at some turns, its specificity at others, its attention to vernacular detail without sounding staid or forced, we can achieve a story rich with voice, authentic voice, a transparent story that showcases only that which helps further the story, helps build the world and keep the world, without being didactic, without being ersatz, without false advertising, without compromising anything. This is authentic writing. This, as in, what I’ve just described. Not this response, literally.
JT: One of the aspects of authentic writing I admire is growth in a writer. When I discover a writer I like, I want to read more of the work, until that writer reveals predilection for a template or recylced writing. That said, I also find that a style or voice attracts me to a writer, so there does have to be a quality that is consistent. How do you see your writing within this continuum of evolution versus consistency?
CB: I think of Fitzgerald’s line about how, if we’re lucky, we get maybe two or three stories to tell, and then spend the rest of our lives—or our writing lives, anyway—retelling them. I think we’re compelled to retell, just because there is no template. Another good line is W. Somerset Maugham’s: There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are yet. The same is true of life, if you think about it. Why are we constantly treading the same paths, saying the same things, doing the same things, only in slightly different variations? When drafting, I’m a relentless reviser. The only way I ever consider a story done is when I stop looking at it. And when the story is a published novel that you’re asked to read from and scrutinize periodically, that becomes pretty difficult to achieve. It’s impossible for me to look at something I’ve written in the past and not want to change something. I think this happens to everyone. I used to think of this as a bad thing, but now I’m pretty much at peace with it. But it’s not like revising, or the desire to revise, or never being 100% satisfied with a draft is a problem that can be fixed, or even should be fixed, if we could. What I’m registering when I look at an old piece of writing is that I’m no longer the same person who wrote it, that I know more now about writing and have refined my ideas and am generally better at knowing how to articulate those ideas than I did, say, five years ago. And the reason for that is because I’ve been writing, I’ve been reading, I’ve been having conversations about writing. That doesn’t mean that the piece of writing’s value is diminished, as a result—and this part is fairly new to my thinking—it’s just different. But I guess, to turn things back in the direction of the light of Fitzgerald’s enduring wisdom, the desire to express ideas perfectly in an imperfect world, via an imperfect and deeply flawed and contradictory mechanism (i.e., the writer) effects the need to write forward into the world, or, rewrite the same three stories. We are compelled to write and retell (and read the writings and retellings of others) because that’s what it takes to live in the world. I’m excited to see what I’ll be writing about three years from now.
JT: Me, too.
About the author:
Jill Talbot is the author of the memoir, Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press 2007).