Kate Blackwell’s gorgeous new collection of short stories, You Won’t Remember This, was reviewed on Best New Fiction this week. We did a little follow up on how she writes and what her work means to her.
By Vickie Fang
- There’s such a wonderful use of very specific detail in your work. Do you think your background as a journalist has informed your creative writing?
Working as a newspaper reporter taught me a couple of useful approaches to fiction. The view of writing as a job that puts you at your desk every day was one. The most important was writing with concision, which in fiction depends on using specific details to convey multiple things — description, emotion, tension, ambivalence. John Gardner (The Art of Fiction) called details “the life blood of fiction.” They practically carry the short story with its demand for hyper compression.
For example, the lonely housewife in my story “Queen of the May” looks at the yardman she’s been thinking about all winter when he returns in spring. Two details indicate not only what she sees as he leans against the doorway, but how she regards him socially and emotionally: “a Confederate flag bandanna [that] held back his long, mud-colored hair” and “the bright fur in his armpit.” In these details lie both distance and attraction, which implies conflict, which makes a story.
- I am struck by lines like these: “Her husband stood on the porch and watched her plodding around the garden holding her enormous stomach, her legs like an elephant’s, her head bent onto her breast. Just like an animal, he thought, and quickly stopped himself and thought instead about the baby, his child, that was about to be born.” How hard are your characters working to think and do the right thing? How successful do you think they are?
Most of the characters in my stories are in situations that challenge them to re-think what they have accepted as true. The myths of marriage are exposed, death comes unexpectedly, childhood is seen as full of dangers. How do they handle these experiences? With disillusionment? Or chances for enlightenment? The husband in the story you quote glimpses the animal part of birth but is repelled and chooses to focus on the baby to come, while the wife has no choice but to grapple with her physical distress, which seems to tell her something new and profound about life. Except that after the baby is born, will she remember it? For me, it isn’t a question of the “right thing” but of what the characters make of their experience.
- One of my favorite stories in this collection is Heartbeatland. How would you describe the marriage that is central to the story?
David’s sudden and untimely death requires Ann to take another look at their marriage, the edgy banter in which they conversed, the jokes they shared, and the neediness that also bound them. Then a detail surfaces that causes her to question who David really was. Did she really know him? Did it matter? And did their marriage really end with David’s death? The questions are posed, not necessarily answered.
- There’s a great flash forward at the end of The Obi Tree in which the husband of a dying woman sees both her imagined death and what he knows will be her actual death. What are you telling us when you say that the imagined death is more real?
John refuses to accept his young wife’s approaching death with equanimity. His body wants her as much as ever. Helping her dress and eat, painting her toenails, taking her for rides, all these daily occurrences are fraught with his anger at the cancer that is eating her brain. Bobbi, however, is clear in her acceptance of what is. As they prepare for what may be her final surgery with all the drugs and dreariness of a hospital stay, he finds himself imagining a parallel scene that expresses his truth of the situation: much of life happens in the mind, even death.
- Why did you title this very memorable collection You Won’t Remember This?
I first planned to call the book The Secret Life of Peonies, the title of one of the stories, until I realized there were at least a dozen books titled “the secret life”—of everything from bees to dentists. Then a reader for the publisher suggested You Won’t Remember This, also the title of one of the stories. It seemed right. Memory plays a part in all the stories, especially those about loss and those where the past surfaces to make sense of the present. The possibility that a reviewer might respond, “Right you are!”, seemed worth the risk. Happily that hasn’t happened.
- Are you working on something new now?
Yes. A novel about a woman who is trying to decide whether to leave a safe place where she is unhappy for the unknown, until suddenly the choice is taken out of her hands. It has taken me years to learn how to write “long” — my attempts at a novel have all ended on page 20. Finally I’ve managed to de-compress a little and let the fiction run.