Talking Fiction with Venita Blackburn, 2016 Pushcart Prize Nominee

Bridget Dooley (BD): First of all, thanks so much for allowing me to ask you questions! I was struck by your story in our Summer 2016 issue, “Ravished,” particularly in how humor creates intimacy and in how complicated the sisters’ experience of loss is. The death of a mother is such a specific and hugely emotional experience, one that’s difficult to write about without getting maudlin or sappy. What do you think a writer needs to do to write successfully about this magnitude of grief? Are there any particular writers who have taught you how to achieve this feat of balancing such heavy emotional weight?

Venita Blackburn (VB): You’re very welcome! I’m overwhelmed by the responses I’ve gotten to “Ravished.” I’m glad readers are feeling the feels that I feel—ha. It is kind of a funny story. Humor usually follows a certain formula: sincerity + absurdity = hilarity. There’s nothing more sincere than grief, especially in grieving a truly loved one, as is the case with the sisters in this story. Loss like that is not easy to hide; we aren’t wired to conceal it—the hurt is wrenched out and changes us in ways that are often unpredictable. Couple that sincerity with the unpredictable, and humor pops out. I managed to get the congregation at my own mother’s funeral to laugh out loud with stories all while I felt delirious from the pain.

I suppose the authors I cherish most share that sensibility: Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Márquez (plus David Foster Wallace to some degree). Of course they are demigods of the literary world, while my mortal self can only reflect in awe. In their work I find a frankness about life, where beauty, violence, glory, and horror are often interchangeable in tone. Morrison always scares me with the most benign of objects, but then again she writes about frightening times. Garcia Márquez makes stunning the most tragic things. I reference Remedios the Beauty of his One Hundred Years of Solitude often in my own writing—her ascension into heaven, gripping a sheet; how the people witnessing the miracle of a woman literally being taken from earth into the sky had one thought, to ask for the sheet back because the living have needs. It’s hilarious. I find that outlook very calming. It’s also indicative of how writers engage in constant negotiation between observation, experience, and wild speculation. I try to balance the tug between all three without getting torn apart, but even that can be fun.

BD: From the first line of “Ravished,” there’s a link created between love and a kind of bodily violence, which bears out in the sisters’ dialogue about visceral sicknesses that might feel akin to romance with an imagined, idealized boyfriend. Was this a conscious link for you, between love and the grotesque, or between love and death? The moose who goes un-killed was my favorite detail of the story, and it seems to undo the inevitability of the sisters’ death-through-love that’s set up in the opening. Can you tell me a little about what the moose was to you? Is it a hopeful moose?

VB: Wow! I think you’ve just psychoanalyzed me in a way that I am not prepared for. I’m delighted! A link between love and a kind of bodily violence is a terrific idea and is definitely in the story, but I didn’t include it consciously. Now that I think about it, I link the two a lot. There is something unabashedly violent about love; there’s so much helplessness and yielding involved. Love is this force that we can’t see, which governs our whole outlook on ourselves and others, and on personal senses of value—all absolutely terrifying, catastrophic, and wonderful. While writing “Ravished” I tried to think about the things that children might find marvelous and frightening when it comes to relationships. The imagined love interests are male because that’s what they witnessed with their mother, and in the young sisters’ minds these amorphous lovers start out as vessels of hope and surrender and disappointment. But the sisters eventually grow up and, like all of us, realize their parents’ fallibility. The habits and failings and triumphs or our mothers and fathers don’t have to be our own, but they are something to remember. For me the moose served a dual purpose as a creature that would endure the imagined masculine violence of love and also exist as memory, an emblem of the sisters’ feelings about their mother. The mother was always somewhere in between dying a victim of someone else’s disregard or just living a good life. Or, more simply put, her lovers let her live.

BD: The dialogue between the sisters is so snappy and satisfying in its rhythm, and tells us so much about their relationship. I found myself reading their back-and forth aloud to myself a few times, just savoring their repartee. They know each other so well, and it’s wonderful that the most intimate love in a story that’s ostensibly about romantic love is actually between two siblings. Did you model these sisters off of other siblings, whether real or fictional? The sisters in your story “Scars” have a uniquely close and bodily relationship, too. Can we expect more siblings from you in the future?

VB: Hey, you read “Scars”! Yeah, I do that kind of thing. I write about sisters a lot even though I don’t have any. I have two older brothers, and they just don’t fulfill my sister fantasy at all (I love them, sure, but they are bros). Once a student of mine wrote a story about siblings that was just so loving and kind and perfect and everyone in the room that had siblings rejected the pairing completely, but I understood his intention. I too imagine a loving and caring and devoted sister relationship and envy those that have it, but I also recognize the tumultuous nature of life, so I always drop these girls and women into uncomfortable situations where their commitment to each other feels like life or death. I can safely guarantee that I’ll write about sisters again in the future.

BD: The way that time moves in “Ravished” feels smooth and natural, yet you cover a huge span in very few words. It’s like loss and coping with loss collapse the sisters’ experience of time. Can you tell me how you conceived of time in this piece? Does time move as a function of loss, or something else? Did this start as several scenes that you wove together?

VB: I’m glad you noticed this! I love when short short stories cover large swathes of time. My favorite flash fiction work does exactly that: for example, “A History of Everything Including You” by Jenny Hollowell and “Incarnations of Burned Children” by David Foster Wallace. Another of my short shorts, “We Buy Gold,” covers multiple generations of a storefront before settling on the main narrative. In “Ravished” the chronology is reversed—the main characters and narrative are established and then great leaps forward and backward are taken. I use that structure often on stories I know are going to be very short. I want something epic in there, the way songs and poems can feel like they extend out beyond the limitation of any one moment. In “Ravished” what did come as surprise to me is the evolving dialogue between the sisters that solidified the last scene. I had a few lines—the ones about the karate kicks and the kittens—just come into my mind, and I dropped them in early on; the lines were so funny to me that I knew they belonged there, to introduce the sisters’ dynamic right away. I also realized they fit well into the story as links between the sisters’ two selves (childlike expectant innocence and the experience of loss and reality).

BD: I was stoked to read in your interview with American Short Fiction that you’ve been thinking a lot about mutants. Mutants offer the exploration of themes that are, I think, really pertinent to today, especially when it comes to the disgust society shows to progress. Are you working with literal mutants, or with characters who are mutants in other ways?

VB: Aren’t we all mutants somehow? I mean every person on a cellular level is a deviation from a previous form, whether from our parents’ physical selves or, as adults, from ideologies and philosophies that are imposed on us in our youth. We can’t help but be freakish versions of that which has come before. But that doesn’t always translate to the grotesque. In my collection there is a running theme about superpowers, and I had this idea about giving every character one of the worst superpowers imaginable, the thing that would be wielded in a way more crippling than heroic. Technically, that is true about even the “coolest” powers; the value is determined by the person with the gift. And on a lighter level, it’s still fun to imagine all the mistakes and disappointments we experience as a direct result of some uncontrollable ability to talk to turtles.

BD: Congratulations on winning Prairie Schooner’s 2016 Book Prize! What can we expect from your upcoming collection, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes? Mutants? Siblings? Are you working with pieces similar to “Ravished”?

VB: Thank you! The collection is full of short short stories with a similar sensibility to “Ravished,” though not identical of course. There will be 21 or 22 stories total in the collection, so many are structured to do that thing I like so much—to feel a little bit epic in a tight space, to cast tendrils that crawl far out into the past and also speculate about the future. And—you read “Scars”—you’ll see those characters resurface in other stories because I like them so much.

BD: As you know, GR just published work by Pulitzer Prize–winner James Alan McPherson, in our Fall issue. Was there anything about his work that influenced your own? Do you see yourself as a literary descendant of McPherson’s in any ways, or are you taking fiction different places?

VB: I’m excited about the inclusion of McPherson’s work in the issue and recently read his featured essay “On Becoming an American Writer.” I love reading the nonfiction work from my favorite writers, especially about eras in history that I am removed from by time but not always by circumstance. In the essay, McPherson discusses the “contracts” that are composed and handed to people like him, like me, like us all. We’re afforded positions of privilege or limited by these outside forces, depending on what they are. In order to function in a society like ours that governs itself with these contracts—in order to receive the benefits of those contracts—we must belong to “a group, subscribed to some ideology,” as McPherson says. Without that prescribed group identity, mere existence becomes problematic. And in McPherson’s “Elbow Room,” there’s a kind of self-consciousness, a perpetual self-doubting that he points out and lays bare in the very form of the story. This perpetual feeling seems a universal psychosis—so, not unique to the artist but explained by him, and confounded by elements like race, gender, and sexuality. It’s difficult to determine if it’s society that has the mental illness or the individual. I wouldn’t call McPherson my personal literary progenitor, but the world he dared to point to and explode into pieces on the page left behind the fragments that I’ve gathered into my own universe.

Bridget Dooley is a PhD student in creative writing and literature at the University of Georgia and a graduate of Western Michigan University's MFA in fiction. Her writing has appeared in Word Riot, Apt, The Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature, Goddessmode: a collection of video game writing by women and nonbinary artists, and is forthcoming from Cream City Review and The Atlas Review. You can find her work at bgd.neocities.org