Feral, Exacting, Radiant: Hilary Plum Interviews Sarah Blackman

Hilary Plum


Inappropriately, I want to begin this introduction to Sarah Blackman’s tremendous debut, Mother Box, with a pointed aside, rejoinder to some endless and dull literary debates. I teach a fiction workshop at a community center for the literary arts. The place and those who take its courses don’t fit those stock labels “MFA” or “NYC,” nor do they belong to any one coterie: they are people who love literature in diverse ways and make time for it day by day, week by week, amid all the demands of every life. Publishers would have us think that only a narrow slice of literature will appeal to them, to anyone outside the MFA or NYC scenes—this literature must be accessible, never experimental, must be commercial and above all familiar.

You’ll hear writers talk like this, too—I want everyone to be able to read my poems, from janitors to grandmothers, that kind of line. How condescending and wrong-headed, and what a loss. When so many of us have lived just the opposite: in that fiction course the widest range of work is celebrated and discussed with passion and rigor (including writers like Barbara Guest, Lydia Davis, Noy Holland, Leonard Michaels—we’re well off the bestseller list). The week I was reading and loving Sarah Blackman’s Mother Box I brought her stunning story “The Groomsmen” into our class. As soon as we’d finished reading, one man (whose writing is quite distinct from Blackman’s; their work would not be “shelved” or “marketed” or whatever together) exclaimed with force, “It’s amazing! She’s amazing!”

All this is true.

Mother Box was awarded FC2’s 2012 Ronald Sukenick Prize for Innovative Fiction and published in fall 2013. FC2 sometimes describes their books as “too heterodox for the commercial milieu.” Let’s just note that this is the milieu’s mistake. The readers are out there, I’ve seen them, ready and hungry for new writing as feral and exacting and radiant and elusive and insightful as Sarah Blackman’s.

I interviewed Sarah about her work over email this winter.

HILARY PLUM: While reading Mother Box I kept endeavoring to think about how much you use the space between sentences: how much can happen between one sentence and the next, that leap, that fine rupture in time. But how to describe this happening? So I find my first question is: How do we talk about the space between sentences and all that may happen there (or by there do I mean then)?

SARAH BLACKMAN: This is a round-about answer, but one of my clearest reader-memories is of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, which I was reading somewhat obsessively while I was studying in London as an undergraduate—mooning around on park benches, writing bad springtime poetry in the margins, that sort of thing. Anyways, it wasn’t the first time I’d read the book, but I remember getting to the Time Passes section and reading again the revelation about Mrs. Ramsay, who had died rather suddenly the night before and so leaves Mr. Ramsay’s outstretched arms empty, and kind of freaking out. It was the brackets. It was the monumental aside amidst all that inconsequential decaying loveliness of the abandoned summer home. It was Woolf saying that our lives occupy time in one way and the world occupies time in another, which is such an earthshaking thing to say (though it seems simple) because of all that it implies about our own worth, our lastingness, our consequence; particularly for an artist to say, for someone leaving something of themselves behind… And she just says it! In a bracket! (and also it was springtime in London and I was twenty-one and lonely and full of an idea about writing novels). But man, I think I am still freaking out about that sentence.

Which is to say, what Woolf does is utter something kind of unspeakable about the way we experience our lives, how busy and churning our brains are while, outside of our selves, time passes at a much more sedate pace. How time for the self is kept by personal mile markers (births and deaths being the most prominent, but also engagements, dinner parties, the blowing out of candles) but outside the self there is this other time that is slow and quiet and leviathan and essentially unknowable. That is, perhaps, the time that is passing in between my sentences. Which is, of course, also a fairy tale thing—to go to sleep and wake up ten years later in the span of one sentence seems so heartless the way fairy tales are often heartless—as are sentences like, “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” Time passing in any measure is about sadness, for me at least, because it is about something being left behind. So when time passes so hugely, with so little that can be said about it—as it often does for my characters—it is about this great, unknown, unknowable, unexamined weight of time that is what we get, all we get, and then it’s over.

Also: Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!

HP: Yes—I’d wanted to ask you about fairy tales, transformation, and yes, metamorphosis! And you’re one step ahead. In many of the stories in Mother Box, a character becomes, or seems to become, or is seen as becoming, something else, something other than human or other than themselves as we had known them—a den of foxes, a cardboard box, a radiating light. I wonder if you could say more about these transformations in your work—and, perhaps, in the logic of fairy tales. In fairy tales, we simply accept such transformations or metamorphoses; the border between human and animal, or human and beyond- or other-than human, is very near and very thin, easily drifted or leaped or shoved across. And yet when such transformations occur they are still (for Gregor, for instance; and in many of Mother Box’s stories) a violation of an order and often a violence. Can you talk a little about transformation and violation, in the logic of the story, or beyond?

SB: Right now my eldest daughter is two and a half and when she grows up she would like to be the cat or daddy or her baby sister or a bear who will get angry if I wake it up in the winter. Recently, when we passed a playground near the house we lived in when she was very young, she said, “Mama, when I was a little boy, I used to go there.” She knows she is Helen and gets upset if we play around with her identity as it is now (“Are you are brown barbaloot?” we say at bedtime. “No, I am Helen,” she says and stamps her foot.), but who she will be in the imagined future and who she was in the prismatic past are totally fluid, wide-open possibilities which include all possible combinations of gender and age and species and object. It’s pretty cool. I have to work so hard to invent what she just slides right into…

But aside from the envy I feel of her childhood (and that’s probably something that will come up with her psychoanalyst in her future life), I also love the way her use of language is fairy-tale language. “When I used to be a little boy…” or a box or a frog or a pancake, I did such and such—no need for explanation, just bare, outlandish fact. I think fairy tales and myths often use transformation as a way of getting to metamorphosis. The prince has been transformed—in the blink of an eye, one assumes—into a frog in order that he may become, in a much more convoluted process, a prince again. The statue is transformed into a woman in order that she may become a wife. And I think that process, which has an element of physical pain or pressure (think of the swan brothers with their dark, beating wings, or all the writhing about cinematic werewolves do as they acquire their new forms) is very reminiscent for me of the processes of women’s lives with all the heraldry and significant blood and uncomfortable shoes—to say nothing of pregnancy and birth! The body metamorphosing its shape and then, with great biological ceremony, transforming into two separate shapes…

It is a violation to transform because transformation comes from outside ourselves. The witch does it, or the bad fairy. To metamorphose is something internal, something that comes from an acquisition of the self, which may not be entirely positive (see poor Gregor Samsa) but is not so much accident or vituperation as it is improbable consequence.

But, you know, it’s kind of a violation to grow up. And there’s certainly a lot of violence in that, as well.

HP: I haven’t previously thought through this distinction between transformation and metamorphosis—change born of inner vs. outer forces—and am exhilarated to do so, and to think of how growing up involves both. Your stories seem to me to map or investigate or toe the edge of that chasm between childhood and adulthood; reading them I was struck by a sort of antagonism—the word I wrote in my notes—between children and adults. As though these stories document the cleavage between the child’s world and the adult’s, and the plight of the parent who resides in one but somehow has to oversee the other (no matter her own nostalgia, desire, or transformations in progress). I loved the force with which Mother Box sees families; throughout we encounter richer, wilder, more sensual domestic scenes than we usually read—here the members of a family may experience one another as wholly strange. I wonder if you could talk about family and the conflicts that make it up and how you think about all this in fiction.

SB: I wrote this book when I was thinking about mothering in a conceptual way; a will she/won’t she, will she/won’t she, won’t she join the dance sort of way. All of it except for the novella, that is, which I wrote pregnant and snowed in during a rare South Carolina winter storm throughout which all the neighbors put their children in kayaks and dragged them up and down the streets behind their golf carts. We have since moved and had two children. Some of the ways the stories think about mothering now seem totally luxurious and some of them seem prescient, but, since having children, family seems even more like a strange, wild, intense confluence of events than it does anything resembling a nuclear logic, or atomic order, or stable shape.

When I was a kid, and now with my own children, I used to think a lot about the absolute and total happenstance that made myself a self—that particular egg and that particular sperm, that particular night (or whenever, it doesn’t do to ask too many questions) in which my parents thought each other were grand and did or did not imagine the future. There seemed so many ways in which I could have just missed coming into being. It was so much more probable, really, that I shouldn’t exist, or that someone very like me and yet not me would exist in my place, but here I was thinking these thoughts and thinking forward to the time in which I would no longer be able to think these thoughts (I was a really anxious child, drawn to a sort of cosmic melancholy, not terribly popular among the k-5 set). Individual identity seems liminal to me, at best—a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness, to paraphrase Nabokov—but it is so jealously horded, so insisted upon, and, for women in particular, so political that the way we view ourselves becomes a message we are broadcasting to the world rather than something fundamental or preordained or, heaven forbid, private. I guess, after a certain point, identity seems so fraught with anxiety that it can’t be anything but a construct. The grass, after all, doesn’t ask ‘What is the Grass?’ It takes a poet to do that. And if identity is a construct then it is a fluid one and so the things that form identity must too be fluid. It’s an easy step from there to giving birth to foxes. And an even easier one to giving birth to foxes and not realizing it until many years later because you are so consumed with your sex life and what people at the grocery store think about how your ass looks as you bend over the frozen chickens.

HP: With that ass hovering over the frozen chickens you’ve supplied me with a perfect example of what I wish to ask about next: the role of detail. Your stories are so rich with precise and distinctive details; the world lushly and evocatively rendered. Yet this kind of “verisimilitude,” this calling up of the world, does not, in your rendering, oppose mystery or unfamiliarity, the fantastic or the uncanny—rather it helps create them. A “realistic” detail helps create the unreal world, or heighten its sense of unreality—an unreality we can see, hear, smell. All this seems related to your rousing way with adjectives, which in moments seem so precisely to describe something that couldn’t or doesn’t quite exist. I’m thinking of instances such as in “The Groomsmen,” when the bride’s face is “covered by the billowing veil—a hoary veil, crackling, vertiginous” and how wondrous yet elusive those three adjectives are in combination. Or at the beginning of “The Silent Woman,” when Mary’s situation is outlined in a way that we can nod at though its logic is slippery—“She was in one of those places people go when the people who have to attend to them every day are required to send them somewhere, for whatever reason.” Can you talk about the role of detail in (your) fiction, which perhaps relates to thoughts about description and world-building?

SB: Oh, I love details. Little, precise, odd, illuminating, anxious details. I like adjectives too, though I think they are supposed to be out of vogue. Verbs are the thing!

For me, details, particularly if they are an aside from the plot, a fleshing out of the plot, are what makes our real lives real as well as our fictive lives. For example, I was in Jacksonville this past weekend at a conference on the University of North Florida campus and was walking through the entry portico reading the bricks which were set in this busy and semi-nauseating herringbone pattern and all dedicated, as is the way of bricks in institutional, but user-friendly settings now-a-days, and amongst the bricks set in the memory of Nana Tutwiler, or whomever, was a brick dedicated to the “National Sepsis Foundation In Memory of Mary-Ann.” And then I looked up and there, lifting up from the pond on these absurdly white, scallop-shaped wings, was an ibis. Something about those two things, poor Mary-Ann, dead of sepsis, immortalized in a brick, and that unusual, curvilinear bird was so much a story, was so much like writing, like something I made up… There are a lot of instances like that in Mother Box. Like the cemetery I drive past on my way to work in the mornings which, in a stiff wind, sends all its bouquets skipping across the highway. Or that delirious garden by the millrace. Real places that are so much a part of my every day I don’t see how odd they are until I look at them through the lens of a story. It’s weird, for example, that you can go into a store and press your finger into the muscle tissue of an animal and watch its dead blood pool there. It’s weird to walk around and be yourself inside your body and know that the way people outside your body see you is something totally other than who you are.

For as strange as the turns in my stories are, I am really something of a regionalist in the Sherwood Anderson or Sarah Orne Jewett sense. I have my little patch and I mine it relentlessly. I worry sometimes that I’m going to have to move before I can write a new book. But then, this morning, I passed a hugely pregnant woman zipping through traffic on an orange Vespa while eating a Slim Jim and there’s at least a novella in that.

HP: FC2 describes its list as “artistically adventurous, nontraditional fiction.” I wonder what work you yourself have lately been finding especially adventurous, or even innovative. And I’d love to ask about what you’re working on now, or hope to work on next—what directions seem most urgent to pursue in this moment?

SB: Right at the moment, I’m reading Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. I feel like this is a disingenuous answer—designed to make me seem higher-brow than I am—but it’s also true. I’m ashamed of myself that I haven’t read it earlier in my life because wowie-zowie that’s a crazy book. Talk about grappling with the issues of gender! Talk about snapping at the issues of gender with teeth so assured of their lethal sharpness they can laze about as they come in for the kill! Also, it’s just a lot of fun. And I can see so many more modern authors who echo it (like William Burroughs and Jeanette Winterson), if not exactly the stylistic innovation than at least the romping, menacing tone. It’s great.

In other wood-related texts, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood is next on the bedside to-be stack, alongside Kathryn Davis’ new book, Duplex. I’ve just come off a serious Melanie Rae Thon reading jag—another FC2 author. Her work is so brilliantly broken. It’s like ice shards, something that melts if you pick it up, or maybe something that suggests it can be put together into a mirror or a window, but when you do actually reassemble you find yourself holding a pond. I’m beyond delighted to be on a press in her company, and just to be on FC2 in general. It feels a little rarefied, in the high-mountain, thin-air sense of the word.

Right now, I’m sort of in between projects. I just finished a final draft on a novel and am picking at a collection of more or less ekphrastic stories. More or less because I’m using the paintings/sculptures as a spring-board (and title) and then traveling in the direction of my first impulse upon seeing them, rather than recreating the image or specific character or stylistic conceit. I like the idea of translating an idea that has already been translated. Sort of like playing telephone. What comes out on my end is so garbled it isn’t recognizable as the instigating image, but that’s the point of telephone, isn’t it? Only you can’t do it on purpose. That’s cheating.