Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Vanessa Blakeslee Hits a Nerve

In the fifth in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Vanessa Blakeslee, author of Train Shots (Burrow Press) cops to basing her characters on people she has met.

I am guilty of writing about real people fairly often in my fiction. Is that bad? The stories in Train Shots, my debut collection, are largely drawn from the co-workers, relatives, and lovers of my twenties. Thankfully, the drafting process and the demands of creating drama do wonders, because even if you’re hell-bent on rendering an exact sketch of someone you’ll likely be forced to stray somehow. Often I find myself blending characters from a certain “cast”—say, the Tex-Mex restaurant in “Clock In” (a setting which reappears in the title story). Mostly this is for sheer economy or a certain artistic effect, character traits that I want heightened or diminished, rather than a moral sense of not exposing people that I know, or once knew.

Should this bother me, and why doesn’t it? Is my not being perturbed a sign that I’ve done my job fictionalizing these portraits? Or a sign of the dark and sinister—writer-as-sociopath?

One thing’s for sure: I don’t like limiting the world from which I draw upon. I see my vocation as a calling to experience, observe, and render the people and the culture of my time. This doesn’t mean friends and neighbors are sacrificial lambs to the cause. But it does mean that art can’t help but draw upon life, is bound to, in fact, and that means those you interact with stand a good chance of infiltrating your imagination and working their way into your fiction.

And while writing isn’t straight-up therapy, I do think when we write about what matters, when we’re really hitting that nerve of what bothers us or even a trauma we’re grappling to reconcile with or understand, we’re drawing upon the emotional territory of our lives. Sometimes that territory emerges as more veiled and fantastical—my story, “Ask Jesus,” falls into that vein. The events center around a couple’s disintegrating relationship and the husband’s obsession with a vinyl-Magic 8 Jesus doll, all of which are made up with the exception of the doll. Contrast that with “Princess of Pop,” a day-in-the-life of a fictionalized Britney Spears, which veers more into the territory of stealing from real life. Celebrities are public figures; you have free rein to write about them. But again, the events and particulars of this story are made up—the Froot Loops and hair dye, the Janis Joplin motif. These imagined details are what anchor the story as fiction.

Other times the nerve we tap into is much more close-to-home. My story “Don’t Forget the Beignets” is one of the most unapologetically autobiographical “fictions” I’ve ever written and dared publish. In my twenties, I was dating an older man who got arrested by the FBI on a trip to New Orleans; unbeknownst to me, he was involved in a white collar stock scheme. I hadn’t been there for his arrest but easily could have, through another course of events. Not too long after, I wrote about it—imagined myself into the story as Merly, imagined what I might have done suddenly alone in New Orleans and in shock, grappling with to what extent our life together had been a lie. For dramatic weight I made “Alan,” the character based on my ex, the ringleader instead of the fall guy, which also let me explore what his boss’s wife must have gone through, to some extent. I added a fictionalized cousin as an outside voice on the circumstances. But much of the story remains true—the bail and terms of release, that his arrest happened in New Orleans and the scam occurred when we were living as expats in Costa Rica. I simply had to write my truth, safely behind the third-person mask of a fictional female protagonist.

Publishing the story, I had to do, too. Heartfelt fiction requires an almost dogged honesty; shining a light on the humanity of the situation struck me as essential. What surprised me most in closely rendering such poignant, tense events was the humor that bubbled up—a reminder, perhaps, that even the gravest mistakes and failures of judgment are hardly unforgiveable. Foolishness, when reflected upon, is often just that: funny.

Has anyone ever confronted me about this, been angry or pleased? My ex, after reading the copy of Train Shots I’d sent to him at the federal prison where he’s serving out his sentence, was as excited as other friends and family members about the book. He crops up throughout the collection in different incarnations. He sounded proud and grateful to have played such a role, inadvertently, in the inception of my zany fictions; his copy has been passed around the cell block, the stories read by fellow inmates. And perhaps any contempt he might have for my artistic liberties has paled in significance to what really matters. For his recurrent cancer is back. He may not live to see the other side of prison. Sometimes I’m asked, how can I bring myself to still talk to this man, why bother sending him a copy in prison? Only through reliving the emotional minefield of our lives, sometimes, can we find our way to compassion and forgiveness. Had I not done that for myself, those stories would not exist in his hands nor anyone else’s. What do we write for but to bring about those quietly shattering epiphanies and small delights—for ourselves, for loved ones, for strangers in a cell block?