I first met Vanessa Blakeslee during my first residency as a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she was a graduate assistant. One evening she read a heartbreaking story about a model struggling with an eating disorder. It was powerful, so much so that, even years later, images from that reading remain fresh in my mind. Powerful stories become part of our memory. I think that’s another way of saying that they are unforgettable, which is how I would describe her wonderful debut story collection, Train Shots.
Vanessa Blakeslee was raised in northeastern Pennsylvania and earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, PANK, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, and the Ragdale Foundation. In 2013 she received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.
ROSS MCMEEKIN: I know you currently live in central Florida. What’s the writing scene like there?
VANESSA BLAKESLEE: The literary scene in Orlando has really taken off. We have our longstanding traditions, like the annual Winter With the Writers festival at Rollins College, which brings in A-list poets and writers every February. But over the past five years, I’ve noticed a renewed energy and enthusiasm within the writing community. UCF now offers the MFA in Writing, plus a low-residency MFA has taken off nearby, at the University of Tampa. The Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project hosts a new writer every three months; those residents come from every corner of the globe and bring new lifeblood. Burrow Press, the publisher of Train Shots, showcases noteworthy talent several times a year at its up-and-coming reading series, Functionally Literate. Peruse the weekly event listings during the school year and you’ll find the calendar packed with literary events—so many, you’ll often find yourself missing out.
I love where the Orlando lit scene is at right now. It’s just big enough that we’ve got a considerable pool of varied and burgeoning talent, yet small and intimate enough that most of us know each other and love nothing more than cheering each other on, absent of petty jealousies and competition. I’m not claiming that we’re the Brooklyn of the South yet—maybe in another eight or ten years. But we’re definitely on our way. I couldn’t be happier to be here right now, because I deeply sense that we—not just as a literary scene, but as a city—are fast approaching coming into our own. And ultimately the lit scene will change as it grows bigger; the egos will flare up as the intimacy dies. But I hope that doesn’t happen for a long time yet. I can only describe our literary scene as being a place of true community, love and support. I’m ever grateful for it, and excited for its future.
MCMEEKIN: How did the idea for your collection Train Shots come together? I’m curious as to how you made decisions on structure and order.
BLAKESLEE: I started many of these stories as an MFA student at Vermont College. In the years since, I kept revising them as they were accepted for publication in literary journals and along the way, kept sending out the manuscript to small press contests for book-length collections. Twice the full manuscript placed as a finalist, although under different titles—I kept playing with what stories to include, the order and the title. Just as I found myself exhausted of submitting it through the contest system, Ryan Rivas, the editor at Burrow Press, approached me about possibly launching my debut collection. At the time I was writing a craft blog for the Burrow Press Review, and he had come to know me as a hard worker and an active member of the literary scene, and he knew I’d been publishing in well-regarded places. He read the manuscript in January, 2013, and afterwards contacted me with a firm offer. For the next several months, we went back and forth deciding which stories to swap out and which to include.
Ryan’s philosophy is that assembling a story collection is a lot like putting together a music album, and he’s absolutely right–we left out certain stories not because they lacked merit, but because the ones chosen must speak to each other in a particular, resonating way. I’d describe the process as very hands-on; I absolutely loved the thorough scrutiny we both brought to the manuscript as a team. On my own, I’d never been able to come up with a satisfying order, and Ryan had a terrific eye—and ear, I might add—for which stories belonged where, a vision of the book as a living, breathing whole. Whereas I’d worked on the stories for so long on my own, I think I’d become too close to them. So I’d say I was ultimately surprised and thrilled by the finalized “playlist,” not to mention profoundly grateful.
I was also surprised by how heavily we edited, and even revised in some cases, certain stories. All of them had been published before, and it’s easy for emerging writers, I think, to assume that once a journal has published a story, there’s no more work to be done. Far from the case. This is the stage where you have the opportunity to refine and bring your work to the next level, so you’re really presenting your best—to zero-in on repeated diction and unwieldy syntax, to make sure the final notes of each story truly sing. We had a deadline, of course, but we took our time. I believe our efforts paid off.
I had always wanted to include the flash fiction, “Clock-In,” as the opening, as it uses second person and literally invites the reader into the world of the book. “Train Shots” is one of my most memorable and usual stories, so we knew we’d include that one from the beginning; the tone and theme made it a ready contender for final spot, and usually the placement of the title story bears weight, so that made sense—Train Shots. But also there’s a double-meaning to the phrase “train shots.” In one sense, the collection is a journey, the reader peering in on different characters in various settings, glimpsing a “shot” of these individuals’ lives before the train zooms on. Then in the title story itself, P.T. eats dinner at a dive-bar alongside the tracks in Winter Park, where the bartenders offer “train shot” drink specials when the trains go by.
As for the order, we probably considered twice as many stories than what ended up making the final cut. We eliminated ones that would contain beats or subject matter too similar to others, and sought a balance in narrative perspectives and moods, from light to dark. I recommend to anyone who is seriously putting together a collection to get together with a trusted writer friend or teacher and employ another pair of eyes, at least, to help you select and juggle the order—doing so would have saved me a lot of grief and time.
MCMEEKIN: The settings of the collection are diverse. When first struck with an idea for a story, does it come with a place already established? I’ve spoken to some authors who find that their stories begin with memories, others with words, others with images, and so on.
BLAKESLEE: For the most part, my fiction arises very much from setting. I’m not so much an image-driven writer; often I find myself fascinated by hearing anecdotes of people stuck in unusual circumstances, and my stories arise out of exploring those predicaments. Setting very much drives a story such as, “Welcome, Lost Dogs” or “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” In “Princess of Pop” setting looms so large, it functions almost as another character: the pop star is falling apart, she chooses to hole up in the hotel where Joplin died, and the story pretty much remains there. In others, where the setting takes more of a backseat to the conflict—“Ask Jesus” comes to mind, as well as “The Lung” and even “Hospice of the Au Pair”—I crafted the setting to create a certain desired effect. For instance, “The Lung” could have taken place anywhere. But since it’s a story about smoking, disease and the impermanence of nature, I set it in Florida during a summer of raging wildfires. Likewise, I chose for the protagonist to work in the field of environmental protection and have a green thumb. Conversely, “Hospice of the Au Pair” was originally set in Florida, about a WASPy middle-class girl who falls in love with a morphine-addicted doctor, but something about the premise and setting rang as too expected, somehow. Maybe it came off too consciously as “another kooky Florida story.” In that case, changing the backdrop to Costa Rica injected the story—if you don’t mind the pun—with just the unusual details to make it truly fresh and somehow more believable in its peculiarity.
In terms of other work, my novel that’s set in Colombia could only take place there. The political backdrop and historical events preclude the conflict from taking place in another place and time.
MCMEEKIN: In “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” there’s a line that intrigued me: “I wondered if he really believed this or if he was just another person caught between countries, like me.” There’s a deep connection between place and beliefs. I’m curious as to your thoughts on what it’s like to be caught between countries and how living in a particular place works to shape or subvert one’s beliefs.
BLAKESLEE: This line stems from my own short-lived experience as an expat, and how unprepared I was for the internal conflict surrounding home, how much we derive our center from that clear identification with place. Growing up, my father often proclaimed his fantasies of having multiple homes abroad and stateside. A lifelong traveler, I readily went along with such notions, too, until I ran smack into the reality. The man I was dating who invited me to accompany him to Costa Rica had rented a simple, charming house in the hills above the Central Valley. For eight months we went back and forth from San José to Orlando, and I wasn’t prepared for how unmoored I felt. First, there’s the bombardment of small crises—trying to remember if your favorite pair of jeans is back in the States, or your bedroom closet in another country. Then, the pantry—forget it! You’ll go to make a meal thinking you have this or that spice, and of course you were picturing the contents of your other kitchen, thousands of miles away. I realize all this reeks of “First world problems,” but regardless, the phenomenon is real. The biggest surprise for me, however, was the feeling that instead of having two homes that I had none; living in limbo, I’d lost my physical center and didn’t realize how much our psyche relies on that single, defined space for balance, as well. Think about it: as much as you might have a voracious zest for travel, you still retain that yearning to return to home and hearth, family and community comforts. Everyone does. Home is such an integral part of human experience and spirituality. Those months in Costa Rica opened my eyes to how important our sense of home is, and gave just an inkling of what it must mean for those who become displaced.
As for beliefs, living in a certain place absolutely shapes our thinking and the choices we make more than we can probably fathom. Recently, I befriended a writer from New Delhi at a residency of international writers. He shared how he’d been in love with a Danish woman, but his family back in India wouldn’t accept her and the stress became too much; they eventually broke it off. He’s spent a lot of time in the West, was educated in England, and has adopted very Western customs and beliefs as a result. The group of us stayed up late many a night exchanging stories about our different cultural and familial expectations—attitudes about marriage and earning a living, the individual vs. the community. I was intrigued then, as I am always, by how cultural beliefs are ingrained in us unconsciously, and how much suffering ensues just because we don’t know halfway around the world, they think differently—that the deep shame we harbor in the United States over failing to make a living, how we tie-up our self-worth in that so much that some of us lose sleep at night—that would be considered preposterous somewhere else. Such mental anguish simply because we haven’t be exposed to other ideas; we don’t know.
This is one of the reasons telling stories is so important. You can read an article on statistics or trends, but those concepts won’t penetrate you the way stories do. Writing them down is just an extension of sitting up late with a bottle of wine among friends. I’ll read an article in The Atlantic and it’ll stay with me for a month, maybe two. But my friend’s heartfelt story of family members sabotaging his romance? I’ll remember that for years, if not forever.
MCMEEKIN: One of my favorite writers is the late Andre Dubus. In many of his stories, a character’s belief smacks up against reality, leaving them with a difficult choice of whether to compromise. I found a similar situation in some of the stories in your collection. For instance, in “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” the protagonist attempts to rescue dogs in a small Costa Rican town, only to have her good intentions foiled and used against her. She must then decide whether it’s worth it to continue. In “Uninvited Guests,” a young mother fleeing an abusive relationship must decide whether it’s worth it to live under the watchful, interrogating eye of a legalistic couple in order that her child might have a better life. What attracts you to this kind of story?
BLAKESLEE: It’s interesting that you mention Andre Dubus. I’m such an admirer of his stories—both his subject matter and his prose style. I suppose I’m attracted to this type of story because it very much encapsulates my worldview. From an early age, the injustice of life has gotten under my skin. Life to me has never been black-and-white, but a paradoxical and maddening grey. I’d like to think that Andre Dubus and I are kindred spirits in that we both grew up among the common man, in lower- to middle-class environs, and therefore we can relate to a vast array of ordinary people in situations where the only available choices are difficult ones. I spent a great deal of my formative years in my parents’ diner, eavesdropping on conversations between waitresses and counter regulars: state troopers, truckers passing through the Poconos on Rt. 80, the colorful salesmen from Easton Packing and Sysco who’d come by for their orders every week. So I very much had an unusual window into the adult world that other kids my age weren’t privy to, although I had no concept of this at the time. There was always some calamity going on at the restaurant, and my father would come home with these stories—dishwashers ODing in the parking lot, waitresses whose husbands beat them up, old people having heart attacks during Sunday brunch. I wasn’t shielded from any of that. It doesn’t surprise me that those surroundings would have had a lasting effect on how I see the world, although I haven’t really thought about the similarities to Dubus until now. You’re the first person who’s pointed that out.
MCMEEKIN: Christianity and Religion pop up throughout the collection, often in the form of their ideals and adherents making demands upon the characters. What is your experience with religion? Are there any particular writers who address issues of faith that you looked to for inspiration in your work?
BLAKESLEE: In my mid-twenties and just before I entered the MFA in Writing at Vermont College, I went through a breakup from which I barely recovered. I hadn’t grown up in a household that actively practiced any faith, for which I’m grateful, because when I felt compelled to explore religion the decision was born out of genuine soul-searching. I would never have expected this, but Christianity and specifically Catholicism truly saved me from despair—saved by the mysticism and rituals, the embrace of mystery and the stories of the saints who were remarkable human beings, no matter what you believe. At one point I even considered turning away from the writing life and joining a Holy Order; I had started researching that vocation.
However, soon after I became a confirmed Catholic I found myself conflicted with Church dogma on sex and women’s issues, and couldn’t reconcile with that teaching—it didn’t feel honest for me to keep practicing the faith, etc. In hindsight, this seems a tad naïve. Perhaps I didn’t realize how much of a feminist I was until I’d fully entered the fold; I was in the middle of a huge shift, transitioning from the staunch conservatism I’d been raised with to drastically different worldviews—this hardly happens overnight. But I rely very much on my intuition and am a terrible liar, so I had to be true to myself; I haven’t been back to mass since and harbor no guilt about it. At the outset my behavior may appear disingenuous or flighty, but my turn to Catholicism, albeit brief, remains one of my deepest and most profound spiritual experiences.
Throughout all this, I was reading Catholic writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, Richard Russo and Andre Dubus—funny, there he crops up again. My mentor, Phil Deaver, also has some great Catholic stories. Their work has certainly inspired me.
I suppose I ultimately realized that writing truly was and is my dharma for this life. After I dropped away from Catholicism, I started taking yoga and dance classes and found the same peace and grace there that I’d once found at mass. But Catholicism left several lasting effects on me and my work, one being the call for social justice. Before that my fiction never touched those themes; now they bubble up quite frequently and naturally, and I don’t foresee them dropping away any time soon. I wouldn’t have written the story, “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” if not for my plunge into Catholicism, nor my novel. I wouldn’t have changed my political position from Republican to Democrat. I wouldn’t have gained such a clearer perspective on what separates Catholic and Protestant worldviews, and most importantly, a greater understanding of those who continue to practice these faiths—valuable when your task is to walk around in others’ shoes by writing fiction.
MCMEEKIN: Continuing on the topic of influence, I know that some writers have particular stories or books on hand at all times for inspiration, so if they’re feeling “dry” they can go to the well. Do you have any writers or stories that fill that role, specifically for this collection or otherwise?
BLAKESLEE: For short stories, my go-to authors include Poe, Chekhov, Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, Alice Munro and O’Connor, to name a few. For novels, Tolstoy and Atwood. For craft, John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” and Doug Glover’s “Attack of the Copula Spiders” I find myself returning to again and again. I harbor a geeky desire to complete all the exercises at the back of the Gardner book.
MCMEEKIN: I read that a novel of yours is currently making the rounds to publishers. Is it stylistically similar to the collection? Can you tell us a bit about it?
BLAKESLEE: Stylistically similar, no. Two-thirds of the narrative follows the protagonist, Mercedes, when she’s a teenager growing up in 1990s Colombia, and the young man she meets is Catholic and the leader of a social justice youth group—so there are similarities there in theme and the Latin American backdrop. The novel is set during the midst of the worst guerilla and paramilitary violence to sweep Colombia in its forty years of civil war, and of course the two fall in love, against the wishes of Mercedes’ father, Diego Martinez, and his desire for his daughter to finish school in the United States. Without revealing too much, I can tell you that as Mercedes falls deeper in love, she discovers more about her father’s mysterious past. The story is very much about the pitfalls of youth and its inability to see the world’s complexities, an idealism that often leads to tragic falls when the world isn’t ready to change.
ROSS MCMEEKIN’s fiction appears in Shenandoah, Passages North, Folio, PANK, Hobart, Tin House Flash Fiction Fridays, and elsewhere. He edits the literary journal Spartan. He’s the recipient of a 2013-14 Made at Hugo House Fellowship and lives in Seattle.