Name: Gabriel Blackwell
Current publication: Gabriel Blackwell's Babel is available via Splice and CORRECTION can be purchased directly from Rescue Press. His new book Doom Town, a new novel, will be out in 2022 from Zerogram Press.
Recommendations: I worry that Angela Woodward's End of the Fire Cult, a very short novel in which a husband and wife preside over two imagined nation states in conflict with each other, hasn't received the attention it should have. Likewise all of her work, though I suppose that's cheating, for which reason I've named End. Really, though, one should read any of her books one can find.
And then I think most people will have heard of William Gaddis's JR, but I would guess many of them haven't read it. I think they should.
If you enjoyed this interview with Gabriel Blackwell, visit his website for a deeper look into his world. He is also on twitter.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about literature and writing that drew you to it?
When I was 9 or 10, I won a school competition by writing a short story; I'm sure I'd written before then, but that's the earliest piece of writing I can be certain of. After I'd won, I was accused of plagiarism and the prize—which I'm sure was nothing so significant, though maybe that's just a bitterness—was taken away from me. This, I would come to understand, would be typical of my writing career.
I can't remember, so many years later, what my influences would have been then. I do, however, remember well a period of time after I graduated from college, when I'd returned to my home town and when I spent all of my time either working or reading. There were all of these books I thought I ought to have read as part of my education but hadn't, things like Don Quixote and The Decameron and Kafka, Dickens, Borges, Gertrude Stein. I was working at a bookstore at the time. I read on my breaks, any time I could be certain I wouldn't be caught. My coworkers thought this was strange—they didn't read, as far as I could tell, and rarely alphabetized when shelving books. No one could find anything that wasn't on a big display at the front of the store, but then the books that sold were on displays at the front of the store, so few people were bothered by this arrangement. The fiction section was on the backside of the bestsellers, facing the information desk, which, because few customers ever visited it, was where I preferred to spend most of my time; it was easier to read there. Something in all that convinced me I could be a writer.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Originality, it seems to me, is often, perhaps sadly, an illusion born out of ignorance of the work others have already done. I learned early on that, mainly because this ignorance is very nearly universal, originality was also a thing I didn't need to concern myself with.
As for my development, I was fortunate to have some patient mentors and teachers willing to read my very bad fiction and explain to me why they thought it was bad. And I myself am very stubborn, and have kept writing despite no great encouragement from others. All of that has taught me to please myself, since I can't be sure of pleasing anyone else.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I'm rarely sure what to make of myself, though I often feel both aggrieved and at fault. I'd like to think that comes through in my work.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
When I first began to write seriously, I had the strange idea that writing was a thing that could be perfected, that a piece of writing worth reading was something that had been assembled from perfected elements. If I could somehow master dialogue and plot and character development and and and, I thought, what resulted would be fiction that was worth reading. After I'd had a few stories accepted for publication, I saw that I'd been wrong, that not only was this kind of atomized perfection unlikely but that it was also unnecessary, possibly even unwelcome.
I had, in other words, thought my challenge was to perfect all the individual elements of writing, as I saw them, but then I came to understand, very possibly at the last moment, that this robbed the process of joy and didn't produce better writing. Now I think I write mainly because it is a thing that can be finished. That is not a small thing.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
Plot is, when one is reading a work of fiction anyway, a mnemonic device meant to help give some additional weight or charge to whatever specific sentence one happens to be reading at the moment. It's important, or can be in certain fictions, but it's not an overriding concern for me.
I do like to think in terms of forms, though mainly when those forms are or can be employed as constraints. Constraints are helpful because I tend towards excesses of various kinds. It would, I think, be better if I were more constrained.
Style and storytelling are important, and I think their relationship must be a close one, or is anyway a close one in the works of fiction I like best, including in those fictions of my own that I am more or less happy with.
Observation and research are often quoted as important elements of the writing process. Can you tell us a bit about your perspective on them?
I did extensive research for my first few novels, in large part because I enjoy it, research, I mean. Because, for the last four or five years, I've been writing a book of non-fiction about events that took place a century ago, I've had to do a great deal of research. I'm not sure how well served I am by it; it sometimes seems stultifying, because there is a sense of having set myself a series of obstacles—first I'll need to find this fact, then that one, then that one, and so on, before beginning to write.
As for observation, I don't see how writing worth reading can be written without it.
How do you see the relationship between conscious planning and tapping into the subconscious; between improvisation and composition? When dealing with the end of a story, for example, do you tend to minutely map it out or follow the logic of the narrative as it unfolds itself?
I do very little conscious planning. I can imagine a version of myself who would be much more successful and who would be capable of planning, but I don't much like him. He seems corrupt to me.
I doubt, however, frequently, and in great detail. It isn't the same as planning; it is much less pleasurable, I think. Which is to say that I don't plan but I do revise, quite a lot.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do writing and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
At least for now and since the beginning of the lockdowns, last March, I typically read when I first wake up, around 4 AM, and then, when I've worked up enough guilt about not using my very limited time to write to write, I'll write until the rest of the family is awake. Because I work from home and take care of a toddler, that's often all the writing I'll do for the day, maybe an hour or two.
I feed the toddler breakfast, read books to and play with her, maybe go to the park, and then, after lunch, put her down for a nap. While she's napping, I do the work I'm paid to do, either editing or teaching, depending on the day. When she wakes up from her nap, we play some more. They are full days and they're often quite tiring. I feel stretched thin just now.
Can you talk about a breakthrough publication in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I sent my first published story to a magazine I'd long admired with little hope of having it accepted for publication. I wrote it after being seriously injured at work and while recuperating and undergoing physical therapy—it's a story that takes place in doctors' waiting rooms. That the story was then published by this magazine still seems unlikely to me.
At the time I wrote the story, I can remember thinking that fiction ought to be able to do more than I was being told it did. There was a particularly injurious kind of metaphorical division proposed: head or heart. I mean that I was being told that every piece of fiction appealed to one or the other, and couldn't appeal to both. One either wrote cold, cerebral fiction—this was how it was described, typically; no one read such fiction, I was cautioned—or one wrote warm, heartrending or heartwarming or heartbreaking fiction. The latter was much more prized, though it's clear to me now that few people read it, either. In any case, I couldn't understand how anyone could take such views seriously or pretend to believe reading wasn't very obviously an intensely cerebral activity, and I think my earliest published fictions were written in reaction to that.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Words can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for literature and poetry as a tool for healing?
I may have been a bully as a child. I don't think it's really my place to say. My memory is imperfect, and I tend towards guilt, especially when looking back. I can say I now prefer to listen and not to speak in almost every situation.
I don't see my writing as therapeutic.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I have, in the past, made use of other works of art in a perhaps more direct and I hope honest way than have many other writers I've read, a thing that has been called appropriation. I have done it because I have respect for my readers and understand that those readers, being readers, will have read other books. I can't consider this copying. It is instead an effort to push back against a misunderstanding, as I see it, of the work of art as something hermetic, something that, in a peculiar, prevalent megalomaniacal fantasy, can stand on its own.
I think most or all of my books would be quite flimsy standing on a shelf by themselves, and I don't think they or any other book were meant to. That isn't either irreverent or reverent appropriation, I don't think, but an acknowledgement of the place my work is intended to occupy. I could simply be wrong.
Literature works with sense impressions in a different way than the other arts. How do you use them in your writing? From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I don't think my writing is especially rich in sense impressions. I may be mistaken. Sight, maybe, sights. My sense of smell is really very poor, and my hearing has been compromised since I was very young. I don't hear well when there is any kind of background noise, in fact find it impossible to concentrate at all when there is background noise above a hum.
I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder late in life, though I think for the most part I'm someone who strongly prefers the space to savor each individual sense impression.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I haven't yet thought of myself as an artist.
What can literature or poetry express about life and death which other forms of art may not?
The thing I like best about the works of literature I like are their particularities, their idiosyncrasies. There is more of the individual in them than there is in much other narrative art.
I feel uncomfortable speaking in generalities, and I don't much like hearing others speak in generalities. There is a great deal of value in the individual, in the individualistic.