February 17, 2014
The town is Chicago. It’s toddlin’, as you know, and I imagine Charles eating long lunches in the patio seating of River North restaurants, sampling the delicate cheeses available in our bountiful Midwest, and later watching the sunset stream over west town from his window with the satisfaction of knowing that it is all being well done, and done well. I’ve lunched with Charles on the patio, performed with him now and again over the years, and have come to admire the apparent effortlessness he uses to approach the literary life.
He was kind enough to submit to a conversation below, where we talk about oh-so-many things. Enjoy!
CB: I had to come up with a 140-character description of Vintage Attraction this morning, actually: Hapworth meets uber sommelier, Izzy. He falls, glass first, into love and wine. Post buzz, has to discover a way to stay afloat, sip by sip.
If I had another 140 characters, I’d probably say something about Hapworth’s discovery of the restaurant industry, back of the house, so to speak, because that’s an important awakening. Also the domestic travails that follow an elopement, and the trip to Greece the characters take when everything’s become a shambles. I satirize academia a little, too. I try to satirize a lot of things in this novel. I like to think of it as a romantic comedy (comedy, at least in the traditional sense). As far as the life parallels, I’d call it a roman à wine clef. My indoctrination into this world mirrors Hapworth’s. Hapworth and Izzy go to a lot of the wine festivals and speaking engagement cities that I did, that the Singh and I did. I also did, as the character does, learn how to use a real restaurant-grade wine key to open bottles, thus retiring the rabbit ears of my (our) wayward drinking youth.
Splendid—but here is a follow-up comment from a tequila drinker: isn’t this all hopelessly snobbish: wine keys, academia, etc? How have you avoided the traps, if you have, of wine culture coming off as elitist? I’ve heard Alpana speak of exactly the opposite; if you like it, drink it, and don’t be suckered by elitist gimmicks. Does the same go for literature, for your literature?
I feel like this novel is the farthest from any gimmickry I’ve ever been, though I don’t know that I ever considered my so-called experimental work of a decade ago elitist, certainly no more or less than anything else. There’s a certain sense of being included and excluded in all literature by its very particularizing nature, isn’t there? A reader is brought close to a character’s consciousness via the prose, and can experience a consciousness otherwise inaccessible, experiencing it as though possessing it, at best, but still that consciousness isn’t necessarily—probably is rarely—that of the reader’s exactly.
As it shouldn’t be. Isn’t that one of the reasons—perhaps the most important reason—to read anything? To experience, and to better understand, that which is unfamiliar to us? I’d say, too, that’s why we should drink wine, or think about drinking wine, or to write and read fiction: to experience, not to condescend.
This is an extension of Alpana’s democratic and inclusive enological philosophies, which I think pervade the novel, as they have pervaded my life all these years.
This is an interesting point, and one that raises a number of narratological issues. Does fiction allow us to inhabit a space that is not ours, nor the author’s perhaps (Lolita, for instance, where Humbert Humbert is not Nabokov) without the closeness of consciousness representation at times moving toward emotive manipulation?
Put another way, a “traditional” novel often asks the reader to “feel” and “understand” a character as a way of expressing—often without the author’s explicit design—a specific ideological perspective. This allows us to “feel” the “pain” of the mother, Ora, as she worries about her son in the Israeli Army in David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, whereas we feel very little for the characters in Finnegan’s Wake or The Making of Americans. It’s not that these last two are purely cerebral, but rather than their central character is language more than plot.
Therefore, does your statement that Vintage Attraction as not your “so-called experimental” work suggest, perhaps, that you are now a writer whose life has been changed by wine and your relationship with Alpana? Further, since that change tracks toward the “democratic,” as you say, and you believe the fiction of experience—of “experiencing consciousness otherwise inaccessible”—could we say your writing may no longer be “so-called experimental” because of your relationships?
Put another way, another way, has love and wine made you a different writer and somehow softened your youthful dalliances with a different type of art?
I think that it is the closeness of consciousness that reduces the tendency for emotional manipulation—at least a heavy-handed, author-as-omniscient manipulation. I mean, all of art is emotionally manipulative, right, since it’s created, shaped, done with intention, wants the subject to feel something (or not feel something, which is probably a feeling too)? The illusion of closeness—the ability to get sucked into the TV show and lose awareness of the device through which the images come, to paraphrase John Gardner—and a seamless illusion, at that, is what I’m after, at least on a theoretical level.
I’ve always been a realist, even when playing with form (which likely is a sign I was never really that much of a postmodernist). Similarly, I don’t know that I feel little for characters when the central character is language (if it can even be said to be definitively). I don’t read like everyone else, though. Or maybe now I read more like everyone else, or how the mainstream reads. I think this does have a lot to do with what I’ve learned about wine and the psychology of wine, the way it’s perceived, simultaneously revered and maligned, often by the same consumers.
Back to the issue of the subject matter potentially coming off as esoteric or elitist; did you know that Americans spent $34.6 billion dollars on wine in 2012? And yet countless people say they’re intimidated by wine, that wine is something only the “sophisticated” consume, and so forth.
And marriage, as I’ve come to learn during this same indoctrination, is sometimes similarly revered and maligned, often by the same consumers.
The work I was creating when I was single and in my early twenties and drank unwittingly and spent a lot of time in my head should be necessarily different from the work I’ve produced since. I remember a grad school professor who, at the end of the last workshop I’d ever take, told me that I’d pretty much accomplished everything there was for me to accomplish with the story about the neurotic introspective twenty-something looking for love (or whatever) and thinking a lot and not doing much of anything along the way. He wanted to know what I was going to do next. It seemed like a strange question at the time. Little did I know it would be the most significant thing to come out of my grad school experience (besides student loan debt and an extra fifty pounds or so from a steady diet of chicken quesadillas and Budweiser).
But then I was twenty-six. I had no idea what I was going to do next. I didn’t really think much about it, until years later, when I began to become immersed in a world rather fundamentally different. The fiction that emerges, I hope, looks and feels nothing like what had come before for me.
You’ve hit upon a key problem with twenty-something experimental work, whether written by those of our generation or those “Millennials” currently writing about the same life-period. It’s relatively easy to make the reader feel, or not feel, according to the tonal constraints of the milieu and the subject matter. A certain strand of contemporary work makes one feel “disconnected”—which tracks with recent developments in conceptual literature—as opposed to “reassured.”
My answer was for a time—and probably still—is to find a place where language is the central figure. Yet, I don’t just see that only in Beckett, but also in Proust, so I’m fairly hopeless. I do not mean to suggest that wine is elitist, because, as you state, sales figures make a compelling case otherwise. I mean that realist-fiction-about-wine, written with certain types of consciousness representation, could produce a certain effect.
I think what you are writing in response to is that you are indeed in a different place—both in terms of writing and life style—but that the change is also motivated to some extent by the need to not remain in the same place of your earlier writing. Therefore, and look how long it took me to get here, how did you write this book? Talk process, working habits, influence…
I don’t read to be disconnected anymore—if I ever did—and so certainly am not writing with that sort of effect in mind.
But process. Yes. It’s funny; I started the end of Vintage Attraction—this trip to Greece that the characters take—before I had any real idea of a story to precede it. I guess I had the protagonists in mind, but of course from not having written the beginning (the chapters that lead them to the trip), I didn’t know as much about them. I began with the trip to Greece because I was taking that same trip in real life. This was March 2008, when the characters also go on the trip in the novel. I basically just took notes. Then I put that (handwritten) material aside, and the entire novel idea aside, until December 2008.
At that point I began at the beginning, or a beginning, and ended up with a draft by the end of June 2009. It was very long, ridiculously long—800 pages or so? There may have been a play in the middle of it. I tried to make it look shorter by narrowing the margins. I had never written anything that long before. And what is strange is that the chronology was only about seven months of fictive time. What was I going on and on about? I blame the length on Ha Jin. I had read A Free Life during this drafting and loved how the novel told a very small story on such a large canvas, yet managed to remain compelling. This story was not going to let me get away with it, I quickly discovered. So I spent the next year and a half trying to figure out how to make it smaller. And then it was too short.
There was a lot of summary. A lot of jagged edges. So I began expanding again. And then compressing. Somewhere along the way, Barry Hannah suggested (psychically communicating) that I try the first person, something that I’d long avoided for no good reason, really. This felt like progress. But I wasn’t really reworking every day. There were, of course, months of doing nothing major, but I’d reread a lot, and of course thought about things a lot, which then periodically lead, suddenly, to a discovery.
At some point, after about three years in total of revision, I had a voice and characters and a story that seemed to work. Not to say I was anywhere close to being “done” by that point, but the changes from there were less drastic.
Okay, but let’s get into working habits…
As far as working habits go, for me, it’s like that old saying about the actors’ union; you can’t get into the union without a job, and you can’t get a job without being in the union. I only have good habits when I’m working on something. And the bad habits the rest of the time keep me from working on anything. I’m not proud of this. I miss that ability I had as a child to just throw myself into anything. I was thinking the other day about a couple of instances in my life in which I wrote a draft of an entire story, exposition, complication, blah, blah, blah, in one sitting. The first time I remember doing this was when I was sixteen. I was in the computer lab (do those still exist?) during a free period in high school. It was mostly dialogue, but there was a fair amount of dramatization. Relatively speaking, my prevailing stylistic influence at the time was Bret Easton Ellis. The next time it happened, I was twenty-two or so. The latter story was longer and probably took more than 45 minutes to do. But what does this even prove?
Even then I knew those drafts had to be rewritten and rewritten and rewritten. I haven’t done anything like that since then. I’m not even really that interested in the short story form anymore, though maybe trying to “outline” a larger work via the form might be useful now. I guess you could say I’m more careful—reticent?—though I do have what may just be a 300-page false start from a few summers ago in the drawer, figuratively and literally.
I did print out a copy once in the hopes that the words away from the screen might help me make sense of it, but I didn’t read very much. It was in a voice I didn’t recognize anymore, and found maybe tedious. I have had ideas about it from time to time, but: bad habits keep me from approaching.
My only good habit, perhaps: I’m always reading contemporary novels for inspiration (or caution). Occasionally, while reading or even just thinking, I’ll make iPhone notes. I don’t really look at them, though. My first one- or two-sentence synopsis of what would someday become Vintage Attraction still sits in my old MacBook’s notes thing. I guess I must have gone back to look at that one at some point. We tell students and each other that nobody ever gets anywhere waiting for inspiration, but, I don’t know, it’s kind of always worked for me.
I make many notes I never look at, in part because I cannot read my own handwriting. It’s a series of anemic scribbles calculated to make mincemeat out of the “rational ideas” that wish to make their dirty way into my notes. I see the world as a series of scribbles, of wavy lines, of incomprehensible and barely articulated waves of static. I think you should look back, really, at the MacBook notes—to determine not what has survived from the “original” “idea,” but what has failed to translate in the emergence of the book.
This is related to your piece in The &NOW AWARDS: The Best Innovative Writing (Volume 1), a redone version—by you—of a story originally written on a napkin for Esquire. You recopied it, I believe, because you no longer had the original. The process you describe for Vintage Attraction fits nicely within this idea, somehow.
Tell me how your belief in art and inspiration and literature (beliefs I am generally suspicious of) tracks with your role as Managing Editor of Bookslut. There, you are a gatekeeper of industry, and enemy of inspiration. Or not?
I’ve driven myself crazy over the years trying to decipher illegible words in handwritten drafts and fragments and notes. For some reason, in that moment, what I can’t read seems more valuable than anything else. Is that a metaphor?
Much failed to translate from early ideas and sketches and outlines (on the backs of envelopes) and drafts of the new novel. But that process of determining what translates and what doesn’t—I think that’s the definition of revision, right? You work over the sentences and paragraphs and logic that underlies it all again and again, and what emerges—what wins the battle?—is what has succeeded in the translation. It’s funny, looking at old drafts; I notice I rarely revise dialogue. I add dialogue, I take away dialogue, but the actual lines that remain often don’t change much from draft to draft. I don’t know why that is. Maybe because they’re shorter sentences? I don’t think I’m a minimalist in style, and tend to really enjoy, as a reader, long and unwieldy sentences that have this brilliant internal logic.
But as a writer, those Sukenickian page-long (Ed. Ronald Sukenick), book-long sentences are a struggle to work with, and so likely a struggle for general readers to read. And I’m not about making it hard anymore.
The napkin project was a very useful one for me, and so was the process of recreating it for the &NOW anthology. It made me begin to wonder when it was that we started (pretty much) only revising from within a draft. I think in the old days, to really revise an entire draft of a novel required rewriting—actually retyping—the entire thing. I read something Scott Spencer said about doing that with Endless Love (a book I only like because of its Hyde Park scenes) back in the 70s. Did people retype the earlier manuscript and add in the changes, or did they set aside the earlier and truly rewrite the whole thing? Even if it’s just retyping from the original, I imagine you’re copying in parts, maybe without thinking about them, without really reading them, but you’re also touching the words—every word—again, so in doing that probably comes some new discoveries, some better ways to say the thing you were trying to say, the story you intended to tell.
I’d like to try an experiment with a chapter of something that I’d read and then try to rewrite without looking at the original to see what would emerge.
I think working in the business of publishing, as a writer and as an editor, has affected my beliefs in literature. Inspiration seems like such a romantic notion to me. Sure, everything comes from some kind of inspiration, but it can’t be everything. When I think about being an undergrad writing student, I needed professors who had experience in the real world to tell me that it wasn’t really about my muse (such as I thought) and more about my work. At least that’s what some of them told me. When you’re really young (or really naïve), it all seems so effortless. All of art seems to affect people—the non-practitioners—that way, doesn’t it?
Like, you see an actor acting in a film or on TV and when it’s good—when you don’t see the acting—it comes off as effortless, right? But obviously it really isn’t. So, I don’t know, is a book review publication a gatekeeper? Some publications more than others, I’d say. Bookslut is largely a democratic process, in terms of what books we cover. We don’t assign books. The contributors are free to choose from a list of what’s available, and Jessa Crispin curates titles she’d like to see reviewed. And I like that. I’m annoyed with the trade publications that assign books randomly to their reviewers. It’s irresponsible; what if the book isn’t a fit for that reader? The forced result is a negative, grumbly review.
I guess they can get away with it for the pittance they pay. We don’t pay for reviews, don’t have some kind of format for the pieces (or even, really, word limits), and as result, we are able to publish interesting, insightful, consequential reviews and features and essays of all shapes and sizes. For the most part, the books we cover are books that reviewers care about, are passionate about. And if that’s gatekeeper-y, I’m okay with that.
Yay. Democracy. But let’s talk autocracy. What happens when a review is deemed as “unfit for publication”? Has this ever happened, not due to poor writing quality of the review, but for reasons of content?
During my tenure, rejecting a review has only happened because of poor writing quality, and never because of content (Though I guess you could argue, what’s the difference?). Jessa and I prefer it when the reviews are positive—why spend time talking about a book that a reviewer doesn’t like and doesn’t think readers should read?—and obviously only publishing reviews of books contributors like is not a corporate mandate. A “bad” review must be as rigorous, as well supported with textual evidence, and as well analyzed as a “good” one.
How has your position as Managing Editor of Bookslut inflected the publicity campaign for Vintage Attraction?
It seems to get mentioned in the reviews. The publisher included the job title in the promotional materials; it’s included on the flap bio. Is that strange that it’s in there? It is my job. The bio on my first novel included information about the university at which I was teaching, since I was teaching at the time. I think details like this should be included because it helps contextualize the author, and selling the author these days is just as important—if not more important—to the publicity as selling the novel.
Do you read reviews when deciding upon your own reading? Perhaps reviews are impossible to avoid given your position, but, in theory, do reviews help Charles Blackstone make decisions?
I always have read reviews, but I rarely read them the way the reviewers seem to intend for them to be read. For example: I remember in 2002 or 2003, reading a scathing review of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s third memoir, More, Now, Again in the NYTBR. I read it and I thought that all of the things the reviewer perceived as flaws and faults with the telling were precisely the things I liked to find in a narrative. So, I immediately ordered a copy of the book, read it, and loved it. (I haven’t read the book since, and might have a different reaction to it today, simply because I’m a different reader now than I was ten or eleven years ago). And I suppose, though I can’t think of a specific instance, there have been times that I’ve found a glowing review of a book I’ve read and not thought much of (or haven’t read, and don’t think much of, based on some kind of external data). I don’t feel swayed, I guess, by reviews. Outside of the major publications, many of them are uninformed and vindictive. This is, yes, bad for the author, but it doesn’t do much for publishing and for art (both of which could kind of use all the help they can get these days). A review couldn’t talk me out of a book that I wanted to read. I’ve pretty much always found the books that I’ve liked, or they’ve found me. I’ve watched how the same issue of unsupportive and amateurish reviewing that doesn’t help anybody plague restaurants plague the wine industry.
If a wine critic whose palate doesn’t match mine doesn’t like a wine—or does—it really has no bearing on what I’m going to think. I think the longer I’ve been around the food and wine business, the less inclined I’ve been to be publicly negative, the less quick to slam something I may have not have had enough experience with or been ill-equipped to judge. The problem, I usually find, has more to do with the subject than it does with the object.
Chicago-native Charles Blackstone, one of Newcity’s Lit 50 in 2012 and 2013, is the author of Vintage Attraction, a novel published in 2013 by Pegasus Books and distributed by W.W. Norton & Company. He is also co-editor of the literary anthology The Art of Friction (University of Texas Press, 2008) and the author of The Week You Weren’t Here (Dzanc Books and Low Fidelity Press, 2005), a novel. His short fiction has appeared in Esquire‘s Napkin Fiction Project, The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Fiction anthology, Lewis University’s Jet Fuel Review, and the University of Maine’s Stolen Island. Blackstone has written essays for Chicago Sun-Times and The Millions. His short plays have been produced by Victory Gardens and Lifeline Theaters. Blackstone is managing editor of Bookslut, an internationally acclaimed book review publication and blog. Blackstone holds degrees from University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Colorado, where he directed the Graduate Reading Series and received the Barker Award for Fiction, and has taught at Colorado, Wright College, The University of Chicago’s Graham School, and Shimer College. He currently is a private-practice ghostwriter, coach, and editor for clients at all stages of the publication process. Blackstone and Master Sommelier Alpana Singh live with their pug, Haruki Murakami, in downtown Chicago.
Top photo credit: Keri Wiginton, Chicago Tribune.