I heard a story about you: In your first MFA workshop, the professor threw a chapter of your novel-in-progress on the table and said, “This is neo-Faulknerian crap, it’s not why we let you in here, and we’re not going to discuss it.” How did that make you feel?
That’s not quite how it went down, but it’s close enough and better for your telling of it. Anyway, how did it make me feel? It made me feel like a writer of neo-Faulknerian crap, because the man was as sharp a reader as he was interpersonally clumsy. I understood that I needed to find a new way—and my own way—of writing about the South before I could write about it.
So you’re a southern writer?
Well, that’s complicated. My first novel was set during the Siege of Leningrad.
It’s a straightforward question, but let me break it down for you: From which region are both sides of your family? Where did you go to elementary school? Where graduate high school? Where did you attend college? Where is your new novel set? And where do you live now? There’s just one answer, isn’t there?
Okay, okay, but I’ve lived a lot of my life outside the South, and I also set a novel in New York, and there’s one set in Princeton and Philadelphia….
Let’s talk about your southern literary roots. Which of the following are true: (a) Faulkner once set his dogs on your grandfather when he went on a literary pilgrimage to Oxford, Mississippi, (b) you’ve chatted with Eudora Welty in the Jackson, Mississippi, Jitney Jungle more than once, (c) you once had tea at Miss Welty’s home, (d) you once waited outside a bar on Christmas Eve while your father drank whiskey inside with Barry Hannah, (e) you once helped your grandmother host Barry Hannah for dinner and his date was a ginger-haired flutist named Ginger and Barry later told you it saddened him to meet someone who was so jaded so young and he’s thanked your grandmother in the acknowledgments of at least one of his books, (f) you’ve read The Moviegoer more than four times, (g) you’ve lost twitter followers because you keep posting that “Eudora Welty is a Badass” link even though everyone who cares has probably already seen it, (h) you currently live in the first of the treasonous states, (i) you say “y’all” instead of “you guys” when you drink, (j) you tended bar at a place called The Bayou, or (k) all of the above.
I realize how it sounds.
Just the letter of your answer, please.
That’s what I thought. Let’s talk about your first Louisiana novel, set during the 1927 flood. Is it true that an editor turned it down because it was sitting on her desk when Katrina hit and she told you it was unpublishable because readers would have “Katrina fatigue” by the time it hit the shelves?
Excuse me, but I think my publicist would prefer that we focus on my new book.
Unfortunately, we’re starting to run low on time, but we do have time to talk about your new novel’s southern setting. Please discuss.
Well, New Orleans is New Orleans. It’s its own world. Worlds, actually, and it’s very much an international city—not to mention one that has changed significantly across the last decade.
In which region of the country is New Orleans located? Please answer only the question that was asked.
Now we’re getting somewhere. Please describe your novel in terms of its southern literary themes.
Well, one of the main characters is from Europe, and one is from Puerto Rico but lives in Los Angeles….
And where are the other two point-of-view characters from?
New Orleans and Biloxi.
So you are saying that they are southern.
Yes, I suppose they are, though Clay….
So they are southern. Which Faulknerian themes does the novel explore?
Maybe you could ask me about the noir elements in the novel, or the mystery of the murdered guy, or the missing painting, or about how art restoration serves as a complicated metaphor. I’m also surprised you haven’t asked me whether human leather is a real thing—that’s what interviewers usually want to know.
That all sounds rather unpleasant. Let’s talk about how the past is never really the past in the South.
I usually take this off the table in interviews, but I’m willing to talk about my research for the sadomasochism portrayed in the novel if we can just change the subject.
Do any of the characters eat hushpuppies or grits in the novel?
ELISE BLACKWELL is the author of five novels, including, most recently, The Lower Quarter. Her work has been translated into several languages, adapted for the stage, and named to assorted best-of-the-year lists, including the Los Angeles Times and Kirkus. Her short stories and essays have been published in the Atlantic, Witness, Brick, and elsewhere. Originally from southern Louisiana, she now lives in South Carolina.
Photo Credit: Nancy Santos