The Joys of Meanness
Scott Blackwood's Initiation Into the Writing Life
Scott Blackwood remembers Arlington, Texas, as a frightening place. Nearby, Six Flags loomed with its rides that turned you inside out, making you think life was supposed to deliver a thrill around each bend. Streets were wide and white, studded with restaurants and stores, mere copies of restaurants and stores that had been thought up someplace else. No trees. But it's not the city or its lack of originality that was the biggest problem. It was that the parents, many divorced or seriously toying with the idea, were too busy with their own lives to pay much attention to their kids. In Arlington, Blackwood remembers, he observed at close range his friends learning "the joys of meanness."
During the course of In the Shadow of Our House (SMU Press, $19.95), Blackwood's debut story collection, marriages unravel over a beer, parents get lost in their grief, and kids make pipe bombs. Caught in the usual kinds of meanness -- lies, leaving, and loss -- Blackwood's characters fall just short of speaking up or doing the right thing, all the while regretting it. Their honesty will break your heart and make you laugh, and when they open their mouths, pure poetry drips out. Teachers and parents, take note. This is why kids do scary things: They copy what they see, release what must come out, and fight like hell to survive.
I met Blackwood, who occasionally reviews books for the Chronicle, at a coffeehouse on the Drag, and for two hours he shared with me the path that got him here, while techno-bump music -- the freedom beat of today's disconnected youth? -- hammered in the background. Blackwood has the clean-cut look of someone who might be more comfortable in the outdoors and in fact lives with his family on an acre west of town. Though he's been working seriously toward being a writer for the past 10 years, the title and its accoutrements (author interviews, marketing) don't sit easy with him. He seems a bit ashamed of all the attention. But he ought to get used to it. Literary America may have missed awarding Blackwood the prizes his stories deserve so far (in fact, he was runner-up for this year's Dobie Paisano Fellowship), but if there is justice -- and sensitive readers -- in the world, this can't last long.
Though his parents divorced when he was 12, Blackwood is quick to credit them for "being very involved." His mother, "a damn saint," was particularly tuned in to what dangers her teen son was traveling near, and though his father moved to Lubbock, they remained close. But Blackwood had friends who "stole stuff all the time" and others who were "into arson, all kinds of things." He remembers: "I could see that many of my friends were full of a lot of rage -- full of contradictions that they'd picked up from their parents -- who they were, who they wanted to be." It was during this time that Blackwood first visited Austin, "a mini-Greenwich Village," in the early Eighties. In Austin he found "energy, home-grownness, and a sense of history" that Arlington profoundly lacked. He could see that here there was an outlet for difference, "an alternative for initiating yourself." In 1986, Blackwood finally made it to Austin, to finish what he terms his "ill-fated psychology degree" at UT. (Austin is the setting for many of Blackwood's stories, with references including the 37th Street Christmas lights, the O. Henry House, and the Deep Eddy Tavern.)
Blackwood was lucky enough to have a roommate, Scott Stebler, who would later open the Deep Eddy Bookstore. Stebler introduced Blackwood to authors he'd never heard of before -- like Albert Camus and Milan Kundera and "weird Southern books" like Light in August -- and unexpectedly the writer's path was begun. Blackwood started trying to write in the summer of 1987, "after being obsessed with Hemingway's collection In Our Time." He recalls that Hemingway's straightforward yet complex style made a big impression on him and he did a lot of "horrible imitation kind of writing" which he figures was necessary to find his own voice. Finally, the next year he took Jim Magnuson's fiction writing class. Magnuson dispelled a lot of myths about writing (like: You can finish a first draft in a couple of hours -- false) to a class that included one guy so sure of his bright future that he wore sunglasses and "threw random vocabulary words into his stories." Magnuson helped Blackwood through a case of writer's block (or stage fright?) by pointing out to him that "No one in this class is going to be publishing in The New Yorker this month."
From there, Blackwood attempted to return to his deep Southern roots (he was born in Arkansas and lived there until he was 3), reading all of Flannery O'Connor and trying his hand with dialect. It was UT professor Laura Furman who kindly informed Blackwood that nowadays dialect has seriously negative connotations. Furman also introduced Blackwood to Chekhov and his exquisite craftsmanship. Blackwood recalls: "She was paying so much attention to this, I knew it meant a lot. But it was only later, after I had a child, that I was able to enjoy Chekhov, knowing more about moments of consequence and valuing the kind of discipline Chekhov builds his stories on."
The birth of his daughter Ellie, in 1991, was for Blackwood a "form of initiation." He quotes Raymond Carver who observed that "once you're a parent, the kids are in the driver's seat." Blackwood feels he needed some kind of initiation -- "a sense of mortality looking me in the face" -- in order to "cut bait" and focus his energies on the one thing he really wanted to do. (Other vague career options at the time included anthropology and Native American studies. Blackwood actually tried out for the Austin Fire Department, lugging a 40-pound hose up and down the fire tower. "I did dwell on the written exam," he offers.) Blackwood was now teaching English at a high school for pregnant girls, optimistically building a curriculum around the girls' common condition with such works as The Handmaid's Tale and The Color Purple. (The story "One of Us Is Hidden Away," about a pregnant teen gathering courage for her life ahead, grew from this experience.) One of two males on the 250-student campus, Blackwood observed a painful discrepancy "between reading literature and what real life was all about." He remembers beginning "to look at things in terms of great consequence," a theme that travels like a straight suburban driveway through In the Shadow of Our House. Blackwood thinks this is where "the sense of weight" in his stories comes from, by recording life's events and challenges and compressing them into the window of a story.
While teaching full-time in Austin at a high school for dropouts, Blackwood ratcheted up his commitment to writing by joining the new graduate program at Southwest Texas State in 1992. Due to "financial and parenting pressures," Blackwood stopped and started the program for several years until SWT professor Debra Monroe took one of his stories to then-director Miles Wilson and requested financial assistance. Eventually, Blackwood quit his teaching job at Austin High and began living his dream and studying writing full-time. "It was one of those proverbial things," he recalls, "when nothing was the same again." The changes were resounding, as Blackwood's first marriage was also breaking up (the two share custody evenly, an arrangement that was unheard of in 1970s Arlington). There were other watermarks along the way -- his first published story in 1996 ("Riverfest"), the time Debra Monroe demanded "What do I have to do to make sure that you're a writer?," and the "huge help" current SWT writing program director Tom Grimes gave Blackwood's manuscript. By the time Blackwood received his MFA five years after he had started (it's normally a two-year program), all but one of the stories in In the Shadow of Our House were written.
Now remarried (to the Chronicle's marketing director Tommi Ferguson), Blackwood runs UT's Undergraduate Writing Center and works nights and weekends on a cycle of stories that grew from an obituary he once read about a Fort Worth lawyer named Lionel Luckoo. ("In the Shadow of Our House" is also about the character Luckoo's strange story inspired.) A British national, Luckoo had been knighted and practiced magic as a hobby. He was also the attorney for the Rev. Jim Jones, the cult leader who led 914 people to their death-by-cyanide-laced-Kool-Aid in Guyana in 1978. The obituary painted Luckoo's near-brush with death as a profound turning point that brought him to his final career as an evangelist traveling around the country in a van.
Blackwood's fictional Luckoo, Odie Dodd, is a government physician in Georgetown, Guyana, who actually finds all the bodies. ("The feeling, he would say, was as in a dream when you know a terrible thing is about to happen but you are helpless to prevent it. But of course the thing had already happened.") In Blackwood's fictional worlds, an old guy like Odie Dodd, whose claim to fame is just missing the greatest tragedy of the time, is one of your neighbors. You befriend the senile, sickly man and end up searching for him in the night when he wanders away from his house, despite the two of you having nothing in common except, of course, being alive.
Robin Bradford was a three-time runner-up for the Dobie Paisano Fellowship and last year finally won it, she reminds Blackwood. She most recently published her essay "Heat" in the July 13 issue of the Chronicle.