No Small Feat
Scott Blackwood's novel experiments in form
Scott Blackwood's slim debut novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, clocks in at 162 pages, and its original title was See How Small (which references a line in the novel: "See how small a thing it is that keeps us apart"). Blackwood smiles, remembering the reaction that original title sparked. "One of the readers said, oh, I can see the reviews now: 'See how small Scott Blackwood tries to make the novel ... and fails.'" He laughs. "It was great."
The thing is, Blackwood didn't just set out to write a short novel, although he firmly believes that novels have gotten too long, too watered-down, and too, well, unedited (an opinion also informed by his experience as a columnist for Bookslut). Quite simply, Blackwood wanted to "explode" the novel – to shake it loose from its moorings, its predictable patterns.
What that meant for his book was an impressionistic style, with dead characters both fictional and real (like Jonestown's Jim Jones) freely interacting with the living and those maybe in limbo. There was also the use of the collective voice. "Agents wanted to jettison parts of it," says Blackwood, "and I just stuck by my guns. I believed in it, and I wasn't going to start meddling with stuff that I had felt very strongly about."
The first person plural is an uncommon aesthetic choice, one that beautifully illustrates the book's setting and sensibility – that of the fabric of a community. The community in question is Austin's Deep Eddy neighborhood, in which two of its residents, an 18-year-old girl and an octogenarian in failing health, both go missing within days of each other. It was in the conception of the latter – a doctor named Odie Dodd – that Blackwood's book first sparked, that "sky-parting" moment. For Blackwood, it came when he stumbled across an obituary in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about Lionel Luckhoo, who was Jim Jones' attorney in Guyana, in addition to being a traveling magician and a knighted British barrister who was called the "Perry Mason of the Caribbean." (Blackwood also points out that Luckhoo was the inspiration for The Simpsons' Lionel Hutz, although that little tidbit didn't make the obituary.)
Luckhoo's final career was a reaction to his near miss at Jonestown. "He was supposed to be there for the White Nights mass suicide, because Jones had intended him to be there," explains Blackwood. "Or he had just forgotten – it's unclear ... if it was just an appointment that Jones had forgotten all about." For whatever reason, Luckhoo was delayed on his way to Jonestown, and "to Luckhoo, it was God's hand saving him, so he became an evangelist."
Blackwood had to pare back the Luckhoo story –"it was such a bizarre and fantastic kind of obit that it was impossible to use as fiction straight up" – but what stuck with him was Luckhoo's need to tell his story again and again, to evangelize. The fictional Odie Dodd – who in Blackwood's book is a doctor who was meant to be at Jonestown but arrived too late – does much the same, repeating the story, haunted, at neighborhood parties and backyard barbecues. It's a recurring theme in the book, what Blackwood calls "people's ability, their struggle, to tell their own story as opposed to having their story told for them." For Odie, "he's been stuck in a circular story for a long time." The how of his brush with death he's lived with for years, but the why he's never resolved.
The novel traffics in familiar Austin terrain – Red Bud Island, a summer screening of The Third Man, one of the author's favorite films, at the Paramount – but, for now, Blackwood is shifting settings for his new novel. Until last June, he ran the Undergraduate Writing Center at the University of Texas, but he's now situated in Chicago as the director of the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program at Roosevelt University. He's also enjoying his win for the 2007 Associated Writing Program's Prize for the Novel, a success that can't help but feel especially vindicating after so many skeptical readers, the ones who thought he was laying waste to a hallowed form.
"I had an interesting reaction from outside readers who were both novelists. It really pissed them off," he remembers. "They wrote things like, 'This is not a novel.'" Blackwood grins. "And I thought: 'This is good. I hit a nerve here.'"
Barnes & Noble will sponsor an Austin book-launch party for Scott Blackwood's We Agreed to Meet Just Here on Friday, March 13, 5:30pm at the American Legion Hall (2201 Veterans Dr.). Live Oak Brewing Co. will be providing libations. A portion of the sales from the party will be donated to the Austin Library Foundation.