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Literary Road Trip with Elise Blackwell

August 7, 2009

elise-blackwell-portraitI claimed South Carolina in Galleysmith‘s Literary Road Trip, hoping to discover new authors in my adopted state.  While I was on Twitter, I asked if there were any South Carolina authors out there, and I was excited when I got a quick response from Elise Blackwell.  I haven’t read any of her work, but after checking out her website and exchanging emails with her, I really want to.  Elise is originally from Louisiana, but she lives in the Palmetto State now, so I’m claiming her!  She is a professor of English at the University of South Carolina.  Her books have been chosen for several “Best of the Year” lists.  Elise’s  fourth novel will be released in the spring of 2010.

When did you move to South Carolina and what brought you here?

I moved to South Carolina in June 2005 after accepting a faculty position at the University of South Carolina. South Carolina is closer to my family (most of whom live in Louisiana) and my best friend from college was already living in Charleston, so that made the location more attractive than my other options.

When did you know that you wanted to become a writer?

At least since I was five. My grandfather picked up on it and offered to pay me a dollar for every story I wrote. When I grew too prolific for his wallet, he told me he hoped I would keep writing—but not for the money. And I did. I dabbled in poetry in high school and college and have worked as a journalist and professional writer at times, but fiction has always been my true calling.

What authors inspire you?

Almost any book that aspires to be literature inspires me. The storytelling impulse and our relationship with language is part of being human, I think, and I admire most of the classic European novels. But I’m particularly drawn to and influenced by modern and contemporary novels that engage ideas and are self-conscious in their use of language—writers such as Michael Ondaatje and W.G. Sebald. And I have been powerfully influenced by the southern writers I grew up on, including Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor, as well as more recent southerners like Barry Hannah.

You’ve published three books (GRUB, HUNGER, THE UNNATURAL HISTORY OF CYPRESS PARISH) and have a fourth (AN UNFINISHED SCORE) scheduled to be published next year.  I noticed your first three books all seem to have different feels.  Can you tell us a little about your new book?

You are right that each of my books is quite different from the others, and the new one is no exception. In some ways I think it is a more personal book, and perhaps intended more particularly for women readers than my earlier work. The story centers on a professional musician whose lover has died suddenly. His widow blackmails her into finishing a composition he left behind (the score of the title), and the life she has made for herself is threatened. The story grew from my interest in the way that artists’ lives and work interact and thinking about people manage to make lives of art in our contemporary world of Target and Twitter. The books also explores the nature of relationships among women as both friends and competitors.

I noticed that you’re published by Unbridled Books and I think they have beautiful covers.  Do you have any input on the covers of your books?

Most writers don’t have much say over their covers. Contracts usually say that the author will be “consulted,” which means they can offer ideas and comment but not necessarily veto. Unbridled has been terrific, though, both in coming up with better cover ideas than I could myself and taking into account my opinion. For instance one of the ideas floated for the cover of The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish was a cypress tree, but I favored having some sort of human image and I love what the designer came up with. I would never have come up with it, so all credit goes to Unbridled’s publishers and designers.

As a writing professor, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

This is advice I’ve given before, and I stand by it. Don’t  write because you want to be “a writer.” but because you take pleasure (most of the time) in the writing itself. It’s long, lonely work to write a book—not something someone should take on if the love is not there. Second, read a lot and write a lot, and keep your eyes and mind open while you read and write. Third, think carefully and creatively about what kind of day job and life situation will best accommodate your writing over time. Very few writers make a living from their writing alone. Fourth, be patient. Gymnasts may be past their prime at twenty, but you become a better writer across an entire life. Fifth, try to write something that matters—emotionally or intellectually or whatever it means to you. My advice isn’t particularly original, but it’s the best advice I can give.

Can you share a South Carolina moment with us?

My family is southern (Louisiana and Mississippi), and I grew up in southern Louisiana, yet I hadn’t lived in the south in a long time when I moved to South Carolina and I did not self-identify as a southern writer. A graduate-school professor had told me to “stop writing neo-Faulknerian crap,” and I’d listened. I’d lost much of my accent, and I was starting to say “you guys” as often as “y’all.” Then I wrote The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish—my Louisiana novel—which was published while I was in South Carolina. The book tour for that book took me across the south, starting in Katrina-devastated Bay St. Louis and ending in Arab, Alabama. On that tour I began to think of myself again as a southern writer, someone from one part of the south and now living in another. As I drove from Arab home after being on the road for more than three weeks, I realized that Columbia, South Carolina, was home. That feeling has grown over time, particularly as my husband and I have started to really garden (a different thing here than in California!). This morning I picked fresh figs off the tree, and if that’s not home I’m not sure what is.

I’d like to thank Elise for taking the time from her busy schedule to answer questions for my Literary Road Trip!

Literary Road Trip

28 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2009 8:04 am

    Thanks Kathy, for letting us meet Elise. That felt like we were just chatting on the front porch.

    Now I have to read her books and, I’ll bet taking a class with her would be fun.

  2. August 7, 2009 8:38 am

    Great interview, Kathy. One thing about Unbridled Books is the fact that their covers all seem like artwork. They are gorgeous. I’ve never read Elise’s books so thanks for letting us discover her talents.

  3. August 7, 2009 8:57 am

    Kathy, thank you for your wonderful interview with Elise Blackwell! I’m excited to have a new author to read and explore. Her story about how she discovered she wanted to be a writer is a priceless memory and her advice to burgeoning writers is wonderful!

    By theway, regarding Vera Bradley, if you’re interested in purchasing any VB items (pencils to large luggage pieces) there is a sale going on at her website and Ebay has an enormous amount of her items being auctioned by great sellers.

    Off to check out Elise’s website!

  4. August 7, 2009 9:01 am

    Thanks for introducing us to Elise!

  5. August 7, 2009 9:22 am

    Great interview Kathy! It’s so neat to learn about new authors this way. I’ll be on the lookout for her books, they sound marvelous.

  6. August 7, 2009 9:26 am

    How fun! I loved reading about Elise and her grandfather — that he hoped she would keep writing, but not for the money. That’s wonderful 🙂

    South Carolina is a beautiful state — I’ve driven through most of it en route to Beaufort! Maybe I’ll get back there someday 🙂

  7. August 7, 2009 9:32 am

    What a pleasure it was to meet Elise!! I will be on the lookout for her work!!

  8. August 7, 2009 10:26 am

    Terrific interview! I have a few of Ms. Blackwell’s books on my shelves and now I really want to read them!

  9. August 7, 2009 10:54 am

    Kathy this is a great interview with fantastic questions and answers. Maybe I should be looking for writers on Twitter for my roadtrip stops!

    I adore her writing advice. I think it is very poignant and practical. A lot of advice I’ve received is write what you know…well that doesn’t work if you write science fiction or fantasy, now does it? LOL

  10. August 7, 2009 10:54 am

    Lovely interview – I love the part about her grandfather and the money!

  11. August 7, 2009 11:24 am

    What a great interview! I’ve read two of Elise’s books, HUNGER and THE UNNATURAL HISTORY OF CYPRESS PARISH, and I’d highly recommend them. The prose is absolutely beautiful.

  12. August 7, 2009 12:45 pm

    My friend lives in Columbia, but my favorite part of SC is Charleston!

  13. August 7, 2009 12:47 pm

    What a great interview. And I’ll definitely be adding these books to my reading list. Thanks to you for drawing my attention to them and to Elise Blackwell for answering your questions and being so engaging.

  14. August 7, 2009 1:01 pm

    Hello Ms. Blackwell.

    It’s great that she knew she knew she wanted to write since she was 5, I was probably learning to tie my shoe laces. And what a lovely grandfather to support her.

  15. August 7, 2009 4:07 pm

    What a great interview! I’m glad you’ve found a wonderful author nearby.

    My favourite part of the interview is Elise’s answer to “As a writing professor, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?” Honestly, I think I need to keep this in my notes. To me, it doesn’t matter if her advice is original or not; different writers say it differently and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.

    Thanks for the great interview. =)
    — Linda Ellen

  16. August 7, 2009 5:36 pm

    Oh, I love this. I love any writer inspired by two of my own heroes, Ondaatje and Sebald. I love any writer who keeps changing tone and approach.

    And here I am, in South Carolina, for a blissful day or two, where I spent my summers as a teen.

    Kathy, in HEART there is one Hilton Head moment…



  17. August 7, 2009 6:34 pm

    Great interview, Kathy. I follow Elise on twitter and it was so fun reading her thoughts on writing and life. She gave some great advice too! 🙂

  18. August 7, 2009 8:07 pm

    This a great interview and a wonderful intro to an author I’d never heard of. Thanks!

  19. stacybuckeye permalink
    August 7, 2009 10:49 pm

    Love her advice for aspiring authors. Good stuff! Great questions, Kathy 🙂

  20. August 8, 2009 1:57 am

    I really enjoyed the interview Kathy. I will be sure to check out Elise Blackwell’s site.

  21. August 8, 2009 11:49 am

    Super interview. What a great introduction to Elise and her books.

  22. August 8, 2009 2:16 pm

    What an absolutely fabulous way to learn about new authors! Thank you so much, Kathy! I will definitely be going to Elise’s website, and not because we have the same last name. I am definitely intrigued by her varied work.

  23. August 8, 2009 9:33 pm

    I enjoyed this interview. Thanks!

  24. August 8, 2009 10:43 pm

    Ah, the power of Twitter!

    Thanks for a great interview, Kathy and Elise!

    Kathy, you know how I feel about Unbridled books – the covers catch your eye (they’re works of art!) and the prose keeps your attention until the last page is regretfully turned … every one of their authors is a winner.

  25. August 9, 2009 4:20 pm

    Kathy this is a fabulous interview with Elise. She sounds extremely passionate about her craft. I especially admire that she’s so open and willing to share that craft with her students. I imagine we’ll see some fabulous work coming out of the State of South Carolina.

    Thanks for taking us on this trip 🙂

  26. August 12, 2009 5:41 pm

    I’ve been thinking about my own Road Trip stops, and now you’ve really inspired me. Great interview! I follow Elise on Twitter, too, so this was a lovely way of getting to know her a little more in-depth. I have all of her books on my TBR list!

  27. August 14, 2009 6:17 am

    Fantastic interview, Kathy! I have not heard of Ms. Blackwell before now and her newest novel sounds good! You asked some great questions. I like that Unbridled Books has been great in working with her. I like to hear about authors and publishers and PR that are amazing to work with in case I ever do decide to publish (although that is still years off for now, it doesn’t hurt to keep tabs!) Thanks for a great post.

  28. August 15, 2009 8:15 am

    Great interview! I adore Unbridled Books’ covers! I’m going to have to check out her books.

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