Midwestern Gothic staffer Hannah Gordon talked with author Scott Blackwood about writing through the darkness, moving from Texas to Chicago, connection and empathy, and more.
Hannah Gordon: What is your connection to the Midwest?
Scott Blackwood: I originally moved here from Austin for a job seven years ago, when I was director of the MFA Program at Roosevelt Univeristy in downtown Chicago. I loved the change, the challenge of a larger city. Mostly, in your forties, you look for analogies since the differences between Austin and Chicago are so pronounced. One of the things that struck me right away on a personal level is that Midwesterners are polite, like Southerners. There’s a certain grace to the interactions that I immediately picked up on. That said, Texans and Austinites in particular, tend to be more aggressive and improvisational in their social interactions while Chicagoans are more cautious, more “I’ll decide who I let in over time.” It makes for an interesting dance. I’ve felt very welcome in the Midwest and in Chicago in general and have made some great friends. Also, I love the City of Chicago, a world class city where, despite its problems and various divisions of race and class, it incubates real creativity melded to a sense of history. My ultimate goal would be to spend the winters and springs in Austin and the summers and early falls in Chicago. I also like teaching at Southern Illinois, my colleagues and students, near all the natural beauty of Southern Illinois- a heady mix, again, of the South and the Midwest.
HG: How do you think that moving from Texas to Chicago has influenced your work?
SB: Well, living for a year in Chicago near the Uptown neighborhood 2008-2009 certainly gave me an introduction to the City I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I walked everywhere, took the train everywhere for over a year. That seeps into your writing, the outsider looking in on a place and the place looking back. And Chicago and the Lake play an important part in See How Small and its sense of place and displacement. And danger. There were a lot of mentally ill people near my Redline stop on the “L”, so there was this constant dis-ease walking near there in 2008. Anything, seemingly, could happen, which maybe mirrors the world the way it really is and not the way we’d like to see it.
HG: Your latest book, See How Small, tells the gruesome, tragic story of three murders that rock a small Texan town. Where did the inspiration for this come from?
SB: It’s funny how the copy for the book refers to a “small Texas town” when it’s set in Austin, a city of near a million. I think part of it is I’m referencing older sections of town and a time when things weren’t so big, that did “feel” small. The book is inspired by an actual and still unsolved 1991 murder and burning of four teenage girls, ages 13-17, in an Austin “I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt” shop near Anderson Ln. The wrong men were convicted of it ten years later-one put on death row- and were finally released only five years ago. The case has haunted the city for 24 years and remains a flashpoint. When the book launched, TV and radio stations wanted me to come on to “talk about the murders” when I’d written a novel only very loosely based on the crimes. What could I say? I talked about the human need for resolution that the world itself is sort of indifferent to.
HG: See How Small deals with some pretty heavy subjects—not only the torture and murder of the three girls, but the lives of their loved ones afterward. How did you handle writing such an emotionally draining story?
SB: There is a darkness there that your have to pull out of from time to time but there’s also a poignancy to the book, I think, that points to the joy of living, despite everything. We can tell our own story and not be a story told, but it takes great courage to do so. That’s what I imagine the girls and some of the characters doing, telling a story that affirms life, even in the face of the worst things it can offer.
HG: The narration in See How Small fluctuates between the three girls narrating themselves, in a sort of dream-like state, and then an omniscient narrator—how difficult was that to write in comparison to your other works (We Agreed to Meet Just Here and In the Shadow of Our House)?
SB: We Agreed is told in part in first person plural, in the “We” voice from the perspective of a neighborhood. So taking hold of the smaller “we” here of the girls themselves, was less difficult than narrating half a book from the perspective of a neighborhood!
HG: What is the most important thing you learned about yourself as a writer while working on See How Small?
SB: That I could go deep into a very dark subject and come out the other side of it, that you can inhabit these states of mind and offer the reader a way into intense experiences of grief. Experiencing these moments of connection, of empathy, make us more human, I think, and are life affirming. We go on. The other thing I’m most proud of is exploring a new kind of plot-making, an associational plot, more akin to some of my favorite writers like Denis Johnson or the brilliant Alice Munro.
HG: You’re a professor at Southern Illinois University. Do you feel that, in teaching other writers, you become a better writer yourself?
SB: I love my MFA students and their intensity. You’re thinking about story-telling and plot-making all the time and reading great books together. What could be better for a writer?
HG: What’s next for you?
SB: Well, I’ve finished two recent non-fiction narrative books about early blues and Jazz for the musician Jack White, the second volume of which was released in Dec. But I’m hot on the trail of Holis Finger now, the damaged Iraq veteran from See How Small, a kind of prequel to it that’s about mother and son relationships. Another character in it is Cynthia Ann Parker, an Illinois pioneer who came to Texas in the 1850s, whose family was wiped out by comanche. She was abducted and raised as a comanche and had a son who became the last great warrior chief of the comanches at the end of the Indian Wars. The fading of the west. So Illinois, and the Midwest, where the Parkers were from, is still a part of the story!
Scott Blackwood is the author of the novels SEE HOW SMALL, a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” pick and a 2015 Best New Book selection by both AmaZon and People MagaZine, and WE AGREED TO MEET JUST HERE, which won a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award, the AWP Prize for the Novel, The Texas Institute of Letters Award for best work of fiction, and was a finalist for the Pen Center USA Award in fiction. The New York Times called his first book, IN THE SHADOW OF OUR HOUSE, “acute, nimble stories, an impressive, accomplished debut.” His short stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Gettysburg Review, Boston Review, Southwest Review,,Chicago Tribune Printer’s Row Journal and been anthologized in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing. Scott’s two narrative nonfiction books, THE RISE AND FALL OF PARAMOUNT RECORDS, VOLUMES I & II—produced by Jack White—tell the curious tale of a white-owned “Race record” label that began in a Wisconsin chair factory and changed American popular music forever. Scott was nominated for a 2015 GRAMMY AWARD for Volume I and featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Sound Opinions, and in The New York Times,The Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. A former Dobie Paisano Fellow and long-time resident of Austin, Texas, Scott now lives in Chicago and teaches fiction writing in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Southern Illinois University.