In anticipation of the launch of her short story collection tomorrow, we quiz U.S. author Vanessa Blakeslee on writing and compiling ‘Train Shots’ – a bold and varied collection that includes her Going Down Swinging No. 33 story, ‘Ask Jesus’.
After sketching the opening story to Train Shots way back in 2003, and having completed around fifty other short stories since then, award-winning U.S. author Vanessa Blakeslee has spent the last five years “attempting to wrestle them into a collection” – before giving it up for a more diplomatic approach.
“I’ve discovered that just as stories don’t want to be forced onto the page, neither do they want to be forced into a book until you have certain ones that speak to one another intrinsically,” she says.
Train Shots (out March 4 through Burrow Press) has since emerged as a snappy collection of eleven stories that range from the comic to the tragic; the speculative to historical. The book – available in print or as an ebook – is purchasable for Australian readers through Fishpond, Amazon and Angus & Robertson.
Read our interview with Vanessa below and an excerpt from her title story, ‘Train Shots’.
GDS: How do your stories develop? When you have an idea for a story do you write it immediately or sit on it for awhile?
VB: I almost never start a story immediately upon the premise entering my mind. Maybe I ought to be more spontaneous, but I let them stew. Often a story starts with a ‘what if?’ question. I’ll write that down in my spiral notebook, and maybe some notes. Maybe a lot of notes, a page or two. Sometimes I’ll start working on an opening then; sometimes the premise will sleep in my journal for months, along with a half-dozen other ideas. Then I return to my journal and peruse these premises, see what I’m interested in exploring.
Also, I tend to write in spurts. This means for long periods, months even, I often don’t write. But when I pick up my notebook again and begin, I’ll often write two or three stories in a very short amount of time – something like six weeks. Then I’ll sort of sigh, emotionally exhausted, and turn to another area where life beckons me – a long-awaited trip or a new semester of teaching, or focus on submitting work to journals and author promo. Maybe I’ll write a few poems, or participate in a collaborative or community arts project. For a long while I danced in a Middle Eastern folkloric troupe, and really enjoyed that. So I’m happily pulled in lots of different creative directions.
GDS: Interested to hear more about your character development – they’re such varied characters, from very different walks of life. Do you base these characters on people you meet/know/imagine?
I draw upon people I meet in real life as a starting point for my characters, but often I combine traits from different individuals. If you’re writing character-driven literary fiction, then as you craft motivation and plot you have to exaggerate or diminish certain traits of a protagonist as he or she navigates the situation and the obstacles flung in front of them. To what degree you manipulate those traits and to what effect, therein lies the art. Characters, even ones rooted in real life, inevitably take on their own shape because the form demands that you invent and embellish.
GDS: Many of your stories seem to involve animals and violence and vulnerability. Where do you think this comes from?
How we treat animals says a lot about how treat one another, so I suppose it’s a variation on exploring the human condition. I have no interest in gratuitous violence but in literary storytelling: plots are propelled forward by characters doing something. I suppose I have found that when characters are as emotionally troubled as they are in Train Shots, the most discernible way to show that emotion is through the physical. They are messy people, and violence is messy.
But in storytelling the meaning and power lies in subtlety, so I’ve done my best to shade my characters’ lashing out in unusual and unexpected ways. For instance, we don’t know for sure what happens at the very end of ‘Barbecue Rabbit’ — he rushes her with the knife, but in the next moment perhaps she jumps aside and wrestles it from him. Or perhaps firefighters break down the door. Who knows? What’s important is his choice to attack, not so much whether he succeeds or is stopped. Hitchcock understood this so well – how so much imaginative power resides in what isn’t shown, what happens off-screen.
GDS: What inspires you to write and what forces you to write when you don’t want to?
Injustice and curiosity inspire me to write, and I don’t write when I don’t want to. If you have to force it, what’s the point?
Three days after his girlfriend broke up with him, P.T. drove his train over a woman stretched out on the tracks. He’d just rolled around the bend leading into Winter Park when he saw her, a pale speck swathed in a bluish-green dress. As he thundered closer, her white limbs snapped clearly into definition and he threw down the emergency brake. The train’s skidding to a halt reminded him of playing ball, the rush of sliding into bases, only without the glory. Metal squealed and sparks shot up. But as usual, he was too late. The collision was out of his control. He shut his eyes and braced for the thump as the train devoured the woman and shuddered down the track for another hundred yards before it finally stopped.
After the impact, he asked one of the crew to take over. Police cars were already zooming up alongside the tracks; the emergency brake had sent out an immediate statewide alert. But as soon as his foot touched the gravel, the whole bloody mess felt different than the other times—the people swarming outside quaint storefronts, pointing, and parents shielding children’s eyes. At the park’s edge, an unkempt man with a scruffy grey beard swayed and cried out obscenities. The officers met P.T. and he gestured without looking, down to the bend where the middle of the train now idled and huffed, and farther down the track to where he first saw the flapping dress. He knew the woman had been young, and he didn’t want to see the years of possibility he’d mangled and smashed.
Instead of drifting down to where the police were pitching the yellow tape, he headed in the opposite direction to survey the train’s frontal damage. He expected dented metal, the usual. He braced for blood. Only this afternoon, a gold metallic object shimmered in the sunlight, tangled in the undercarriage between the track and front wheels. A shoe. Her sandal. He crouched to free the strappy thing but failed to grab hold. He rocked back on his heels and slid a few inches down the gravel bank.
A policeman hurried over, saying, “What’s that? Don’t touch any evidence.”
P.T. held his face in his hands, fingers slick with tears.
“Expensive shoe,” the officer said. “I haven’t gone down to see yet, but they told me she’s real young. We just called the college. Too much money and too many drugs with those kids. You okay?”
P.T. rubbed his face. “I’ll be fine in a minute,” he said.
“A replacement engineer’s on his way,” the officer said. “Why don’t you go take it easy? Sit in the park for awhile.”
P.T. stared past the officer at the sparkling fountain in the middle of the park. Children’s laughter drifted over. He teetered for a moment, and the officer grabbed his shoulder.
“Your supervisor in Jacksonville said they’d arrange a hotel room for you tonight. Pay for your ticket home tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” he answered. “I’m fine.”
“You sure? Let me call the Park Plaza. It’s right over there.”
“Fine, go ahead,” P.T. said. “But I’ll be okay.” He wandered past the officer and away from the train’s heavy breaths, down toward the park.
P.T. slumped onto a bench facing the fountain and let the gurgling sound rush over him. When he first started out as a freight engineer nineteen years ago, he hadn’t factored in so many deaths—not only the suicides but the accidents, and not only the human lives but the sheer number of animals that he killed by proxy of the train.
He glanced over his shoulder at the tracks. A local news crew had joined the police activity and a reporter was now speaking in front of the camera, yellow crime tape draped before the lingering train. He turned around just in time for two college girls to clip past with shopping bags, all thick flowing hair and flimsy tops. Their voices rang like high bells. They stopped at the corner to wait for the crosswalk.
“Excuse me,” he called out to them. “Would you two come here for a minute?”
The girls stopped chatting and eyed him.
He waved them over until they slowly approached. The shorter of the two had darker hair and a pigeon-toed walk that he found charming.
“Are you two aware that a girl from your school got killed here just now?” he asked.
The taller girl gushed, “Oh my God,” and the other one demanded, “Who?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But you need to be careful. This is the second college girl I’ve hit—my train’s hit—in a month. University of Delaware’s got tracks running near the campus, just like yours. A girl left a bar one night without her friends, stumbled down near the tracks and … just watch your friends, okay?”
“I’m sorry,” the one girl said.
“That’s terrible,” the other girl replied, shifting her pigeon-toed stance. “But I don’t have any suicidal friends.”
“It’s just that I don’t know what to do now,” he said, resting his elbows on his knees. “What do you suggest that I do?”
Neither of the girls said anything. He stared at his clasped hands and by the time he looked up, the girls were scampering across the brick-paved street.
Vanessa Blakeslee is an award-winning U.S. writer of short fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Her prose story, ‘Ask Jesus’, is available in our print/audio edition, Going Down Swinging No. 33.