The Booktopia Book Guru asks
author of See How Small
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in the state of Arkasas, in the same small town, El Dorado, where Charles Portis, who wrote True Grit and a number of other great books, was born. My family moved around quite a bit. Memphis, Tennessee, Oklahoma. But I lived much of my life in Texas—first the Dallas area and later Austin, where I found a real home. I remember thinking that I’d been looking for this place all along, where it was okay to be a little different, to even aspire to be a writer or musician. I’m not sure it would have happened had I not moved there to go to school at the University of Texas in the mid-eighties. It was liberating to be around other people who’d take chances and pursue things that weren’t at all lucrative or safe. People who were willing to pursue an improvisational life, of sorts. That was very new to me and had a profound effect, even if my talents hadn’t really sufaced yet.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was nine, I read a lot of Marvel Comics and suspected I had super powers that simply hadn’t surfaced yet—incredible reflexes, strength, eyesight, something. I was waiting patiently. So I practiced super heroing in the woods, beating on old tires, swinging on ropes. Just readying myself to defend suburban Dallas,Texas from petty criminals.
But by the time I was twelve, it occurred to me that girls would think I was even stranger than I was if I kept this thing up. So I became fixated, instead, on being a professional baseball player (more socially acceptable yet equally as far fetched).
Finally, in college, having failed at those things, I turned to something maybe even more impractical, writing fiction. I wasn’t very good at it at first. But being a glutton for punishment, I kept at it until it would have me.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
Love conquers all.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Works of fiction—Hemingway’s stories from In Our Time, Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love and Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From and years later One Hundred Years of Solitude, Moby Dick, Light In August, Marilynnn Robinson’s Housekeeping.
Music—I listened to a lot of traditional Texas music and innovative music when I was in Austin in the 80s and early 90s, inspiring stuff mostly made by people roughly my own age. Film—Richard Linklater’s first film, Slacker, which was set in Austin, Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire. Jarmusch’s early films.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
To be honest, I don’t think I had numerous avenues—it’s the rare person who has multiple talents. I grew into a novelist because I fooled myself long enough, incrementally enough, about my abilities, so that my confidence grew proportional to the task. The novel form intimidated me for the longest time—it seemed so unwieldy. I struggled at first because I thought a novel in stories was the same thing, that I could stay in my comfort zone but then I hit a wall. I realized a novel is about rhythms (because we are about rhythms too), and what affects us as readers are the rhythms of interweaving story threads. And the weave gets tighter and tighter and vibrates more and more.
I once heard the Kentucky writer James Still describe, when he was a boy, hearing this wonderful music from a basement window that he thought was Bach but but when he looked through the window, it was coming from a giant mechanical loom. It’s archaic but it still works as metaphor because we think in story threads, through lines. So when I figured out how this great weave works—and could see this overlaying, hear the rhythms of all that coming together in other people’s novels—I was finally able to take what I was doing in the shorter form for a larger cumulative effect, a momentous push, a thrumming rhythm, as in a novel. It was a revelation to me.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
It’s a heartbreaker, I think, this book, See How Small. But I mean this in the best way. It’s about the aftermath of the brutal murder of three teenage girls in an Austin, Texas ice cream shop— the deep sense of loss but also the ways we make emotional sense of that loss, to transend it. How evil acts—atrocities—can strip us of this sense-making if we allow them to. These kinds of random acts are more with us now than ever—for instance, the Newtown massacre two years ago at the school in New York—and hit at the heart of who we are and want to be. My characters struggle against this, try to tell their own stories in the face of it, including the girls themselves, whose stories have been taken from them by the killers and even inadvertently by the community itself, which now only remember them as victims. I should say that See How Small was inspired by an actual murder in 1991 in Austin, Texas that remains unsolved, a crime I’ve been haunted by for many years.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I want them to be changed by it, to feel, a sense of wonder about things, about life, and a sense of terror, too, at times. That all of this together—wonder and terror—is in the world and that’s as it should be, as it’s always been. It’s not a comfort book but I do think it’s a book that celebrates life and its mystery, which is intimately tied to loss and death.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
My favourite living writer is Denis Johnson. If you haven’t read it, I can’t tell you how great a book like Train Dreams is. He gives us so little—the book isn’t much more than a 100 pages—yet the whole world’s inside it. It reaches back, as E.M. Forster said about truly great books.
To link all of my work together as Faulkner tried to do so that they are parts of one great weave. And like every writer worth his or her salt, I’d like my writing to have some kind of half-life. Somewhere in his amazing (and very long) novel 2666, the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano has one of his characters say that we forget sometimes that really great works are not easy, not symmetrical, that they even fight their authors. It’s always the heavyweight bouts that bring back the news from that other world. The writing that readers will to turn to again and again. Moby Dick, say, or A Hundred Years of Solitude. The rest are only sparring.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Well, one of the accidental advantages I had as a young writer was having children early: When I was 25. I had to make all my writerly choices count because there really couldn’t be any backtracking—there was no time for that. So I began to think about how all my work could fit together, how characters, if they were interesting enough, might be brought back in another work, broaden the scope of what I was trying to do. How a sense of place fits into this. How I was always writing out of the same themes—what separates us also draws us together. It only occurred to me later that this is how to create a fictional universe that resonates, make the sum worth more than its parts. This is a writer’s vision and it’s at least as important as talent. Maybe more so.
There are a lot of talented writers out there. But if you know where you are, what you’re working towards, how to fit it together, then no matter what happens around you—the publishing world in flux, personal setbacks—you’re still connected to your life’s work, which for me was trying to make something beautiful and lasting. In other words, don’t chase after the market, “what’s selling,” because that’s totally ephemeral. Ask maybe instead: if someone had a gun to my head, what would I write? The gun to all of our heads is time, of course. And there’s always less of it than you think.
Scott, thank you for playing.
by Scott Blackwood
Virgin Suicides meets Lovely Bones.
It begins one summer evening in a small Texas town. Two men walk into an ice cream shop shortly before it closes. They bind the three teenager girls working behind the counter. They set fire to the shop. They disappear. This horrific, mysterious crime is the subject of Scott Blackwood’s new novel.
Loosely based on the 1991 Yogurt Shop Murders in Austin, Texas, See How Small explores a community’s reactions to the brutal and seemingly random murder of these three girls. It is told through the perspectives of the community’s survivors, witnesses, suspects, and yes, the deceased girls. Among the people we meet is Jack Dewey, the fireman who ran into the burning building and discovered the girls’ bodies, and whose life becomes haunted by the girls’ memory. We see Kate Ulrich, the mother of two murdered girls, who finds that in fighting the community’s need to narrate her life in light of the murders, she’s also losing her connection to the girls’ lives. A suspect in the murders, Michael Greer, now with a daughter of his own, is haunted by his inadvertent participation in it and his brother’s earlier tragic death. And Rosa Heller, an investigative journalist who tries to piece together the mystery by interviewing involved people, becomes lost in the community’s false memories and lies and regrets. Above everything else is the girls’ shared narration as they watch over the community during the five years following their deaths, as they attempt to comfort their town.
See How Small will remind readers of the paradoxical promises of security and belonging, remembering and forgetting, and our collective need to both obscure and name evil. It is a short, powerful novel.
About the Author
Scott Blackwood is the author of three books of fiction, including the forthcoming novel See How Small. Blackwood was a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award recipient and his first novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, set in the Deep Eddy Neighborhood of Austin, Texas, won the AWP Prize for the Novel, Texas Institute of Letters Award for best work of fiction, and was a finalist for the PEN USA Award. His first book was the award-winning story collection, In the Shadows of Our House, published in 2001.