Lucy Jane Bledsoe is the winner of the 2012 Saturday Evening Post short fiction contest, and a recent winner of the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize, as well as the Sherwood Anderson Prize for Fiction and a California Arts Council Fellowship. Her most recent novel, The Big Bang Symphony, was a finalist for four awards. Her newest novel, A Thin Bright Line will be released in the autumn of 2016. Find her on Twitter @LucyBledsoe. Content Editor Alexandra Reynolds speaks with Lucy below.
It’s been almost three years since we published “Life Drawing” in the Roanoke Review. What have you been working on since then?
I’m very pleased to say that my agent just sold my new novel. Based on the true story of my aunt and namesake, A THIN BRIGHT LINE is a novel of Cold War intrigue, the birth of climate change research, and the foment of 20th century queer culture. I’ve also just finished a tween novel, FERAL, which I hope my agent thinks is ready to go. Finally, I’m working on some new short fiction.
Why did you decide to be a writer?
I announced I was going to be a fiction writer when I was very young, like pretty much when I started reading. I spent a lot of my youth lost in my imagination and this scared me. I wondered why my mind was always zooming off into made up stories. Thankfully, I figured out early that this pleasurable activity could be a career.
Of course the adults in my life didn’t agree. Trying to protect me from an unstable and risky life, they tried to steer me away from being a writer. It didn’t work. I never wanted to do anything else.
Today I keep deciding to be a writer because I think the stories we tell ourselves, as a culture, are hugely important. It’s how we understand who we are, as a society and as a species. I want to be a part of that conversation. Besides, I’m deeply interested in people, obsessed with trying to understand what makes us do and say the things we do and say.
You’ve traveled to Antarctica three times, twice with a fellowship from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artist and Writers Program. What can you tell us about those experiences? How have your travels impacted your writing life?
Writing about Antarctica is so difficult because the experiences of being there – the beauty, the physical challenges, the community of people – are so extreme and intense. This was the biggest challenge in writing my Antarctic novel, THE BIG BANG SYMPHONY. I wanted to be true to that intensity without writing purple prose or making my characters overly dramatic.
Travel is similar in many ways to writing. It’s a kind of exploration. It’s also a way to see life and people in new ways. I love to travel because it jars me out of my assumptions. The bigger the cultural differences the better. It’s hugely refreshing to realize that one’s one worldview is tiny.
Being in Antarctica for several months, a couple of times, changed me profoundly. The insights there are mostly on a biological level. We are this flawed, fragile, vulnerable species on a gorgeous planet. It’s both humbling and awe-inspiring.
What skills and ideas do you try to impart to students in your writing workshops?
There are so many! I love Ernest Gaines’ advice on how to become a writer. He says there are six steps: read, read, read, write, write, write. I think reading deeply and widely is the best possible teacher for writing students. Then just doing the writing. Over and over and over again, for hours and days on end. Becoming a writer is at least 50% hard work (as opposed to talent and luck, which of course are also factors).
I encourage students to remember than human beings are simply another species of animal. We receive all of our worldly information from the five senses. Willa Cather says all five senses should be represented on every page – a bit difficult with taste, but her point is a good one. The senses are the way we understand our environment and landscape, whether urban, suburban, or wild. And so often physical needs (food, sex, sleep) are the catalysts for characters’ passions and actions. Writers, especially beginning ones, tend to forget this and get too heady in trying to understand character motivation.
Characters are the heart of all fiction. They make or break a story. I try to teach students how to create realistic ones. How to avoid stereotype. How to hook readers with people they want to spend a few minutes or hours with.
In the end, it all comes down to authenticity. The skills to tell a story well are guided by the writer’s honest intimacy with her or his story.
What moment are you most proud of in your writing career?
Gosh. That’s a hard question. I suspect the answer doesn’t have anything to do with an award or publication. In fact, it’s not a moment. What I’m most proud of in my writing career is that I’ve stayed true to my vision and voice and the stories I want to tell. I don’t necessarily tell them well, but I rarely waver from trying.
I found “Life Drawing” to be a story about voice, vision, and perspective. Can you tell us about your inspirations for the narrative? Why did you decide to tell the story from Blair’s perspective?
One part of storytelling that I love is diving into the minds of others – and I mean “others” in its deepest sense. I love to look at people who make no sense to me and try to understand who they are, what makes them say the things they say and do the things they do. Most of all, I want to find their hearts and if I explore a character long enough, I do. Writing fiction is, at its best, an act of empathy.
I’ve written quite a few stories about the Christian right, trying to understand how these people can somehow espouse such unchristian sentiments. What I wanted to do in “Life Drawing” is find a way inside Blair’s head, a way to both understand her and also to shake up her assumptions. In real life, that’s a very difficult thing to do. People are very committed to their belief systems. But young people are often more open to seeing and listening. I wanted to show a girl, Blair, at that moment of doubt, which in this story doesn’t come until the very end, and even then it’s only hinted at.
In “Life Drawing,” Blair struggles with truth in terms of the way she views the world around her, though she thinks she’s got everything figured out. You write, “Blair saw what had attracted her to Charles all along: he liked the truth, too.” Do you aim to communicate certain truths in your fiction? If so, which are most important to you?
This is a big question! And a very good one. Of course there is no one truth. That’s why I like the word authenticity. An authentic person is true to his or her particular truth. Authenticity is a hard thing to define but we all know it when we see it. In this story, Blair is realizing the difference between an assumed truth and an examined truth. She’s attracted to Charles’ passion and commitment to living honestly – to the extent he draws his wife’s dying body. She gets to a point where it’s pretty hard to deny that he’s a good person, living well. That he might know more than she knows about truth.
Looking forward, where would you like to travel next? What sort of writing do you think you’ll be doing 2016?
I’m dying to go to Iceland and/or Greenland, and I’m thinking of going in the winter so I can see the northern lights. I’ve seen them in Alaska, and they’re crazy magical. We’ll see if I can put that trip together.
There is so much I want to write. I’d love to publish my collection of short fiction. I have an idea for a new novel that I’d like to start soon. It takes place in rural Oregon, involves basketball, and some of the themes in “Life Drawing.”