Blackburn’s debut collection, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, won the Prairie Schooner Prize for Fiction and was a finalist for the 2018 PEN/Bingham Award for Debut Fiction. Black Jesus and Other Superheroes is currently a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, to be awarded in June. Blackburn is an assistant professor at California State University, Fresno.
McCollum’s debut collection, The Surprising Place, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction and came out this spring. McCollum has also received a Pushcart Prize and the Plimpton Prize, awarded by The Paris Review. She teaches writing at the College of Charleston.
Malinda McCollum: First of all, congratulations on being named a finalist for the Young Lions award! In your nomination, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes is described as a book that “chronicles ordinary people achieving vivid extrasensory perception while under extreme pain,” and I too was struck by your book’s exploration of suffering—both physical and emotional—as a clarifying force. But your work also complicates the familiar tropes that pain begets wisdom, that being broken down builds you up, that on the other side of darkness you’ll always find light. What draws you to characters who’ve been laid low by loss, neglect, or abuse (self-inflicted or otherwise), and what do you hope readers take away after being immersed in their lives?
Venita Blackburn: Thank you so much for inviting me to talk with you. After finishing your collection I am not at all surprised that we would be drawn to each other’s works and minds. Your book gave me troubling dreams for a week, meaning it was terrific. There are these themes of loss and neglect in my work that we share in common. For me, coping with loss, managing that extreme pressure is the greatest challenge in life. I never really wonder what people will do when things are going well and they have amassed fortunes of wealth and love and respect; that’s like watching a really boring game full of other people’s kids where everyone wins and gets a trophy. When people have almost nothing and still lose more, that’s when it gets interesting. What do we do then, right? That’s a hard game to play.
It becomes even more interesting when the characters playing are difficult to admire. You have one character in particular, Severa, that falls into that category of easy to hate and hard to ignore. My favorites are the ladies. You built these wretched, lost, nearly despicable women, and I love them all! I think the world we know is all too familiar with feminine suffering to the point where it becomes an assumed duty of living. There are spectacular examples of that in The Surprising Place. Did you have an initial aim to critique or highlight the danger and cunning being a woman demands? What is your character development process for them?
By the time I finish something, I’ve usually lost track of where it started, but I do remember what launched my first Severa story. I’d heard somewhere that putting your fist through a window doesn’t injure you—the problems begin when you pull your arm back through broken glass. For some reason, this fascinated me and got me thinking about what kind of person would punch a window, which eventually led to Severa, a teenage girl on a three-day rampage. The death of Severa’s father partly fuels her recklessness, and I think this is something you tackle throughout Black Jesus so brilliantly: how the sudden, violent loss of a parent can send a kid reeling and break her life in two.
Speaking of reeling, your point about the ubiquity of feminine suffering and how it breeds wariness and aggression put my head into spin! Severa does seem to fit that framework. She perceives the world as a menacing place and tries to trick or trash anybody in her radius, to take them down before they can get to her. She thinks if she goes hard enough the world will bend to her will, and in that sense, she reminds me of the 8th grade girls who form a coven in your story “Rites.” These girls all believe something’s wrong with them and decide they need to kill other creatures (bugs, birds, a praying mantis, a little girl) in order to transform themselves into what society wants them to be. I love how your story reveals not only how women punish themselves, but also how internalized misogyny can boomerang and push women to inflict harm upon others.
I also love “Rites” because as dark as its premise, the story yields so much pleasure as it investigates pain. This is true of your whole collection—however tragic the scenarios, your stories are buoyant and funny as hell. The landscapes shimmer, the characters pop, the language crackles and soars. After reading your book, the only comparison I could come up with is Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, one of my all-time favorite collections because of its razor-sharp writing and wild, glorious vision. I’m curious about your influences. What shaped your utterly distinctive style?
I’m glad you appreciate the humor there. Not all audiences recognize the gift we’re given, permission to laugh in the face of horror and the reclamation of power and joy that comes from that. When I first began writing, I did not know these things were possible. Everything was just so serious. And even though I loved language, I had yet to read something stylistically interesting, culturally familiar, and simultaneously funny until later in college. ZZ Packer’s collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere drifted into my orbit somehow, and I was in awe. It was risky but controlled and dared to be irreverent about very tender concepts. Later I found Zadie Smith, and though I think she doesn’t like White Teeth anymore for some reason, I loved it when I read the novel as a young newb. My first creative writing teacher, Aimee Bender, taught me a great deal about teaching. But it wasn’t until years later that I read her collection and was struck by the audacity of magic realism in conjunction with these girl-world narratives. Those were some of my most powerful influences that I felt made me comfortable enough to write what I found entertaining and significant. Of course the literary demi-gods like Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez remain distant figures with work I treasure and admire, but they are far from earth in a way the others aren’t to me. (I also enjoyed Jesus’ Son, by the way.)
I’d love to know your inspirations too. What really strikes me about the work I admire is the risk taking. Certainly there are conventions and devices at work that are well established, but there is a moment or two or twelve in particular pieces that I love where the unpredictable happens. I am notorious for spoiling a movie or tv show (that I’ve never seen) by blurting out all the possible outcomes. Genius work manages to evade all predictability. The Surprising Place is aptly named for just that reason. You pulled off several convincing surprises despite my knowing the most likely outcomes. I did not predict that a drug addict who sold her daughter to support the habit would die by a swarm of yellow jackets at the conclusion. I honestly looked up from the page and said “wow” and meant it sincerely. The language in the moment was so deft and profound that I believed this is how it should end. How do you consciously feel out the close of a story? With that particular one did the ending come first in the writing, as is the case with me, or much later?
As for inspiration, I’m a huge ZZ Packer fan too, and like you, I’m awed by her stories’ wide-ranging emotional tone. I once saw her read “Brownies,” which opens with the killer line about one Brownie troop kicking another troop’s ass, and ZZ had the whole crowd rolling with the way she delivered dialogue and belted out camp songs. But by the end, she (and the crowd) choked up as she read the narrator’s epiphany about the meanness of the world and how it never stops. ZZ’s fiction takes you on a journey, for sure, and I try to leave room for that kind of reach in my own stories by not having an endpoint in mind at the outset. In fact, now that you’ve asked, I’m realizing it’s my endings that probably undergo the most revision. One of my stories was published in a journal years ago, but I wrote a new ending for it before sending out my collection. Then, after the collection was accepted, I wrote a third ending for the story, which is the one that stuck and made it into the final version of my book.
You said you usually start with an ending, and I think there is a sense of destiny in your stories, like there’s a path the characters must traverse, however rocky or twisted. At the same time, your stories always feel spontaneous and unsettling to me, maybe because of their abbreviated length, the breakneck pacing, the slipperiness of time. When I taught your story “Black Jesus,” my students were blown away by how much you packed into a few pages and by how dizzying and illuminating a piece this short can be. So I’ll pass along their question, which was asked with wonder and envy: “How does she do this?” What is your writing process like? And in particular, how do you approach writing a very short short story—what are the virtues and challenges of that form?
I am just so honored that students are reading my work with such interest. That is one thing I never anticipated as part of a writing career (to be taught), which is strange because I’m a teacher of writing as well. I don’t think I align my own work mentally with that of the pieces I use in my classes. I write to dazzle myself first, and it’s just good luck that other people are entertained too.
But the short short form is my favorite, so I’ve had those same questions from your students occur to me but for other writers. One of the most influential short short stories I’ve encountered is “Incarnations of Burned Children,” by David Foster Wallace, because it does pack incredible depth of feeling and circumstance into a very small space; it essentially covers an entire lifetime in two sentences or so at the end of the story after walking through just a minute or so in time for the bulk of the story. Simultaneously the structure of the prose mirrors the kind of panic and eventual dread and solemn resignation experienced by the characters.
For most people, when they encounter stories—in whatever form, from novels to television shows—there is this expectation to experience a close facsimile of life; they are clearly not life, but will resemble our day-to-day perception of time. The short form has this ability to collapse time or expand it in ways that are not at all familiar but really exciting. And we can experiment with language and structure to create emotional resonance. I hear from my own students who submit incomplete work that they ran out of time, or that they could not fit the entire story within the designated word count, which of course to a flash fiction writer sounds like all kinds of foolishness. Then I remember immediately that this is how they’ve been trained to think of stories. My usual response to those students is to have them write the ending first. Then I ask them to write their way to that inevitable point. If they are beyond the word count afterwards, they have to cut the fluff. I wrote my thesis as an MFA, which was hundreds of pages long, and eventually cut it down to a four-page story by just highlighting my favorite passages or sentences and combining multiple characters into single ones. The short story is really about efficiency and maybe a little grace.
We kicked off by talking about pain, and with “Incarnations of Burned Children” we’re coming back to it. For me, Wallace’s story is almost unbearable to read because of how close he brings us to the immediate aftermath of a child being scalded by boiling water. Most of the story is this relentless, moment-by-moment detailing of action, emotion, and sensation, but then, as you point out, there’s a move Wallace makes at the end, in which time is disrupted and we shift into a more cosmic perspective. I think it’s that “little grace” you spoke of, this flash of transcendence, as the story spirals onto another plane and, for a moment, hangs in the air. I love short stories—like Wallace’s and like yours in Black Jesus and Other Superheroes—that whirl and whirl and then suddenly stop, so we’re left wobbly, buzzing, stunned.
I love that too. Your endings definitely leave me buzzed. It has been great shop-talking with you, Malinda! You are truly brilliant and thoughtful and enlightened.