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Wine and Bellow: An Interview with Charles Blackstone

By (December 1, 2013) No Comment

Charles Blackstone has just published his second novel, Vintage Attraction, and is the managing editor of one of the oldest and most established literary blogs, Bookslut. Kevin Frazier, a columnist and reviewer for Bookslut, talks to Blackstone about writing, the Chicago literary scene, Saul Bellow, and the future of online literary coverage.

Vintage Attraction is your second novel. What’s it about, and how would you compare it to your first novel, The Week You Weren’t Here?

9781605984827I jokingly came up with a line the other night that I think sums up Vintage Attraction and its protagonist, Peter Hapworth, pretty well: “a disillusioned academic who’s looking for love and inspiration in all the wrong glasses.” Good, right? If not, blame my insomnia. So the novel begins when Hapworth discovers a local celebrity on TV one night and decides he needs to meet her. He sends her an email, which she finds charming, and they end up on a date. Five months later, they’re married and on a trip to Greece for wine industry people to tour the vineyards and meet the winemakers, sponsored by the government. On this trip, Hapworth and Izzy rediscover themselves and recapture their connection, which, by this point in the story, has spilled a little.

Hunter Flanagan from The Week You Weren’t Here is also trying to come to terms with his academic background (though he’s still very mired in the literary theory and campus life that Hapworth has renounced) and, of course, looking for love in a clumsy way. But is there any way other than clumsy if you’re human? The most essential difference between them, I think, is their ages. They’re fourteen years apart. (They actually share the same birthday: March 21.) Though perhaps Hunter is more mature (in some ways) at 24 than Hapworth is at 37 and 38 (in some ways), Hapworth is definitely living a more adult-like life, especially after he and Izzy get together. And because of this, the stories that result are much different. Hunter’s is a parochial, internal sort of existence, and so the narrative relies a lot less on plot so that it can concentrate on that internal existence. Not to mention, when you’re a character who’s a 24-year-old college student who lives at home with his mother, you don’t have a lot of plot going on in your life. The stakes, as they say, are naturally lower. The world that Peter finds himself in is a very external, public one. Seeking out Izzy in the first place has consequences. As a result, Vintage Attraction feels to me driven by plot in a way very unlike how The Week You Weren’t Here is.

Hunter in The Week You Weren’t Here doesn’t see how badly he mistreats the women around him. The writing runs very close to his thoughts without ever pulling away to let us know you disagree or feel superior to him. How would you compare this to the style in Vintage Attraction, which strikes me as more playful and self-critical than it might at first appear?

9780972336345I think the contrast also has a lot to do with the maturity of the protagonists. Hapworth can be a little more self-critical because he has a better understanding of who he is and what he’s doing. What the two narratives have in common, though, is their limited points of view (Hunter in third person limited omniscient and Hapworth in first person). It’s always been how I’ve written. Except for a novel I was working on a decade ago (that ended up in a drawer), I’ve never worked with more than one point-of-view character at a time in a book-length work. And I’ve always liked reading these sorts of books. I think it’s a very exciting challenge to write and read only one point of view. But I guess it can frustrate a reader who’s looking, to borrow a trope from TV, for the laugh track to tell him when something’s funny and that he should laugh now. I’ve always been drawn to limited points-of-view because I write realism. Multiple points of view seem like so much artifice to me. We never, truly, have access to more than one consciousness, no matter what we think we know or understand. And omniscience or authorial intrusion has no place in realistic fiction. It’s kind of the antithesis of literature, which is to be a particularized, descriptive medium (as opposed to philosophy or religion, which is universalized and prescriptive). In real life, we don’t get someone to step into a scene and tell us what to think about it, or affirm how we’ve reacted to it, so why should reading a novel be any different? When you’re working in a limited omniscient point-of-view with only one point-of-view character, there’s never going to be that kind of pulling away to acknowledge the ironic distance between the character and the reader that you’d maybe get with a secondary point-of-view character or an omniscient narrator (or even just another disapproving character-slash-author stand-in). I think, too, there is a lot more humor and playfulness under the surface in Vintage Attraction. This has to do with the story. Hunter Flanagan took himself very seriously in The Week You Weren’t Here and Peter Hapworth doesn’t. But the effect of this is possibly harder to access, since there’s no Cliff’s Notes yet. I like a book that stands up to rereading. Not giving everything away on the first read (as much as that troubles less rigorous readers) feels like a successful novel to me.

Sabra Embury, reviewing the novel for the Los Angeles Review of Books, wrote: “One of the sumptuous thrills of Vintage Attraction is its description of wine.” Why did you want to write a novel about the world of wine professionals?

I thought it was very interesting how little wine was to be found in fiction. The majority of the books out there that get into technical aspects of wine are journalism. There are some winemaker memoirs. But these may get too technical. And there are many, many chef memoirs and “waiter rants,” and these may give us some confidential glimpses of restaurant kitchen behind-the-scenes, but here, too, also seemed to be terrain that could be a lot more complex and interesting if done in fiction. The novels about wine are usually genre mysteries or romances, which is fine, but they’re set in the predictable regions like Napa and Bordeaux, and that could be okay, too, but they offer only a view of things from a consumer’s perspective. Toni Morrison said if you can’t find the book you want to read, you have to write it, and so I think you could say that’s what inspired me to do this.

And you have a personal connection to wine professionals through your wife, don’t you?

I wouldn’t have had this access otherwise. Out of two hundred or so master sommeliers in the world, there aren’t many spouses. And I’m pretty sure I’m the only novelist among them. I had access to their world and to their lives—in a way no journalist could witness—that I think informs this book in a unique way. Not to mention that a lot of the professionals are now friends. A number of them served as unofficial technical advisors (and early readers) during the years of drafting.

In 2012 and 2013 you were picked as one of Chicago’s influential Lit 50 by Newcity Lit. What’s your connection to Chicago?

blackstonecI was born and grew up in Chicago and have lived here my entire life (save a couple of years in Boulder, Colorado for grad school). The Midwest kind of gets lost sometimes. So many East Coasters have been to California but never here. When I met Coloradans in my grad program, some of them referred to Chicago (a place they’d never been but had heard of) as “The East Coast,” which I thought was funny. My parents are both from New Jersey, so I think I’m not as much of a Midwesterner as some other people I know who come from here, and I think that gives me valuable perspective. Underneath the iconic clichés of deep-dish pizza and sports fans, there’s a very vibrant literary and academic culture here. I think growing up with three independent bookstores on my street (one used, one antiquarian, one new) had something to do with my ending up obsessed with books. Briefly, Saul Bellow lived half a block away from me. I think our overlap on Dorchester Avenue was when I was twelve. That probably means nothing, but I like to think it’s significant. And that was also the time I began writing seriously.

How do you see the literary work being done in Chicago right now, and can you compare it to how you see what’s going on nationally and abroad?

There’s a lot of publishing going on here, and it’s been getting a lot of attention. A couple of the indie presses have been signed to very powerful distributors, which means that the books they publish won’t just be available in Chicago and the States, but, potentially, everywhere. And the profusion of recent independent publishing here—from micro press chapbooks to full-length fiction and nonfiction, graphic novels, art books, literary journals—in spite of the so-called death of literature feels very European in sensibility. In Chicago, there are independents that have been in business for thirty years or longer and a number of university presses, all of which are putting out major scholarly texts and new and reissued fiction, as well as a lot of important work in translation. This makes me think of Chicago as being as significant of a US publishing city as New York.

You mentioned Bellow. Do you like his work? Are there any of his novels that are especially important to you?

I do like his work. There’s such an interesting progression from Dangling Man, when he was at the beginning of his career, to Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift, when he was a big literary figure writing big books, to late-career Ravelstein, a much quieter book—elegant, you might say, if it were a wine—but no less powerful. He wrote autobiographically. He wrote freely. He made characters out of people he knew and did so unapologetically (though, in his Letters—also a Bellow novel in its own right—he does apologize periodically to those people he turned into prose, but you can tell he didn’t really feel guilty for doing it). Such a powerful voice, both on the page and off. A friend of mine from Hyde Park has a copy of Humboldt’s Gift that Bellow signed for her mother. I was having wine at the friend’s apartment the other night, and the book was on a windowsill not far from where I was sitting, and even from there, I could feel the power of the ideas, of the sentences, of the intelligence the book contains, radiating.

What writers were important to you when you were growing up?

I wasn’t that interested in books as a very young child, because (I later found out) I didn’t have a mind for fantasy and adventure and the other genres that dominated the kids’ market. I liked the idea of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, but only in terms of structure. It wasn’t until I discovered realism in high school that I began to read. I was introduced to Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Walker and, of course, J.D. Salinger in my freshman year English class. Obviously that was a very powerful and aesthetic-defining syllabus for me. But outside of school, I began to read the contemporary American fiction from the decade prior, books by Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz. The so-called brat packers. These, too, informed my early work in a significant way. As the years went on, I had to unlearn some of the things I learned from those writers’ early books. But they too were unlearning, or relearning, as they continued to publish, and their subsequent books continued to inform my work as I got older.

Are there any current novelists you particularly enjoy?

I’ve spent a lot of the year talking about Alissa Nutting, and her tour-de-Florida-force, Tampa. I was excited to see a new Donna Tartt book (our books came out on the same day) and find her very interesting and inspiring. I’m looking forward to Gina Frangello’s new novel, which I can tell from a sentence that I’m going to love. And she’s a good friend. Ned Vizzini, Ben Schrank, and Austin Grossman are also novelists whose work I admire very much and people whom I can call good friends.

You’re the managing editor of Bookslut. How did you get involved with that?

I met Jessa Crispin, the founder and editor-in-chief, ten years ago, when my first novel was just out in its first (UK) edition. She had read the book and really liked it, and so we met and had some drinks and talked about books. We continued to talk about books (and do a lot of drinking together) for the next eight years or so. During this time, she moved to Berlin, and so created a managing editor position in order that the virtual office would have a domestic base. The position became vacant two years ago, and I stumbled into it. I think she and I really work well together. And we have a division of labor that makes sense. We do the work that speaks to our (different) strengths. I’m responsible for much of the arranging with publicists about review copies and things for titles we want to review, I copyedit, I hire new contributors and columnists and interns (and we’re always looking for more of the above, if anyone reading wants to email me), and when Jessa’s in town, I make sure her wine glass is never empty and that we’re never more than a quarter mile away from oysters. Bookslut for me is a very busy job part of each day and especially in the days before an issue goes online for the month. I think it’s worth it, because I think we’re doing good work. I’m always touched to hear how much the publication means to someone, whether a reader or a publicist or an author whose dream for her new book is for Bookslut to review it.

What are Bookslut’s upcoming plans, and how do you see the online literary world developing in the future?

We began a sister publication, Spolia, last spring, and it continues to thrive. It’s a subscription-based digital magazine of new fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and visual art. Each issue has a different theme. The contributors are exciting emerging and established voices from across the world. In this way, we’re able to do a kind of publishing that we hadn’t done before, and that’s an exciting opportunity. I hope to see more print publications putting out digital editions of their journals and magazines. Beyond the possibilities for the publications themselves, and the worldwide reach, I feel like much of what’s vital in the business of publishing today is thanks to the Internet. I have so many people I consider colleagues and friends at presses everywhere. We email each other all the time, about work, obviously, but also about what’s going on with me, with my book, the book tour, the pug. I think about these people often, even when we’re not corresponding. And then I remember I’ve only met a fraction of these people in person. But it never feels that way.

Kevin Frazier is an American writer and novelist. His writing was nominated for the 2011 Kapuscinski Award for literary reportage, and he was a finalist for the 2013 Lumilapio Prize for investigative journalism.