Tuesday, March 11, 2014

LitOrlando: An Interview with Author Vanessa Blakeslee

When it's not in reference to food, the word "local" can sometimes be a pejorative. Not so for Orlando's literary community, which grows and thrives by the day. One organization invested in this growth is Burrow Press, whose quarterly reading series, Functionally Literate, strives to be a literary hub for Central Florida, pairing the best writers in the area with talent from all over the globe. But this March, Functionally Literate is shifting gears to celebrate Orlando writers exclusively. One of them is Vanessa Blakeslee, whose debut story collection Train Shots, which came out last week, tells haunting stories of loss, love and death.

How long have you lived in the Orlando area, and how has the writing scene changed in that time?

I moved to Winter Park in 1997, and since then the literary scene in Orlando has really taken off. We have our longstanding traditions, like the annual Winter with the Writers festival at Rollins College, which brings in A-list poets and writers every February.

Over the past five years, however, I’ve noticed a renewed energy and enthusiasm within the writing community. UCF now offers the MFA in Writing, plus a low-residency MFA is underway at the University of Tampa. The Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project hosts a new writer every three months; those residents come from every corner of the globe and bring new lifeblood.

The setting of Orlando looms in the background of some of the stories in your new collection, Train Shots. An outside reader might mistake a story's setting for a generic place in some place called Winter Park, whereas an Orlando reader might easily recognize, for example, the bar in the title story to be PR's Mexican Restaurant on Fairbanks.

PR’s was an obvious choice of setting, since I worked there for five years—a colorful place in its own right, I wasn’t surprised when the restaurant worked into my imagination. But the choice to have the grieving train engineer end up there in the title story had more to do with the conflict. I didn’t say to myself, let’s sit down and write a story that takes place at PR’s. But when you have a situation with a train engineer struggling with a suicide that’s just happened on his tracks, where else should he end up but a restaurant with young, pretty waitresses and a train-themed shot special? It wouldn’t make sense for him to wander into a fictionalized 310 or Prato; doing so wouldn’t push along the conflict or deepen the theme. So that’s what determines how I pinpoint the locations I use in my fiction.

What about a story like "The Lung," where the setting is Central Florida, but never officially named?

“The Lung” could have taken place anywhere. But since it’s a story about smoking, disease and the impermanence of nature, I set it in Florida during a summer of raging wildfires. Likewise, I chose for the protagonist to work in the field of environmental protection and have a green thumb. I crafted the setting to create a certain desired effect.

The protagonist of "The Lung" also happens to have only one lung, but refuses to quit smoking.

I suppose a premise has to contain a certain peculiarity for me to set it in Florida—a juxtaposition of the inherent natural beauty abundant in this state, as well as an extreme, perhaps comically absurd, element of the grotesque—one might call it the New Southern Gothic, or even Florida Gothic, who knows?

What if you were to reverse your methods, and start a story with an Orlando setting as the premise, building the characters and conflict around it? Where in town would you set the story, and why?

I have a story in the early stages that’s set in a fictionalized strip club based on Club Juana, back when they were running the “MacBeth in the MacBuff” act to get past the Seminole County anti-nudity ordinance. The fictionalized venue I’ve dubbed, fittingly, “Hocus Pocus.” The narrative isn’t conventional in terms of structure; the jury’s still out on whether I can pull it off. But yes, that would be a prime example of an Orlando story where place would operate more as its own character.

Speaking of bringing Orlando settings to the fore, you recently wrote some poems inspired by your Lynx bus ride for the TrIP Project. Did your trip change your perspective of the city?

Along with filmmaker Woodruff Laputka, I rode the Lynx Route 40 bus from the downtown terminal all the way to Universal CityWalk, then on the way back stopped at the Mall at Millennia and the Winnie Palmer Hospital. Afterward I wrote three poems, none of which would have been conceived if not for the immersion assignment.

Although the experience merely spanned a 12-hour day, it forever changed my view of Orlando—the realization that the Orlando I navigate by car and know intimately is drastically different than the city as experienced by those who traverse it by bus.

In reality there are multiple layers of Orlando, and what was remarkable that day was how we inhabited and then crossed different socioeconomic realities. In the morning commute we rode with blue-collar workers, some getting off night shifts, and others in fast-food uniforms heading in to work. We arrived at CityWalk at 8:00am, in time to face the sea of tourists flooding the gates as the park opened—people for whom Orlando remains pure fantasy, constructed entertainment. From there we went to the Mall at Millennia; before we even crossed the parking lot we found ourselves awash in shiny luxury—SUVs and designer-bag toting shoppers, and inside, another fantasyland of pristine, material comforts.

Ultimately, the TrIP project enhanced my vision of Orlando as a dystopia brimming with haves and have-nots, one that’s not taking place in some far off-future, but is very much the here and now. I’m itching to write a dystopic novel set in Central Florida; the difference will be those class divides will become even more pronounced in the decades to come.

Why do you think there's not more literary fiction set in Orlando?

I think writers who aren’t from here or aren’t familiar with Orlando would find it baffling, perhaps even intimidating, on where to begin. Because an intelligent writer would suspect that the actual city is a world apart from Disney and the theme parks, but might find uncovering those particularities of “the real Orlando” a challenge. The area has grown so rapidly that understanding how the various neighborhoods have come to evolve, their histories, and how they are currently in flux would be a really tough task for an outsider to glean from say, the Internet.

Today fiction writers can grab essential facts for stories set out of their ken off Wikipedia, travel forums, Google Earth and the like. But Central Florida has changed and continues to grow so rapidly, the collision of antithetical elements between the old Florida and the new would be more slippery to grasp from an outside perspective, I suspect.

What are some ways readers (non-writers) can engage with Orlando's literary community?

The Orlando area teems with opportunities for readers to discover what the literary scene has to offer. Most exciting is the newly formed Bookmark It run by Kim Britt at the East End Market. There you can purchase titles from central Florida authors on a variety of topics, plus join the book club which features local authors as guests. There’s even a book club for teens. Literary buffs should also check out Parcels, the reading series run by the UCF MFA Program which features grad students reading from work-in-progress; I’m very much a fan of supporting young talent that’s up-and-coming. Beyond that, there are readings and book release parties happening year-round, hosted by the area colleges, libraries, and organizations like Burrow Press. Almost all of these events are free and open to the public.

What would you tell an Orlandoan who has never been to a literary reading, but is curious about going to one?

I would advise them to pick one of the more notable, quarterly events that showcase a mix of local and out-of-town talent—like Functionally Literate, an event at the Kerouac House or ACA. The quality of such events is high and a first-timer could quickly glean what we have going on in terms of local luminaries as well as the high caliber of writers who come through Orlando. Peruse the weekly event listings during the school year and you’ll discover the calendar packed with literary events—so many, you’ll often find yourself missing out.

Vanessa Blakeslee was raised in northeastern Pennsylvania and earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, PANK, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, and the Ragdale Foundation. In 2013 she received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.

Interview by Ryan Rivas, Publisher at Burrow Press. His fiction has appeared in Annalemma, Prick of the Spindle, Paper Darts, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, and elsewhere.

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