The Happy Future: Author Vanessa Blakeslee
Vanessa Blakeslee probably knows more than you do. Her most recent book of stories, Perfect Conditions, includes stories set in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, and on a boat many miles from land. Each story demonstrates a depth of knowledge about its topics and setting that can only be obtained through life experience, or meticulous research. Yet the stories also explore the humanity of their characters as thoroughly as Raymond Carver might.
I was curious about Blakeslee’s inspirations, and her stance; her stories are crisp and careful, leaving a kind of professional remove between author and subject. What did she really think about “preppers,” climate change, her own characters? I did my best to find out.
Let me get this out of the way: what’s the deal with surfing? You clearly know a lot about it.
And yet, I have never surfed!
What?! Three of the stories are about surfing! You know all the lingo!
To me, writing fiction is a way of inhabiting other lives, to experience what I’ll never have the chance to do in our brief, precious time on Earth. Surfing is something I feel a magnetic pull toward, but the ocean terrifies me. I also am terribly near-sighted, and can’t cope going without glasses or contacts, or even trying to wear goggles at the beach; sand and saltwater really bother me. So, forget it – I’ll never surf, and that’s fine. But I’ve spent time in quite a few places that are famous for surfing, and to write the stories, “Perfect Conditions,” “Jesus Surfs,” and “Splitting the Peak,” I just researched to get the facts correct. Surfing also is rife with metaphor, which makes the subject a great fit for fiction. There’s beauty, danger, man vs. himself, man vs. nature, inherently in play. That said, I am fairly sure I’ve exhausted my impulse to write surfing-centered stories, so I doubt you’ll see any more of them from me in the future.
Consider my mind blown. Do you think of yourself primarily as a short story writer? This is your second collection in five years.
I love to work in and feel comfortable with many different forms: the poignant, compact quality of short fiction, and the larger canvas of a novel, where you can weave patterns and work with a larger cast of characters. This month I went on an essay writing-binge, ranging from personal to journalistic. But in terms of the stories in Perfect Conditions, I didn’t write those overnight. Many of them were in different stages of revision for years; some hadn’t fit with the stories in my first collection, Train Shots, which came out in 2014.
Why are your stories set in far-flung locations so often?
I’ve had the good fortune of having traveled to many of the locations that I’ve written about, from Australia to Bali to Hawaii, and I spent nearly a year living in Costa Rica. During those travels I had some formative experiences that definitely stoked the fictional fire. But there are also dramatic and technical reasons for my choosing remote destinations. The ancient Greek playwrights often set their plays in foreign lands, due to the widely held belief that audiences are more likely to believe stories and “lessons” when those are set afar, rather than in the familiars of home. I think travel itself is very much a driver of stories, and has been from the beginning – “someone goes on a journey.”
Technically, sometimes when a story has felt like it’s “stalling out,” or not coming together quite right in the drafting process, I’ve found changing the narrative point-of-view or the setting can provide the “shake up” needed, and the story then falls into place. Perfect Conditions is written for primarily an American audience, and I think we may see ourselves differently, or more clearly, when characters are “fish out of water,” so to speak.
Tense, hopeless future dystopias open and close the collection. What led your interests in that direction? Do you want to write any more in this line?
Researching the sobering facts about humanity’s predicament at this point in history has driven this collection, as well as the novel that came before, Juventud. For the latter, I did heavy research into neoliberal economic policy, paramilitary and guerilla movements, and US government involvement in Colombia. Shortly thereafter, I found myself asking why things seemed to be coming apart at the seams everywhere – where was the happy future we’d all been shown at EPCOT and on Star Trek? I educated myself on peak oil, peak resources, ocean acidification, freshwater supply, climate change, etc., with the goal of getting a clearer picture of what the near-term future is going to look like. The answer is that if you think what you’re seeing on the mainstream media is frightening, I can assure you the reporters are barely scraping the surface of how dire our predicament really is. As for “tech solutions,” much is more fantasy than reality and doesn’t hold up when you press the facts.
Read our review of Vanessa Blakeslee's Perfect Conditions.
What to do when the facts are so grim? I found myself on a “grief journey,” if you will, one that was difficult but which I’m profoundly grateful for. When I started writing again, I did so from the intention to tell stories that are rooted in the facts – because humanity has never been where we are going, in these next few years. We’re going to need pragmatic, heartfelt stories to help us navigate the collapse ahead, not Hollywood-type fantasies. Stories about love, grief, forgiveness, grace, and courage.
Notice I didn’t say, “hope,” because what is unfolding before us as the biosphere collapses – not just the polar ice and the jet streams, but the Sixth Mass Extinction of wildlife—is devoid of hope. So yes, I expect any further fiction that I’ll be writing will be in this vein. I’m called to do it.
One of your stories, “The Perfect Pantry,” is about a woman who gets so terrified by this collapse that she starts taking advice from the concrete bunker crowd. I adored this story; where did it come from?
Ah, “The Perfect Pantry” was born from a confluence of factors. As I was digging into data about our quickly diminishing resources and unravelling biosphere, I went through a minor “prepping” phase, which, after shoring up our hurricane supplies and stocking the pantry, ended – because how can you really prepare for the collapse of civilization? But, meanwhile, I’d gotten to know all the “prepper sites” out there. Then, while visiting a friend from New York City, who runs in some high society circles, she mentioned that a hedge fund manager she knew was getting ready to move his family to a compound in New Zealand. He had given her survivalist manuals and was urging her to prepare. That was a couple of years ago; now we’re seeing a lot of articles about the super-rich and their bunkers and stockpiles. They’ve been quietly preparing for a number of years.
In conversation we raised the question of what if she, our friend, had done this – how would a Martha Stewart-type woman become a prepper? The premise percolated for a while, and I finally wrote the story in large part to process my own catharsis – to release anxiety over what we can’t control. For the protagonist, I made her emotional turmoil run deeper. She’s unmoored following a sudden divorce, and so even more vulnerable to the information she stumbles across. The twist at the end arose naturally while I was writing and felt inevitable.
Overall, I’m delighted with how that story turned out because I had a precise mood and vision in how I saw the character and her progression unfolding in my head.
Did you have political or allegorical elements in mind for either “Stand by to Disembark,” or “Jesus Surfs”?
I suppose “Stand by to Disembark” is about how we’re very much trapped in the industrial civilization we’re born into – as individuals we have little freedom to find alternatives. We’ve got to bring home a paycheck. The protagonist is struggling to do that but hold the company to their end of the bargain. We see how other characters, such as Crazy Paul, have been chewed up and spit out by the military-industrial complex, and land there – the alternative is just another war, or prison. And of course, they’re working on a commercial fishing vessel, so there’s a subtle nod to the predicament we’re in of overfishing and collapsing fish stocks. Philip K. Dick in his Exegesis refers to the Industrial Civilization we’ve built as the Black Iron Prison, and to me that’s very fitting – we’re all stuck, whatever we do, wherever we go, working for this Black Iron Prison.
Unless, maybe, you’re Eduardo or the Rasta Jesus in “Jesus Surfs.” Here’s a set of characters who have done the best they could to drop out, along with many of the other inhabitants of Santa Teresa, on the remote tip of the Nicoya Peninsula off the western coast of Costa Rica. This story explores the question of an End Times savior.
Many cultures, not just Christianity, have stories and myths of savior figures coming to rescue a small group of elect when the world ends. But what if that savior appears in an unlikely way? What if the savior’s powers are limited, or the way to bring peace and redemption to this hopeless world is to embody peaceable action – in this case, by surfing and living simply? What if, all along, that was all humanity ever needed, to learn how to live cooperatively and simply, without greed and unkindness?
There’s a metaphor or allegory there. Maybe even a lesson.
Tell me about the class conflict present in “Exalted Warrior” and “Sustainable Practices.” Have and have-not is a matter of life and death in those stories.
Economic inequality is something that has long bothered me and driven my fiction. Throughout my work, I seek to explore how each class is struggling to cope with wealth inequality – the lower or working classes, the middle class, and the rich. There is pain, isolation, feelings of shame, worthlessness, anger, etc., across the entire class spectrum. This isn’t something I tend to be too conscious of when I sit down to write; I guess questions of socioeconomic justice are so ingrained in my observations that those themes just appear. I’m sure they will continue to pervade whatever fiction I may yet write.
In “Exalted Warrior,” especially, you see the remnants of a fallen middle class with the protagonist and the former art professor who is painting her for the black market; what’s interesting is that story is that the wealthy are “off stage” but very much a force to be reckoned with. That story appeared out of a writing exercise, and I feel it’s a fitting, if eerie, end to the collection.
It’s a terrifying end to the collection. What's your stance on likable/unlikable characters? I felt some useful tension in the stories between decent people and their choices, sometimes made out of desperation.
Human beings are a mixed bag of personality traits, and I do my best to observe my characters as they act, and capture what they do, without judgment. I suppose I like most of my characters. Even those I find annoying, like Nina in “Sustainable Practices,” I can find some compassion for – she’s learning how much she’s fallen for feel-good marketing, and how big our industrialized ecological footprint really is, especially in more vulnerable places such as Tahiti. Sebastian exhibits some fairly repugnant behavior in “Perfect Conditions,” but I can forgive him, too – by the story’s end, we glimpse the pain he’s harboring, and why he’s lashing out.
Those who are in deep crisis and on the brink of breakdown are often acting their worst, and this behavior is often very unlikeable and unwelcome. But that crisis point is where story lives. I think it’s important to realize in characters, as with people, this can mean those individuals are thirty seconds from redemption.
I noted that you live in Florida. There's a mini-trend in women writing about Florida right now: Karen Russell, Lauren Groff, Alissa Nutting, others. Is Florida a good place to write about? For women especially?
Florida, with all of its juxtapositions and contradictions, provides plenty of material to write about for anyone, and to my knowledge there are just as many men writing about Florida right now as women. For those of us who know Florida, whether raised here or having spent some length of time here, the unique ecology and history, forever brutal and bizarre, must make an impression that’s not easy to shake. The state certainly has a long history of female defenders of the environment, which is interesting, although I’m not sure the writers you’ve mentioned could be described as such. Yet, the exploration of landscape is there, certainly by Russell and Groff.
For the United States, Florida has been very much the “last frontier,” in terms of development and booming population, and has proven to be a “canary in the coal mine,” much like California, regarding elections, ecological disasters, and other harbingers of neoliberal capitalism run amok. Which may be why there’s so much fixation upon Florida.
What are you working on now?
I started a new novel draft earlier this year, propelled from the dramatic question: what does the collapse of Florida look like, and where will displaced refugees go? The working title is Winterland. If all goes as planned, this will be my first work of speculative literary fiction, very different from Juventud. I’ve also been writing essays, as I mentioned earlier, both on the craft of writing and ecological collapse.
Ha! Despite the dire facts and predicaments that I work from, I’m really quite a joy-filled person. Winterland will be as much an adventure story as a dystopia – gotta have the silver linings in there.
header image courtesy vanessa blakeslee