Interview with Award Winning Author Vanessa Blakeslee



What made you want to be a writer?

I’ve always been a story junkie, from when I was in elementary school and hooked on the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Wizard of Oz, Heidi, and so forth. To me there’s nothing more exhilarating than a narrative that blows your mind, shoots tingles down your spine and invades your dreams at night. For me, few other experiences come close to it other than traveling in an exotic country, and if you think about that, fiction is its own other country—invented worlds, time periods, all brought to life imaginatively, through the senses. Storytelling is the closest we come to time-travel or body-snatching; no other artistic medium, including film, is capable of that. Although I’m curious where virtual reality and gaming might go in the coming decades; still, like movies, that’s a world supplied for you on a screen, somebody else’s illustrations of what a story’s setting and characters look like. Fiction offers a unique, democratic collaboration between author and reader.


How long have you been pursuing a writing career?
As a child I made up stories constantly—whether by play-acting with Thundercats action figures or sitting down at my mom’s electric typewriter until I used up all the ribbon. But by high school and my first year of college, I had largely set aside my own imaginative writings. My sophomore year I studied abroad in Australia, and I can only describe my time there as a spiritual awakening of sorts, the kind born from travel and spending time intensely with a congenial group of very different people. When I came back, I enrolled in my first creative writing workshop and within the first few classes, knew that this would be my path. I went on to pursue the MA in English at UCF, juggling classes while waiting tables. But I was working so much at the time, fifty-five hours a week on my feet; the exhaustion hindered my focus and I knew I wasn’t turning out my best work. At twenty-five, I decided to apply to MFA programs. I feel very lucky to have chosen Vermont College of Fine Arts. The intensive low-residency style program was exactly what I needed. And from there I’ve continued to take workshops: at conferences such as Sewanee, Bread Loaf, and the Key West Literary Seminars, as well as worked one-on-one with some brilliant, seasoned authors. You never stop learning.  

Choose three words that describe your writing nook/office.
Sun, notebook, mug

From where do you draw most of your inspiration?
For the most part, my fiction arises very much from setting. I’m not so much an image-driven writer; often I find myself fascinated by hearing anecdotes of people stuck in unusual circumstances, and my stories arise out of exploring those predicaments. Setting very much drives a story such as, “Welcome, Lost Dogs” or “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” In “Princess of Pop” setting looms so large, it functions almost as another character: the pop star is falling apart, she chooses to hole up in the hotel where Joplin died, and the story pretty much remains there. In others, where the setting takes more of a backseat to the conflict—“Ask Jesus” comes to mind, as well as “The Lung” and even “Hospice of the Au Pair”—I crafted the setting to create a certain desired effect. For instance, “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. Conversely, “Hospice of the Au Pair” was originally set in Florida, about a WASPy middle-class girl who falls in love with a morphine-addicted doctor, but something about the premise and setting rang as too expected, somehow. Maybe it came off too consciously as “another kooky Florida story.” In that case, changing the backdrop to Costa Rica injected the story—if you don’t mind the pun—with just the unusual details to make it truly fresh and somehow more believable in its peculiarity.

Juventude, my debut novel that’s set in Cali, Colombia, could only take place there. The political backdrop and historical events preclude the conflict from taking place in another place and time. You’ll be able to see for yourself shortly—it’s forthcoming in September, 2015 from Curbside Splendor Publishing.

Give us a one sentence pitch for your latest book.
In Juventude, 30-year-old Mercedes Martinez seeks the truth about whether or not her father, Diego, a wealthy sugarcane plantation owner with narco-trafficking ties, her first love killed fifteen years prior, in 1999.

Are you and outliner, or do you write by the seat of your pants?
Both. I don’t outline in the traditional sense but I don’t just start writing either. I usually try out numerous openings until I settle on one that contains an energy and rhythm that I like. I take lots of fast notes as a narrative is forming in my mind, mostly questions, and I sketch diagrams and timelines to keep facts straight. With my novel, I used a board and Post-It notes, and later in the revision process, notecards.  

If you could meet one character in your book, who would it be and why?
In Train Shots, I suppose I’d most like to meet the narrator in “Ask Jesus.” Someone who invents a “Bible Blazer” Halloween costume has got to be interesting, and certainly has a sense of humor.

Favorite quote/personal motto:
“The true master is always a student.”

If you could give any advice to aspiring authors, what would it be?
It’s crucial to mark those moments of affirmation on your journey. Because the road is a long one, and not for the faint of heart, though you don’t realize this when you’re young, and it’s perhaps better that you don’t. Celebrate your successes, even those as brief as a remark on a job well done, for they have the potential to fuel you as an artist for a long time, months even. The most important thing, if you’ve got the talent and an attitude that’s open to growth and grunt work, is perseverance. 


Blurb for Train Shots:
A single mother rents a fundamentalist preacher’s carriage house. A pop star contemplates suicide in the hotel where Janis Joplin died. A philandering ex-pat doctor gets hooked on morphine while reeling from his wife’s death. And in the title story, a train engineer, after running over a young girl on his tracks, grapples with the pervasive question—what propels a life toward such a disastrous end? 

Available through Amazon.

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 ReviewThe Paris Review DailyThe Globe and MailPANK, 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. Find Vanessa online at vanessablakeslee.com. 



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Belle Rêve Literary Journal is a southern literary experience. Our mission is to capture everything that makes the South and its residents unique through the best contemporary literature we can find. We publish new works weekly.