Centralized and Off-Center: Talking Fiction and Structure With Gabriel Blackwell

Gabriel Blackwell

Gabriel Blackwell’s fiction rarely treads the same ground twice. He has a particular skill at finding ways to turn the margins of stories and genres into thrilling works on their own, whether that’s cosmic horror or the film Vertigo. The last year has seen the publication of two new collections of Blackwell’s short fiction: Babel and CORRECTIONBabel showcases Blackwell’s writing at its most nimble and at its most structurally innovative, while CORRECTION wrestles with contemporary life in unexpected and jarring ways. Taken together, they’re a welcome return from a talented writer. Blackwell answered a number of questions about the genesis of these stories and how they came together in these two volumes.

Babel and CORRECTION both came out within a few months of each other. Were the stories in both written at roughly the same time as well, or do they represent distinctive movements within your work?

CORRECTION was written between November 2016 and November 2018. One of several constraints at work in the book is that I wrote at least one new piece for it each week, so it’s easy to give exact-ish dates.

The writing of Babel was more leisurely, looser. I started it sometime in 2012 and finished an earlier version of it in 2017; it had a different title then and a different table of contents, including a novella and a short essay that I wound up cutting. After Splice accepted it for publication very late in 2019, I added two new fictions, “The Student” and “Afterthought.”

That the two books came out so close together was an accident. For the most part, and with few exceptions, I only send work to people who ask for it—I write, but I don’t seek publication for what I’ve written—but in 2019, I must have had a brief period of optimism or delusion, and these two slipped out.

A number of your earlier books utilized other creative works as jumping-off points. Do you see these two books as a break from that, or do you think you’ll be returning to that motif in the future?

I didn’t approach the writing of either book in the way I approached the writing of, say, Madeleine E., or The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men, so, yes, departures in that sense. As for returning to that approach, I don’t know. I have nothing against it.

With respect to CORRECTION, how did you define “readymade” for the book? And what about this form makes it well-suited to addressing contemporary politics?

I think I’d hoped that there would be glints of familiarity in each of the 101 texts in CORRECTION, like they were manufactured or existing things whose context had been changed enough to make them genuinely intriguing again. I also liked the idea of putting these narratives to a different use than may have been intended.

The form was the result of a set of simple constraints I designed to keep myself writing through a period in which I was extremely busy with other work. I wanted to limit the number of decisions I’d have to make during the writing process. I didn’t set out to address politics through what I was writing, but I did very much want the book to reckon with the present moment and even to make use of it, as a kind of adjunct text or glossary.

The usage of parentheses within Babel takes on an epic quality at times. What prompted that form of experimentation?

Because many of the fictions in Babel are uncertain or born out of doubts of one kind or another, unqualified statements didn’t always fit well in them. Their sentences needed parentheticals in the way that deserts need dry air. And then I think I’ve always had a baroque attitude towards writing sentences, and parentheticals happened to be the form that took in the case of Babel.

I’m thinking in particular of “Black Dog” here, but more generally — how did you balance the more news-inspired stories in CORRECTION with the more metafiction or metatextual ones?

I think this may not really answer your question, but, when arranging the individual pieces of CORRECTION, I wanted each one to have a point of connection to the ones immediately before it and after it, but I didn’t want to exhaust the reader by seeming to be stuck on any one subject or voice or aesthetic. What I hoped for were slight local variations giving the whole a sense of modulation, so that the reader didn’t see it as one long elaboration on a single theme but also didn’t see it as some random assortment.

You use first-person narration in many of these stories, especially in CORRECTION. Do you feel that the “I” varies from story to story, or is it all the same “I”?

Neither. Some of them are the same, many are different.

In your acknowledgements for Babel, you cite Daniel Davis Wood’s editorial work on the collection. Is there one way in particular that he helped bring this collection together?

Not that it’s a tic of mine, but I feel like I ought to mention that I also thank Hilary Plum for her work in editing CORRECTION in that book’s acknowledgements. I happened to find two very careful, attentive editors for these two books, and for that I am grateful.

Daniel suggested the title—Babel had been called Fathers and Children—and he encouraged me to finish “The Student” and “Afterthought” and to then include them in the book, so I think it’s fair to say it would be a very different book if not for his work on it. He is a thorough, thoughtful editor, as was Hilary, with CORRECTION. Those kinds of editors are, I think, rare, and they ought to be acknowledged and celebrated.  

When alluding to real-world events in CORRECTION, what’s the process like of processing such an event into something you can work with?

I initially conceived of CORRECTION as something like 1000 Nights and a Night, or The Decameron, Don Quixote, the Canterbury Tales, those kinds of books, books made up of stories retold, and so many of these stories are retold, but I also liked the idea of centering characters or people who maybe weren’t naturally at the stories’ centers, the bystanders behind the caution tape, the blurred out people who refuse to be interviewed, the people reading those stories, the people watching those stories, the people reporting them, editing them. That seemed more appropriate.

Do you have a sense of where your fiction is headed from here?

There’s a novel, a book of catastrophe, that’s done and might at some point see the light of day. Though I haven’t published much of it, I’ve been writing mostly nonfiction the past couple of years: a collection of very short essays and a book-length work of nonfiction. But it’s good to be quiet for a while, so probably I’ll just be quiet for a while. 

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