Elise Blackwell‘s debut novel, Hunger, takes place during the seige of Leningrad in the winter of 1941 and is based on true events. Faced with starvation, at a time when people are selling their bodies and most prized possessions for crumbs, scientists at Russia’s premier botanical institute must decide whether to consume the rare plants and seeds they have traveled the world to collect. They choose not to eat from the collections, but the adulterous narrator of Hunger quietly disagrees and indulges in the occasional plant in order to survive.
Elise Blackwell, the daughter of botanists, grew up in southern Louisiana and earned an MFA in writing from the University of California at Irvine. She lives with her husband and daughter in Princeton, NJ, where she works for Princeton University Press.
Hunger, which takes place during World War 2, was released as a war was taking place in Iraq. The Philadelphia Inquirer called the book "an inadvertent link to Babylon’s miseries of the moment." What are the parallels between 1941 Leningrad and 2003 Baghdad, and what can one infer about the struggles of the Iraqi people after reading your book?
The dissimilarities are probably more definitive than any similarities, but there are important parallels. The residents of both cities suffered first from brutal dictatorship and political purges and then from war with an invading army. People in both cities endured the breakdown of order and often decency without accurate information or certainty of outcome. Both had to fear their own leaders and the incoming bombs. Hunger includes several sections about ancient Iraq and the siege of Babylon, in part to comment on what does and does not change about human life with changing leaders and gods–and on the tragedies of mighty civilizations.
What was your reaction to the looting of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts during the Iraq invasion (and the calculated neglect by the armed forces in protecting them), considering that the botanists in your book chose to sacrifice their lives to preserve vital treasures from that same region?
Even beautiful, rare, and ancient things are things, and I would not condemn anyone for pilfering artifacts as a flat matter of survival. But it is a tragedy when human gifts that have survived across generations are disrespected for any reason short of basic survival. To loot artifacts for spending money–or to allow that to happen–is a violation of history.
Had you been in the shoes of the botanists at the Institute, would you have eaten from the collection to save your life?
I would like to believe that I could be as brave as the scientists during the siege, but I cannot imagine starving to death without eating anything I could get my hands on. One of the ideas I explore in Hunger, though, is that we don’t know who will turn out to be brave under extreme pressure. Timid and annoying people can act with grace, strength, and bravery, while people noted for their courage can prove themselves cowards. Ultimately, we can’t imagine wearing such different shoes; I can’t say what I would have done.
What sort of influence did your parents–both botanists–have on the shaping of this novel?
My childhood exposure to botany primed me to be interested in the story. I first learned of Vavilov’s story in a publication of the Seed Savers Exchange. There was a photo of the herbarium at the Vavilov Institute, with wooden cabinets with narrow rows of drawers. It evoked rooms in which I spent a lot of time as a child, even brought back the smells. My mom did run down some information for me during the writing of Hunger, but I certainly can’t blame my parents for the shape of the novel.
A reviewer claimed that the narrator of Hunger has "no redeeming qualities" as a person. Do you agree with this assessment?
My assessment of him is more generous. I set out to write him as a rather nasty piece of work, but my compassion grew. First and easiest, he has the redeeming quality of being human. People are capable of insight and change; that potential is always there. Though not a majority view, a few people have suggested to me that my narrator was right to pilfer seeds and survive. And he does, in one sense, earn his survival by developing a technique that saves lives in future famine situations. His arranging to have Albertine deported, while not selflessly motivated, gives her a better life. And while the narrator tries to pass himself as better than he is, he’s not quite so horrible as he deeply believes. Along with the selfishness and gluttony, he possesses the admirable qualities of intelligence and reflectiveness. But what redeems him most in my eyes is his passion for life and will to experience. These may not make him a good guy, but they make him hard to simply dismiss.
As a first-time novelist, have you been reading the reviews of your book? If so, what effect has that had on you?
It’s tempting to say that I haven’t been reading them, but the fact is that I’m too curious not to. It’s too early to know what effect it will have. My confidence about having my work in the world has grown some–simply by learning that at least a few people like some of what I’m doing. But it’s also disconcerting and a little embarrassing. If a reviewer really creams me, it will hurt–all the more so if the criticisms are on the mark. I hope that I can learn from criticism without getting distracted, without damaging my very intimate relationship with what I am working on.
You are currently working as a Copywriter for Princeton University Press. What has your experience been like working at an academic press? What are your impressions of Princeton? (Should my little sister go there?)
Academic presses are great places to work, offering as they do intelligent colleagues interested in ideas. I’ve learned a lot–or, more accurately, I’ve learned a little about a lot. (If your sister has a full scholarship or your family is wealthy, she could do worse than Princeton. I’m the product of state education and a bit of a populist, so perhaps she shouldn’t take my advice anyway.)
You attended the MFA writing program at UC-Irvine, and in the fall you are joining the writing faculty at Boise State. What was your motivation for seeking out a teaching job? Do you think you learned more about writing during the time you were studying at Irvine or during the time you were writing Hunger?
I like teaching, and I am looking forward to having my day job center on fiction and writing. (And of course I crave those summers of intense writing.) What Irvine provided more than anything was the time and support to write and the pressure to read, but also I learned important craft lessons from teachers and peers. The sense of shared enterprise is a wonderful thing. Yet writing is not a collaborative activity. The crucial understandings come only from that blood-letting that goes on when I am alone with words.
When can we expect your next book?
I plan to complete it in about eighteen months, and I certainly hope it finds its way to library and bookstore shelves quickly after that.