Chicago native Charles Blackstone, one of Newcity‘s Lit 50 in 2012 and 2013, is the author of the novels Vintage Attraction (Pegasus Books, 2013) and The Week You Weren’t Here (Dzanc Books and Low Fidelity Press, 2005). He is also co-editor of the literary anthology The Art of Friction (University of Texas Press, 2008). His short fiction has appeared in Esquire‘s Napkin Fiction Project, The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Fiction anthology, Lewis University’s Jet Fuel Review, and the University of Maine’s Stolen Island. Blackstone has written essays for Chicago Sun-Times and The Millions. His short plays have been produced by Victory Gardens and Lifeline Theaters. Blackstone is managing editor of Bookslut, an internationally acclaimed book review publication and blog.
His interview setting: A wine bar in Chicago. Think: modern, sleek lines.
His drink: A sparkling rosé from France.
Alison Barker is a writer, educator and critic who currently lives in New Orleans.
Her interview context: her living room in a New Orleans shotgun, surrounded by brand-new Ikea furniture.
Her drink: A white wine, from Stamata, Greece.
Vintage Attraction is a love story and an exploration of wines—Greek wines in particular—alongside an uplifting tale of career rejuvenation. Peter Hapworth, a creative but demoralized English college adjunct meets Izzy, master wine sommelier and local restaurant celebrity, after seeing her on television and firing off a whimsical, late-night email to her—introducing himself as, among other things, a “conceptualist.” Peter has a knack for imagining restaurants based on a few sensory details and a unifying theme—usually scribbled on a cocktail napkin or the back of a takeout box. Between Chicago wine bars and Greek wineries, Peter and Izzy must navigate the first months of love, complete with miscommunications, the occasional hangover, career pitfalls, and a sizeable mortgage in one of Chicago’s transitional neighborhoods.
Alison Barker: First things first: What are we drinking? I’m having a white from Stamata, which I’ve learned is near Athens, way south of where Peter and Izzy spent most of their time, right? I want to say…lots of texture. But I’m no wine expert.
Charles Blackstone: I ended up with a sparkling rosé—from France.
AB: Wow! Is it sunny there in Chicago?
CB: It wasn’t too bad today…there’s the promise of spring. So, this fits the occasion, I think.
AB: So far I am reminded of crusty bread and pineapple, maybe with the skin not totally or tidily cut off it, as I drink this. Like, something a little bit sharp might jab. And that’s like today. Overcast, rain predicted for the end of week’s Mardi Gras parades…happy, but there are dirty puddles to step in.
CB: I do terribly with crusty bread. I’m always injuring my mouth—and then complaining about it. People know to serve me very soft things. And more or less at room temperature.
AB: Now that we have wine in hand, you in Chicago, me in New Orleans, let’s start this way: what is one aspect of Vintage Attraction that you’d like a reviewer or an interview to focus a bit on?
CB: I feel like point of view isn’t discussed much, and I think it’s an important component of this one…And it’s an issue that very much ties to the process of bookhood, one could argue.
AB: Yes! As you know, I was really struck by Peter’s “conceptualism” and how it’s used to develop his character, his relationship with Izzy, and the plot. I found myself wondering where this conceptualizing—and the need for it—comes from in this character’s life. And who he’s talking to.
CB: I kind of knew early on that this character would think in terms of concepts. The entire thing came out of a sort of misguided pickup approach from grad school. I’d go on dates, or just meet girls I wanted to date, and start in with these “concepts.” Actually, one from the book. The Quiet Cafe. That was one I had thought up before I got to Boulder, and so had mentioned on a (number of) date(s). I don’t think it got me very far, in terms of courtship, but it led to an interesting character component, so I guess it wasn’t a complete failure.
I had a good concept the other night. These occur to me, occasionally, in the voice of the character. This one was for a dry cleaners run by Yiddish-speaking, old-world Jews: Laundreck. I thought of another good one recently. And I was like, “Where was this when I was drafting?” But now it’s gone. Probably for the best.
AB: This was one of my favorite elements of the book. Peter’s conceptualizing serves as a creative outlet for him, and it’s also something that Izzy understands and loves about him. It really propels the narrative.
In terms of Peter’s use of it, he does bring them out when he’s trying to mesmerize, but also I think when he’s comfortable, no? Or escape.
And his relationship with Izzy is the first time it is recognized as a strength and we get to watch him recognize it as such.
CB: I think definitely a source of escape, a way of finding comfort in the uncomfortable aspects of his life. And also I was interested in what might become of a guy with big literary dreams (as in, goes to grad school) that doesn’t get to do anything “creative” with his life following that period of time. So that’s one place it comes from. But, yeah, Izzy is the first person he goes out with who gets it, or at least wants to, and so I think that’s a moment of connection for them.
AB: The way it provides him and Izzy with constant access to his imagination, and the way he uses it to provide commentary and order to his surroundings reminded me of “curiosity cabinets.” Kunstkammers, Wikipedia tells me they were also called. In Renaissance and Victorian times, I think they were largely oddities arranged in tiny, attractive boxes, but I like the way Peter will decide on a theme and focus food and drink for a hypothetical restaurant and do a little world creation the way that framing any group of objects gives them their own context. Wikipedia also told me that they were sometimes referred to as “memory theaters,” and I felt really moved by that term, and I think it resonates with Peter’s stunted dreams you describe just now, and lack of outlet.
CB: I’ve had a lot of characters in the past that live solely in memory, in the past, and I think Hapworth could definitely have been one of those characters, if he hadn’t been catapulted into the life that moves faster than the speed of reminiscence.
AB: Yes. What else is there, indeed. A friend once commented about his girlfriend: “I don’t know where her inner fantasy life is, and sometimes I think she’s with me to try to learn how to access hers.”
CB: I think that’s how people do—or should—connect, by way of their inner lives. What else is there? Even if it’s not sustainable, it’s still important.
AB: In VA, you take the time to have us fully inhabit a headspace, as you did with The Week You Weren’t Here. How did you decide on both TWYWH and VA narration? Did either undergo a narrative shift during revision?
CB: TWYWH was always that way. When I stumbled on the voice and the narration, that’s how it looked and sounded. That is, mostly. There’s minimal punctuation in the finished book, and there was a lot less than minimal in the early drafts. But then VA, I guess I started that way, but then switched over. One reason is: Barry Hannah. He said—to paraphrase—that you could get away with a difficult voice in the first person, in a way that people wouldn’t be as quick to accept in a third. I had some early readers who were stumbling over what amounted to a very—I don’t know, singular—sort of voice in the third person. There was a danger that people might read that as the narrator, or as me, but really I always just saw it as Hapworth’s consciousness, the same as a first person.
AB: Yes. I think I see. Do you think that the shift to first person was about giving the story to outside readers as “story” instead of performing Peter’s headspace?
CB: I felt like in both points of view it was still very much a story outside of the head.
AB: Which is what, I think to me, makes it move and work as “mainstream” fiction as well or whatever the kids are calling it these days—and maybe what keeps it moving when the alternative as you suggested earlier is wading in reminiscing for him. Yes, I was actually torn about Peter and thinking—I mean, how I conceived of his thinking. I am not sure I would call it neurotic. I see that he comes from a context of neurosis, and his early college memories reflect that he felt a part of his culture.
CB:I sometimes worried that Hapworth didn’t think about things enough. But he still gets read as a neurotic, so I must have succeeded.
I think another thing that gets overlooked–to go back to your much earlier question–is that Peter and Izzy really don’t know each other that well. Or haven’t spent much time together. And yet they are kind of roped into this life together. And I think that state governs a lot of the choices. Stylistic, in the narrative, or even actual choices, in terms of action, on the character level.
AB: Yes. I marked so many places where Peter talked about how he saw something or someone through new eyes, mediated through a new set of circumstances or, in the case of Izzy, first through seeing her on her television program Vintage Attraction, and then, as he actually puts is, “newly contextualized” through marriage. So academic and cerebral. Physical context is super important to him in order to make meaning of a situation based on how much time he spends describing interiors.
CB: That’s an important concept, I think. How you see something when newly contextualized. Or re-contextualized. That makes people uncomfortable.
People who believe in, and have faith in, the master narrative. The omniscient. Like nothing could be subjective. I don’t think it really works like that off the page, so I’m reluctant to present that on the page.
AB: Ah. I see. And you’re commenting on that with Peter because Peter’s master narrative is that he collects data in every new context in similar ways, maybe?
CB: I think so. I just think he’s not going to be this person to say, oh, here’s something unpleasant, and now I’m going to do [whatever it is people do when faced with unpleasantness]. But that’s not me, either. And the same is true of Izzy, I think. Some readers have reacted to the “sudden change” in the plot after Izzy and Peter get married. Is this a spoiler alert? I guess from the prologue you know things get sticky. Anyway, I’ve heard some complaints.
AB: You mean how neither one of them addressed the overwhelming speed with which they committed, and stopped communicating once suspicion took over Peter, and Izzy withdrew emotionally? And then when they went to Greece despite serious doubts about their relationship?
CB: This may be what’s unusual about the story. I think some had an issue with Izzy’s “abrupt” change. I hasten to say it’s abrupt, because, thanks to the limited POV, we have no idea how long she’s had a problem or whatever; we only know what he perceives. But also in Peter’s passive acceptance of it. These aren’t things that strike me as odd. And I’m more intrigued by what readers have a problem with. Perhaps this is the point of fiction. To identify what it is that troubles ourselves and each other. Because it’s a mirror, right? So, if people don’t like how things are going, if the actions don’t conform to preconceived ideas about how characters (people) in fiction (life) should conform, maybe that tells us something about who we really are.
AB: I read it as a reaction to the overwhelming stress of those changes they jumped into. Pulling away because your whole identity has just been submerged in a union. I thought it was good discomfort—and it was tension that was needed—and that was how Peter was going to experience disharmony and disillusionment anyway–because look at how he handled the disillusionment of his job.
CB: That’s what I saw, too! The reaction to the stress of it all. And also here we have stress within a seemingly pleasant, happy event, which is interesting.
All of this. Yes. I wish everyone read like you did. Like you do.
AB: Well, there you also have the sort of messages we take to heart about courtship—it’s important to be independent, but it’s important to hurry to make things official so you stand powerfully as a unit and extinguish ambiguity. It felt right to me because Peter kind of gloms on to an idea or a person like most of us do. We are supposed to “date” (says someone) for a period of time and Izzy and he both make fun of the idea of jumping into things too soon, but on the other hand that’s what feelings kind of make us do. But then they had to start to really get to know each other. And as with every love, it’s really quite terrifying.
CB: I think I wanted characters that rejected that sort of accepted protocol. How you meet, how long you remain skeptical, when you submit to love, or at least the idea of love. I also like characters that take chances.
AB: I think he also really wants a best friend. Which he finds in her. How do you set your characters up to take chances? With Peter, it was his email that got the ball rolling—and it was his strength, his writing, that enabled him to take that risk?
CB: I think so. That ties into this whole he-has-a-dormant-skill thing. He must have written well, at least decently, at some point. And thanks to teaching and everything, he’s lost sight of it. Except for when he emails. And that best friend thing, definitely. They’re very much people who exist in the world surrounded by people but still very much alone. I think that helps them connect.
AB: Yes. Emails can be used as cabinets of curiosities. And I like that their relationship starts with a risk because his creativity is his way of taking a risk—he creates a persona in his email to her. How hard would it have been for Peter’s ego to leave teaching for a job that has no “credit” in the academy before he met Izzy? She re-contextualizes what his skills are.
CB: He never would have! And she would have never thought about getting away from the restaurant life. These people (like most people) need people to be their catalysts. And yes, I think they both re-contextualize each other’s skills.
He thinks he’s not a writer. She thinks she’s just a TV personality sort. And through each other, they see there’s more.
AB: Speaking of contexts, I feel like the physical space of college teaching accounted for the most vivid scene work in the book—maybe with the scenes Greece a close second—but that could be because I am familiar with the teaching grind, and how over-familiarity with hierarchies that oppress us can whittle away at a creative mind.
CB: This was a major thing I was after exploring with this character. And something the journalists give very short shrift. (To use a Hapworthian phrase.) Maybe they can’t relate. Or won’t admit to being able to relate.
AB: The department party and the classroom scene(s) were very real and very demoralizing and I’ve been there.
CB: Those bacon-wrapped scallops are very real.
AB: Ha! My experience is more with stale bagels and wizened carrot sticks. I like how you made the caricatures of the fellow teachers, who are also trapped but loveable, like T. Stoddard, part of a colorful community who reappear a bit in the wine shop later. It is T. Stoddard who comes by later to check out Peter’s new wine shop, right?
CB: Well, I think the bagels and carrots are what adjuncts subsist on throughout the semesters, but once or twice a year this party–mainly, I think, to impress the grad students—goes on and it’s all here’s how the other half lives for a couple of hours. But it’s an illusion, since there really is no fancy living in academia for anyone. Maybe just for department chairs and vice-provosts. Yeah, T. Stoddard and The Pregnant Lady come to the store.
AB: Yes. I like that that moment helps shift the tone about these fellow instructors–they were part of what sort of tortured Peter in the way that they were his reality before, and like all jobs we hate, once we leave, we see that the people at that place are just people, some of them are trapped like we were, and some have decided to stay. And in a way, aside from the worrisome drinking problem, the T. Stoddards of the world—the former coworkers—could benefit from seeing the Peters of the world leaving.
CB: Hapworth doesn’t really have any friends. An occupational hazard when being a transient in a transitory profession, I suppose. And so, yeah, I like how in spite of himself, in spite of themselves, there are connections. People just hang onto these jobs. Nobody knows why. I made it a semester after grad school—and then one a few semesters later, but that was continuing ed—teaching like this and I knew I’d had enough.
AB: Would you mind telling me about your experience in the adjunct world?
CB: After applying to all the tenure-track jobs everywhere toward the end of grad school, and then getting rejected from all of them, I started to lower my expectations. And I continued to lower them. I came back to Chicago, took a couple of classes. I wasn’t really equipped to teach developmental reading and composition at a community college, and slogged through that for a while. I knew I couldn’t live that way for long. There was a lot of driving involved. The comp class met on Saturdays at 8:30 in the morning, and I wasn’t much of a morning person at the time. Residual grad student life, I suppose.
But I’d actually had published a novel during this time. It was in its first UK publication, so a tiny little thing, but it seemed like it could be helpful. Then a tenure track job at the community college came online, and I was pretty well liked among the faculty, I thought, and so put in an application. I probably wouldn’t have gotten an interview if it weren’t for the book, which I dumbly only told them about after submitting. They were impressed, though. But I didn’t really have any experience, and they were looking to fill certain hiring quotas—one of the faculty on the search committee told me this at one point—so it didn’t matter what skills I had or who liked me. I think after that, I knew I’d have to find something else to do. I was a little more realistic about everything than Hapworth is.
AB: I really appreciated the humor and despondency of adjuncting in the book. And because, as I think you mentioned with his creative emails, Peter is not using his creativity a bunch, it is used in a curdled, snarky way in his over-the-top descriptions of characters he works with. The situation calls for very specific pigeonholes, and everyone just sort of burrows into one nearest them in terms who they “are” in the adjunct terrain.
CB: I think what keeps Hapworth attached to this go-nowhere existence is the fact that it does, at least on a very basic level, involve language, which was something that meant something to him at one point and that has endured. The world doesn’t care about words and ideas, and I think he’s mostly aware of that fact, and yet he still does.
AB: Teaching can be a way to stay in the unformed stage of creativity—you are always re-framing how “to begin” with language with every new student or class—and I think you can get some vicarious inspiration or hope from that, but also some inaction on your own projects.
CB: It’s addictive, maybe. But less dangerous than zip lining.
AB: Yes. Except for fomenting resentment, which eventually would create a T. Stoddard maybe. Peter really cares about words, and delights himself with his vocabulary. At one point in a sex scene he says he “obviated her bra.” At first I wasn’t sure to whom he spoke. But now I think it’s to himself.
CB: I call it dialect. I remember people sounding this way in the department. I remember sounding this way.
AB: That makes sense. His narration is based on the dialect of other adjuncts?
CB: Yeah. He speaks, and thinks, in academic. And they speak to each other this way.
AB: So in some ways, to keep his joy, he needs to be outside of the machine that works with language—and just be with a partner who lets him follow his joy.
CB: I’m reminded of coming across Joel Chandler Harris as a kid and wanting to correct Uncle Remus.
AB: Ha. Whereas I tried to imitate Uncle Remus. And my playground aide’s facial tic. Another story.
CB: Well, I think it’s probably exaggerated for literary effect. Yet, I think it’s plausible, because on some level the grad students and adjuncts wrote and spoke well officially, but then would, like, drink cheap beer and have pronoun-antecedent disagreement in their off-hours.
AB: I see sort of a cannibalistic quality in your medium being what you teach and what you express yourself with. I recognized all of it.
CB: What about Trainspotting? Nobody reads these books and charges the author with, I don’t know, being a Scottish heroin addict. But I think how that book gets away with it is because of the omniscient voice that comes through in Standard English. I went a more Andy Kaufman approach to this comedy.
AB: Maybe, as you’ve suggested I think earlier, the dialect is uncomfortably close to what many of us wade in every day? The relationship between Peter and Berkal was very realistic and it’s clear he’s that one who has illogical and unending energy to fight for the scraps of adjuncthood. And hasn’t hit a wall yet.
CB: He’s still a grad student. The romance will fade if he ever finishes his dissertation. Though he’s not completely deluded. Deluded enough to still try to ingratiate himself to the department head and tenured professors.
AB: A recent Salon article by Edward McClelland was really resonant for me regarding jobs that require advanced education—and it’s one reason why I delighted in your satire of the adjunct ecosystem. He reports a certain “class consciousness” that prevents unionizing that, along with the state of universities, could be applied to the adjunct’s plight. The academy has its own hierarchy, and being a part of it makes you a part of the intelligentsia, which confers status. Oftentimes adjuncts don’t acknowledge themselves as working class or poverty level because our idea of class is linked to education status a lot.
CB: That’s interesting, about the intellectual reasons to stay in a profession that has no financial rewards. I remember in that semester of community college teaching going to a Halloween party and telling someone I “taught college English.” I liked being able to say that.
AB: I understand it took you four years to write. Did you ever lose faith that you’d finish? I love that I don’t feel anguish or painstaking coming through in the prose like I do other books. It’s a fully inhabited world and a generous escape—and that is amazing to me that you could plunge into it so frequently for so long to get it done. What is your best place to write?
CB: I thought about giving up on it several times. It wasn’t that I couldn’t finish—there always was a draft that had a beginning, middle, and an end—but I just wasn’t happy with the results for a long time. But back to the writing process, without being immersed in a project, the best writing environments are pretty much wasted on me. Though who’s to say what the best environment is.
Faulkner wrote on his security guard third shift. Cheever went down to the boiler room every morning. Home is good for me, since often I get to have a pug on my lap. But having a lap pug can sometimes slow the process, since he’ll claim one hand for himself and then I’m left to type with just one hand.
Some of my favorite scenes from Hapworth I first came up with at a table at Starbucks. A Starbucks that no longer exists, which is disappointing, should that location have been lucky.
There’s this character that I’ve known for a long time, and I’d like to work with her again. She first appeared in a novel manuscript I wrote twenty years ago. I was in high school at the time, but for some reason tried to write the novel’s trio of POV characters as college students. Knowing, even at that idealistic age, that the thing was probably more apprentice exercise than viable manuscript, I put the finished draft away and had no plans to look back.
AB: That takes a lot of strength.
CB: Well, in grad school, I dug it up and revised it and turned it into my thesis. Though it made it past my committee, and I was able to graduate, it still was pretty unpublishable, as I’d spend the next three or four years of revisions discovering. Even when I took the characters out of college and put them in high school (the time when any of the real-life experiences I was drawing from actually took place, including the year the story was set, 1994). The problem was really that the story was too much a product of my earliest influences. The thing read like Less Than Zero meets Reality Bites. Then, about four years ago, I was in between drafts of VA, and I thought I’d pick up the female lead, the strongest character, again. This time I made her in her early thirties and took out the other POV characters (though one and one who vaguely resembles the other make appearances). Still, though, I think I was too close to the voice and aesthetics and perspective of Hapworth and VA. So, I got three-fourths of the way through that draft and set it aside.
AB: I love that you acknowledged a need for breathing room, just as a close relationship needs at times.
CB: What I think I’d like to do now is figure out a way to invoke both drafts, maybe through alternating chapters set in 1994 and 2014, and see if I can figure out what story there is to tell. It’s been hard to really sit down and work with it, since I’ve been chiefly occupied by promoting and everything, but now that that’s starting to wind down (at least until the paperback comes out this fall), I feel like I’m finally ready to begin—at least begin thinking about it.
AB: I look forward to reading the fruits of that labor. Thank you for this conversation about character and the mind of Hapworth.
CB: My pleasure. Let’s talk again soon!