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
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
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
1 thought on “Elise Blackwell”
Vavilov was in prison before the siege of Leningrad began.
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