Growing up as a ‘rebel nerd’: novelist Sarah Blackman to speak at Clemson Lit Fest
Sarah Blackman’s debut novel “Hex” (2016) is about language and how one woman uses stories to rebuild her shattered sense of self.
Fittingly, Blackman will speak Friday, April 12 at a celebration of language and stories, the 12th annual Clemson Literary Festival. Blackman’s reading, 5 p.m. at Amici in Clemson (189 Old Greenville Highway), is free and open to the public.
Blackman is the director of creative writing at the Fine Arts Center, a magnet arts high school in Greenville, co-fiction editor of Diagram and the founding editor of Crashtest, an online magazine for high school writers. Her poetry and prose have been published in such journals as The Gettysburg Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, Conjunctions, and the Oxford American Magazine.
Blackman’s publisher is FC2 (Fiction Collective Two), a non-profit hub run by authors to promote artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction.
I recently caught up with Blackman by email.
Allyssa Haygood-Taylor: How does your publisher, FC2, differ from more traditional outlets?
Sarah Blackman: FC2 has a very different mission from many presses in that we specifically aim to publish “heterodox” work: fiction that does something with language, form, context or subject that feels radically different from what’s going on in the main streams of the publishing world. Another thing that FC2 does differently is to structure the press as an author’s collective. When “Hex” was ready to go out in the world, I submitted it to my fellow authors at FC2 for their consideration. Once two authors had voted to publish, the book went on to the board, which also voted to publish. I swanned around my office with delight once I heard. It was a big confidence boost for me that they liked the book.
Haygood-Taylor: You are the founding editor of Crashtest, an online magazine for high school writers. Why is it important to provide an outlet for young writers or those interested in writing?
Blackman: If you want to be a part of a community, you have to be a part of making that community. I think that is true on all levels of human activity, for good or for bad. Over the years, I have been lucky enough to be able to help make lots of different communities I would like to be a part of — but Crashtest is my chance to help build a platform for a future community that does not necessarily need to involve me.
The magazine is 99 percent edited, designed, imagined and maintained by my high school students at the Fine Arts Center. Aside from the perspective my age gives me, I try to leave the active agency of community building to the students who know what their generation needs and wants and thinks and feels. I don’t want to be an authority figure on the creative end. Instead, what I try to do is encourage my students to think about the ways they would like to be supported in the world and then help them build that platform big enough that they can haul other people up there with them. I ask them to imagine the kind of conversations they would like to have and then ask them what kind of support they need from me to start those conversations.
The work the magazine does is probably more evident through the skill sets that the editors take with them out of high school and into their college and adult lives. Some of that is exemplified by editorial skills, but more of that is the power of thinking about community building as an integral part of a life plan, not just a byproduct, not just a vehicle for personal success. That’s super invigorating to me. I think it’s also the only way we will be able to move forward in this increasingly perilous world. It feels vital.
Haygood-Taylor: How did your educational background prepare you to become a successful author?
Blackman: My “path” was more like a deer track that was maybe just a dried-out streambed but anyway led somewhere. I knew what I wanted in a very vague sense and was constantly startled by my ability to achieve it. I went from being a very sweet and biddable little girl to a super unruly teenager because I already knew I was going to be a writer and a writer needs to have authentic experiences to write about, not just sit in a classroom all day and learn how to conjugate French verbs. I believed I should educate myself, not rely on school to do it for me, which meant I skipped school a lot to go to museums. I grew up in D.C. where all the museums are free and open to the public, so I used to catch the bus and then the metro into the city, ride past my school stop, and spend the day on the National Mall going to the National Gallery and the Portrait Museum and the Hirshhorn. I was like a full-blown rebel nerd. I was an idiot. It wasn’t until I got to college — Washington College, an excellent small liberal arts school on the eastern shore of Maryland – that I figured out education is a process of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out how to fill those gaps in your knowledge.
Washington College was a very supportive environment, and I came out of there with an excellent education and a substantial cash prize (the Sophie Kerr Prize for Literary Promise). I got my M.F.A. in Fiction at the University of Alabama where I also did a voluntary thesis in poetry that the faculty there were kind enough to indulge me in. I’ve worked as an ice cream cake delivery person, a copy editor for art history Ph.D. students, a professional conversation-haver with international students, a stray cat nurturer for the Humane Society, a bartender, an instructor of English literature, rhetoric/composition and creative writing at the University of Alabama, and now I’m a high school teacher at a public arts magnet school. That last is a job I fell into without a lot of pre-planning, but it turns out to be kind of a calling.
Haygood-Taylor: What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Blackman: Publishing too soon. Believing the only, or even the most important, marker of success is a publication history. Thinking their own lives aren’t valid material because they are not marked by overt tragedy. Believing the tragedy that has marked their lives is their only subject. Excessive use of semicolons.
Haygood-Taylor: What are you working on right now?
Blackman: Almost done with a collection of ekphrastic short stories I’ve been working on for the last seven years. Visual art is a big part of my process. It sticks with me. I’m halfway done with a new novel I’ve been working on for the past 10 years which is a murder mystery of sorts featuring an end of life sex worker named Flossie. The visual model for that book is going to be Egon Schiele’s early 20th century portraits of nudes, but, like, mixed with James Ensor and Hieronymus Bosch. Maybe. I don’t know. Stay tuned though! I’ll probably have it done in about 20 years.