Charles Blackstone’s Novel Explores Marital Pitfalls – 2013
An Exclusive Interview with Charles Blackstone,
Columnist Anna Roins
| Vintage Attraction
by Charles Blackstone
Buy this Book
Vintage Attraction (Pegasus 22 October 2013), is like someone nudging you with a glass of Pinot Grigio as you consider the marriage pitfalls of a newlywed couple who take a holiday to Greece – and all with a pug sitting at your feet.
One cannot help but empathise with the brilliant and amusing Hapworth, an adjunct professor, who falls in a rush of love with Izzy, a celebrity sommelier, when their last-minute marriage creates a swift decline upon their lives.
Their efforts to relinquish the past fail with the appearance of former lovers, crazy work demands, and neighbours that never shut up. As their passion cools, they decide to take a trip to Greece and make their biggest discovery yet.
A rom-com-travel novel soaked in wine, Vintage Attraction presents a fascinating world into grapes and varietals, love and relationships based on the life of the author, Charles Blackstone, who plays the strings between the genres of fiction and non-fiction with harmonious ease.
Vintage Attraction is armour against the influx of crime-thrillers that harrow the mind and crowd the bookshelves; entertaining in its brutal honesty, sparkling wit, and laugh-out-loud perspective.
|“I’m pretty much always mining my life for material . . .”
AUTHORLINK: Charles, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview.
The marvellous thing about your writing in Vintage Attraction is that it’s lively and clever, but grounds the story in humility. It unfurls a study on relationships, the pairing of grape varieties and the luminous country of Greece all in an understated way.
We understand the first time you went to Greece was with your wife, master sommelier, Alpana Singh, and your experience inspired you to take notes. What made you decide to write Vintage Attraction, from the observations you made?
BLACKSTONE: Thanks so much for the opportunity to discuss the book with you and your readers! I’m pretty much always mining my life for material, particularly the new and unusual experiences. I hadn’t taken a wine trade trip before, though I’d heard stories about them, and so I knew right away that going to Greece and what I ate, drank, and discovered there was going to be something I’d want to use in a novel.
AUTHORLINK: What can you tell us about the epigraphs that help denote the tone of your novel? The first quote is in Herzog by Saul Bellow, “Hitch your agony to a star” and the second is in Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth, “But the way it works, you get what you get and the rest you have to do by yourself.”
Had you stumbled upon them before you wrote Vintage Attraction or did they come to mind after you finished the book?
BLACKSTONE: I’d had the Bellow epigraph banging around in my head for a few years. I’ve often thought that Izzy and Hapworth, though perhaps at the outset are at very different places on the personal and professional accomplishment spectrums, are really experiencing parallel trajectories throughout the course of the novel (and even before the novel begins). Though perhaps Hapworth more literally hitches his agony (i.e., his life) to a star, I think Izzy, too, sees Hapworth as a star, and so in turn does the same. The Roth epigraph came to me very late—last December, I think, when I was in the end stages of revision. Here, too, I saw a line that could refer to either Hapworth or to Izzy—or to both of them. They’re two people who have (again, in different ways) been in charge of their own destinies, and I think that fact is what draws them together and keeps them together, in spite of all the ideological differences and emotional turbulence along the way.
AUTHORLINK: That’s great, thanks. You put some stunning Greek wines on the map where virtually nothing is known about them other than Retsina. It was enlightening to read about the different vineyards of Greece, like; Ktima Pavlidis, Nico Lazaridi, Tsantali, Boutari, Alpha Estate, Katogi, and Sigalas, and the types of wines they had on offer. As you say in Vintage Attraction, Greece has “ideal viticultural conditions.” Yet the country is still overlooked in the global marketplace consciousness.
In view of the current wine shortage, we commend you for being an ambassador of Greek wine through your novel! Which is your favourite Greek wine and why?
BLACKSTONE: It’s hard to choose one of the indigenous grape varieties, since the varietals—whether white, red, or rosé—are so enjoyable (as are the blends). Two I always go back to are Xinomavro, which is a heavy red, and Assyrtiko, which is a lighter style white.
AUTHORLINK: The dialogue in the book was simple and realistic. For example, when Hapworth confronts Izzy about her boss having to respect that she, “has a family now”, or the times when the dialogue illustrated what was not said (but should have been said) it felt true-to-life.
Can you suggest any tips for writing realistic dialogue? In your opinion do people think and talk differently?
|“. . . fictional dialogue must also move the story along, which doesn’t always happen in real life . . .”
BLACKSTONE: People do think and talk differently. Extemporaneous speech, which I suppose is mostly how we talk, is inarticulate, redundant, inefficient, and so these are elements to incorporate. Dialogue in fiction also has to convey these elements for verisimilitude. But fictional dialogue must also move the story along, which doesn’t always happen in real life, so there’s of course some work to be done. An exercise I used to give students when teaching dialogue is to record one side of a conversation, transcribe it, and then recreate the other side. This close scrutiny of dialogue—both lines taken from life and also ones invented—helps one understand the nuances better, and, I hope, be more attuned to the dialogue always going on the world as a result.
AUTHORLINK: Thanks for that. Your writing style is artful and stimulating. It’s as if the reader is the only one privy to Hapworth’s personal inner-monologue, which is as it should be.
Can you provide any essential tips on what to do, and what not to do in writing? Quite often writing courses suggest avoiding adjectives, adverbs and flashbacks to name a few canons, but do you think these ‘barriers’ are less valued in this age of genre-and-style defining literature?
BLACKSTONE: I don’t pay too much attention to those so-called edicts. There are always examples of these things working successfully in literature throughout time. I’m wary of oversimplifying the process before the process has even had a chance to begin. Storytelling, I think, should start with character, and the decisions about diction and syntax or tone—and even genre—will naturally come from there. Characters truly are the ones who tell a story, not the writer. Successful writing, I believe, is located in the intersection of what can be told and what should be told. Obviously technique is important—invaluable, really—but it only gets you to a certain point. There has to be a need for a story to be told in order for readers, in turn, to need to read it.
AUTHORLINK: That’s really interesting, thanks. You once said that you, ”…don’t really believe in a difference between novel and memoir—all narrative is invented.”
Do you believe that an autobiography or a memoir is not more satisfying to read, when it’s verified as being based in truth? Why do you think people feel ‘hoodwinked’ that a book of non-fiction turns out to be a work of fiction (say in the case of Nasdijj)? Could it all boil down to just a matter of transparency, and common courtesy?
BLACKSTONE: I think paying too close attention to genre distinctions, which are largely arbitrary in the first place, will only serve to limit a work. Fiction to me is the process by which we bring experience to the page, whether or not the experience is drawn from life or completely invented (and invention usually still draws from somebody’s life if not our own). The genre labels are just a marketing strategy, and a problematic one that obviously backfires. Readers wouldn’t feel deceived by a work if we didn’t label the work in the first place, right? A lot of languages don’t even have the terms “fiction” and “nonfiction” in them. They just have “literature.” This is pretty much how I’ve always read and written.
AUTHORLINK: That’s fascinating; kind of like a fusion of fiction and non-fiction. You said once, “What I’m registering when I look at an old piece of writing is that I’m no longer the same person who wrote it, that I know more now about writing and have refined my ideas and am generally better at knowing how to articulate those ideas than I did, say, five years ago.” This is an encouraging idea for those writers who over-edit (if there is such a thing)!
Who edited Vintage Attraction and how did you select him or her?
BLACKSTONE: I had a few writer colleagues (and non-writer friends) reading drafts as I worked on them, and so I gleaned a lot of insight for edits that way. My agent gave me some notes, which we discussed, and that process gave me a number of ideas about refining the characters and the story. When the book sold, my editor at Pegasus, Jessica Case, and I went through several rounds of revision together, and I read and revised some more on my own. Even at that late point, about three and a half years since I began the first draft, I was still discovering things. I think it can be helpful to have a number of voices in the process. Reading is subjective, and you can’t make huge decisions based on a single reader’s reaction, no matter who that reader is, but if two or three readers are making the same comment about something not working, it’s hard to deny something isn’t working.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, that’s true. You have written one other novel, The Week You Weren’t Here (Low Fidelity Press 2005) which has been taught in courses of experimental postmodern fiction, and co-authored a work of non-fiction, The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (University of Texas Press 2008), which is a genre-defying anthology.
How would you say you have evolved creatively since writing these two books?
BLACKSTONE: I’m less interested in experimentation now than I was with the first novel. Vintage Attraction, I think, is told in a fairly conventional style. But choosing that mode of telling has more to do with these particular characters and this particular story than it does with my literary evolution (though it would be hard to deny that it was my evolution that brought me to these characters and this story). I wish I’d had begun writing the novel before the anthology was published so I’d have been able to excerpt a chapter of the former in the latter. I think this novel is certainly a friction, in its exploring the overlap between fiction and creative nonfiction, in ways similar to and different from the friction of the first novel.
AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting that it was the characters that brought you to this mode of storytelling. You’re also the Managing Editor of Bookslut, a litblog and webzine founded in 2002 that has received mentions in many national and international newspapers, including The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post. Tell us a bit about your role on this blog.
You also do ghost-writing, editing and coaching on the side in private practice. Is it easier to write and edit other people’s work other than your own?
BLACKSTONE: I do a lot of the administration for the site. I’m a liaison between the contributors and the publicists, arrange for review copies to be sent to reviewers, oversee the Facebook page, do copyediting, fact checking, and other things. When Jessa Crispin, founder and editor-in-chief, is in town, I pour sparkling wine and make sure we’re never too far from a supply of oysters.
|“I don’t know that it’s easier to edit other people’s work, or harder to edit my own. “
I don’t know that it’s easier to edit other people’s work, or harder to edit my own. I’m able to read my stuff as though I hadn’t written it, and also read clients’ pages as though they were my own. (Both skills are crucial to the process.) I think it’s good to have other people’s drafts around while I’m revising something I’m working on, since it gives me a chance to get out of the story for a while, and do something that’s more cognitively productive than watching Barefoot Contessa reruns on Food Network.
AUTHORLINK: Are you working on anything right now? Tell us a bit about it. Is there a sequel to Vintage Attraction?
BLACKSTONE: I have a draft of a novel I began almost twenty years ago about three high school friends. It takes place during the summer before their senior year. I picked it up again ten years ago, turned it into my grad school thesis, and spent the next few years seeing if I could make it a publishable manuscript. (The end verdict, at least for the time, was to shelve it, especially since I was already deep into the drafting of Vintage Attraction and don’t really have the kind of brain that can write two things at once.) Four years ago, I worked through about three-fourths of a new novel, told from the point of view of one of the three friends from the shelved one. This time around she was in her early thirties, but still very much the person she was at seventeen. I want to see if there’s a way to combine the drafts into a novel that explores the character at both points in her life. I’m still not sure how to do it. I would also like to tell another wine story in a novel, but a clear path of how to do it hasn’t hit me yet.
AUTHORLINK: We’re looking forward to reading any novels that come about. And yes to more wine stories! Which writers, dead or alive, have inspired you personally and your writing, and why?
BLACKSTONE: When I was in high school in the early 90s, I read a lot of the 80s brat packers, as they were called, Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and Tama Janowitz. In college, I discovered Melville and Hawthorne and Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald and their fiction really inspired me. In grad school, I read a lot of Bellow and Roth. Jay McInerney’s and Scott Spencer’s post-80s novels informed the early drafts of Vintage Attraction, I think. Also Ha Jin. Lately, I’d count Ned Vizzini and Alissa Nutting as both colleagues and influences. And there are many more whose works serve kind of as ad hoc influences. I’m always inspired by whatever book I’m reading at a given moment.
AUTHORLINK: Do you think there’s a brighter future for the upbeat romantic comedy in view of the oversaturated crime-mystery-thriller market? Do you believe that they typically employ ‘tension tricks’ to compel you to tune in next week or turn the next page, that often have nothing to do with your enjoyment of the story?
|“I think the strong emphasis on plot from the darker genres has become really important to readers . . .”
BLACKSTONE: I’ve never been a thriller-reader, and I hope we continue to see more romantic comedies in literature. It’s a perfectly acceptable genre for film and TV, why not in contemporary novels as well? I think the strong emphasis on plot from the darker genres has become really important to readers of literary fiction as well. It’s not so much of how the story is told as much as it’s about having a story to tell. (And when there is a truly interesting story there, the tricks aren’t necessary.) I never read books quickly, or try not to even when I want to, but I’m excited whenever a reader tells me that she read Vintage Attraction in one sitting or over a weekend and that it was a page-turner.
AUTHORLINK: What would you say are the main advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing against being published?
BLACKSTONE: I think self-publishing makes sense for work that has a built-in market, like, say, a public figure who can sell books by the hundreds to audiences at speaking events. Or, if a chef sells his own cookbook at his restaurant to his clientele. But for those without platforms, traditional publishing is the only way to go to be able to get work into the hands of readers otherwise unfamiliar with the author. One of the reasons we don’t review self-published work at Bookslut is because the distribution is often problematic. With readers all across the world, international availability becomes important. There’s no point in getting readers excited to read a book that can’t be easily purchased outside of the United States.
AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting. Who was the first person that made you believe you were good at writing?
BLACKSTONE: I think the very first thing I published was a poem about a tree in the sixth grade yearbook. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the poem and had forgotten writing it before it appeared there (and I still have no idea who submitted it). Beside the poem was a drawing of a tree that a seventh grade girl whom I admired had done. (Ten years later, that artist would end up on The Real World Hawaii. I think she’s a lawyer now.) The next year, English class spent quite a long time on prose writing, and both students and teachers seemed to take to my stories.
AUTHORLINK: Charles, thank you for your time on this interview. We wish you all the very best success for Vintage Attraction and look forward to your next novel.
BLACKSTONE: Thank you so much. It’s always a pleasure to discuss the book with an intelligent, careful, and sympathetic reader.
AUTHORLINK: That’s very kind, thank you.
|About Charles Blackstone:||
Charles Blackstone is the author of the novel Vintage Attraction published by Pegasus Books and distributed by W W Norton & Company. He is also the author of The Week You Weren’t Here (Dzanc and Low Fidelity Press) and the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (University of Texas).
His short fiction has appeared in The &Now Awards: Best Innovative Writing (Lake Forest College Press), Esquire, Stolen Island, and Jet Fuel Review. In 2012 and 2013, Newcity named him in their “Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago” annual feature.
He currently is a ghost-writer, coach, and editor for clients at all stages of the publication process in private practice. Blackstone and his wife, Master Sommelier and restaurateur Alpana Singh live with their pug, Haruki Murakami, in downtown Chicago.
You can read more about Charles Blackstone on his official website http://www.charlesblackstone.com
|About Anna Roins:||
Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor before she embarked in a career in writing six years ago and moved to Greece. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to numerous articles to local publications on various subjects on social and community issues. She has also edited a number of books, websites and dissertations, as well as, continued studies in creative literature with the University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel in the Young Adult genre based in Greece. Anna is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to write interviews of best selling authors.