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Something About Love: An Interview with Web Author Venita Blackburn

1 Feb

What’s the best way to start off the shortest month of the year? By reading a short-short story, of course! Lucky for you, our February web exclusive is here, and it is excellent.  “Scars” by Venita Blackburn is a funny, fantastical, touching story about the wounds inflicted by life and love, and what it takes to carry us through. Oh, and also superpowers. “Scars” may be short, but it definitely packs a wallop. Read the full story on the ASF website, and be sure to take note of the accompanying artwork (a new feature for our web exclusives this year). The photo, taken by the author, depicts a one-legged seagull—exactly the kind of  “damaged, but resilient” creature that captured her imagination in this story.

Plus (there’s more!), below you’ll find our interview with Venita, in which she shares a little about the inspiration for this story, some scars of her own, and the world’s worst superpowers.

1. Tell us about the genesis of “Scars.” Where did the idea for the story come from and what kind of evolution did it go through to get to us?

This particular story did stem from an idea unlike most of my story ideas that look too much like my own life or came from a news headline or something funny a friend has said. I wrote “Scars” in the summer of 2011 along with a few other short shorts that had a very specific idea behind them. I wanted to write about people with the worst superpowers imaginable and see how they would cope and/or thrive. There was one with a boy that could dream the past and future but only when he was very, very sick (immune system clairvoyance). There was one with an elderly woman suffering severe dementia that could recall her life only by touching certain items. Then there came “Scars” with two sisters that have enhanced memory and sensory perception only when in extreme pain. I hope this doesn’t mean I’m a sadist, but I really felt connected to that idea.

I am a low-key comic and superhero fan. The X-Men franchise—or empire or however it should be described—had a television cartoon series that aired during my preteen and early teen years. In X-Men there are mutants, genetically enhanced people, that can fly and turn into steel or change the weather, etc., but they all look stunning and beautiful. In the show there was this other group of mutants that had powers, but they could not blend in with ordinary society because there powers were physically deforming or just too harsh for the average Joe or Jane to process. Anyway, these mutants were called Morlocks (very literary) and lived in the sewers. They could be squid-faced, acid-sweating walking disasters. I always had a lot of empathy with the Morlocks for some reason. I thought for sure if I had powers, I would be underground with the tentacle-armed kid and the lady that talked really, really loud (I mean, just “hello” could be devastating). Those were my people. Ultimately, the sisters of “Scars” represent that part of my psyche, I think.

2. The real gem of this story is the narrator. She is such a joy to read—she’s fierce, fragile, innocent, wounded, precocious. . . all at the same time. Can you talk a little bit about how you conceived of this character?

I have a bad habit, a really bad habit, of rewriting stories in various POVs just for kicks and giggles, especially if something tells me the voice just isn’t working. I hear my characters speak in a way that I can’t really explain. When they sound real to me, I just tell the story as they would. Luckily, the narrator of “Scars” is a character I liked listening to. I’m flattered that she seems so “fierce,” but she is definitely wounded. In that we are a lot alike. She suffered the loss of her most supportive friend/fan (her father). I know what that feels like. For a long time I’ve been inspired by things and people that take damage but keep going no matter how unappealing the future seems. There is a resilience there that thrills me. I wanted the narrator to be that, just a little bit.

3. What’s challenging or fun or different about writing from the POV of a child/young person? Any inspirations for finding the right voice?

The best thing about kids is their honesty. Most kids, if they aren’t shy, will tell you what they see as they see it. I love that about very young people. I always talk to children as if they’re real people. That opens up a lot of funny moments even though I’m sure I sacrifice some authority in the process. I’ve always been described as a very honest person, especially in workshops. Lying takes a lot of energy. I worry sometimes that it might seem rude, but I’ve never been told that I’m “too honest,” so I run with it. Having a young narrator is sort of a license to speak plainly, truthfully. There is no room for enigma—well, maybe a little if a writer is really clever. In “Scars” I liked the narrator’s openness to these new and often hurtful experiences. There is something really primal that happens when a child feels something profound, good or bad, but they don’t have the words to articulate it. All they can say is this happened then this happened, and then they’re either slapping their legs with laughter or balling on the floor. That purity of emotion gets pressed and baked and locked away as we get older. I do hope that when I write adults they bring a welcome level of complexity. Writing younger voices though is freeing in special ways.

4. As you say, these sisters possess the “superpower” of super strong memory and perception. Memory and perception, of course, are among a writer’s most important tools. I’m wondering what (if anything) you do to tap into your own powers of memory and observation. Are there any experiences or situations that you find help bring back memories, or that heighten your senses and help you tune in to what’s going on around you?

I’ve always believed it is much easier to recall the traumatic experiences, but I have a pretty selective memory. Most of the trauma gets stored neatly away. I let the dust settle. Even so, I keep a journal that I don’t write in regularly, but I try to write in it when there are big moments in my life or I just can’t sleep. Both seem rare enough. I recently read through a few entries that were several years old, and I was shocked at all my griping and melancholy. Embarrassing. I’m fortunate enough to have some really smart and funny friends that I can share experiences with, and that really helps keep my mind and perspective alert.

5. A scar with a good story behind it is the best. So much better than, like, “I cut myself shaving.” Do you have any notable scars or scar stories you’d like to share?

I love “I cut myself shaving” only if it’s not the truth. My injuries have been more emotional so far. I’m so careful with my body that I rarely get a paper cut. I’ve never broken a bone. I hope that stays true. My childhood was really good and safe and I attribute most if not all of it to my mother. She passed in 2008, and I lost my best friend and mom. That’s a scar I can’t deny and certainly is something reflected in “Scars.” She was definitely very supportive of all my whims growing up. I took martial arts for two years (won two tournaments, by the way) , then suddenly didn’t feel like it anymore. I was in Cadet Corps in middle school and slid down a hill with my battalion in army fatigues. I got a pretty good gash on my leg there. I remember going to Jack in the Box after that and my mom took a picture of my face with all that war paint. Then I got to high school and turned apathetic and literary minded. Ha. Those are my scars for now.

6. What’s up next for you? What are you working on now?

I’m always revising my old stories for this collection I’m working on. Simultaneously, I’m writing a longer thing about the dangers of ideologies, the risk of believing in anything and the rewards therein. I haven’t given up on my stories about the worst superpowers on earth yet. Not yet.

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