Interview with Author Debra Di Blasi

Name: Debra Di Blasi
Website: http://www.debradiblasi.com/
Contact: Jaded Ibis Productions, Inc.
(Originally published in my old website, Writester.net)

Questions:

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I was born in Kirksville, Missouri, and raised on a large cattle farm in Unionville, Missouri. The county was, at that time, the poorest in the state. It was a kind of poverty I doubt most people can comprehend today: children with one hand-me-down dress, old shoes too big or too small, no one bathing or feeding them at home, incest, abuse… Even I grew up without plumbing, though we were never short of food, of course, and had parents who cared deeply about our education and character.

Q: Can you tell us your latest book news?
A: FC2 Books (http://www.fc2.org/) will publish my new collection, The Jirí Chronicles & Other Fictions. It’s a group of conceptual writings, a term not many literary folks will understand. Conceptual writing explores the process of writing more than the plot, for example, and includes an enormous variety of styles and media. “The Jirí Chronicles” is not limited to the printed page, but ranges from video/audio to visual art, to poetry, to internet web pages and newsletters, to consumer products. The stories in the book are mixed media, incorporating appropriated images and text, original illustrations and digital prints, footnotes, marginalia, etc. These are not haphazard choices, but ones based on the Information Age we now live in. I like to refer to this work as IDR, Information Deluge Response, a term that can be easily applied to much of the current visual art being created today. In fact, like Douglas Coupland, my work arises as much from my education in the visual arts as in creative writing.

Q: How old were you when you first started writing?
A: I was interested in words as soon as I began to learn them. I recognized fairly early their incredible power to affect people and, in fact, create people. I wrote poetry and fiction in grade school, as well as making visual art. I studied creative writing — primarily poetry — at University of Missouri-Columbia, with the great poets Larry Levis and Tom McAfee, and took one fiction class with Speer Morgan.

Q: When did you first realize you had the potential to be a writer?
A: My poetry was only just above average, I think, though my teachers were generous with grades. My poet-friends were much stronger poets than I, and I studied with students who became pretty impressive writers, like Bob Shacochis, Juliet Rodeman, Stuart Brown, Jim Zola, etc. My poetry kept getting more narrative, aided by the strongly narrative poetry of Levis. Eventually, after I left school and continued reading & studying literature on my own, I realized I would make a better fiction writer than a poet, and probably had always been a storyteller. But the poetry was critical in my development as an aural writer. Every fiction writer should study poetry — and take drawing classes, just as the brilliant writer Flannery O’Connor recommended. The haptic process of drawing helps you see in ways that merely looking does not.

Q: What was your inspiration to write your first novel?
A: Well, I focused on the short story form for a few years before I attempted a novel. They are two entirely different beasts, one not easier than the other, as some people assume. You have to understand pacing for both, understand internal rhythms that are created not just with language but with structure. One of my students hit the nail on the head: it’s like film editing. You can have a great story, great characters, great cinematography, but if the editing is bad the film fails.

When I finally did sit down to write a novel, it was inspired by music — specifically by the symphonic structure. The plot, characters and each chapter was written with music in mind; for example, the first chapter is an adagio and the pacing and tone reflects that. Another chapter is based on the cappricio, which translates to “joke” in Italian; the joke is, however, that this chapter is not funny at all, and its lightness is juxtaposed with a very dark undertone. Unfortunately, publishers claim it’s impossible for them to market the book, though they all consider it “brilliant.” “Brilliant” doesn’t sell these days, especially if you’re a woman, so the book remains unpublished.

Q: Is there anyone or anything that inspired you to write?
A: I’ve read so much great fiction. But when asked this question, I always credit these writers, whose work I read early on and gave me permission, so to speak, to move beyond the 19th Century-style of writing that still prevails today:
Walter Abish for his Pen/Faulker-winning novel, “How German Is It?”
Penelope Lively for her Booker-Prize winning novel, “Moon Tiger.”
Margaret Atwood for her short stories and prose poems, “Murder in the Dark.”
Max Frisch for his novella, “Man in the Holocene.”
William H. Gass for his stories, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.”
Flannery O’Connor for all of her stories and novels.
Heinrich Böll for all of his short stories, especially his short-short piece, “In the Darkness.”
Lillian Hellmann for all her of memoirs.
Alain Robbe-Grillet for his novella, “Jealousy” and his novel, “The Voyeur.”
Gertrude Stein for all of her stories.
And a host of poets.

Q: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
A: Well, I know that being raised in a very poor county influenced my views of humanity, in general. For one, I grew to understand that people aren’t bad, their behaviors are. Most importantly, nothing — NOTHING — is black and white. The world is a complicated system of various shades of gray. The wealthier children who mercilessly teased the poor children were the result of bad upbringing, too. And life is basically a power struggle, even at that young age. I witnessed unimaginable cruelty from children and adults. The adults were just more underhanded about it. Nothing has changed. The idea of “morality” in this day and age is so far off target from serious moral issues; for example: the persistence of war; the fact that 40,000 children will die of starvation today; the topic of sex is still considered taboo; over 27 million U.S. children are living in poverty.

Secondly, being raised on a large farm, where one-third of it was untouched woods, I learned the workings of nature in an acutely intuitive way. I learned, most importantly, that I’m not separate from nature: I, too, will die, and in my place something else will arise. Just as the maggot-laden raccoon corpse or cow patties will give rise to mushrooms, and a more fertile spot of earth.
The combination of these two drive me ferociously toward exploring this world without letting my judgments of what’s good and what’s bad too heavily influence my direction.

Q: Do you have a specific writing style?
A: My early stories were in the more or less traditional 19th Century form: beginning, middle, end; no unusual structure or process; relatively conservative in both content and style. My latest work, beginning with the first published book, Drought & Say What You Like (which was actually written after most of the stories in my second book, Prayers of an Accidental Nature) investigates form itself and its relationship to story and its subsequent relationship to contemporary society, particularly the Information Age.

Q: What genre are you most comfortable writing?
A: Conceptual writing, which is whatever the investigation dictates. Some people refer to these writing forms as “postmodern” but that term is passé. With the advent of new technologies, we’ve entered a different literary world wherein the concept of narrative is exploded. The writing of Eduardo Kac, for example, occurs in amino acids that he transforms into self-replicating language. (More about him at http://www.ekac.org/). August Highland writes in genetic code on canvas. (More about him at http://www.august-highland.com/) Some people may say these forms aren’t writing, but they would be wrong. Peter Stitt, English professor at the prestigious University of Houston creative writing program, states: “People who go through creative programs can end up writing in a certain way, a standardized, ‘Wonder-bread’ kind of way.” Stitt continues: “Writing, like any creative activity, has to stretch the bounds. Simply being part of a writing program can fool a writer into thinking that he or she exists on the fringe, leaving him or her to write pieces that fail to challenge or question the given parameters.” Says Stitt, “The true artist gets outside that boundary and even rebels against the writing program.” (source: http://www.uh.edu/)

Q: How do you come up with the title(s) for your book(s)?
A: Whatever fits on the cover. Seriously, it’s the title that best describes the tone and/or concept of the writing contained therein.

Q: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
A: Every reader’s different so every reader will excavate a different message. My hope is that I provide them an unusual perspective of the world so that the view they now take for granted is somehow altered, providing them greater insight into humanity in this oh-so-brief existence.

Q: How much of the novel is realistic?
A: Well, that depends on one’s perspective. Because of the weirdness I’ve seen and done in my life, I’m more likely to view as “realistic” things others would find unbelievable. But, as John Irving has always said, life is stranger than fiction. All you have to do is watch your local news and read the newspaper to figure this out.

Q: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your life?
A: Generally, yes, that’s where they begin. But fiction is fiction. The story and its characters should be allowed to take their own directions. When my students write directly from their life, their stories are painfully boring and lack epiphany — certainly for them as writers, but also for readers. It’s about questions, not answers. Great writers explore what they don’t know using tools from what they do know.

Q: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
A: For the writing itself, there are too many who’ve influenced me and not all of them are fiction writers. For the writing life, I’d have to say Kathy Acker. She wrote what she wrote and didn’t care if there were readers too uneducated to understand what she was doing. Her audience was readers looking for something exalted in ways they heretofore had not understood. She succeeded.

Q: What are you reading now?
A: I just finished reading three science books on the life of the fly — research for a story. The one by Jean Henri Fabre, which was written in 1925, was extraordinarily beautiful, as much a memoir as a natural history. I’m also reading a book on the history of the penis and one on human relationship to chimps. As always, I read huge amounts of nonfiction: Scientific American, Archeology, London Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, The New York Times…plus all of the information I dig up on the internet.

Fictionwise, I’m reading Kobe Abe’s “Man in a Box.” My husband (an architect) and I just had dinner with the great Japanese architect, Hiroshi Hara, who is friends with Kenzaburo Oe. (In fact, Hara is a character in two of Oe’s books.) We were joined by another architect and friend, Vladmir Krstic, who I would consider an expert on Japanese architecture and culture. We therefore discussed Japanese literature and the linear differences between it and Western literature, how those differences are possibly related to general cultural divergences. So I have a list of new Japanese books to read, and Hara will have a list of new Western books to read.

Q: What new author has grasped your interest?
A: Juan Rulfo is not new except to me. In fact, he is the Mexico author who most influenced magic realism (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende, Borges, et al.). I “discovered” Rulfo on a trip to Mexico and during another dinner with architects. I asked who they considered Mexico’s greatest writer, and Rulfo was the answer — with one caveat: It was not so much Rulfo himself but his great novel, “Pedro Paramo” that influenced so many writers. Indeed, it’s a fine work of literature, and I’m surprised so few Americans know of this book.

Q: Is there anything additional you would like to share with your readers?
A: These websites may be useful for those interested in some of the above information:

More about Debra Di Blasi: http://www.debradiblasi.com/
More about Di Blasi’s visual art and media: http://home.earthlink.net/~ddiblasi/debradiblasiisnothowyouspellmyname/
More about Conceptual Writing: http://jaded_ibis_productions.typepad.com./
Ten Minute Muse: http://home.earthlink.net/~ten-minute-muse/

Bio: Debra Di Blasi received the 2003 James C. McCormick Fellowship in Fiction from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the 1991 Eyster Prize in Fiction, and was a finalist in the Heekin Foundation’s Novel-in-Progress. Her story, “Sparrows,” was nominated for a 2005 Pushcart Prize. Books include the novellas Drought & Say What You Like (New Directions, 1997), winner of the 1998 Thorpe Menn Book Award, and a short story collection Prayers of an Accidental Nature (Coffee House Press, 1999) which The New York Times Book Review praised for its “clear, resonant prose, laced with bittersweet humor.” Fiction Collective Two (FC2) will published her third book, The Jirí Chronicles & Other Fictions, in 2007. Debra’s short stories, essays, art reviews and articles have appeared in a variety of national and regional publications, including The Iowa Review, Notre Dame Review, Poetry Midwest, First Intensity, New Art Examiner, New Letters, and many others. Her fiction has been anthologized and adapted to film, radio, theatre, and audio CD in the U.S. and abroad. Collaborations with visual and audio artists have been featured museum installations, and her drawings and paintings are exhibited in galleries throughout the U.S. Screenwriting credits include The Walking Wounded, finalist in the 1996 Austin Screenwriters Competition, and Drought, for which she won the 1999 Cinovation Screenwriting Award. The short film directed by Lisa Moncure went on to win a host of national and international awards, and was only one of six films selected for the Universe Elle section at 2000 Cannes International Film Festival. Debra is president of Jaded Ibis Productions, Inc., a transmedia corporation™ producing most notably, “The Jirí Chronicles,” a mélange of audio interviews and music, videos, print and web fiction and visual art. She is formerly art columnist at the Pitch Weekly and teacher of experimental writing at Kansas City Art Institute. She now teaches with the PEN/Faulkner Writers In The Schools program.

Debra Di Blasi
President
Jaded Ibis Productions, Inc.
http://www.debradiblasi.com/

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