What was the genesis of ‘The Skylight’?
I lived and worked in Paris as a bicycle tour guide on two separate occasions. First, for a year in 2004, and again in the summer of 2008. It was a unique experience to live in France during two election cycles—one featuring Bush as a self-described War President, the next with candidate Obama rightfully promising an end to the American Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second time around, in 2008, my wife and I rented a flat in the 18th arrondissement knowing little of the neighborhood other than its obvious beauty, its cluster of apartments and narrow avenues in the shadow of Sacre Coeur. We lived in the district of Goutte d’Or, a predominantly North African part of Paris, our neighbors mostly Muslim. At call to prayer the Mosque overflowed with believers, their prayer mats checkering the sidewalk and pavement out front. This neighborhood was filled with very warm, generous people who always smiled and said hello despite our language differences. Every day groups of fully covered, completely unknowable women walked up and down the sidewalks together, often with children in tow. Muslim men smoked cigarettes and worked in shops selling luggage, textiles, fabric, and all manner of discounted goods. This was a beautiful cultural experience for us, quite different from our lives back in Texas. I marveled at the people all around us. Their customs and traditions. Their quick smiles. Their dress. Their devotion. And I knew that because of language and many other factors that their culture would never be fully known to me. I was, among other things, a temporary resident in their neighborhood.
But the mystery of the people in the district of Goutte d’Or sparked something that led to ‘The Skylight.’ I was drawn to the unknowable quality of the neighborhood more than anything else. I didn’t have an encounter with one of the local women like the protagonist of ‘The Skylight’ does. As with all fiction, though, I wondered: what if? To me fiction is about the wonderful collisions that characters have with each other, and I was writing a book of short tales and this—a man meeting one of the local women, somewhat clandestinely—seemed like a good premise for a story, reliant on the setting and a few essential collisions. The story refuses an easy resolution, a deliberate choice. Even though I lived in the same neighborhood that is described in the story, I left for America after the summer with only the residue of personal mystery and a feeling of gratitude that we got to live in the 18th if even for a short time. As a writer I’m inspired by place almost more than anything else, and in hindsight, writing a story like ‘The Skylight’ seems inevitable.
Can you say a little about the process of putting together your collection Families Among Us?
The stories in Families Among Us are a departure from the fiction I normally write—comedic short stories (and the darkly comedic novel I just finished), and now, dramatic stories about the Iraq War. But I am drawn to tales and always have been. I love writing them, and the order they appear in the book came together quite naturally, though they aren’t arranged in the order that I wrote them. The first story, ‘Families Among Us,’ felt like the thematic lead and I wanted it to come first as it echoes the title of the book. The rest sort of fell into place by gut feeling. Even though there are only six rather short stories in the collection, this book took me three years to write. Any time I wanted a break from the longer stories I was writing, and then the novel I started (and just finished), I would write one of these little stories. They are challenging for me to write, but also a real pleasure. Writing one feels like a break from the routine, and I love imagining some familiar place infused with mystery and magic. These stories are heavily influenced by Kafka, Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’!), Aimee Bender, Roald Dahl, and Angela Carter, and I love feeling like I’m communing with my favorite authors when I sit down to write. The final story, ‘And Finally the Tragedy,’ felt like an organic bookend to the collection and seemed to tie all six of the stories together.
What are you working on at the moment?
At present I’m revising my first novel, a dark comedy called Don’t Ask that follows two drug-running brothers that get in over their heads. It is set in the frozen American Midwest (Iowa City to Minneapolis), heavily influenced by The Cohen Brothers (Fargo!), Barry Hannah, Patrick deWitt, Denis Johnson, and George V. Higgins. This novel is quite a departure from the stories in Families Among Us, but my great interest in setting as character is present in this writing as well. I wrote the novel last year, my final year of graduate school at UC-Irvine after writing nothing but short stories for the longest time. If I had to describe the novel, I’d say it is the movie Fargo meets deWitt’s great novel The Sisters Brothers. I also have a full-length story collection called Talking Past the Close that is finished, and the stories here are greatly influenced by George Saunders and Thomas Berger and also Barry Hannah. Once the novel is ready to go I hope to secure an agent and see these two new books into the world.
Find out more about Blake’s writing here, and order a copy of Families Among Us here. We’d highly recommend doing both.