Hobart Festival of Women Writers welcomes
Blanche McCrary Boyd to Festival 2018.
Blanche McCrary Boyd grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and her work often springs from these Southern roots. Notably, she is the author of The Redneck Way of Knowledge, a collection of autobiographical journalism based on her life experiences as a “sixties radical and born-again Southerner, a lesbian with an un-PC passion for skydiving and stock-car racing, a graduate of Esalen and kundalini yoga who now takes her altered states ‘raw, like oysters.’” She honed her voice writing for The Village Voice and has also written for such publications as Ms. and the Oxford-American. This year, her novel, Tomb of the Unknown Racist was published, completing The Blacklog Trilogy. Boyd won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993–94, a Lambda Literary Award and a Ferro-Grumley Award for Lesbian Fiction in 1991, a National Endowment for the Arts Fiction Fellowship in 1988, a Creative Writing Fellowship from the South Carolina Arts Commission in 1982–83, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing from Stanford University in 1967–68. A well-regarded teacher and mentor with many acclaimed writers under her wing, she is the Roman and Tatiana Weller Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence at Connecticut College, where she also directs The Daniel Klagsbrun Symposium on Writing and Moral Vision.
Blanche McCrary Boyd speaks to Stephanie Nikolopoulos for Hobart Festival of Women Writers.
SN: Your latest novel, Tomb of the Unknown Racist, has been receiving stellar reviews and completes the trilogy that began with 1991’s The Revolution of Little Girls and continued with 1997’s Terminal Velocity. Its protagonist is a former radical activist whose own brother becomes involved in white supremacy. The novel, which stands on its own apart from the trilogy, deals with racial divides, deep-state government, activism, and journalism—all topics that are strikingly relevant today. When you began the trilogy in the ’90s, did you know it would take these thematic turns? Why did you want this specific heroine to address these topics instead of perhaps writing a biography or historical account of the factual white terrorist Silent Brotherhood, which provided inspiration for the fictional character?
BMB: When I began what I have begun to call The Blacklock Trilogy, I did not know a lot about where it would go, but I was certain I would write at least one more book about Ellen Burns. I wanted to take head-on her lesbianism and feminism, her radicalization, partly because, when The Revolution of Little Girls won the Lambda Award, there was apparently some controversy since Ellen’s lesbianism is not the direct subject. In fact, in that book there are no lesbian sex scenes. (I used to say it’s a came-out book, not a come-out book.) So Terminal Velocity traces Ellen’s story as she plunges into radical feminism in the Seventies and falls in love with two women, and it’s a lot about sex. This book is an attempt to show how heroic and foolish those of us who styled ourselves outlaws in the Seventies were, and what happened to these women over time. I love and honor the women portrayed in Terminal Velocity, but they were certainly naive. Tomb of the Unknown Racist formed around a vacancy in these first two Ellen Burns novels, an avoidance that was and is mirrored among many white feminists: We did and often still do not want to look at our own involvement in racism, our blindness, our complicity, and I believe this failure wrecked the feminist movement in the Seventies. The extreme right has been around a long time, but it has now become much more visible. And for those of us who are white, these white supremacists are, metaphorically at least, our brothers and sisters. But for Ellen the situation is literal: Royce Burns is her brother, and he may still be alive. I don’t think conscious white people have come up with much of an analysis of our whiteness and its complexities, and Ellen is faced with very hard choices. I have lots to say about whiteness, but I won’t try to do it here. I wrote Tomb of the Unknown Racist as a novel because, well, I made most of it up. I’m not Ellen Burns, though people often assume I am, and my real brother is a real estate developer in Charleston. But I’ve always been interested in the intersection of fact and fiction, and my first good book, The Redneck Way of Knowledge (Knopf 1982), is a collection of what used to be called gonzo journalism that I wrote for The Village Voice. It’s interesting to note that when I began Tomb of the Unknown Racist, people did not believe the story I was telling at all. The list of facts at the beginning was added late, to shore up the factual basis, and to make it clear that I knew what I was talking about. I not only did a lot of research, I grew up among white extremists in the Deep South during segregation.
SN: Terminal Velocity is about a book editor who goes on an odyssey to find a female hero—or become one herself. Providentially, the class I’m teaching this year at the Hobart Festival of Women Writers is called The Heroine’s Journey, and we’ll be talking about the importance of female heroes and how to create memorable heroines. How do you think stories of female heroes differ from their male counterparts?
BMB: I don’t think there’s much room for male heroes in fiction at the moment, at least not in “realistic” fiction. I can’t even think of a white male hero. And women are heroes just for getting up in the morning.
SN: At this year’s Hobart Festival of Women Writers, you’ll be presenting the workshop, What’s the Truth? Writing Fiction and Nonfiction in which, among other topics, you’ll be examining the gray areas between the genres. What advice do you have for nonfiction writers who are so concerned with accurately reporting facts that they sacrifice story and craft? I’m thinking of, for example, memoirists who are struggling with whether and how to collapse events, create composite characters, or change identifying details.
BMB: I don’t think I can summarize it here, other than to say don’t lie when the facts matter. Memoir is a complex issue because memory is not accurate to begin with, so accuracy is not always relevant. I don’t think anyone believes David Sedaris, for instance, or Annie Dillard, is always being factual.
for a full description of What’s the Truth? Writing Fiction and Nonfiction, go to Workshops
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