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Over time, a memory can become vague, foggy, and almost unrecognizable from the original experience. It’s at that point, author Kate Blackwell insists, that it’s ripe for fiction.
“The older a memory is, the more malleable it is,” says Blackwell, whose first short story collection, You Won’t Remember This, was released in June by Southern Methodist University Press. “If it’s the birthday party your kid had two weeks ago, you’re going to want to put in all those details. But, if it’s your own birthday party from 30 years ago…all those details that don’t mean anything to you drop away, and so the memory that’s left is the important part—the part that has the emotional value.”
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Blackwell, a Georgetown resident, grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., and worked as a journalist in Raleigh for several years before moving to D.C. in the 1970s, where she wrote a few nonfiction books with Ralph Nader. “We wrote about whistle-blowing and private pensions. It was great fun, very exciting,” Blackwell says.
But, Blackwell says, she had always aspired to write fiction. “Shortly after my 40th birthday, I figured it’s now or never,” says Blackwell, now 65. She adds that she never intended to specialize in short stories but found “all my novels stopped at Page 20.”
Blackwell currently teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. She acknowledges that beginning writers often need help making their memories appropriate to fiction. “You need to transform the memory to help it work in fiction. Sometimes the writer will stick too close to the memory when the story does not call for it,” she says. “Or, on the other side of the coin, the memory itself can seem implausible to the reader.”
You Won’t Remember This features a dozen short stories that Blackwell wrote over a 20-year period. Many of the stories describe a single, often commonplace, event in a character’s life.
“Family is a huge theme in Southern literature,” Blackwell says, and she had a large Southern family of her own to draw from. But it was a difficult decision to write about private details derived from her relatives, even if, in fictional form, the experience might be less recognizable. For one story, Blackwell called up the memory of the sudden death of her cousin’s husband. When the collection was about to be published, Blackwell wrote her cousin a letter telling her the story was based on her. “She wrote back a very generous, wonderful letter. She said, ‘Well, don’t all writers do that?’ But it was something I had to think long and hard about.”
Yet Blackwell says she doesn’t believe that dramatic action needs to be overt. “I’m not interested in violence or things like that. I try to see what’s underneath. Because I think if you look closely at any life you’ll see great sorrow or loneliness or love or loss,” she explains. “Some people say, ‘Suffering is suffering whether in the middle of war or in fifth grade,’ and if you look at it like that, like I do, there’s always a story. You just have to know how to tell it.”