Today is the first day of CL Bledsoe’s virtual book tour celebrating Man of Clay, a novel with elements of magical realism and a dash of steampunk. This funny, engaging story redefines what Southern Literature is capable of being. Man of Clay can be pre-ordered today!
CL Bledsoe is the author of four poetry collections, one short story collection, and five novels, including the Necro-Files series. His stories, poems, essays, plays, and reviews have been published in hundreds of literary journals, including Cimarron Review, Barrow Street, New York Quarterly, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Arkansas Review, Pank, Potomac Review, and many others. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize thirteen times, Best of the Net four times, and has had two stories selected as Notable Stories of the year by Story South’s Million Writers Award. Bledsoe currently lives in Alexandria, VA, with his daughter.
Short Story: “Mouth”
Short Story: “Texas Never Whispers”
Poem: “The Sad Lobster Speaks”
Poems: “Roaches” and “Anthem” in Story South
Interview: By Cervena Barva Press
Interview: By Etopia Press
Poetry Book: Riceland
Novel: The Necro-Files: $7.50/Hr + Curses
Essay: “My First Critic”
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to CL for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I was raised by storytellers, so it was a natural progression to want to tell stories myself. I grew up in the rural South on a farm, and my dad, brother, and uncles were always telling stories. Everything was a narrative to them. If you asked if someone had seen a movie or TV show or read a book, there was no “yes” or “no” answer; instead, you got a story about the experience. And they were entertaining stories. I’ve always been enthralled by the abilities of good storytellers who can control an audience. Stories, specifically books, but movies, and comedy performances also, were the only things that really provided comfort for me when I was growing up, but more than that, stories were exciting. I had an unusual and difficult childhood, and I never saw much gain from church or school or the social conventions one was supposed to pursue but didn’t seem particularly welcoming to me. Similarly, we were poor and the farm was struggling to stay afloat. There wasn’t a lot of hope or optimism around. But stories showed people with dignity and wisdom and all those things that we’re taught matter when we’re little kids, but we learn don’t really exist in any reliable sense when we grow up. Stories reconstructed the world into something better. In a good story, there is a God—the storyteller—and s/he does care about the characters, loves them, even when s/he makes them suffer. In that sense, it’s pure escapism for me. It’s a better world, but it’s a true world because it presents people we strive to be. And, most importantly, it shows us what we can be.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
When I was a kid, I’d play “writer.” I’d gather up whatever office supplies I could get a hold of—crayons and paper, glue sticks, scissors—and sit at our big dining room table and…mostly make messes.
When I got older and more serious, I struggled quite a bit to work out the various conventions of writing novels and short stories, especially, but also poems. I didn’t realize that writing IS that struggle. I went to college to learn how to write. I worked my ass off. All around me, I saw folks calling themselves writers who lacked work ethic. Not me. I took every suggestion I could get and tried them all. I’d submit something for workshop every week, if I was allowed. I set up off-campus workshops in addition to my classwork, and provided new material for all of them constantly. This was because I was a really rough writer, but I wanted to improve.
I started sending work out to literary journals as an undergrad because that was something I understood. I’d been on the staff of one in high school, but they wouldn’t publish me until I purposefully wrote something about Jesus, which they snatched right up. In college, I cast the net pretty wide. I’d send out work to fifty places at a time. Most would reject me. I started targeting places I’d seen the grad students get published in, and I had some success. My first big publication was in Nimrod as an undergrad. That was quickly followed by Story South. I had certain journals I aimed for and loved, and these weren’t usually the popular ones. I remember the first time I placed something with Clackamas Literary Review, which I considered one of the best journals out there but I’m sure most people have never heard of. Hobart was another real coup, though it has become, deservedly, pretty high-profile. I’ve continued submitting work to those kinds of journals—solid journals that aren’t necessarily hip but publish good work. I’ve been in plenty of hip journals—and I realized pretty quickly that popularity had nothing to do with quality. The same way my high school journal wanted Jesus poems, these hip journals wanted whatever fads. I’ve never been a cool kid, but I have been guilty of trying to follow the fads on occasion.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
I never really had a mentor, per se, which I regret—it was kind of one of the main reasons I went to grad school—but a ton of people have helped me, and still help me. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a lot of publishers, editors, and other writers, and I think that most of us understand that we have to help each other. More than that, we enjoy it. I don’t want to name a lot of names, but I’ll narrow it down to two major groups of folks. The first group was centered around The Arkansas Review. I’ll expand this to include several folks not really connected to AR but who are connected to Arkansas, where I was born and raised. Several, several folks have helped me by publishing me, promoting my work, and just being friendly, because we all are either from Arkansas or are connected to it. We’d reach out to each other and share stories about being away from “home,” and we’d promote each other’s work. Along the same lines, when I moved to the Baltimore area, I met so many wonderful writers and promoters who have invited me to read or submit writing to their journals. Baltimore has an incredibly vibrant literary scene, really supportive but also wild. I love reading in Baltimore. Maybe somebody gets drunk and heckles you, or maybe somebody takes their clothes off, but they listen. And they’ll buy you a drink afterwards.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
Some terrible instructor asked me, once, what my goals were as a writer. I told him I wanted to be a mid-list writer, plugging away, pumping out books on university presses without a lot of accompanying fanfare or drama. I was being an asshole, but I was also not. I am definitely more of a tortoise than a hare when it comes to writing, and the writers and artists I most admire are those who labored, at times in total obscurity, just to create their art. Henry Darger, the outsider artist/writer, comes to mind. Van Gogh. Emily Dickinson. Wilhelm Stekel was quoted in Catcher in the Rye when Holden’s former teacher tells him, “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” That’s how I feel about writing and art, and I admire those who live accordingly, in the same way that I admire those who live their lives humbly. Writing, for me, is more about life than lifestyle.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Only do it if you have no choice. A friend once told me that we’re writers because we’re damaged in such a way that this is how we communicate. I have to write; it’s a physical necessity. If I don’t write, I get anxious, depressed, antsy. It’s how I process and think and live and love. If this doesn’t make sense to you, go do something else.
Having said all that, I think the greatest lesson to learn about writing is to be open, which is also the greatest lesson to learn about life. Read voraciously—not just within your own preferred genre—and write voraciously. Don’t worry about what others will think of what you’ve written until you’re revising, if even then. And be open to every opportunity you find, or that finds you.
Be kind to yourself. Write every day, except when you don’t. Fuck up and start over.
Follow along with the Man of Clay virtual book tour by heading to [PANK] tomorrow!