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See How Small by Scott Blackwood
Scott Blackwood's novel See How Small was our spotlight pick for January's Best Books of the Month. The story is built around a real-life, unsolved murder that happened in Austin, Texas, but the book is not a straightforward murder/mystery. Blackwood is an extremely talented, forward-looking writer, and there is no neat bow at the end of See How Small. It creates loose ends as much as it resolves them. If all this sounds a little confusing, read on to get a sense of what Scott Blackwood and his novel are about. Because, while some people just won't care for what he's doing, other people are going to love this book.
Chris Schluep: The book starts with a scene based on a real life event. Could you describe what led you to use it? Did you immediately decide to introduce it into a novel? Did you carry it around with you for a while?
Scott Blackwood: I wasn’t sure how to approach it initially. I was writing around the scene with the girls at first, I think, because I didn’t yet know how to tell it. I originally began the novel with Michael Greer, because I knew him, had written about him and his brother Andrew in my story collection In the Shadow of Our House. But one image from the actual event changed everything and when I found it, I knew it was central to the opening scene and how I’d approach it: a girl’s bright bare foot sticking from the water. I’d spoken early on to the firefighter who’d found the murdered girls inside the yogurt shop—and this is the first thing he saw. And when you think about it, a bare foot is such a delicate, vulnerable part of the body, and here, in the midst of real devastation, in the fire-blackened husk of the shop, was this tender human image. This one image had stayed with him for nearly twenty years. And so I knew then that the novel would begin with this image and that Joan of Arc was the patron saint here. And I knew that the girls—at least in my novel—having died together, would want to stay together and that’s why their voices are braided into a kind of chorus.
CS: This is not a classically linear story. Describe the writing process while constructing this novel.
SB: I don’t think our experiences of grief or of joy are really time-bound. If that were true, the past would easily be forgotten and we wouldn’t spend any time anticipating the future at all. We’d simply move into new experiences the way small children do. And in writing a book about unresolved grief, it seemed important that the grief (and the small joys held inside it) would be always now, always present. The when doesn’t matter. It’s always happening. The firefighter Jack Dewey is always finding the girls. Kate Ulrich is always answering that front door in the middle of the night or smelling her girls’ hair after a bath. Michael is always returning to the loss of his brother and his participation in the crime. Hollis Finger can’t stop imagining the little girl in Iraq in the blue flowered dress who is all girls, always, and is driven to build a likeness of these girls so that they have a presence in the world, a connection to everyone. It’s the girls who know that grief is necessary to life, that it gives joy meaning, and we need it to move forward at all, and that life is always remaking itself through it.
CS: Were certain characters more difficult to write than others?
SB: Kate’s ongoing grief and anger were difficult to get to simply because I hadn’t ever felt this level of loss. But while writing the early portions of the novel, a chance event happened that changed all that: my then-six year old daughter disappeared from kindergarten one day and the police went searching door to door in our neighborhood and a helicopter hovered overhead. She was gone for an hour and as a parent you’re trying to shove aside terrible images that rise in your head, stay focused on the practical. But you sense that it could be a very different world, a gouged out future, if what you fear is happening comes true. In the end, my daughter had simply made up a play date in her head and gone to a friend’s house with a new babysitter who didn’t know our number or why this kid was here. She was fine. But my wife and I noticed the next day that our backs and arms and hamstrings were sore from holding so much tension during that hour. What would it be like to hold it for a lifetime? Well, fortunately we only glimpsed it, but it allowed me enter into Kate’s consciousness a little more fully, I think, after that.
CS: Did you ever consider writing a straight mystery based on this story?
SB: We all hunger for resolutions, I think, in stories. We’re hardwired for it, though the kinds of resolutions we hunger for change over time. There was a time when most stories ended in a marriage or birth or some kind of coming together, a righting of what had been out of balance. That’s why so many people love a straight mystery because it takes something that’s at first disjointed—our “not knowing,” the world’s causes and effects hidden from us—and shows that it’s an illusion, that we can know the world, can piece it together and find the truth. It’s a good feeling to find the world back in its recognizable shape. But I wanted to push this some. What if that world doesn’t go back together so easily? What if all the usual ways of making sense of it fail us? What if we found ourselves isolated, unable to trust our institutions or even our own neighbors and friends to help us understand it? I wonder if it’s one reason a radio show like SERIAL is so popular- it reflects our insecurity with these kinds of resolutions? I’m very interested in these questions. Are there other kinds of resolutions—necessarily conjectural and incomplete—that might describe where we are now better? There’s a story in the novel about a premature baby with a damaged heart whose body gradually learns to use collateral arteries to reroute oxygenated blood to the brain. A new route. That’s what I’m interested in.
CS: You explore a lot in this novel—loss, grief, memory, blame—but also something sweeter, something more optimistic. Did writing the book change you in any ways?
SB: Right, it’s a book about loss for sure. Grief. But inside it is also a kind of joy that’s hard to describe. We can’t experience the other—a profound sense of loss— if our existence wasn’t also joyful and wondrous. There is an elegiac beauty to the whole thing, even a kind of humor, that the Girls and Hollis sense—what an amazing thing this is despite the pain of it. Would you have it some other way? Maybe. But that’s the gap between, the space between our desires and what the world offers us. The living and the dead, between ourselves and the “Other,” someone like Hollis. Maybe even one between ourselves and the Devine. For me there’s the great mystery and the deep humanity I’m going for: that gap between. And we might even occasionally cross it.
CS: What are you working on next?
SB: A novel that’s sort of a prequel to See How Small, centered on Hollis Finger, the Iraq veteran who returns home only to begin experiencing disquieting religious visions and finds it’s difficult to return to his former life and family. It’s also a novel about mothers and sons and what it means to belong and abandon.
CS: What authors do you yourself admire? Why?
SB: My favorite living author is Denis Johnson because he’s fearless and he marries his lyricism to prose and plot making in a way that makes him a truly unique and deeply affecting writer. He takes old story forms and reinvents them by having them sometimes work against each other in surprising ways. And like the great jazz masters back in the day, he knows how to play two notes to imply five, so you feel a wholeness and exactness in his work, even in a (page-wise) brief masterpiece like Train Dreams. He sings. Faulkner and Marquez because of the vision they had - all of their work was of a piece and gained power from that. Alice Munro and Marilynn Robinson for the same reasons and the beauty of the language. And they all go where the story takes them and never worry about getting lost.