LSU Alumni Magazine Summer 2021

Page 86

PROFILE

Tiger Nation

Knowing the Place for the First Time

By Steve Neumann

“LSU helped me transform my desire to be a writer into a reality.”

Elise Blackwell (1986 BACH H&SS) was one of those rare kids who knew what they wanted to do from an early age. In grade school, she loved when her teacher would hand out sheets of paper where they had to draw a picture at the top and write a little story underneath. She was so dedicated that her grandfather began paying her one dollar for every story she would write. “One week he had to give me like twenty bucks, which was a lot of money,” Blackwell says. “So one day he said, ‘I want you to keep writing, but not for the money.’ So he stopped paying me.” Blackwell kept writing, eventually enrolling at LSU as a creative writing major. That decision paid off, because she has gone on to be the author of five novels, two of which—The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish and The Lower Quarter — are set in her native Louisiana. Her first novel, Hunger, was also the inspiration for the song “When the War Came” by the Decemberists. “LSU helped me transform my desire to be a writer into a reality,” Blackwell says. “It gave me access to professors and visiting writers who were actually working writers.” Despite growing up on the storied tradition of Southern literature, Blackwell longed to leave the South. “I was under the impression that my Southern accent would make people think I was stupid,” Blackwell says. “So I went off to graduate school in Southern California and was largely successful in getting rid of it.” When she got there, however, her writing workshop professor called her first story “neo-Faulknarian crap.” “I took that criticism to heart,” Blackwell says. “I was kind of writing neo-Faulknarian crap, although his comment was cruelly delivered. I was writing in a derivative way. I was writing like writers who lived generations before me.” Blackwell realized she needed to find her own way of writing about the South before she could write about it. That’s why Hunger is set as far away from Louisiana as she could imagine: the siege of Leningrad during World War II. “I'm really proud of the great literary tradition of the South,” she says, “but I still didn't want to be pigeonholed. I wanted my work to be read by more people – by people living in California and New York, and ideally other countries.” After her work translated into several languages and named to numerous best-of-the-year lists, she was able to return to some of the material from her Southern past, including her grandfather’s memoir of growing up in Louisiana during the 1920s. “I finally felt like I could write about the South, and particularly about Louisiana, in a way that's new to me,” Blackwell says. “I started to think about myself as a person who could write about the South without necessarily being a Southern writer.” She is currently working on a novel, Spa, set at a wellness spa and centered on a mysterious figure who has branded himself a “temporal healer.” She plans a third novel set in the restaurant industry in New Orleans in the nineteenth century, centered on a mystery illness and a messianic figure called “Yellow Jack.” Blackwell, on the creative writing faculty at the University of South Carolina, toys with the idea of retiring to New Orleans. “I get to Louisiana at least once or twice a year,” she says. “I still have a lot of family in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and New Orleans — and New Orleans is still my favorite American city.” Steve Neumann is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. His website is stephenneumann.com/

84 LSU Alumni Magazine | Summer 2021