Interview: Vanessa Blakeslee on Her Debut Novel, Juventud

November 4, 2015

 Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut novel Juventud (Curbside Splendor) follows Mercedes Martinez through her life in Santiago de Cali, in a novel that is equal parts coming-of-age story and an exploration of political turmoil. This is her newest work since Train Shots, which won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. Blakeslee addresses guns, violence, drug trafficking, and Colombia’s tumultuous history in this interview about her stunning new novel.

Juventud_book coverWhen the novel opens, your protagonist is a teenage girl named Mercedes who lives a sheltered, but still dangerous life with her wealthy single father on a hacienda in Santiago de Cali. Her strength and innocence are appealing, sympathetic qualities, but she’s far from perfect. In what ways did you relate to Mercedes when creating her, outside simple gender traits? Were there times when you disagreed with her decisions?

At one point when Mercedes is visiting her aunt, she thinks, “I felt at any moment, one slight decision would take me down a wrong road, but I never could tell which decision would reap such a result, so on I plunged into vagueness.” That line encapsulates the universal frustration we all share, operating from a first-person consciousness—each of us is doing the best we can with the limited information we’ve got to make decisions. Which speaks to the greater theme of the novel and its title, youth. Experience doesn’t accumulate nor translate into perspective until around age thirty, I’ve found. In creating young Mercedes, I very much related to her attraction to Manuel and defiance of her father’s warnings; when she’s riding on the back of Manuel’s motorcycle and taking in her surroundings, I can recall that poignant sense of nothing but liberation and possibility ahead. Later, I felt I keenly understood her enthusiasm for foreign travel, her career ambitions, and her regrets. As far as decisions go, I don’t think it was smart of her to travel to Israel when she did—she’s definitely a lot gutsier than me! Then again, I didn’t grow up in Santiago de Cali.

Your story spans fifteen years. How did you decide where and when to end Mercedes’s journey?

Where to end it felt inevitable once I knew Mercedes would have to confront the key players from her past, and I also tend to think of a novel as having an inherent urge to come full circle. There’s also a long tradition in literature going back to the Greeks of the hero’s journey and the return, so from fairly early on I knew she’d be coming back. But I didn’t know how specifically the narrative would circle back, in scene and image, until nearly the final draft. I certainly don’t see her future as fixed—in fact that’s what is most exciting about the point upon which the story ends, because she could go anywhere. I feel strongly that she’ll go back to the US for a while, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mercedes ends up, a few years down the road, as a truly global citizen, living in Europe, or even, as she dreamed early on, in Argentina.

Though written in English, the dialogue in Juventud is flavored with many Spanish terms. Did you consider this a challenge, and did you intentionally push beyond a more familiar culture to pursue the backdrop that exists within the novel?

I did intend to push beyond the familiar, yes. The Greek playwrights had a long tradition of writing about wars and tragedies set in other lands—a slight-of-hand of sorts on the dramatist’s part, because audiences will sometimes be more willing to stare at tragedies not taking place in their own front yards. The trick is, of course, that the story is still a reflection or lesson for the audience and what ills their culture, in some ways. By that logic, what better way to show what a country with a wider gap between the haves and have-nots looks like than a neighbor in our own hemisphere? The Spanish didn’t pose too much of a challenge since I’d studied it throughout high school and college, and traveled in Spanish-speaking countries (although so much time has passed, I’m sadly barely proficient). I was acutely aware that I wanted to reinforce the fact they were speaking Spanish in Part One, but wanted to shy away from the rather lame Hollywood effect of characters speaking English with Spanish accents. Perhaps a tall order for a novel that takes place in a Spanish country but written in English, for an English-speaking audience. But the book’s construct is such that Mercedes is now writing her story as a memoir, as an English-speaking American. So hopefully that reinforces the verisimilitude.

Is the perception of a cocaine-fueled 1980s indicative of that particular decade? In your opinion, is the lack of coverage on drug trafficking evident of a society that has become more lax in drug laws, the increasing rise of prescription drugs, or something else altogether?

Cocaine played such a monumental role in the relationship between Colombia and North America in the 1980s that I felt I’d be hard-pressed to exclude it from a novel largely set in 1990s Cali. The adult characters, Diego and Paula, Luis and Uncle Charlie, Tia Leo and her husband, all would have had cocaine touch upon their youth during the previous two decades. The only question was, to what degree?

From the first draft, cocaine-trafficking as a subject gave me serious pause. For so long, the message of the 1980s and 1990s was the “War on Drugs,” which clearly amounted to a failure; the American public became numb to it. By then we’d seen so many after-school specials and Hollywood depictions of lives ruined by cocaine that the message became tired and clichéd. And, as you’ve pointed out, the new wave of drug problems in the US has swelled to include prescription drug abuse and other illegal designer substances.

Juventud deals with drug trafficking in a very subtle way. It remains a largely rumored and unseen trade, referenced as a dark past of Mercedes’s father, Diego. Your novel foregoes clichés about Colombian drug trafficking and instead focuses on paramilitary forces, guerillas, activists, and impoverished farm workers. Was this a conscious decision to shed light on Colombia’s more complex internal issues as opposed to North America’s limited perception?

Thank you. I’m so glad you found the element of drug trafficking subtly depicted. Early on I knew I wanted to shed light on as many branches of Colombia’s armed conflict as I could—the different guerilla groups, the paramilitaries, and the cartels—without the particularities becoming confusing. As I conducted more research and familiarized myself with the films and books popular with the Western public, I knew that I would need to shatter everything the reader might think about how narcotrafficking truly affects the everyday lives of Colombians, from the most impoverished to the elite, for this story to resonate at all with a drug-jaded American audience. I also knew that I wanted the story to expose this reality while not becoming so dark that it would put off a lot of people. The film Maria, Full of Grace comes to mind, an incredible depiction of a teenage girl-turned-drug mule, but so gritty and disturbing that certain scenes can be difficult to watch. I’m glad those filmmakers told that story. The vision that came to me for Juventud was harrowing, but also contained light moments in juxtaposition to the dark, as life does.

So yes, absolutely, I do think such internal problems make for great literature and I wish more American writers would tackle what you might call, “social justice fiction.” Not in a forced way of shoving a message down readers’ throats, but by trusting themes to arise through the art. Obviously we each write what we’re called to, in a sense. But I think it’s very worth keeping in mind the immense privilege the American fiction writer has nowadays, with our MFAs in hand and opportunities to attend conferences, colonies and residencies that billions around the world could only dream of, if they had any concept of such idyllic sanctuaries even existing. We’re bombarded with horrific news updates constantly now; what’s left to penetrate the human heart, to move strangers to compassion? Fiction. Imagination. Do we really need another literary novel about New York City? I’m afraid we’re a rather naval-gazing lot—does that sound harsh? I just wish for us to challenge ourselves more when it comes to subject matter and what we’re capable of inhabiting imaginatively. What happens if the novelist only allows him or herself to write one autobiographically-rooted work? How might such outwardly-focused novels change the world?

Guns take on a clear presence in Juventud, and violence crops up throughout the novel. Your debut story collection, Train Shots, also depicted its fair share of violence. Do you find yourself drawn to violent subject matter, and why? As a writer, are you a staunch believer in Chekhov’s infamous rule about the gun showing up on stage? What challenges do you find in depicting violence authentically and not gratuitously?  

It’s interesting you bring up the parallels between violence in Juventud and the stories in Train Shots. When writing fiction, I’m preoccupied with how the internal conflict might manifest in the external, as physical action. Often this inner turmoil breaks out in violence. Even though gun control is a huge controversy in the US, when I lived in Latin America I found that guns occupied a more pragmatic aspect of daily life. Car jackings and holdups can be common south of the border, and an attitude of vigilantism was much more prevalent than here. To hold an opposite view would be considered by many as naïve. Our expat neighbors owned a horse farm in Nicaragua and the wife said she never rode around the property in her pickup with a revolver within arm’s reach. I heard similar stories from Colombia, so I knew that guns would take on a significant presence early on in Juventud, from the first time we see Fidel in the armored car awaiting Mercedes in the square, and the jefes on horseback with guns. But I also wanted to show the practical purpose of guns on a big farm like Diego’s—the episode where he has to shoot the young alpaca, for example. Like or not, guns are used as tools by those who live on the land, come face-to-face with animals and unexpected, life-or-death situations. Unfortunately, in Juventud, this also means Diego and his men “encouraging” the displaced villagers to move on.

In terms of the novel’s overall climate and certainly the plot action, I knew that Chekhov’s gun, so to speak, had to go off—and that event had to be a point-of-no-return for the characters, mainly Mercedes. I must have rewritten that scene a dozen times. One of the main things to keep in mind with depicting violence authentically is that real violence is much more halting and awkward than what we’ve been conditioned to expect by Hollywood, and over much more quickly. If you’ve ever witnessed a fight outside a bar or school, those are useful memories to channel. So less is more and slowing down the action can capture the messiness of real violence.

Did you outline, use notecards, and create character sketches? How many years did the book take to write overall?

Juventud’s first incarnation arrived as a rough, thirty page short story written in the first semester of my MFA program, in 2006. But I wasn’t ready to write a novel, so I set it aside. When I returned to it in September, 2009, I spent a significant amount in the pre-writing stage, asking broad “what if” questions of the premise, then more specific questions about the characters and plot as more of the storyline took shape. This is often how I approach fiction: I’ll write a chunk in my notebook, then go back to my notes and draw little diagrams, time lines and such—sometimes I’ll even work from calendars to keep the time frame straight, in a more dense Munro-like story that takes places over several weeks or months. As much as possible I like to figure out a piece’s restrictions before I sit down to draft, whether those restrictions are structural or springing from historical backdrop, location, season, etc. Once I had nailed down the timeline from researching primary source materials and Youtube videos of 1990s Colombia, this greatly helped eliminate certain possibilities for where the story could go. I’ve heard some writers speak of this as figuring out the story’s “container,” a term I find very apt. The process is nothing as rigid as outlining—think sticky tabs and notecards on a storyboard—but necessary, and some of the greatest fun of the entire process.

Are you hoping to break any preexisting barriers between North and South America, or more simply put, Latin and Anglo-Saxon America?

I hope American readers who aren’t familiar with the history behind many of the problems plaguing Latin America today will become more informed about how horrific the human rights’ situation is and has been south of the border, and why. Paramilitary atrocities are just as torturous and twisted as those of ISIS, and yet the mainstream global media has ignored such massacres for decades, or only focused on those perpetrated by cartels or guerillas. I would love for the novel to wake up the public about how neoliberal economic policies have affected the developing world and what such a future will look like here, as those polices spread. Americans have a right and responsibility to know the role the United States has played not only in Colombia, but in countries across the region. I see Juventud as having the potential to impact audiences similar to Blood Diamond; certainly I felt that way while writing the scene where Mercedes is in the dorm room with the fraternity brothers snorting cocaine.

What other regions/conflicts do you have interest in fictionalizing? What responsibilities do you feel that authors have in writing about foreign lands and cultures, if any?

Right now I feel most drawn toward writing about the future, mostly because I feel like such an old soul, constantly asking myself what is this time I’ve been born into, and why, and to where are we hurtling? As we rely more on our screens and devices, the more Victorian I feel, and not in the steampunk sense, if you get what I mean. Not so much out of place, but out of time. The responsibility is always to capture individuals with compassion and to undertake whatever due diligence is required to render the fiction moving and believable.

Interview by Shawn Mckee


Headshot_Vanessa Blakeslee Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut short story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press) won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. The book was also long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and has been optioned for a feature film by producer/director Hannah Beth King. Her debut novel, Juventud (Curbside Splendor) was released in October 2015. Vanessa’s writing has appeared in The Southern ReviewGreen Mountains ReviewThe Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Finalist for the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Vanessa earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida.

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