|interviewed by Dot Dannenberg|
Last week I chatted with Tabitha Blankenbiller, the author behind “Border Town” and “Plump Insides.” Over Perrier and crudités at an exclusive restaurant you haven’t heard of yet, we sat down to discuss life and work. Tabitha looked chic in a hand-made headband and steampunk-inspired boots, gazing into the distance as she professed her love for Sriracha and Disneyland.
1:1000: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
TABITHA J. BLANKENBILLER: I wrote a bunch of stories and such when I was a kid, but I also made a lot of Play-Doh blue hamburgers, and I didn't decide to seriously pursue that. I think the moment that made me realize that this is what I wanted to do happened in 2005, when a college professor assigned our class "The Love of My Life" from The Best American Essays 2003, written by an up-and-comer named Cheryl Strayed. College hadn't turned out to be the marvelous misadventure with friendships and sexy sidequests that I'd always dreamed of. I was desperate and lonely and trying to validate my existence in the lowest places, and reading Strayed's exquisite, raw account of her early-twenties low--losing her mother and destroying her marriage--it was a heart-taser. I remember curling around the paperback on my bed, crying for at least an hour: my pain, Strayed's, the incredible revelation that I wasn't alone. When I woke up, it was with the promise that if I was going to write, I wanted to write like that. It's what I'm still trying for, every damn day.
1:1000: What's the first thing you can remember writing?
TJB: When I was probably eight years old, the first issue of American Girl Magazine came out, featuring an article about a girl who was the same age as me and had published a book already. I can still see the damn excerpts in my head. It was called "Punt, Pass and Pointe" and it was about a football player who took ballet lessons to become more agile on the field. I was so pissed. Bitch writing a book before middle school. I wanted that crown, dammit. I wrote and illustrated a book called "The Candy Capers" about two scampy kids who planned an epic candy store heist. I did the cover up with a sweet candy cane font, and sprinkled an unspoken romance between the main characters. I found the address for Scholastic in one of my picture books and sent it off to them, and got back a letter informing me that they did not accept unsolicited manuscripts. That was my last submission for about 20 years.
1:1000: Oh, gosh! That’s so harsh! I know that jealousy so well--it’s how I feel when I think about being the same age as Lady Gaga. But that’s the mark of a true writer, maybe--seeing great work and turning around to write your own, rather than collapsing in a puddle. What are some of your more unusual sources of inspiration?
TJB: I'm really nostalgic, so I'm sparked by anything that can bring me back to a time when I was a different person, however small or random. I just finished a piece for Hobart based around the Snake game on old Nokia cell phones.
1:1000: Beautiful. And I love that other essay you wrote about blowing the dust off the old N64. In the spirit of nostalgia, if you could tell your fifteen-year-old self three things, what would they be?
TJB: 1. Buy Amazon stock. All of it. 2. WEAR YOUR RETAINER. 3. Every single thing that you hate about yourself right now, what you think stands between you and being accepted, is exactly what will make you an adult people want to be around. Your people are out there. They just don't live in Buckley, Washington.
1:1000: And aside from Cheryl Strayed, what's the last thing you read that blew your mind?
TJB: A few weeks ago, Jezebel ran an article about the (almost) abandoned Lisa Frank factory titled "Inside the Rainbow Gulag." Apparently Lisa Frank and her husband ran their color-vomit binder and eraser factory in a coke-fueled narcissism and sex haze, which to any girl of the 90's looking back, makes pretty much total sense. And the world headquarters, which has dwindled down to just a couple of employees, is like five miles from my new Tucson house. Apparently there's a unicorn with a broken horn in the parking lot. I think there needs to be a 1:1000 scout mission for that one.
1:1000: Tuscon photographers, TAKE NOTE. Speaking of Tucson, your new essay deals a lot with place and identity--especially this overarching idea of figuring out who you are since moving from Portland to Tucson. How has this relocation affected your writing?
TJB: Honestly, it's flipped everything over. I'm not saying everything is bad in opposite-land. It's January and 70 degrees out right now. I had lunch on a patio today like I'm staying at Sandals resort or something. But the thing is, it happened so fast. My husband was offered a job relocation package from thin air, and within about a month we were headed down to a house in a place we'd never been, never even looked into moving to. I think my writing in the Northwest had a sense of certainty and root to it, that this was who I was and where I was. Now I have a much tougher time committing to an identity or idea of "home", not out of spite and insolence (at least after the first seven months or so), but because who and where I am is so up in the air. We could move back to our Portland house for a year, or we could end up here indefinitely; at this point, we don't know. I think there's a new perspective in my work. I hope it's a better one. Something's got to be worth driving around with all these damn snowbirds.
1:1000: Tell me about your memoir.
TJB: It's called Paper Bag: Tales of Love, Beauty and Baggage, and it's a memoir-in-essays about the price of perfection. I grew up with so many "ideal" versions of myself and my life, and being fixated on fulfilling these giant, impossible expectations of my appearance, my career, my relationships--it just made me into a really desperate and lonely version of myself. It's told in essays, much like Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth or Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. I like when memoir is less stringent with chronology, which is what I tried to do. It's built around understanding, and overcoming, the madness of becoming a woman who can stand the fuck up for herself.
1:1000: The flash fiction genre has been around awhile--where do you think flash-memoir fits into the literary scene?
TJB: I think that flash-memoir is such a natural fit for the genre, since it's the way we experience our memories. Little snippets and scenes, suddenly triggered and wispy. When you look at the power in pieces published in short-form nonfiction journals like Brevity, the economy of space speaks for itself. It's why, I think, memoir is often compared to poetry. You can often do much more by keeping the moment contained instead of letting it sprawl out into a bunch of backstory and exposition.
1:1000: What's your strategy been for working within the 1,000 word limit?
TJB: The word limit was more of a challenge when I wrote "Plump Insides", because I was uncovering so much emotion that I had forgotten or thought was "over." The incident with my teacher launched me into the worst depression I've ever experienced, which lasted through virtually all of middle school. The guilt and confusion just ate me alive. The word limit prevented me from going into that, and kept me focused on the event rather than allowing the narrative to amoeba out into what happened later, which would have diluted the story. When I learned that I couldn't fit all of it--the event and the repercussions--I focused on making the scene as powerful as I could, so that the reader would know it would reverberate out later without being told. It's a great lesson I probably need to remember more often. With "Border Town", it's a simpler story, but I still wasn't allowed to go into the tangents I considered about cartel violence or Tucson immigration politics or whatever else. The word limit kept the heart of what I felt without giving me the freedom to make a mess.
1:1000: At 1:1000, we're rather partial to "A picture's worth a thousand words." What sayings/mantras/philosophies are you living by this year?
TJB: I'm not sure who said "quit being such a social anxiety-riddled nutcase," but they were wise indeed, so I'm going with that. Come to think of it, I believe that was Thoreau.
1:1000: Wise words, indeed. For people out there who might be considering writing, or considering submitting their writing for the first time, how do you manage to balance your day job with the work you really want to be doing?
TJB: By day, I'm an editor at a company that writes training materials and manuals for the mining industry. I know, isn't that riveting and sexy? The great thing about it is that as soon as I leave, none of it comes home with me. I stop giving a shit about grinding circuits and flocculant at exactly 4:57 p.m. Up until now I used to work in Marketing, and there was always stress that walked out to the car and through the front door with you. Wondering if you missed anything on that proof for ten thousand light switch catalogs, if the burger patties will thaw in time for the customer appreciation barbecue--not to mention, doing graphic design and copywriting, that ate up so much creative energy. I'm relieved to be free of that and have a legitimately boring job. But it's still difficult to write on worknights when you pack in the long commute, throwing some garbage together to call dinner, and acknowledging my husband's existence. It's kind of just a sheer matter of will. If you want to write, you have to carve out the time even if it could be used to do a bazillion other worthy things with, like keeping your kitchen cleaner or watching the stars come out on the patio. I miss a lot of Jon Stewart, and I secretly don't have Netflix. I complain a lot. Kind of constantly. But then I remember Stephen King writing "Carrie" in his laundry room or whatever in between janitor gigs, and I keep stepping forward.
1:1000: You heard it here, folks. Cancel your Netflix and write more.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a Pacific Northwest native, originally born in Seattle and raised on the Mt. Rainier plateau. She graduated from the Pacific University MFA program in June 2012. She is a staff writer at PDXX Collective and Spectrum Culture, and writes The Wordstalker column for Barrelhouse Magazine. Her personal essays have been published in journals including Owl Eye Review, Sliver of Stone and Brevity. Her memoir,"Paper Bag," is represented by Jennifer Chen Tran at Penumbra Literary.