UT Alum Wins Whiting Writers’ Award

Scott Blackwood, BA ’88, has joined the ranks of authors like Jonathan Franzen, Li-Young Lee, and Mary Karr. All were relatively unknown when they won the Whiting Writers’ Award for emerging authors, and all went on to great acclaim. Blackwood and nine others received the award today at a ceremony in New York City.

Blackwood, who also earned an MFA from Texas State University, is the author of the novel We Agreed to Meet Just Here and the short story collection In the Shadow of Our House. He directs the MFA program at Roosevelt University in Chicago and is at work on a novel based loosely on the 1991 yogurt shop murders in Austin.

The Alcalde: Congratulations on the award. How did you find out you’d won?

Scott Blackwood: Thanks. It just fell out of the sky. Except for once it wasn’t a brick. Or I guess it was a brick of goodness.

The way it works is they get 100 top writers to nominate one writer each, and it’s anonymous. You don’t know you’re under consideration, and then one day I just got a phone call. I don’t know who nominated me, but it means a lot. I’m very grateful.

Q: Much of your work is set in Austin (We Agreed to Meet Just Here focuses on the Deep Eddy neighborhood). Why is that?

A: Well, I lived in Austin for 24 years, so it’s a big part of me. And it’s also a great place to write about because it’s so full of contradictions. There’s that Western idea, that Texan idea of the self-made person and individualism, and then there’s a lot of patting on the back about how cool Austin is. I always found that annoying. People always say, “You should’ve seen Austin (x number of years) ago.” They’ve been saying that forever. It’s an Austin of the mind, a place that informs the way you want to live.

Q: What other careers did you try along your way to becoming a professional writer?

A: In second grade, I wanted to be a superhero. I was serious about it; I worked out a lot and developed my powers. But I never figured out what they were, so I scrapped that plan.

Then in my teens I wanted to be a major-league baseball center fielder. Turned out my powers were a little vague there too. I couldn’t hit a curveball.

So writing was the third try. It turns out there is a lot of failure associated with that plan too. It’s also a ridiculous way to try to make a living. Writing is really about failing and failing again and learning how to fail better each time. I had some great mentors, like Jim Magnusson at UT, who taught me how to fail better. I taught high school for four years, and directed UT’s Writing Center for eight years.

Q: Your writing often deals with difficult themes–divorce, infidelity, violence. Why do dark subjects inspire you?

A: Because in those moments, your identity is threatened. Whenever I’m afraid to really delve into a subject, I know I’m onto something. If it bothers me, I need to pursue it further. I’m writing something now that’s very loosely related to the 1991 yogurt shop murders in Austin, these really atrocious, senseless crimes. It’s this Shakespearean-level tragedy that was never resolved. People were falsely imprisoned for years, lives were totally destroyed. And when you start to deal with these kinds of things, you have to ask fundamental questions about identity and about how tragic events change communities.

Q: What are you reading at the moment?

A: I just read a harrowing novel by a Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño’s 2066. Also Ghosts by Cesar Aira.

Q: Any advice for young writers?

A: Sentences matter. People always have big ideas, like “I want to write a story about identity,” but you have to have good sentences first. And read outside your experience. That adage “write what you know” is only partly true. I think it’s more like you write the story you know. Writing is really the distilled essence of what you’ve been reading. And that’s kind of a relief to know that, because it means you have more control than you thought. If you want to be a great writer, fill your brain with lots of great books.


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