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Segue 10: Fall 2011  ||  Vanessa Blakeslee


about the author


Vanessa Blakeslee’s work has been recognized by grants and fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Yaddo, the Ragdale Foundation and the United Arts of Central Florida, and has appeared in Harpur Palate, The Bellingham Review, Green Mountains Review, and The Southern Review, among other journals. She was a finalist for the 2011 Philip Roth Residency at Bucknell University and the Sozopol Fiction Seminars. Her short story “Shadowboxes” won the 2011 Bosque Fiction Prize. Please visit www.vanessablakeslee.com for more.


about the work


The intersection of form and content sparked the vision for “Ed Dyess, Hero of Agoloma Point, April 22nd, 1942.” I wrote it midway through the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College, when I was trench-deep in setting all types of challenges for myself as a writer. I wanted to stretch my abilities, write about people and situations vastly different from my (then) comfort zone of often thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction. I had first encountered the historical incident a couple of years before, when I was hired to co-write a screenplay about fighter pilots in World War II. In my research I came upon a first person radio transcript dated April 22nd, 1942, given by another fighter pilot who had escaped the Philippines to Darwin, Australia—the voice of my story originally stems from this primary source. The screenplay ultimately didn’t fly, but for a long time the bizarre, true story of Ed Dyess and his band of pilots who ended up fighting a land mission in the Philippines with old Lewis guns from the first World War and oven mitts stuck in my imagination. If the screenplay wasn’t going anywhere, why not salvage those great opening scenes, transfer them to another form?

But as with many ideas for potential fiction, I didn’t attempt to put the story on paper because I didn’t yet have a container for the narrative. Not until I studied with Douglas Glover my second semester and came across a short war story of his, “Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm’s Mills, (now Oakland, Ontario), November 6th, 1814,” did I have an Aha moment. I wrote the first draft as a self-imposed exercise and turned it in to Glover, noting my intention to pay homage to his tale with my own. The draft came back with all types of red marks and suggestions, but I finally had a style and narrative structure, enough to give it the dramatic thrust needed for a short story to work.

That was the easy part. The big problem I faced as I attempted revision (the story went through about five drafts) was that I had not yet inhabited the point-of-view sufficiently so that the why of the narrative was clear. As my third semester instructor Xu Xi posed to me, the first question was what makes Ed Dyess a hero, beyond the military sense—a hero that warrants this particular story be told of his life in this particular moment by this narrator? Another problem was that my initial descriptions of the action were strategic and not tactical or specific enough—not surprising, considering my lack of military expertise. But a writer’s job is to render the fiction believable, so I had to nail the details. In the screenplay version these were much easier to leave out, of course—a screenplay being comprised of mostly dialogue and scant description, unlike literature.

To better capture the voice and tone, I studied Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Ha Jin’s “A Woman from New York.” I also studied James Salter’s excellent novel, “The Hunters,” a book that captures the consciousness of fighter pilots in an entirely believable way. Even after examining these texts I struggled with getting the voice right up until I worked through the other issues in the story. Once I knew Ed Dyess and the narrator better, the voice seemed to straighten itself out.

A somewhat easier task was nailing the concrete details. I moved a sentence from several paragraphs in, making it the opening line of the story. From there I had a clearer vantage point to render the events. This is a common pitfall when learning to write, for everything builds from the opening line you lay down. So if the opening line is faulty, like with a house, the rest of what you build will be on shaky ground. In the early drafts I had a lot of awkward back-and-forth that ended up being confusing; the story could just as easily be told chronologically. Often when writing short fiction you want to keep the backstory to a minimum, but in this case the historical details were integral to the understanding of the story. So for the subsequent drafts I focused on rearranged the telling to a more simple, straightforward approach. Once I had accomplished that, and fleshed out the details more, “Ed Dyess…” started to read less like a writing exercise and more like a story.

Finally, to develop the “why” of the narrative more fully, I focused on bringing out the character of Ed Dyess in a more precise and exacting way. Once he (and the narrator’s perception of him) came into sharper focus, the comment I wanted to make about heroism, war and absurdity at this point in human history coalesced more fully.

Fiction, for me, is about living multiple realities through characters whose lives are radically different from my own, and rendering those inhabited realities believable for the reader to experience them, too. How else would I be able to experience, in a complete sensory and psychological way, a band of American pilots fighting the Japanese in World War II? Walk in the shoes of a young man in a Pacific jungle sixty-five years ago when I’m a woman in the twenty first century? Writing fiction, for those who are called to do it, is among the most important work on the planet, for it shows us what it is to be human. By inhabiting another’s life different from your own, you learn to empathize with that person. The process of doing so is my dharma—there’s nothing more frustrating, exhilarating, or challenging that I care to do. Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes not, but at the end of the day, the work is fun and the rewards infinite.


Vanessa Blakeslee on the Web









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