Alumni: Scott Blackwood

Scott Blackwood wins Whiting
Writers’ Award for debut novel

By Billi London-Gray

photo of author Scott Blackwood

Scott Blackwood

Texas State University alumnus Scott Blackwood is a writer on the rise. Yesterday, Oct. 25, he received a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award, one of the most prestigious and sought-after awards for young writers, at a ceremony in New York City.

These $50,000 awards, given since 1985, annually recognize 10 emerging writers “based on accomplishment and promise,” according to the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, the organization that funds the awards in addition to supporting other work in the humanities.

The award follows the publication of Blackwood’s debut novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, which also won the AWP Prize for the Novel, the Texas Institute of Letters Award for best fiction, and was a finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award for fiction.

The novel was inspired by a 1997 obituary Blackwood read about Lionel Luckhoo, cult leader Jim Jones’ attorney in Guyana. Luckhoo missed an appointment with Jones on Nov. 18, 1978 — the day Jones led 908 of his followers to commit suicide with him, after group members murdered a U.S. Congressman and 8 others at a nearby airstrip, in what became known as the Jonestown Massacre. In the following years, Luckhoo started a Protestant ministry organization in Ft. Worth and became a traveling evangelist.

“I was fascinated with this Luckhoo guy. In fact, I had to cut him back to make him believable as a character — Odie Dodd — who haunts We Agreed to Meet Just Here,” Blackwood says. “The real Luckhoo felt he was saved from being in Jonestown…This was the beginning of the novel: What would a man like this feel like afterward? What might he tell people years later? Would it haunt them too, by reminding them of narrow misses? Where things might have turned out differently if it wasn’t for chance? So that was the premise — this old guy, Odie Dodd (a stand-in for Luckhoo), visiting neighborhood backyard barbecues and stirring the pot.”

Although We Agreed to Meet Just Here is Blackwood’s first novel, it is not his first book. In the Shadow of Our House, an award-winning collection of stories published in 2001, was his first volume. His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Gettysburg Review, Boston Review, Southwest Review and the New York Times Book Review. Blackwood also has contributed essays to the Austin Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman, Bookslut and Revenant Record’s NPR-featured American Primitive, Volume II.

Blackwood grew up in Texas, earning his BA in psychology from the University of Texas and his MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State. After completing his graduate degree in 1997, he taught at St. Mary’s University and UT. He currently directs the MFA Creative Writing Program at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

In a recent interview with the Texas State Blog, Blackwood shared his thoughts about becoming a writer.

On pursuing a career as a literary writer: “Well, I tried being a superhero early on as a career path but that didn’t work out when my super powers proved a little too vague. Then in my teens I was going to be a major league center fielder. But I couldn’t hit well enough.  All that was left was writing short stories and novels, which initially seemed easy (when I didn’t know what I was doing) but later proved as hard as hitting a slider. I think what kept me doing it despite a lot of failure early on was the thought that the writers I admired also struggled, also had to figure things out over time. And that they were reaching for something, that they had a vision for a new way of telling a story that still focused on the things that have always mattered to us as readers: our conflicted hearts.”

On choosing the MFA program at Texas State: “It was fortuitous. One day I found a flier for the program in the mail. I knew UT was starting their MFA Program but I hadn’t heard of Texas State’s and it seemed more in line with my life at the time (I was teaching high school English full-time and my daughter was nearly a year old) as it catered to working adult students. I could commute. So chance and circumstance figured into it. And then I got a call from then MFA director Miles Wilson and everything changed, from that call forward.”

And on his experience at Texas State: “I found a community, a like-minded group of people pursuing something that many on the outside might not see as fruitful or realistic — writing literary fiction — but that we saw as THE thing. I already had other experiences (I was 26 at the time I was accepted) and knew that this — the MFA, and writing seriously — was a pursuit worth risking things for. And to have other people around, including my professors like Miles, Tom Grimes, and Debra Monroe, validating this experience, was hugely important to me. They had done it — and come out the other side publishing good work and getting recognition for it. You have to have models and a community that supports you. The whole thing about the writer-as-lone-wolf is just a myth that badly serves writers. We’re much more interdependent.”

Blackwood will use the Whiting Award to support work on his next novel, See How Small. Learn more about Blackwood and his work on his website, www.scottblackwood.com.

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