Interview with William Black

by Bobbi Nicotera

William Black earned his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama, and has taught fiction, poetry, and nonfiction courses at Ohio University, Western Washington University, the University of Alabama, the University of Scranton, and Johns Hopkins University. I first met Bill at Hopkins, where he serves as a Writing Program faculty member for the University’s Advanced Academic Programs. He is an incredibly talented instructor who has helped guide many a lost and wandering writer (this one included) toward finding vehicles for their obsessions.

He recently added The Baltimore Review to his growing list of publications (which include The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, and The Florida Review); his story “Pleasure Dome” appeared in the Winter 2015 issue. Shortly after, he published a collection, Inheritances, which included “Pleasure Dome.”

Recently I had the pleasure to talk to Bill about his approach to writing. What follows is just a section of our far-ranging conversation.


Baltimore Review: What draws you to an idea/event/occurrence/memory and makes you say, "There's a story in this"? 

William Black: This is an enormously difficult question to answer. I probably could have given a clearer, more succinct answer a year or two ago, but my work, and my thinking about my work, is undergoing a fairly radical revision.

At this point, I’m less interested in story, at least insofar as “story” connotes plot or even, for that matter, the conventions of character development. I was first drawn to the idea of writing by works of high modernism, especially those by Eliot, Djuana Barnes, and Ford Maddox Ford, that is, works that are passionate flights of language and imagination fortified by rigorous patterning, but I was pretty well indoctrinated, during my MFA days, in the kinds of stories that populate literary journals and collections like this one. Certain of the stories in Inheritances reflect a less than perfect comfort with the conventions of the short story, but in none of them do I go where I now think I need to go.


BR: How do you coax the story out?

William Black: In my view, “coaxing” a story is the most fun you can have writing. Faulkner once said that a writer writes his first novel because he has an idea. He writes the second one out of a frustration at the way what happens on the page defeats the vision. A career, by extension, is a continual negotiation between what happens in the imagination and what happens on the page. That continual negotiation, for me, is about bringing the stuff of the story to vividness, intensifying a manifold pressure, and identifying the precise moment in which a change of some kind feels imminent, whether it's ultimately realized or not. All this requires lots of time and a great willingness to fail over and over again, and to facilitate patience as much as writing, I tend to revise in short, highly concentrated bursts, developing a single paragraph, or often even less than that, over and over again until it reaches a certain pitch before moving on.


BR: Who’s influenced you the most (and why?) and was there any story/author that you can draw direct influence on this collection? In other words, What’s on your nightstand? 

William Black: Influence is an odd thing. I don’t expect anyone reading Inheritances would suspect that I count among my chief influences—and my favorite writers—W.G. Sebald, Max Frisch, Yoel Hoffman, Nabokov, Marilynne Robinson, and Thomas Bernhard, but I can point to places where their influence shaped my thinking or my approach or simply helped me solve a problem. 

In the past two or three years I’ve gone back to tightly knotted works that struck me as powerful when I was still learning how to read well but which, at the time, eluded me. So the books I think about most often these days include Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, Milan Fust’s wonderful The Story of my Wife, (which I’m sorry to say is out of print again), Dostoyevsky’s Notes from UndergroundLolita, Kafka’s work, and Knut Hamsun’s novels, as well as certain of Thomas Bernhard’s and Machado Assis.  

Very recently I've been thrilled by Andres Neuman's and Valeria Luiselli's work, and I find Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station to be the two most compelling American novels of the century so far. I haven’t found anything that understands and makes art of contemporary American life like these two books. They are endlessly bold and endlessly rewarding.


BR: What’s next for you?

William Black: I've become increasingly suspicious of the kind of realism most of Inheritances represents. With anything that requires artifice or craft, one becomes increasingly aware of its mechanics, and over time, the mechanics of "realism" begins to feel pretty radically divorced from the real. In that way, my restlessness is far from uncommon. But more powerfully, is that group of high modernist writers who excited me in college, Eliot, Barnes, Ford, Svevo, et alias. These writers had seemed playful to me at first—serious but daring, innovative—and now their work feels more real than most of what might be called realism. What's next is, at last, a return to these early influences. I'm neck-deep in a novel that, in many respects, could have been written a hundred years ago, while these writers were endeavoring to make their mark. 


BR: What is the toughest criticism you’ve ever gotten? What’s the best advice and/or compliment?

William Black: My dear friend Tim Parrish once wrote on a manuscript, “Sorry to be an asshole, but you need to get out of your head and start thinking about your characters.” I cut that out and pinned it above my writing desk for a good five or six years. That was the most necessary criticism-cum-advice I’d ever received, and I've applied it to every aspect of writing. It's easy to get excited by or committed to the dream in your head, but you're not really writing, I'd say, until you begin to treat what appears on the page almost as though it were physical and certainly as something with a life outside you. The job is to make something, not to lose yourself in daydreams.

Compliments are harder to remember because, let’s face it, who ever trusts them? 


Since compliments are not to be trusted, I won’t give any here…SIKE! I love you both, and great stuff. I only wish I could go back and take my courses with Bill. I would talk less and listen more.

By Eddie Jeffrey on Dec 02 2015

Excellent interview. Absolutely cannot wait to see his novel.

By Elizabeth Gonzalez on Dec 02 2015