Interview with Elise Blackwell: “Returning to longhand work almost always works for me.”

Elise Blackwell is an award-winning author of five novels, including the critically acclaimed Hunger and her most recent, The Lower Quarter. Her writing has been translated into multiple languages and has been recognized on various best-of-the-year lists.

Her work has also been adapted for the stage and served as inspiration for a song by the Decemberists. A native of southern Louisiana, Elise currently teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Carolina and hosts the literary series The Open Book. Her writing explores themes of southern culture, family, and identity.

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Hi Elise, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines. We’re really excited to talk to you about your writing routine and process. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Thank you for inviting me. I’m the author of five novels, including Hunger and, most recently, The Lower Quarter, which is a literary noir set in immediate post-Katrina New Orleans. Originally from southern Louisiana, I now live and teach in South Carolina, where I’m host of a literary series called The Open Book. 

Can you take us through the creative process of your novel, The Lower Quarter

The idea first occurred to me while I was on tour promoting my second novel, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish. I was staying in the lower French Quarter, an area I’m connected to through family history, and observing the way the city was still recovering from and changing following Hurricane Katrina. I had the most peculiar feeling, probably untrue, that someone had once been killed in my hotel room. After I went home, I wrote two other novels, but that seed stayed with me and ultimately grew into The Lower Quarter.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I usually write longhand when I first wake up, while I drink coffee, until my dog insists on a walk. I return to writing later in the morning, this time at the computer, typically typing up what I wrote by hand and then continuing on. Sometimes I’m able to work more in the afternoon or evening, but that’s hit-or-miss and more likely to involve editing and research than composition.

Do you have a target word count that you like to hit each day? 

My writing speed varies, so I am for a time rather than amount. If I’ve blocked out two hours to write, I might end up with many pages of new material or two shaky paragraphs. Eventually a book emerges.

Can you talk about some of your must-have writing tools?

My must-haves are simple: paper, pencil, word processing. When I write longhand, I use a mechanical pencil on a white letter pad. (I have dreadful handwriting and need a fine and precise lead if I’m to decipher it later.)

When not working longhand, I type on a desktop computer using basic word processing (Word), listening to classical music (via Tidal). I’m tempted by Scrivener but think I might use it as a procrastination method so instead organize my books using index cards and simple notebooks. 

Whenever you hit a roadblock during a writing session, what are some of the methods you use to get back into the flow of things? 

Returning to longhand work almost always works for me if I get stuck on the computer. If not, then a walk, workout, or cup of coffee does the trick. When I’m just getting stale, engaging with art of some kind – reading a favorite author, looking at paintings, concentrating on a piece of music – refreshes and inspires me.

What does your writing workspace look like?

For many years my writing space was the corner of another room, but I’m lucky enough now to have a small office. I have a recliner that gets natural light for writing longhand and for reading, and I use an old but interestingly painted table as a computer desk.

The black and white photos in the room have personal meaning, and my desktop wallpaper shows me heading out to climb Parícutin after a severe case of food poisoning – a reminder to myself that I can do what I set out to do. My study also contains a dog bed for my writing companion. 

Before you go…

Each week, we spend hours upon hours researching and writing about famous authors and their daily writing routines. It’s a lot of work, but we do it out of our love for books and learning about these authors’ creative process, and we certainly don’t expect anything in return. However, if you’re enjoying these profiles each week, and would like to send something our way, feel free to buy us a coffee!

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