The Transmitter: Tabitha Blankenbiller Answers the Questions That Matter
Author Tabitha Blankenbiller talks favorite authors, knickknacks, and her passion for France and chili pepper scarves.
How would The New York Times categorize your writing?
If Cara Greenberg and Claudette Didul can define the architectural structure of the midcentury modern revivalist movement, Blankenbiller illuminates the interiority of the re-emerging American suburb and its distinctly 21st century hustle. Betty Draper is hungry, and splays our perception of where big city dreams can unfold.
What was the catalyst that made you start writing?
I’ve been writing my whole life, ever since I was a couple years old, and dictated stories to my mom, which she’d take down as I drew the illustrations. But I didn’t start taking writing seriously in my life until I was 25 and stuck in a defeating, dead-end job. I knew I had to bring something bigger into my life, something I was passionate about, because the idea of doing this work every day until I died made me want to run into traffic. I enrolled in the Pacific University MFA program in 2010, and it was the first time I’d been in a room full of other aspiring writers. It was the first time I felt like I was in the right place, even though I knew nothing about the literary community. At all. I’d never submitted to a publication, except for an ill-fated manuscript I sent to Scholastic when I was in second grade (They sent back a form letter chastising me against sending unsolicited submissions). Everything was from the ground up for me and my empty portfolio, but it was the best time of my life. Working with faculty who had these tangible things out there — books! — made something mysterious feel difficult and distant, but at least possible. Discovering what you are meant to do is one of the greatest privileges there is, and I’m so grateful for that direction.
Your favorite —
Whisk(e)y: In an Old Fashioned.
Wild animal: Elephant.
Waffle topping: Strawberries but NO whipped cream. Calm down, people.
Poem: “To Dorothy” by Marvin Bell.
Scientist or inventor: Ruth Handler.
Broadway musical: I can’t not say Hamilton, especially after actually seeing it. That would make me a filthy liar.
Badass getaway vehicle: Cinderella’s carriage.
Movie to watch alone: Perfect Blue by Satoshi Kon.
Quote: “The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.” — Cheryl Strayed
Tell us about your favorite books or authors.
I’m partial to essays, because they’re my most cherished form and I’m low-key obsessed with them. Chloe Caldwell’s work has been a consistent inspiration to me for years, particularly her collection, Legs Get Led Astray, which made me see the way a person could structure a memoir — as essays — for the first time and changed everything I wanted to accomplish. I am in love with the ode to the modern American West that Aaron Gilbreath built in Everything We Don’t Know. Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life got me through the last stretch of edits on my book as a reminder of what I want to accomplish, which is being true to voice and unforgettably hilarious. The same with Kelly Davio in It’s Just Nerves, balancing a wicked sense of humor with unflinching, vital honesty. I want to devour Chelsea Hodson’s tiny-gigantic Pity the Animal a hundred thousand times.
Then there’s the fiction writers who make me wish so hard that I could cast the magic that they do! Erin Fitzgerald’s Valletta78, Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, Kevin Maloney’s Cult of Loretta, YiShun Lai’s Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, I Am Barbarella by Beth Gilstrap, Olivay by Deboray Reed, and The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob immediately jump to mind.
If you could witness or participate in any historical event or time period, what would it be?
I spent so much time in my early teens trying to wish myself through time onto the Titanic, it would be a betrayal of that sweet dumb self to say any different. In my defense, those dining salons were pretty damn amazing for a couple of days.
Weapon of choice:
Toasters thrown at unsuspecting bathers.
The perfect soundtrack to your writing:
Anything by Max Richter, but especially anything that was used to create The Leftovers soundtrack.
Which literary figure, dead or alive, would you want to —
Take tea with: Ruth Reichl.
Arm wrestle: Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Ice skate with: Oscar Wilde.
Drink under the table: Jess Walter.
Get a blurb from: Fiona Apple (Yes, she’s a goddamn POET).
Beat in a duel of wits: E. L. James.
Have on your side in the apocalypse: Kristen Arnett.
Write your next book for you: Samantha Irby.
Join you for a day at Disneyland: David Sedaris, but he has to bring Amy, too.
The one thing in your writing routine you couldn’t live without:
My very specific collection of desk knickknacks! I’m more than a little obsessive about how they’re placed (in the way they’re supposed to be always) but they ground me when I start and mildly distract me when I need my mind to wander a bit. They’re all from a place I love, or symbolize another passion I have, or are artworks that I’ve created in other mediums. Not to mention the White River High School Most Grammatically Eloquent 2002 award statuette that I need to live up to.
Set the perfect scene for you to write your next masterpiece.
“Now that I’ve quit my day job,” Tabitha announced from the comfort of her bed, free of the phone alarm’s tyranny, “bring me my laptop!”
It was then that she remembered she was quite alone, and that the cats lacked opposable thumbs, along with a general willingness.
When writing makes you rich, you will:
Buy that apartment in the Saint-Germain district of Paris I saw right up the street from Laduree, listed with Sotheby’s for some-million Euros. Eat at Laduree’s “Le Brunch” tower every day. Make fun of people eating at Café De Flore. Stockpile the Monoprix Frites Sauce I drunkenly bought and fell in love with a continent too late for more. Go back for that scarf I felt too guilty to buy, the one with the hot sauce and chilies in the print. Get the knack of saying “bonjour” well enough so that people don’t immediately hand me an English language menu. Fly everyone I know from back home over so they can see how real it is. Not care that no one wants to publish my clichéd essays about how fabulous France is because I’m in France, bitches.
TABITHA BLANKENBILLER is the author of Eats of Eden, a foodoir from Alternating Current Press. She grew up in Washington State and currently lives outside of Portland, Oregon. She graduated from the Pacific University MFA in Writing program in 2012 and has written essays for Electric Lit, The Rumpus, Bustle, Catapult, Hobart, Brevity, and other venues, and has been anthologized in the Not My President and All That Glitters collections. Her home is populated by her husband Matt, her cats Max and Mehitabel, and her prized dual oven, Doubles.