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Blanche McCrary Boyd:
No Fear of Falling

July 16, 1997
i met with Blanche McCrary Boyd almost warily. The author of "The Revolution of Little Girls", a novel, and "The Redneck Way of Knowledge", a collection of essays on race, the South, and herself, seemed tough, and I armed myself with plenty of questions and a joking request. "Would you hypnotize me?" I was going to ask, as she and her characters were prone to hynotisizing others at some point in their real or imagined lives. But Blanche Boyd is a smiler, and her charm disarmed my fears real fast. We spoke on the last stop of a month-long book tour for her latest novel, "Terminal Velocity".

The second in a trilogy, "Terminal Velocity" is a wild ride [Terminal Velocity Book Cover] through the seventies with Ellen Lorraine Burns, the narrator of "The Revolution of Little Girls". The characters take a lot of drugs and do a lot of harm, to themselves and each other, at a pace that approaches the meaning of the book's title. "Terminal Velocity" refers to the speed at which a sky diver can't fall any faster. The tone of the book is calamitous and hilarious, a precipitous look at the sacred early days of feminism. Boyd has tenure at Connecticut College, where she's a full Professor of Writing, so she felt safe, and therefore compelled to take the risk of writing about women's sex and sexuality in a new way.

"Books where women's primary relationships are with each other, other than mother-daughter, don't exist. That's a big hole. There's not a whole lot of lesbian fiction. Can you think of major work where you say, oh this is about women's relationships with each other?" she asked me. I couldn't, and in "Terminal Velocity" Boyd does gamble. The sex scenes are raw. This is not simple erotica. What she says about sex made me feel uncomfortable. It made me think.

Beyond "Terminal Velocity", Boyd is also offering a challenging take on writing. Unlike most writers, who try to deny commonalities between their lives and the ones they've created, Boyd sees her fiction and non-fiction writing as working together for the reader.

"The Redneck Way of Knowledge is an autobiography, but if you lay it next to The Revolution of Little Girls, you see things that are real. I went to Duke, Ellen went to Duke. I hypnotised people in high school, Ellen hypnotised people in high school. But I didn't try to lose my virginity in a girdle at Duke. My brother really wrote the short story that Royce wrote in Terminal Velocity, but my real brother's not Royce. My real brother didn't marry a Vietnamese woman and name his baby Ruby. My real brother sells real estate. My real brother's not a novelist. With this book, when Ellen invents Rain, I invent the Blanche Boyd that's in Redneck. It's this close to the truth as I know how to make it. Then that persona invents Ellen. Ellen invents Rain. In the last book I have to write Royce's unfinished novel, I have to write his journal, and I have to have Ellen narrate the book."

The books in the trilogy are not dependent. Each, says Boyd, are like transparencies that alone show complete images, but reveal a unique perspective when combined. And she means the whole to include her non-fiction writing.

"I think when it's finished, it will be this incredibly intricate construct about fiction and why fiction matters. It will address the question of who's telling the story and why should we believe it. I could write a novel about astronauts. I could go research that, but who cares? It's hard for me to think that any novel written in the third person can matter because for me this question - of who's telling the story and why should we believe it - is a key. I have the authority to write this story and I'm establishing that in these books. Now that understanding of what I'm doing, I didn't sit around and think of a theory and then go execute it. That understanding is arising from the process of writing but it all makes sense to me now."

Boyd had a Wallace Stegner fellowship when she was twenty-two, and left Stanford quite full of herself, refusing an offer from Houghton Mifflin on her first novel. Seventeen rejections later, "Nerves" was published. As the "invitations to revision," as she now calls those rejections, were streaming in, she learned what needed to be cut by typesetting "Rubyfruit Jungle", Rita Mae Brown's lesbian coming of age novel. Boyd's second novel "Mourning the Death of Magic" is also "mercifully out of print," according to its author, who calls these books her angst novels. Still, she agrees that these books might belong in the evidence we readers need to assess her authority as a narrator.

"Parade's End" is the working title of the last novel in the trilogy told by Ellen Burns. The story she tells will be her brother Royce's, and in it Boyd will examine race. Boyd says it will be the last piece of fiction she writes.

"I'm more interested in non-fiction," she told me when I begged to know why. Recently she's written about Susan Smith, the mother who drowned her babies in a lake and suffered a childhood of unaddressed sexual abuse. Right now there's a trial she would love to see, the trial of the former mayor of Biloxi, Peter Halat, who's charged with conspiracy in a decade old double murder. Whatever she writes, I'll follow her words better than the ones under the bouncing balls on tv sing-a-longs. Blanche McCrary Boyd is a keeper.

--   Amy Halloran


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