Conn College professor a finalist for prestigious award

Connecticut College professor Blanche Boyd. (Leslie Hyman, submitted)
Connecticut College professor Blanche Boyd. (Leslie Hyman, submitted)

These are tough times for the arts. It's an era of cutbacks and shrinking staffs, and more and more of these organizations are reliant on donations to keep going. As such, Blanche Boyd, the novelist and Connecticut College writer-in-residence, felt a bit of weary sympathy when she got a phone message Tuesday from the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.

"I thought they were calling to ask me for money," Boyd said in an interview after teaching her last class on Thursday. "Then I listened more closely. 'This is so-and-so, and in the next few days, expect a call. You're a finalist for the 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.' Then I thought it was a joke. 'Yeah, right.'"

"But I dared to think, 'What if ...?' And it sunk in it was real," she said. "I started to cry."

It was, in fact, true. Boyd, a Roman and Tatiana Weller professor of English, is one of five finalists for the prestigious prize, for her novel "The Tomb of the Unknown Racist," which is the final volume of a trilogy that started in 1991 with "The Revolution of Little Girls" and continued in 1997 with "Terminal Velocity." 

Overall, Boyd has written six novels, as well as essays for Esquire, Vanity Fair and Village Voice.

Once Boyd was secure in the accuracy of her finalist status, she texted her 19-year-old twins. One of them, she said, responded with a text that made her laugh: "So, Mama, I did a little research on this, and I guess I underestimated you."

The other finalists for this year's award are Richard Powers for "The Overstory"; Ivelisse Rodriguez for "Love War Stories"; Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi for "Call Me Zebra," and Willy Vlautin for "Don't Skip Out on Me." Previous winners of the award include Philip Roth, Kate Christensen, Ha Jin, E. Annie Proulx, John Updike, Imbolo Mbue and E.L. Doctorow.

Boyd admits the PEN/Faulkner nomination provides a bit of validation.

"I'm very grateful and humble because no one reviewed this book or paid any attention to it. And it hurt," she said. "It's my job to know when something's good, and honestly, this is a very good book and I know it. I think I was blown away (by the lack of attention on publication) because it's about what's happening right now in the world. It's a consequence of what's been going on in this country for a long time."

The trilogy follows the life of one-time activist Ellen Burns who, in "The Tomb," is long sober and focused on caring for her mother, who suffers from dementia, in Charleston, S.C. The novel pivots on the sudden possibility that Ellen's brother Royce, a celebrated author turned vehement racist icon and thought dead years ago, might actually be alive. Ellen is forced to leave her mother and follow familial threads that are backdropped by the nightmarish shadow of the Timothy McVeigh bombing in Oklahoma City, the bubbling subculture of white supremacists and deep-state subterfuge. Boyd anchors the novel with a list of nine literal acts of violence perpetrated by white hate groups at the end of the 20th century, and they provide a thread of grim reality and intensity that weaves through the story.

Though it was 20 years between the publication of "Terminal Velocity" and "The Tomb of the Unknown Racist," that shouldn't suggest the latter was a sudden inspiration or afterthought. Boyd knew from "The Revolution of Little Girls" that Ellen Burns' saga would be told in what she calls "The Blacklock Trilogy." It just took a while and a lot of real-world developments for the author to reach a point of perspective to undertake "The Tomb of the Unknown Racist."

"I did an interview for 'Terminal Velocity' in 1998 in which I said I knew this was a trilogy, and I knew even then the third book would be about race," Boyd said. "The art of writing a novel is one thing, but I thought with this book it was important because there is a sense of urgency about these (white supremacist) lunatics. I think our political situation has intensified so much that people who might not have been interested in this book before might read it now. And I included the list of facts because this stuff is real — this isn't just some strange story about someone's strange brother, and the message we need to address is how do we take responsibility as a society for these people?"

One of the most fascinating and clever aspects of the trilogy is Boyd's approach to structure. The narrative of the three books doesn't follow a traditional A-to-B-to-C story arc but rather has a sort of shifting, kaleidoscopic view.

"I wanted to do something interesting," Boyd said. "I think of the books as transparencies so that it's not sequential but they're designed to work as overlays for one another. Each one describes the same 30 years over and over again but with different focus and perspective."

With "The Tomb of the Unknown Racist," Boyd said she is done writing novels, and there's a bit of a spooky prescience to her decision.

"I knew from the time I was young I was going to write six novels and, if I tried to write a seventh, I would die." She paused and laughed. "That's why I wrote so slowly. But, really, I spent 30 years in therapy trying to figure (the premonition) out. And you know what? I still feel that way. It's true. Because to write a book is a big thing, and it takes a lot out of you. Every time I finished one, I thought I was going to die."

The winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award will be announced on April 29 in a ceremony at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C., and receive $15,000. The other finalists each will get a $5,000 honorarium.

Boyd said she would love to win but, "My biggest hope would be that the book gets out a bit more and there's some more attention paid to the trilogy — and maybe there will be more dialogue about what's going on in our country."

r.koster@theday.com

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