Novelist, nonfiction writer, educator. Born July 18, 1964 in Austin, Texas, Elise Blackwell grew up in and around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She started writing at age five, when her maternal grandfather offered her a dollar for every story she wrote. After attending Sherwood Middle School and University High School, Blackwell enrolled at Louisiana State University where she worked as a DJ at the KLSU radio station. She earned a B.A. in English in 1986 and lived briefly in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Boston, Massachusetts, before moving to California to attend the M.F.A. Creative Writing Program at UC-Irvine, where she finished her degree in 1990. In 1989 she married novelist David Bajo and moved to San Diego, where she spent eight years working as a freelance writer, editor, and translator; traveling extensively in Mexico; and raising rare fruits and vegetables. During this period, she participated in the Seed Saver’s Exchange, an organization dedicated to preserving and sharing heirloom fruits and vegetables.
In 1997 Blackwell gave birth to a daughter, Esme Claire Bajo, and moved to Northern California for a year and a half and then to Princeton, New Jersey, where she worked as a senior copywriter for Princeton University Press. From 2003–2005 Blackwell taught at Boise State University, before accepting a position in the English department at the University of South Carolina.
Currently associate professor of English and director of the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at the University of South Carolina, Blackwell teaches courses in prose writing. In acknowledgment of her work in the classroom, she won the Department of English Excellence in Teaching Award in 2008 and the Michael J. Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award in 2009. A member of the PEN American Center, Blackwell has served on the AWP Board of Directors since 2012 and continues to appear as a reader and presenter at literary events around the country.
In 2003 Blackwell’s first book Hunger appeared in print, garnering substantial critical and popular attention. Enriched by her experience with Seed Saver’s Exchange, Hunger is narrated by a fictional scientist working at the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry during Hitler’s siege of Leningrad when hundreds of thousands of civilians died of starvation. Charged with protecting and maintaining the institute’s collection of rare seeds, tubers, and fruit, the narrator staves off starvation by secretly eating the carefully preserved samples. Against a backdrop of heroism and deprivation, the narrator slowly emerges as an amoral survivor, driven to betrayal by his sensual appetites. Hunger was named one of the “Best Books of 2003” by the Los Angeles Times; and the Sydney Morning Herald named it one of the “Best Reads of the Year.” Since its appearance, it has been translated into Spanish, French, Hebrew, and Portuguese and adapted for the stage by Chicago’s Lifeline Theater.
In 2007 Blackwell’s second novel Grub was published by the Toby Press. A modern reworking of George Gissing’s New Grub Street, a classic satire of the Victorian literary marketplace, Grub follows the intertwining struggles of group of writers as they establish and maintain literary careers in contemporary New York City. Grub was named a “Best Book of 2007” by Kirkus and the “Finest Book of the Year” by the Morning Advocate (Louisiana). The year 2007 also saw the publication of Blackwell’s third novel, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, which Blackwell rewrote in light of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the Louisiana coast. Like her novel Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish explores the impact of a historical disaster on ordinary peoples’ relationships and values. Set in a fictional parish in Blackwell’s native Louisiana, Unnatural History is narrated by a ninety-five-year-old hydraulics expert Louis Proby, who, on the eve of Hurricane
Katrina’s landing, recalls his boyhood experience with both political corruption and personal betrayals during the 1927 Great Flood. Part coming-of-age story and part meditation on the nature of human history, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish was named “Louisiana Book of the Year” by the Monroe News Star and “Best Book of 2007” by the New Orleans Times—Picayune.
In 2010 Blackwell’s fourth novel, An Unfinished Score, was published by Unbridled Books. The novel follows the struggles of a married musician, Suzanne, who has been blackmailed into completing the unfinished score of a violin concerto started by her lover, a famous conductor who died unexpectedly. Developing themes that Blackwell also explores in Grub and in her nonfiction writing, An Unfinished Score traces the complex and sometimes devastating interactions between an artist’s social and interior lives; the novel was named “Best Independent Press Book of the Decade” by the Huffington Post and “Best Book of 2010” by the Athens Banner-Herald.
In addition to her novels, Blackwell writes regularly for The Chronicle of Higher Education, describing professional and academic trends in the field of creative writing and analyzing their effects on writers and their work. Her story “Necrotic” won the 2012 flash fiction contest sponsored by the Newport Review, and her short pieces “Carolina Dog” and “Before Texas” appear in the anthologies Carolina Writers and Their Literary Dogs and A Shared Voice: A Conversation in Narrative by Twenty-four of the Finest Fiction Writers in America respectively.
Blackwell, Elise. “Blackwell on Writing: The Long and the Very Short of It.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 1, 2012.