The Rumpus Interview with Lucy Jane Bledsoe

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Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s aunt, Lucybelle Bledsoe, died in a fire when her namesake was only six years old. Shrouded in mystery, Lucybelle’s life and death remained obscure and haunting to Lucy Jane as she grew up, came out, wrote five novels, a nonfiction book of adventures in the wild, and half a dozen children’s books. Now, despite many obstacles that we discuss in this interview, she’s released a novel about this aunt, having uncovered her remarkable life engaged with the earliest work about climate change in a Cold War context where being queer was extremely dangerous but where she nonetheless risked everything for love.

Lucy and I started a small writing group just after she finished writing A Thin Bright Line, so I hadn’t read this book until preparing for the interview, but I did know the depth and range of Bledsoe’s work, her dedication to the necessary habits of the writer, her talent for story and sentence, as well as her fantastic intelligence and insight as a reader.

Lucy is using the launch of this novel, already gaining critical acclaim, to stage intergenerational conversations about queer history in bookstores and other venues around the country. We conversed via email.

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The Rumpus: First, let me say that I loved A Thin Bright Line. It’s fascinating to read a fictional version of a hidden history, one that can only be fully accessed through imagination. When did you know that you were going to write this story?

Lucy Jane Bledsoe: In 1966, when I was nine years old, my aunt and namesake, Lucybelle Bledsoe, died in an apartment fire. In the years that followed I longed to know who she was, but although my father had loved his sister, no one wanted to talk about her after her death. I used to think this was because it was too painful. Eventually I realized it was because no one really knew who she’d been. I asked lots of questions and did get a few intriguing responses. My dad told me that she studied for and passed the bar exam, without ever going to law school. My mom told me that she was terribly independent and that even in the 1950s and 1960s she wouldn’t let men hold doors open for her.

Then one day a few years ago a friend suggested I google my aunt. Since Lucybelle died in 1966, and was just a farm girl from Arkansas, I thought the suggestion ridiculous. But I did google her, and what I found astonished me. A long entry in a new scholarly volume, published by Routledge and called The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to Mid-20th Century, told me that my aunt had been a pioneer in climate change research. But more, the article let me know where she’d worked, which meant I could contact surviving coworkers (and eventually friends) and learn much more about Lucybelle Bledsoe. The book was born late that night sitting in front of my computer.

Rumpus: How did you come to conceive of it as a novel?

Bledsoe: As I delved deeper and deeper into public records, interviews, and archives, I kept wondering how I should tell this story. I could have used the biography form to write about LGBT history and the history of climate research, through the lens of what I discovered about my aunt’s life. Truly, though, what interested me most was trying to find out who Lucybelle was on a very personal level, and how it was possible for a remarkable person to simply disappear from sight, leaving so few traces. I wanted to be able to use the full resources of my imagination, along with everything I discovered in my research, to tell as complete and true a story as possible.

Rumpus: Did you know right away, in that “birth” moment, that it would be a book? And that it would be fiction?

Bledsoe: I wouldn’t say that I knew in that moment that it would be a book, but I did know I was hooked with a heart-pounding passion to follow the leads I’d finally uncovered about her life. I guess the moment when I knew it was actually a book is when I managed to get the records about the fire that took her life. This was very difficult, requiring multiple phone calls, traveling in person to New Hampshire, begging current-day firefighters, who had to go to an out-of-town warehouse to retrieve them!

As for the book being fiction, truly I wrote much of the story as nonfiction. If I were a different kind of writer, I’d even call this book nonfiction today. Most of it is. But I wanted to explore her inner thoughts and feelings. I wanted to write dialogue. And even as the entire framework for the novel is nonfiction, I can never claim to have access to the thoughts and conversations of a woman who died in 1966. But more, I actually believe fiction can present a truer story than nonfiction. So I’d say that I wrote the book as nonfiction but knew, at least halfway into the project, that I would call it fiction, for complete disclosure.

Rumpus: What was the biggest obstacle you hit in telling the complete and true story?

Bledsoe: One of the questions that spurred me on was whether or not Lucybelle was queer. I had a strong sense that she had been, but all based on circumspect evidence. As I interviewed her scientist coworkers, I felt a little silly asking about this. It felt like a trivial question. Most of my interviewees dismissed the question. Her assistant from back then said, “She sure wasn’t the type to go home to the hubby and kids.” My mother said, “If you’re asking if she was like you, well, yes, probably, but I’m sure she never acted on it.” This galvanized me even more to find out. For one, how could my mother know if my aunt “acted on” her lesbianism? But more, I was tormented by the possibility that there was some woman out there, still alive, mourning my aunt, a person I could actually meet and talk to.

As far as my book went, even if I called it fiction, I didn’t feel comfortable making my aunt gay in this story if in fact she hadn’t been. I just about gave up. Her obscurity was a wall. No one really wanted to talk. Anyway, I questioned my motives. Was I trying to force my aunt into a life that didn’t fit, i.e. making her queer just because I was? This was the moment when an essay by Stanford historian Estelle Freedman became crucial. In her brilliant essay, called “The Burning of Letters Continues,” she makes the argument that when researching lesbian lives, the lack of evidence is in fact itself evidence. How, throughout history, lesbians have hidden their lives, burned their letters, to avoid detection. This essay rang so true for my research. Every single person I interviewed told me how funny, warm, friendly, and smart my aunt had been. Making me wonder, how could a person like that have no intimate life? The absence of any personal information was most intriguing.

Rumpus: How did you get past this impenetrable, if intriguing, “lack of evidence”?

Bledsoe: I kept digging, and kept asking. The next breakthrough came when I went to Chicago and New York and New Hampshire to interview contacts in person. What a difference that made! People opened up to me in a whole new way. I suppose they could see that I was a reasonable, well-meaning person. I also came out to these interviewees, something I should have thought to do in the beginning. I was moved to tears when two different people told me they hadn’t told me about Lucybelle’s queerness in order to protect her. That made sense. Who’s this crazy lady calling from California, decades after her death, asking questions? Now several people told me about my aunt’s queerness and, most meaningful of all, about her lover at the time of her death.

This was the greatest obstacle, uncovering Lucybelle’s queerness and getting my contacts to talk about it, and once overcome, it became the biggest breakthrough.

Rumpus: So thrilling! Interiority is always a kind of fiction, I suspect. How much of yourself did you bring to imagining your aunt’s feelings and reactions?

Bledsoe: On the continuum of how to express a character’s interiority—from only through her actions and dialogue to explicit or lengthy passages about thought processes—I lean toward the former. Maybe to a fault. For this book, I may have leaned even more in that direction because I do know a lot of what my protagonist did, and some of what she said, but almost nothing about what she thought and felt. There are no—none whatsoever!—existing letters or journals from her life. Nothing to give me her voice directly.

In that Lucybelle and I share some startling similarities (besides our names)—science writers focusing on polar regions, desire to write novels, being queer—and in that these confluences do warm my heart, I knew I was in danger of writing myself too much into her character. That said, we really are very different. I’m an athlete, an outdoors person who loves wilderness. She preferred big cities and was rather cautious physically. I have a boisterous sense of humor, and she had a sophisticated, wry one. I can’t keep a secret if my life depends on it. She kept many very big secrets.

Also, I have a very active and detailed imagination. So I didn’t worry too much about imposing my own feelings and wishes onto her character. Of course, any time you write a character, you pour your own understanding of love, anger, etc., into that character. But hopefully you also find a way to make that character uniquely herself and not just a vessel for the author’s agendas.

Rumpus: In what ways did your imaginings of her reactions surprise you?

Bledsoe: I think what most surprised me in my imaginings of Lucybelle was the steeliness I found in her. A slow and quiet resolve. It was easy to imagine the fear. This was a queer woman who held a highly classified job in McCarthy Era America. The fear was the air she breathed. But how she negotiated that fear and worked her way through it, is what I came to love about her and didn’t necessarily expect to find.

Rumpus: I want to talk about your epigraphs. First, you begin with a short excerpt from the Elizabeth Bishop poem, “One Art,” incidentally one of my favorite poems. You choose not the passage toward the end of the poem, where the (one suspects) ironic or tough-girl tone shifts and requires the bolstering of “(Write it!)” [parentheses, italics and exclamation point Bishop’s] to disown the disaster of losing “you.” No, you select the stanza about losing geographical places. Can you tell me about this choice for this book, and how and when you made it?

Bledsoe: I chose that section of “One Art” very early on in the project, before I’d written much at all of the novel. I’ve experienced my namesake and aunt’s absence so profoundly my whole life, and by absence, I mean more than the absence of her the person. I mean the absence of any information at all about who she’d been. This unnamed grief was one of the forces that kept me for so many years from researching her life. Bishop’s poem can be interpreted many ways, and I’ve since read some of those interpretations, but my early reading was more primal. It just hit me. I love geography, and wilderness, and the reference to a continent echoed that hugeness of loss, and the concreteness of it. The way it can feel like an actual place. But the line I love most is, “I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.” This is so freeing. Almost like, “Oh, get over it.” Which means you can do something about that loss. You can recover some of it. Which I have done with my aunt by writing this book. In fact, I’ve added so much personal meaning to my life by forging this new relationship with her. Does that make sense?

Rumpus: Your answer really makes sense, and in fact, those personal feelings about the lost story of your aunt have larger resonances, of which I know you are aware, about all the suppressed histories we long for, our forerunners whose lives are not available to us for so many reasons. You dedicate the book to Lucybelle and also to three authors, Rachel Carson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Willa Cather. Would you talk about the larger project of unburying history—even when that requires imagination—and the way your book connects to that project and to these three authors?

Bledsoe: As I dug deeper and deeper into Lucybelle’s life, and discovered more and more amazing details, I realized how much she’d hidden from her family and coworkers (especially with regard to her queerness), and yet how she still thrived in her own way—had lovers, accomplished significant work, moved about the country, had good friends, dreamed. The more I found out about her, the more grateful I became for her courage and intelligence, for her trailblazing. And again, she was just a farm girl from Arkansas. There have been so many women doing important, meaningful work that has changed the world for the better, and yet we don’t know their names. In Lucybelle’s obituary, a coworker wrote, “Although you will not find her name listed as author or co-author of any research papers… we believe that she contributed a great deal to the field of glaciology.” Several of her coworkers told me in person that not a single report or study or article left the lab that she hadn’t basically written. But she received zero credit. So it is with so many women in history.

I named Willa Cather the godmother of my novel, and her work and actual person are a thread throughout. Lorraine Hansberry, Djuna Barnes, and Rachel Carson all make cameo appearances. Of course these women all did receive credit for their contributions, but so many more women are lost to obscurity.

As for how my novel connects to the project of unburying history, I think I’d have to say that the entire novel itself addresses that question. In particular, the epilogue tells the story of my specific journey in uncovering Lucybelle’s life, going from knowing a handful of facts about her to being able to see her whole person and life story.

Rumpus: The other epigraph to the novel is from another real-life character in the novel, Henri Bader. Juxtaposed with Bishop’s verse, his line very much reads as poetry, too. Yet he was a scientist who headed this massive investigation in the 1960s into climate change through time via the retrieval of record-breaking ice cores in the Antarctic.

Can you tell us a little more about this epigraph, where you came across it and how it struck you as belonging alongside Bishop at the front of the book? Also, if Lucy wrote many or most of the papers published during her tenor as an editor at Spire and CRREL, do you think she might have penned this line?

Bledsoe: Ha! Interesting question, whether or not Lucybelle penned the line, “Snowflakes fall to earth and leave a message.” I found it at the front, as an epigraph also, of a study written by a colleague of Henri Bader. But you’re right, it’s entirely possible that Lucybelle wrote it since it was her job to write the prose for all of his data and interpretation. I would love to think she did write it. I love how it resonates both for the science—the ice cores literally tell the story of earth’s climate history—and also for my process in uncovering Lucybelle’s life. As I found detail after detail about her, and fit them together in time, a story emerged, not unlike the ones that emerged from the ice cores she was studying with Henri Bader. Then of course there’s the word “message” which is not the same as story. The message of the ice cores, if I may go out on a limb here, is about climate change and the effect humans are having on our planet. The message of Lucybelle’s life is more emotional for me, as well as layered and complex, but suffice to say, learning about her made me feel my own life in brighter colors and greater detail.

Rumpus: I once heard Barbara Kingsolver say that she writes a book to answer a real question for herself, a question whose answer matters but which she does not know. Is there anything important you learned in writing this book about life? About writing?

Bledsoe: This book had a bigger question than any other book or story I’ve written. “Who was Lucybelle Bledsoe?” This woman who is my aunt and namesake. I didn’t know that finding the answer, fleshing out her story, would make my own story feel as if it gained multiple dimensions, but it has. Lots of aha moments where I realized, “Oh, that’s why I’m like this!” Seeing that there is a history, a personal one and a national one, to my own passions and fears.

What I learned about life is how little we see on the surface of things. Here was my aunt, described to me as a spinster, frail, sickly even, passed over in life. Ha! Hardly. Lucybelle shot off the Arkansas farm under the cover of WWII, like so many other women of her generation, got an apartment in the heart of Greenwich Village, had women lovers, played a key role in the first ever climate change research project, and in doing the latter, worked as a highly classified government employee at the height of the Cold War, a job that required she learn Russian. Her life may have been short, but it was anything but bland.

About writing I learned that always, always, always it’s necessary to haunt your settings. I’m a big researcher. All my fiction is based on tons of digging. But the vital importance of actually traveling to the settings of a novel really hit me with this book. And it’s not just the setting details, not just the visuals and other sensory data, that will pop. You’ll find surprising clues that swerve your story in whole new, deeper, surprising, more organic ways.

Rumpus: I love this! “Haunt your settings.” Terrific. Would you tell us a little more about setting in A Thin Bright Line? Where did you go in search of the story? Is there an example of a surprising clue or other element of the story you discovered “in the field” that you would share?

Bledsoe: Yes! There were so many surprising clues in the settings that were downright revelatory for me. I went searching for Lucybelle in Arkansas, New York, Illinois, and New Hampshire, the four states in which she lived. I mentioned earlier that I named Willa Cather as the godmother to this book—the importance of light, the rural to city themes, the small-town girl desperate for a bigger, art-filled life. So after literally years of searching for where Lucybelle had lived in Greenwich Village—hour upon hour of looking through microfiche at New York Public Library—and finding nothing, I went ahead and put her (in my novel) in the place where Willa Cather had lived with her girlfriend, Edith Lewis. The actual building is no longer there, but I put Lucybelle in the building that has taken its place. Then one day, after I’d already written a couple of drafts, I tried finding her actual address one more time. A long story short, an elderly librarian in NYPL’s genealogy branch found a new database with old addresses. Bingo. He found her address. 277 West 12th Street, exactly one block from Willa Cather’s residence! This detail was particularly meaningful to me because I want so badly to believe that Lucybelle made the most of the few years she lived, and seeing that when she shot off the Arkansas farm she got to the heart of the Village told me that she was doing a pretty good job of it.

From her death certificate, I found the address of her last apartment. It was also hugely meaningful for me to visit the apartment in which she lived at the time of the fire that took her life. The apartment was on top of a garage and the owners had rebuilt it. I’ve imagined that fire my whole life and to stand and look at the place where it happened took my breath away.

A friend who’s a real estate agent in Chicago managed to get inside Lucybelle’s Evanston apartment and take pictures for me! Again, revelatory to see the very rooms in which she lived.

To stand in front of all of those buildings, know that she inhabited them, walked those very sidewalks, climbed those stairs, just blew me away. Walking the lake in Evanston and imagining her there with her lover, Stella. And of course my several trips over the years to the farm in Arkansas where she grew up, that place that informed everything she was. Place, for me, is everything.

Rumpus: I have a strong sense that setting is what carries meaning and emotion in narrative. This functions by way of Robert Olen Butler calls “sensate selection” and what John Gardner points to in The Art of Fiction exercises where he asks students to write about characters caught in a certain emotional situation, looking at a particular setting. The details a character notices are driven by his or her state of mind. Are you aware of the ways you use setting in the fabric of the work itself, and might the settings, which you could discover, in this instance have shaped the emotions of the characters, to whom you had somewhat less access, rather than the other way around?

Bledsoe: Absolutely the settings shape the emotions of my characters. If this novel succeeds, it does so because I did haunt the settings and those settings told me how she would be feeling. To land in the Village after a childhood on a farm in Arkansas. To experience the vastness of Lake Michigan, right at your doorstep, when everything else in her life is new. To return, in a way, to the rural again, as Lucybelle did in the last years of her life, moving with her lab to New Hampshire, and how it must have felt for her to have escaped the rural and yet find herself there, yet again, as if setting is, in the end, inescapable. And at the same time, rural New Hampshire is a whole different thing than rural Arkansas, and I wanted to show how that would have spun her emotionally.

I completely agree that place is the most emotionally resonant aspect of a story. Our environment affects us every bit as much as our relationships with other people. I love work that recognizes that.

Rumpus: For writers, particularly, it’s so interesting to hear about other people’s writing habits and paths to inspiration or perseverance. Would you talk a little about how you fit writing into your days, how you get yourself started, any tips you have for other writers or aspiring writers?

Bledsoe: I love my work. What’s more fun than playing with imagination? I also believe storytelling is the most powerful way people communicate with one another, interpret our lives, share our dreams, even form our futures. So when I sit down to write every day, I keep the fun, and also what I consider a large cultural project that connects people, at the center of what I’m doing. My job is to tell good stories, convey meanings, invoke emotion as well as I can. I’d rather be doing that than anything else. So yes, writing is incredibly hard. But I want to do it. That said, I make it the top priority in every day, which for me means the first hours after getting out of bed in the morning. I’ve been doing it enough years now that I don’t even think about waiting for my muse to show up, I just get to work. Sometimes I write terribly, and sometimes I write well. Sometimes I write for an hour, sometimes for six hours. But I sit down and work on my current story or book every single day. And I do that not because I expect any rewards other than loving doing the work, being a part of a giant human conversation. So that’s my tip. Love and believe in the work.

Rumpus: As far as writing projects go, what’s next for you?

Bledsoe: My agent just sold my next novel, The Evolution of Love, which is my narrative riff on the chances for human evolution. Hint: if our bonobo strain wins, we’re in luck, but if our chimpanzee strain gets the upper hand, it looks bad. I think we’re all suffering Traumatic Stress Disorder from the craziness—from climate change to endless war—and I wanted to present a story that offered hope. Forget about the historical model. That story shows centuries of brutal human behavior. But what about the biological model? We are equally descended from bonobos and chimpanzees. The former are much more cooperative and compassionate in their social dealings. What if evolution dictates that the more conflict-driven individuals fail? And the more cooperative individuals succeed? There is in fact evidence that shows this is possible, even already happening. The media just doesn’t show people this evidence and data. THE EVOLUTION OF LOVE is a novel that explores the possibilities of human community under the lens of a disaster.

Rumpus: So you are moving from historical to biological in the books as well as in the source of hope.

Bledsoe: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. Clearly we need the long-view here. A way to see beyond the current human dilemmas. I do find hope in the history, too.

Rumpus: I know you have wonderful, intergenerational events planned for the launch of A Thin Bright Line. Tell us a little about the upcoming conversations you’ll be having about Lucybelle and our hidden histories.

Bledsoe: I am so looking forward to the events for A Thin Bright Line. What’s making this book tour especially exciting for me is all the super cool people I get to be in conversation with. In Oakland, I’ll be talking with Juliana Delgado Lopera who’s published a book of oral interviews with queer Latino immigrants. In LA the amazing Christina Quintana, Griselda Suarez, and Brandi Spaethe will be on stage with me, unpacking our generational differences on questions of gender and sexuality. In San Francisco, the brilliant Stanford historian Estelle Freedman will dig into the Cold War and queer history with me, and in Chicago, the brilliant Carol Anshaw and I will talk about my novel. So much of the joy in being a novelist comes from being a part of the cultural conversation about who we are, in our multitude of communities, and so having the opportunity to talk with these amazing writers is a highlight of my work.

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Author photograph © Nye Lyn Tho.


Elizabeth Stark is the author of a novel, Shy Girl (FSG/ Seal Press), writer/ director of two short films distributed by Frameline, and cohost of a podcast, StoryMakersShow.com. More from this author →