The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Charles Blackstone

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Charles Blackstone—writer, Managing Editor of Bookslut, wine aficionado, sometime writing teacher, pug enthusiast—published his second novel, Vintage Attraction, this month. The story of a young adjunct professor’s romantic pursuit of a famous sommelier, and his consequential crash course in the apparent multiverse of wine expertise, mirrors events in the author’s life, but could also be read as a primer on the vicissitudes of home ownership, the plight of the adjunct, a behind-the-scenes view into a high-end restaurant, and a Greek travel guide. In short, to read Charles Blackstone is to be educated as you read; sitting down with this book is like sharing a bottle of wine with the man himself, and absorbing his expertise on all of the aforementioned topics and much more.

I caught up with Charles over e-mail, and as a huge fan of wine myself, tried my best to keep my wine nerd questions to a minimum. When you get to know Charles and the warmth and curiosity he brings to his work, it’s tough to limit any exchange, but we had to save some details for readers of the novel, and there’s always the hope of a future interview with Wine Enthusiast. Until then, Charles has much more, on many topics, to teach us.

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The Rumpus: What inspired Vintage Attraction?

Charles Blackstone: Probably most conspicuously, there was my discovering Alpana Singh, a celebrity sommelier in Chicago who was also the host of a local TV show. I met her, which I’d set out to do after I discovered the program, for reasons that might politely be attributed to magical thinking. This was in early October 2005. We ended up engaged in December. The following February, we were living together in a place we’d bought. Also, I was a few years out of grad school at that point, with an office job for which I wasn’t very well suited. I had a book out and another that had just gotten a contract, but I didn’t feel like much of a writer, mainly because of the job, I think.

And another inspiration, if you can call it that—maybe this is more of a motivation—was that there really didn’t seem to be any serious handling of wine in literature. Characters were always imprecisely describing what they were having, Chardonnay seemed to be used as a synonym for wine, and the action of it typically only existed far in the background. Even the novels that alleged to take on the subject more rigorously—one of these novels that got turned into a popular movie comes to mind—relied heavily on clichés. I felt there should be a novel that really took readers inside the world of wine, and so sought to make one.

Rumpus: There’s a lot of wonderful and useful information about wine throughout Vintage Attraction. Is this in any way a retelling of your exposure to wine—are you relating facts in the order you learned them—or did you knowingly structure this narrative to be a kind of wine education for the reader?

Vintage AttractionBlackstone: A little of both, I’d say. It basically does follow the course of my wine indoctrination, such as it was, going from a neophyte who sensed there was something mysterious yet interesting to discover, to, in my mind, a neophyte who can recognize a few things and has learned a few tricks. My wife describes me as “knowing enough to be dangerous.” Depending on the evening, I suppose that’s probably true.

Rumpus: From what you’ve said about your life, it’s similar to that of your protagonist’s in Vintage Attraction. How did you arrive at the choice to write a novel, instead of a memoir or nonfiction?

Blackstone: Fiction has always seemed more honest to me, ironically. I don’t see the world in terms of memoir, probably mostly because I’ve never read a lot of memoir. The memoirs I have enjoyed “read like fiction,” as the saying goes. I don’t really believe in a difference between novel and memoir—all narrative is invented, as far as I’m concerned—and see the distinctions as little more than marketing labels. The nonfiction label is a popular one. Passing the story off as a memoir would have perhaps made for an easier sell—even before writing much, since you can sell memoir with only an outline. But it just wouldn’t have been right for me. I wanted to be able to rearrange chronology, turn some characters into composites. I wanted to revise history. I wanted to invent characters’ perceptions. (All of this takes place in memoir, but we pretend it doesn’t, or apologize for it, if we admit to it.) If I’d edited out the more obviously invented parts, I wouldn’t have been able to tell a story that felt worth telling.

Rumpus: Going back to the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction as “little more than marketing labels,” tell us about the genre-defying anthology you co-edited with memoirist Jill Talbot, The Art of Friction, and your history with the “fiction” and “nonfiction” labels, as both an editor and writer.

Blackstone: When I was in high school in the ’90s, I was particularly drawn to the autobiographical fiction from the ’80s—the literary Brat Pack stuff: Ellis, McInerney, Janowitz. Because my literary influences were writing about characters in their twenties, I thought, in my own fiction of the time, I had to substitute certain details for others to make the stories larger, more adult-like. (If only I’d known about YA.)

Little did I know, I was rendering the otherwise realistic work completely ridiculous. An example: I’d had these parties in my mother’s basement during middle school, and wrote this longish thing at the end of eighth grade and throughout my freshman year of high school about a cast of characters based on my friends—they even had the same names for a while—who hung out at this underage underground bar. They smoked cigarettes and drank and did drugs and had sex in the bathroom. At my real basement parties, people just danced to George Michael songs we played on a cassette boombox and drank Pepsi and maybe made out a little. I could tell the fiction had no idea what it was talking about, and that I was betraying realism, and knew I had to stop that. My work from then on became nearly entirely grounded in my own experience or the experience of others I knew.

When I got to Colorado, I continued writing and reading fiction as I’d been. (Well, I wrote a lot less during those years and ate a lot more pizza.) Jill (who plays The Pregnant Lady in Vintage Attraction) and I met there, and became friends, despite our conflicting genres. She and I had thousands of debates over the similarities and differences between my fiction and her creative nonfiction—in terms of the craft. Eventually we decided that the only way to answer the question was to ask other writers, via their texts, what they were doing. She selected a group of essayists who appeared to use fictional techniques in their writing, and I chose novelists and short story [writers] whose work suggested they were writing autobiographically. The “answers” that emerged were illuminating, and I think continue to be. The writers basically stuck to their genres, asserting there were differences between the two, in their commentaries. Yet the prose itself seemed to reaffirm my initial position. Perhaps this is truly what we meant by friction.

Rumpus: What have you written about wine, in fiction or nonfiction, before you wrote Vintage Attraction?

Blackstone: Nothing, really. I mean, there was a little talk about wine, or a few scenes with wine (and some with orange-flavored vodka), in my first novel. An old short story of mine had a character pouring a glass of red wine (varietal unspecified) in a warm room from a warm bottle. (This, I know now, is a major crime against wine and against enjoyment.) But, yeah, this novel was the first time I dealt with any of that experience, and that world, in any kind of significant, extended way.

Rumpus: What research did you do specifically for Vintage Attraction?

Blackstone: In March of 2008, I went on the trade trip to Greece that the characters take, also in March 2008, to visit the wineries and eat and drink a lot. I compiled a lot of notes, but I had no real idea yet of the story that would eventually surround the experience in a novel.

In 2009, during the writing of the first draft, I taught a class in a for-profit, unaccredited school, and was able to use a lot of that experience in the book. Even though I didn’t really know I was researching for a novel at either time, I think it counts.

And of course there was a lot going on preceding and following those two events. I guess you could say I’ve been researching the wine business and restaurant industry continuously for the last eight years that I’ve been hanging out with a master sommelier. Actual, specific research for this book, if I did any, happened as the drafts amassed. I did a lot of fact-checking about varietals and vintages with distributors and sommeliers. I periodically drank the wines the characters were drinking, to make sure they were still good.

Rumpus: Of all of the underexposed wine regions in the world, why did you choose Greece to highlight?

Blackstone: I’d always been more drawn to New World wines—the flavor profiles appeal to my palate and the price points make sense to me—but Greece was the first country I’d visited on a wine trip, and so I think a lot of my initial excitement about the region had a lot to do with the fact that spending this kind of time with one region—in one region—was new for me. I also thought it was interesting how here I was, about to go off to spend time in a country I knew pretty much nothing about. Never mind the wines, I wasn’t even certain if it was in the EU or not before we left. Also, from a literary standpoint, the only “wine novels” I’d ever heard about were set either in California or in France. (The same was true of the memoirs and long-form wine journalism.) Covering an emerging region made the most sense. I was pretty sure that Greece would really take off (I feared before the novel’s publication) for the reasons we like New World regions: high quality, low price point. And I think while you see a lot more Greek wine and wineries getting attention, on lists, in the trade publications, on the wine shop shelves, winning awards, it remains an emerging region—more so than others of the newer ones, like, say, Argentina.

Rumpus: A wine nerd follow-up question: outside Greece and Greek wine, what wine region or varietal, in your opinion, is underrated or overlooked?

Blackstone: I’d have to say Israel. We went on a similar trade trip there a couple of years ago (in the summer, which was a bad, bad idea), and there were some really surprising wines to be had, once you got past the initial predicable apprehensions. As most know, kosher wine has been pretty thoroughly vilified in popular perception and culture. There was a joke on the trip about why it was you always saw the kosher wines in U.S. wine stores in the section of the store closest to the bathroom. And so it doesn’t help that most people still think “kosher” and “Israeli” are synonyms when it comes to wine, which they’re not. Not to say that kosher wines are any more something to automatically dismiss. This is another thing that’s hard to get across. There have been advancements in the technological processes, and serious winemakers are making kosher wine there.

Rumpus: What, in your opinion, do people get wrong about wine? Do you feel that Vintage Attraction could help disabuse any misapprehensions?

Blackstone: The book does offer practical information about pairing and buying wine and wine storage, but it offers it implicitly. I didn’t have to force this information into the story (nor would I have wanted to). I think it just naturally comes up in the daily lives of characters like these, both those in the industry and the consumers.

I think the biggest mistake people who know a little about wine make is getting so caught up in the points and scores and other critical acclaim or lack thereof. Most people don’t make a big deal about the kind of pasta they’re ordering at a restaurant or where the tomato in the sauce came from, or what tomato trade publication liked the tomato first and proclaimed it the right tomato, the best tomato, the hot tomato—why should it be that much different with the wine they order?

Another problem is when people are afraid of making pairing mistakes, instead of just letting themselves just enjoy what they’re drinking and eating. If there happens to be a familiar bottle on the list, or a grape variety, or a region, or a style of wine, I say order it, regardless of how it will or won’t complement the sauce. And if it really is such a big deal to you to get the pairing right, there’s probably a sommelier in the restaurant who might be able to choose for you, if you don’t fight him or her on the selection (make sure to specify your bottle budget at the outset). Sure, there are some pairings that can elevate a dish (and some that can cause really weird things to happen in your mouth), but who said everything you drank or ate had to be transcendent? I think the success or failure of a wine and food pairing largely has to do with the pairing of you and the person or people with whom you’re eating and drinking—or lack thereof.

Rumpus: You’ve set the novel, mostly, in your home city of Chicago, and primarily in the neighborhood of Pilsen. Tell us about this choice, this neighborhood, and what you feel it adds to your story.

214098664_4871c6ae8e_zBlackstone: I’ve always written about Chicago, and the parts of it I know well, and so I never thought about setting this story anywhere else. Plus, the plausibility of a TV show about wine being so popular—on cable access, no less—seemed like something that could only take place here. Pilsen, though, is a neighborhood largely unfamiliar to me. I was looking for a parallel for Rogers Park, a neighborhood as far north and east as you can get in Chicago. Rogers Park is perpetually in the process of gentrification, and it was there that Alpana and I bought this new construction two-bedroom there that seemed like a deal, until we’d lived there for a few months. I could have given Hapworth and Izzy Rogers Park, I guess, but I couldn’t imagine them living somewhere so far removed from the city, even briefly, even though Alpana and I had. I would have then had to have them spend chapters and chapters driving around and getting stuck in traffic. Who wants to read that?

Rumpus: Going to wrap up with two more wine nerd questions. First, if you were limited to only three wines for a year, with the stipulation that they all under $20 a bottle, which three would you choose?

Blackstone: You mean three wines for a night, right? Okay, here are my basics: Spanish cava (preferably Segura Viudas); Sauvignon Blanc, since it’s so versatile; and a Spanish red, like a Garnacha. These are actually all wines that can be likely had for around $12 a bottle. Do I get to keep the leftover $16 to buy another bottle or two?

Rumpus: Finally, what was the last bottle you opened and what was the occasion?

Blackstone: Last night, I opened a bottle of a sparkling rosé from South Africa. The winery it comes from is called Graham Beck. I like pouring sparkling wine because guests always like it (who’s ever said no to a glass of something effervescent?), it pairs with everything, it’s only about $15 a bottle, and it’s kind makes for of an instant special occasion whenever you open it and drink it, even if you’re just having it while sitting on the couch with a pug, which happened to be the case here.


J. Ryan Stradal’s writing has also appeared in Hobart, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rattling Wall, Joyland, Trop, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Nervous Breakdown, and NFL.com, among other places. His first novel, KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST, will be published by Viking in July 2015. Find him, if you must, at JRYANSTRADAL.COM or @jryanstradal on Twitter. More from this author →