Writers who switch from nonfiction to fiction have a lot to unlearn. There's the whole problem of making stuff up, for starters.
If you've been trained to observe and to double-check your facts, alarm bells jangle in your head the first time you dip a toe into your memory or imagination for material.
Kate Blackwell, born in Winston-Salem, is a former journalist who has plunged into fiction and emerged with several highly polished pearls in her new book, "You Won't Remember This" (Southern Methodist University Press, $22.50). As the rather inauspicious title suggests, the 12 short stories are about those unheralded moments that silently change your life.
Blackwell writes with a journalist's attention to detail but shifts her lens to tap into internal struggles, reaching the kind of truth reporters can only glance at through interviews and actions.
In "What We Do for Love," she writes only incidentally about a murder trial involving a jealous husband, a gun and two dead lovers. The real drama unfolds silently, in the heart of the story's narrator. She is watching the trial, but she is also caught in her own love triangle -- one that will never be revealed. And in the wonderfully suspenseful "Duckie's Okay," we peek at a few minutes in the lives of a drug-addicted mother and her vulnerable son, seeming to catch them days, weeks or months before they fall through the cracks and make some sort of heartbreaking headline.
My favorite of the dozen is "Queen of the May." Carolyn, an overweight, middle-age woman in a posh but anonymous subdivision, accidentally exposes herself as she yells out directions to her "yardman" through her bathroom window. She spends the rest of her afternoon playing golf and lunching with her mother-in-law. But silently, she turns over in her mind the horror of her embarrassment from the morning. Nakedness becomes a powerful symbol in what turns out to be a story about the survival of passion in a life padded with all the accouterments of the moneyed South.
Generally, Blackwell does a fine job of capturing Southern culture, and the stories are sprinkled with references to Durham and Chapel Hill.
I was afraid I would hate the book after the opening pages, when a mother and daughter sip Cokes on the screen porch -- the scene was a bit too overtly Southern for my taste. That story, "My First Wedding," was the only one that felt out of place in an otherwise solid collection. A woman thinks about a brilliant cousin of hers and recalls the cousin's wedding. In the process, she learns to "appreciate the beauty of still lives." At the end, the narrator and her mother are back on the porch, still recollecting. The story doesn't move; it sits. Because all the action comes from the narrator's memory, everything feels distant.
Still, Blackwell, who now lives in Washington, D.C., and teaches writing, can craft a gorgeous sentence.
In "The Obi Tree," an insurance salesman caring for his sick wife begins to yodel, "a bottled, alarming sound that creates in his mind the image of a distant mountain peak, colored in unreal blues and greens, like an old ad for a menthol cigarette."
And a woman waiting for a call in "Carpe Diem" regards her phone as "squat and silent as a Buddha."
The characters who populate the stories are the people you might meet at an annual Christmas party. There's the musician, the photographer, the divorced nursery school director. But instead of skimming the surface of their lives, Blackwell gazes unblinkingly at their deepest fears and desires. That's the kind of truth that fiction gets at best.