• Alexandra Bissell

5 Questions with Blake Kinnett

“5 questions with…” is an occasional feature where we highlight a current graduate student’s research, offering a glimpse into their work and interests. Blake Kinnett is a PhD student in Creative Writing with an emphasis on Fiction.

1. What's the six-word-story version of your writing focus (think written by Hemingway on a napkin at a bar)?

“Sick rural queers doing their best.”

2. What's a question that's preoccupying you in your writing or thinking right now?

I’m thinking a lot about the differences between writing about a population and writing for a population. So much of the media about mentally ill people is written about us and not necessarily for us, for example, even ones that are a little more gracious in their depictions. Same for queer representation; when I was in undergraduate the main “trans movie” we all watched in our Alliance org was Boys Don’t Cry, and while, sure, it’s a great movie, I can’t help but imagine that it’s a movie about a trans person (a real trans person, for that matter) and not a movie for trans people; my assessment was that it was a film designed to convince a cisgender audience that trans people are humans, too, and I’m just not interested as a writer in justifying my existence to cisgender people, to be frank. So what does it mean to write stories for transgender people, for mentally ill people, for transgender mentally ill people, even, and how might those stories look different than stories written for the benefit of cisgender, neurotypical people?

I don’t have the answers, but I’m interested in experimenting.

3. Who is a writer that's been challenging or inspiring your thinking? Can you recommend a book or article?

I read Jeff Mann’s Loving Mountains, Loving Men when I was in undergrad, and I keep coming back to it as an example of the ways in which rural identity, (specifically Appalachian identity) intersect with queer identity. Esme Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias really helped me think about the different ways to write mental illnesses, both in fiction and nonfiction. I thought it was really refreshing to read a piece on schizophrenia that wasn’t necessarily just about detailing the disorder in all the gory details to a morbidly curious reader. “High-Functioning” and “Yale Will Not Save You” particularly resonated with me.

4. What's a writing habit or research strategy that's been working for you lately?

This might be a little more depressing than anything, but when I was writing for my MFA thesis, I would find myself waking up at like, three or four in the morning, writing in quick sprints for an hour or so, and then falling back asleep. I found that my brain was more willing to take risks and “get creative” when it had just woken up. This was often a very spiritual way to write, too. I was more emotional, so I found myself crying every so often during my writing process, and I often find crying to be a spiritually cleansing thing, even if it does trigger my migraines. I’m not sure if I would necessarily recommend it, but it did work for me, and I think I might try it again.

5. If you had to choose a watershed moment in the development of your writing and research, an important turning point, what would it be?

I’m an incredibly stubborn person who needs to be convinced of things repeatedly before I fully concede. (therapists hate me) So “watershed moments” aren’t really something I experience very often; I don’t usually have that singular moment of clarity, and instead come to change my thinking via long and laborious processes. But one of my hardest fought realizations was probably also my most significant. When I went into my MFA program two years ago at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, I went with the assumption that transgender literature wasn’t valued. I wasn’t basing this assumption from nothing – the most famous “transgender” novel at the time was probably Middlesex, and that might still be the case today. (I have a difficult relationship with Middlesex. We’re working on it.) The only books I’d read at that point that were written by transgender people were academic texts. The landscape has changed since then, but not in significant enough strides to satisfy me; that being said, it was the encouragement of my mentors at UTK that helped me understand the ways in which my fiction could be valued. Transgender literature can execute concepts and themes in ways that writing from a cisgender perspective just can’t achieve; this I believe wholeheartedly. There is potential for the unique, the inspiring; isn’t it beautiful, to redesign your body, to take control over your own creation? Doesn’t it say interesting and even culturally frightening things about masculinity, femininity, and the things that exist in between and externally? When I started asking myself “what would change if this character was transgender,” that was when I really started to evolve as a writer. It forced me to think about how experiences shape and influence the character.

photo courtesy of Blake Kinnett