Archive for Wednesday, November 3, 1999

House of steps

November 3, 1999

As the gentle Kansas wind brushes through the tops of the trees that rise above her house of steps, Amy Blackmarr sits at the computer, writing words for all to read. Although relatively unknown in this part of the state, Blackmarr is becoming a well-read author to readers across the country.

It was on a sweltering day in August 1996 that Blackmarr, now 41, moved into this house in the woods in the rolling hills between McLouth and Tonganoxie.

She describes the house as having started as a treehouse "built by a flower child of the 60s who was smoking too much weed." Construction began at the top and went downward. It is a 52-step round trip from her bedroom to the bathroom two stories below. There are no doors in the home's interior except the one beneath the stairs that Blackmarr has not opened since she found a snake skin on the other side. She was told early on to never open the door to the attic without holding a can of wasp spray in her hands. Even so, wasps escape the confines of the attic and hover above her bed today.

"I hated this place when I came here," she said.

She could have left.

The day after she moved in, her phone rang.

"I got a call from New York," Blackmarr said. "My agent said she had been trying to reach me for a week. 'The editor of Viking Press wants to talk to you,' she said."

Blackmarr called the editor.

"She asked me if this book was finished and if I had another book in mind," Blackmarr said. "I told her that my next book would be called 'House of Steps.' The next day they offered to buy my first book."
Blackmarr, who had moved from Georgia to Kansas so that she could obtain a PhD in English at the University of Kansas, had a decision to make. She had come here on a Self Fellowship, a scholarship that would pay tuition, fees and a living stipend for four years.

But the sale of the book gave her more options.

"I could have turned around and gone back home and lived in that north Georgia cabin," she said. Her voice trailed off and she paused, listening to the rustle of the wind through the trees.

"Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision," she said. "But I stayed because I didn't see how I could turn it down. Either that or I didn't have the guts to turn it down."

Blackmarr's first book, "Going to Ground," came out in the fall of 1997. This summer, Viking Press published her second book, "House of Steps." Both are collections of personal essays.

It is difficult to describe what a personal essay is without writing one, she said.

"It's like chasing mental rabbits, it's free association artistically controlled with a conversational voice," she said.

Blackmarr's writing style is distinctive.

"I tend to range quite freely and without transition from scene to scene," she said. "I tend to cover a lot of ground without trying to draw a connection. I have never been a person to use transitions. Not in my writing, not in my life. I tend to go from big moment to big moment."
The personal essay is like talking to a friend.

"That's the wonderful thing about the personal essay," she said. "It lets people feel as if they're sitting in your living room talking to you."

Her essays cover simple, everyday instances a stranger who stops along the road to help her; a starving, diseased puppy she rescued, and now, in her new book, life in the house of steps. She says her writing voice is most similar to that of Flannery O'Connor.

"But I'm not as witty or incisive," she said.

Even so, her essays bring smiles to her readers' lips, wry comments and observations abound.

" 'Going to Ground' was my master's thesis, and 'House of Steps' is my dissertation," she said. Later this month, Blackburn will take her comps, tests required to get her degree.

"I will move from here in the spring after I graduate," she said. "That is, if I pass my comps. If I don't pass, I'll leave sooner."

Blackmarr's PhD in English covers three areas: Thoreau, 20th century American literature and the genre of the personal essay.

Ironically, Blackmarr's early educational road was marked by extremes of successes and failures.

"I started reading when I was really little, so my dad talked the school board into letting me into school at five, instead of six," she said.

This was in Ocilla, Ga., a town of 3,000 in rural southern Georgia.
She did so well in school that she graduated from high school at 16. She went to her mother's alma mater, Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., on a piano scholarship.

"I hated it, I was way too young," she said. "Besides, it was a hoity-toity girls' school and I was a rebel. I went to classes barefoot and in overalls.

"I was making some kind of an independent statement. I could never abide by all the rules, the conventions and customs," she said. "My mother calls it rebellion. I call it independence."

She went two semesters and flunked out.

"The only class I passed was English," she said.

If she could choose to write about a single person, it would be Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of poet William Wordsworth.

"She devoted her life to him and she was his inspiration," Blackmarr said. "But she was a repressed female. She wrote too, writing about nature with a slightly strange psychological twist."

Does she see comparisons between herself and Wordsworth's sister, a woman who might have resented subjugating her life so that her brother could be a success?

"I never really think of myself as a feminist," Blackmarr said. "I think of myself as an old-fashioned south Georgia girl who likes to be treated like a lady. But here I am three marriages gone to boot and out here living in the woods by myself. We grow into what we are, whether we like it or not."

As she sits on the deck of the house she said looks as if it were built for the Keebler elves, her dog, Max, climbs the steps and nuzzles against Blackmarr's knee. Max, now eight, was the starving puppy she rescued.

Blackmarr smiles in self acceptance.

"Max can dig out from under a concrete wall," she said. "He can't stand to be confined. He's gotta have his freedom, his independence. That's the way I am.

Like Max, I don't like to be confined."

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