An Interview with Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn, author of Loose of Earth

April 12, 2024 | blog, interviews

Having grown up in the rural Bible Belt of the South as a homeschooler, I (Suz Guthmann, MFA ’25) connected deeply with Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn’s memoir, Loose of Earth. Recounting her childhood in Lubbock, Texas, Blackburn brings to the light her experience of faith healings, forever chemicals, and religiously driven homeschooling. At its core, Loose of Earth is a book that dives into what it means to have a body, to be of one’s parents, to exist in a time and place, and how to make sense of it all. It was a blessing, honor, and privilege to be able to talk with Kathleen Blackburn about her memoir, Loose of Earth.

Guthmann: What is the importance of place in your memoir?

Blackburn: I am so pleased the book is coming out with University of Texas Press for many reasons—one is that this is a Texas book. I’ll follow-up by saying, I’m persuaded by Lawrence Wright’s take that Texas holds up a mirror to the rest of the country, showing us a reflection of ourselves that we are often reluctant to see.

Most of my memoir takes place on the Llano Estacado, a mesa that plateaus at the southern end of the High Plains in West Texas, a region considered by geologists to be the flattest in North America. There’s hardly a tree or high rise to ease the vision test set on the horizon—unless you count the pump jacks that rise and fall out of view. Ask H.G. Bissinger, Mary Karr, Lidia Yuknavitch. There’s a reason the chapter on the panhandle in Lonesome Dove is filled with bewilderment. It’s a place of extremes.

Indigenous peoples—the Comanche and Apache, namely—knew to move with the weather patterns across the plains, but I write about how colonizers stubbornly settled in West Texas. Their forced cultivation of stolen land led to the Dust Bowl. That history of land and water use continued to shape the cultural attitudes and landscape into the late 20th and early 21st century, impacting my family’s story, too. In the Dust Bowl, colonizers shot cannons in the sky to create thunder in hopes of bringing rain. And in 1997, when doctors gave my father a few months to live, my family went to the evangelist’s tent on the South Plains Fairgrounds, praying that God would miraculously heal him. By that time, the aquifer beneath Lubbock was nearly drained by industrial agriculture.

In other words, place, West Texas, shaped my story in two primary ways. One is the literal ecological consequence of living in a body and being a part of the ecosystem and environmental history of Lubbock, Texas—a place where, as I say in the book, we beat outsiders to the punchline: you bet it’s the flattest place on earth. And we’ve got the worst weather, but the nicest people. There you have it. Two truths and a lie.

The other way place shaped by book was the cultural attitude, character, and voice that result from the panhandle’s realities: a mother of spitfire and brimstone, an impossible quest to save my father’s life, and something inside of me that still can’t separate faith from grief; I consider that blur to be the most West Texas part of myself.

Guthmann: What is the editing process like when writing from memory?

Blackburn: Slippery. Suspect. Uncertain. Revision isn’t a polishing process, especially when working with memory. If anything, it’s the process of sanding away the varnish, a practice my father taught me. He was a carpenter in the off-hours, quite a good one. He taught me how to take an old, lacquered piece and sand it down to bare wood, to make something beautiful and new of it. That, I think, is what working with memory is like. In an early draft, the remembered moment comes to you rather neatly polished. Rehearsed. It’s your job, as a writer, to get underneath those coats of years, to seek out what undiscovered meaning the memory could yet hold.

To step away from the metaphor, I have some practical ways of inviting skepticism into remembering, because that’s essentially what I’m talking about. For my memoir, I interviewed old family friends and relatives who were willing to talk to me. I also did a lot of research—about cancer, about place. I was looking for counternarratives, not to disprove necessarily what I remembered, but to complicate, to foment multiple and contradicting truths that could knock up against one another.

For instance, I remembered the night my father died, and for years, it was a horrible memory of his final, ragged breaths. That’s the varnished memory. But as I wrote about it in the context of the book, a few things happened. I talked with my aunt, his sister, who was there that night, too, and we compared details. We found that we both remembered her last words to my father the same. It was validating, and indicated to me those words were crucial. My father had been a marathon runner, and as he died, Lori ran her fingers through his hair and said, “You’re running, John.”

For research, I had also read The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams; in anticipation of her own death from cancer, Yip-Williams learned about the gasping for air many cancer patients experience. I knew it to be called agonal breathing, but she was given different term for it: “breath hunger.” That beautiful language reminded me of how my father once told me, “You run with your lungs.” In earlier chapters of the memoir, I’d described the sound of his deep inhales as he ran. So, a new interpretation of the memory of his death emerged next to the old one: my father died as he lived, hungry for air.

Guthmann: When did you shift from wanting to be a veterinarian like your mother to becoming a writer?

Blackburn: I haven’t thought about it in quite the way you asked it, and I’m grateful for your insight. I don’t remember wanting to be a veterinarian after my father died. Perhaps that particular desire was steeped in childhood dreaming, and it ended with my father’s death.

There’s a scene in the memoir of my mother in the veterinary clinic bending over a splayed cat she’s dissecting for my education. In another scene, she’s seated for hours in front of a big Dell computer typing up bible verses about healing, saying God literally cures those who believe in miracles. For some, these pursuits would seem a contradiction to one another, but for her, they were one and the same. She studied texts on infectious disease as she did the bible; she was studious, brilliant, and disciplined. I think we misunderstand vast groups of people when we separate “education” from “fundamentalism” or other forms of extremes. But I digress.

What I want to emphasize here is that I recognize in both of these memories a quality of mind in my mother—an obsessiveness and tenacity—that I inherited. When my mind fixates, I am indefatigable. In the memoir, I write about how I witnessed the rewards of my mother’s method at the veterinary clinic—her precision with a scalpel, her skill with diagnoses, her excellence in bedside manner. While I didn’t become a veterinarian, I, too, have a relentless habit of mind. For me, it is with craft and research, and I believe my obsessiveness is rewarded in my writing. But I don’t think this kind of mental approach is suited well to other spaces. It’s hard on home life, relationships, self-esteem. I try to localize it to my work.

Guthmann: Your memoir is full of religion, purity culture, homeschooling, military life, parentification of a child, and the death of a parent. How did you find your identity amidst these sets of rules telling you who you should be?

You’re right—this book is, ultimately, a coming-of-age memoir. And your keen question rests at the heart of the story.

Ironically, it was through following the rules and discovering they didn’t make good on their promise that I found a sense of self. I mean, I write about small acts of rebellion. I, thank goodness, had a childhood friend who counseled me through shaving my legs against my mom’s wishes. But even that revolt resulted in my believing my mother was omniscient. I was a compliant child. A rule-follower. I write about finding solace in a to-do list in the face of my father’s deterioration—eating healthy food, praying in the words of scripture, denying the swelling bulge of his liver. This led inevitably to what is, for me, the most painful chapter in the book, where I deny my father respite from his pain. 

He had been prescribed codeine for the acute aching the cancer caused. But my mother took me aside, saying the codeine opened my father to Satan’s influence. She hid the codeine with me as witness, and I immediately understood my faith would be tested: if my father asked me for the codeine, and I gave in, the failing would be mine. It sounds so outlandish now, but it was what I believed at the time.

Under these circumstances, the showdown between me and my father became unavoidable. One afternoon, my mother was at work, and my dad cried out for the codeine. I was certain if I could just withstand this test, my father would be healed. But then, he asked for the codeine, and I denied knowing where it was. Of course, no miracle came. Instead, I experienced disgrace at refusing a person I loved relief from his pain. Shame, guilt, and bewilderment. These forces combined to cleave something inside me. It was then that I began to split from the univocal voice of my family and our collective belief system. I started to sense myself as an I.

And my father sensed it, too. He took me into his confidence after that. As I describe in the book, he began to speak privately to me, in the final weeks before his death, about the reality of his dying. Those conversations were some of the most sacred I’ve ever had in my life. I felt bound to him, a fool to her king, an accomplice in his dying. I was no longer the dutiful daughter, the faithful believer. I was in a no man’s land where the kindest person I’d known was vanishing and, with him, my childhood. My coming of age was thus an alienation. The I emerged when the girl K.D. was shorn of everything she had been and known.

While writing about intimate family history, were you concerned with how your family would react?

Suz, every step of the way.

There’s a scene in the memoir where I write about a conversation I had with my childhood best friend, Eden. It takes place a few weeks before my father died. I’ve just spent the night at her house in the country, and it’s a foggy morning. We’re looking out across the vast cotton fields into the clouds resting over where Lubbock should be. Into the nothing and without looking at each other, Eden tells me she prays for my dad every day. At this point, my dad can barely walk. I’ve seen his blood splatter the bathroom floor. He’s even taken me into his confidence, and we’ve spoken about his impending death. But in public—even to my best friend—I parrot the family script we’ve been rehearsing for over a year and say, “He’s going to be better real soon.”

The psychological aftermath of that kind of adherence to a family code is long-lasting. It could easily have been permanent.

When I first began writing as a practice, I was a college undergraduate, and I barely cracked the surface of my personal story. I wrote a little bit about grief. I wrote a short fictional story based on my brother that got my family’s hackles up. And it was all so vague; most of it was stuff like I went to a bar and thought about missing my dad. My mother and siblings would read it and they didn’t like it. I realized the problem wasn’t what I was writing. It was the act of writing. I had to go all in or stop entirely.

So, I pulled out the stops. When I started writing the memoir, I wrote as though no one would ever see it. That was the only way to put the words down unhindered and grow in the craft. I had to work around the psychological censors because they had been formed in my childhood. They were tyrants in my mind that masqueraded as practical concerns; even as loyalty to loved ones: Do you have a right to tell this story? What if you lose your family over this? What if your hurt people you love? What about legal issues? How do you know what you’re talking about? Who’s going to want to read this? Can’t you write about something else?

Writing felt like a betrayal. That was part of the difficulty. And part of the allure.

Still, I had a few rules for myself, a code of ethics. I didn’t speak on behalf of my siblings in the memoir. They were children at the time of the story, the most vulnerable people in the narrative. Whenever I say “we”, it’s to address some staging. When I recreate dialogue between us it is mostly low-stakes and doesn’t attempt to offer up their individual beliefs or interpretation. I have very few quotes from them as adults now. I aimed to leave capacious room for the truth of their experiences.

I took more liberties with the people who were adults in the 90s. I described my memories of them in more detail and with creative license. My goal wasn’t to flatter anyone, including myself, but to flatter the truth, as Andre Dubus III says. I was also persuaded by something I heard Marilynne Robinson say in an interview once. This is a paraphrase, but she said something like, in each of her characters she tries to find moments of profundity—places where the harmful ideologies human beings internalize over time have yet to find purchase. Good enough for Robinson. In my own search for moments of profundity, I was struck again and again by the deeply human beauty in my parents, my grandparents, the people from my old church. The best parts of who I am wrote this book. I wrote it from a place of honesty and of love.

Was educating your reader about the effects of PFAS-polluted water one of the goals of your memoir from the beginning?

No! That was a surprise of the research—and why I always teach research when writing memoir, because we, all of us, only know a fragment of the story when we start out.

All I knew when I began writing the memoir was that I had this strange story of trying to save my father’s life through faith healing and healthy eating on the plains of West Texas. I knew that he was third generation military and had lived on or near military sites for the first thirty years of his life.

I took it upon myself to find his old high school classmates and interview them. I hoped to gather a fuller picture of my father as a teenager. I was able to find a number of people who were willing to talk to me (shout out to Judson High class of ’77). By that point, 2019, I knew that everyone in my dad’s immediate family had been diagnosed with some form of cancer. Genetics were suspected but results of genetics testing in the family were inconclusive. Then, during an interview with one of my dad’s old classmates, I mentioned the prevalence of cancer in the family, and she said, “do you know about the water?” I had no idea what she was talking about. She pointed me toward the alarming issue of PFAS at military sites.

Commonly referred to as “forever chemicals,” PFAS are a class of chemicals that were used in non-stick products beginning in the mid-twentieth century that turned out to be highly carcinogenic. They don’t break down when released into the environment. In the 1950s, the Department of Defense contracted the company 3M to manufacture a special fire-fighting foam that used particularly potent forms of PFAS. The military distributed the foams widely across the US military bases, used them routinely in fire-fighting drills, and disposed of them carelessly. This continued long after 3M and the military knew PFAS were harmful to human health. We now understand that drinking water sources at many military sites are contaminated with these carcinogens at levels that far exceed healthy standards. This was certainly the case at each military site where my father worked.

When I first googled “PFAS Texas Air Force” Lubbock, the shuttered Air Force base that brought my family to West Texas, was my fist hit. I’d had no idea that PFAS were in my backyard. It blew the memoir open.

Is there any person, present day or historical, who you wish had written a memoir?

Refaat Alareer

Who should write memoirs?

Anyone who would prefer not to, but has a story too devastating and beautiful to keep it to themselves.

What do you hope is the impact of your memoir?

Honestly, Suz, I’d hoped for conversations like this one. I want the chance to speak with readers. I wrote with the desire to hear from people like you, whose insights have helped me to see the story in a new light. I hope to hear about the experiences of others and I look forward to continuing to read and listen.

Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn is the author of the memoir Loose of Earth, forthcoming from the University of Texas Press in April 2024. She teaches in the University of Chicago Creative Writing Program and is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has appeared in Colorado ReviewGuernicaGulf CoastPleiades, and swamp pink, and was listed as notable in Best American Essays.