Black book: Rockville novelist can go home again

by Ellyn Wexler
Staff Writer

Oct. 13, 2004

Elizabeth Black is not in Kansas anymore.

It has been some four decades since she has lived in the small town where she was one of six children in a Mennonite family -- without electricity or indoor plumbing until age 7 and educated in a one-room schoolhouse.

"We were poor economically, but rich in the sense of family and community," she says.

The Rockville writer's heritage, "the windswept plains of western Kansas," is the foundation of her first novel, "Buffalo Spirits," published earlier this year.

Why? In the book's acknowledgements, Black notes, "... we didn't know it then, but place -- our wonderful little town and expanse of prairie -- played an important role in who we would become."

Black says she felt compelled to pen this novel "to keep alive a lifestyle," and thought about it for four years prior to the one she actually spent writing. The book, which is substantially autobiographical, tells the stories of two families who lost the land they loved: one, patterned on her own, to agribusiness in 1975, and the other, Native Americans expelled and dispossessed from the same land 100 years before. Her protagonists, two first-person narrators, tell the tales in alternating chapters.

Since Black's parents' experience was "way too painful," she waited until after their deaths to write her book.

"I lost them within a year," she says, noting that she began working almost immediately because "I wanted to write before I forgot."

"They were extraordinary people," Black says. "My father was an environmental farmer who loved the land."

At the behest of a multinational conglomerate that wanted her father's land to use as a cattle feedlot, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who had extended mortgages to farmers so that the Dust Bowl land would be utilized, recalled the loan. The balance was to be paid within 48 hours.

"I went into the book thinking that my father was unusual, but learned he was typical," Black says.

But her research indicated, "This was the pattern in the Midwest. The same scenario played out over and over."

Although a friend who works for DOA has explained that it was "prudent" for the government to act as such, which gave her "insight into where they were coming from," Black remains enraged. Writing the book, she admits, was somewhat therapeutic.

Also on Black's agenda in writing the book is exposing the "environmental impact of years of misguided agriculture" and the "wanton depletion of the non-renewable water table under the Great Plains -- which in 30 years will create a disaster eclipsing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s."

At first, she wanted to write nonfiction, she says, "but I thought more people would understand and grasp it" in fictional form. "It's a glimpse into life in the 1950s and '60s, and you have to read between the lines for the underlying meaning."


Black didn't start out as a writer -- although she studied creative writing at the University of Kansas and won the top award in the school's short story contest. Looking back, she realizes she didn't have the confidence that she could earn a living as a writer. Instead, she chose one of a rural Kansas female's two acceptable alternatives to being a housewife: teaching. The other option was nursing, but, she says, "I couldn't stand the sight of blood."

Her college advisor told her that her "job is to write a great novel about Kansas," and that he'd rather her become a waitress than a teacher. His rationale, she says, "Then my soul would be hungry for writing."

But perhaps because "I lost my nerve" and never completed an assignment she had accepted for a magazine, she taught high school English for three years in Chicago.

She acknowledged, "Teaching students to write left me no time to write for myself."

"I love the students," even now when she substitutes in the county schools, she says, "but I love writing more." Still, teaching is a good antidote to the loneliness of writing, and when she finished her novel last year, she did a four-month stint teaching English at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville.

"I needed to be with people," she explains.

Meeting, then marrying, Edwin Black, a journalist who had been writing since age 17, convinced her that teaching was too restrictive a career.

His logic was irrefutable: "'You're a writer,' he told me, "'Why don't you write?'"

As a freelance journalist, Elizabeth Black proceeded to write pieces on women's health and environmental issues for Chicago newspapers and magazines like Mademoiselle and Cosmopolitan. The Blacks collaborated once, on a piece for Playboy. She served as co-editor of Chicago Monthly magazine in the mid-1970s. In the early '80s, she made a deal with her dermatologist that he would clear her skin and she'd write a book for him; both fulfilled their roles.

After a year in Israel, when the Blacks decided to return to the United States, they chose the D.C. area, moving to Rockville in 1987 so that their daughter Rachel, now at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, could attend the county's fine public schools.

Together, the Blacks owned and operated a company that published three magazines: OS2 professional, on computers; Stride, on women's health; and Biomechanics Magazine, on medical issues. Edwin took on the editorial responsibilities and Elizabeth, graphics and art. They had 30 employees and worked hard, around the clock, until 1997, when they sold to a San Francisco company. Both Blacks used the in-between year, 1999, as consultants to the new owners, to resume writing full-time. Edwin has produced several investigative volumes, including his most recent, "Banking on Baghdad," and has received multiple Pulitzer and National Book Award nominations. They read and edit each other's work.

Elizabeth became discouraged when her agent could not sell the book. "Beautifully written but the topic is unmarketable" was the usual publisher's rejection. She proceeded to enter every contest she qualified for announced in Poet & Writer and placed or won in three. She was a finalist in the 2002 William Faulkner Novel Competition and won both the Three Oaks Prize in Fiction and the 2004 Helen Wurlitzer Foundation Award. The Three Oaks award came from Story Line Press, which subsequently published her book. The Wurlitzer Foundation prize is three months at an artist's colony in Taos.

There will be a lot of work to do amid the beautiful scenery and the company of other creative beings. She is already 60 pages into her second novel, an exploration of human relationships and middle age, but needs to do "major research." Like her first novel, a second storyline requires a "historical jump." A nonfiction project is also in progress: "Amber Waves" will focus on the migration of the Russian Mennonites to the American prairies in 1874.

And she'll have something to dream about, too. Black hopes some day to organize a Prairie Writers Conference.

Yes, Elizabeth Black enjoys a rich life in suburban Rockville, but her homeland, the Great Plains, are clearly the substance of her heart and soul.

"Buffalo Spirits" (Story Line Press, 2004, $23.95) is available at local Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores as well as major online retailers.