Writer Sydney Blair lives on through her work and collective memory

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Beloved UVA professor and writer Sydney Blair will be remembered on January 20 at Old Cabell Hall. Photo by Lisa Russ Spaar Beloved UVA professor and writer Sydney Blair will be remembered on January 20 at Old Cabell Hall. Photo by Lisa Russ Spaar

University of Virginia professor and writer Sydney Blair was generous with her time. The author of Buffalo, winner of the Virginia Prize for Fiction in 1991, could often be found in her office having a one-on-one conference with a student—she was an integral part of UVA’s MFA program, first as an administrator and then as an associate professor, since her own graduation from the program in 1986. Blair, who died December 12 at age 67, following a sudden illness, was also one of the inaugural faculty advisers for the literary magazine Meridian. In addition, she pushed for the creation of a literary prose concentration for undergraduates, taught the popular Writers in Paris class and spearheaded an undergraduate creative nonfiction course. Her legacy at UVA lives on through a memorial fund her family set up to help support students in the MFA program.

Sheila McMillen, a writer and editor, remembers well when she met Blair: October 15, 1985, the day Allen Ginsberg spoke at UVA. “I was new to Charlottesville,” McMillen says. “People kept telling me, ‘You have to meet Sydney Blair.’ We hit it off very quickly.”

For 10 years they worked across the hall from each other and remained friends after McMillen left the university. Blair once told her, “I came to writing through life. Through living and realizing I wanted to write about it.”

Blair’s novel Buffalo is a middle-life bildungsroman that takes place in Charlottesville. It follows protagonist Ray McCreary from service in the Vietnam War, to his untethered life afterward and through the relationship he develops with Vivian, a painter who works as a server at The Virginian, a local institution since 1923. Without asking overt questions about the trauma of war, the novel explores one man’s quest for significance, for something worth fighting for.

“One of the things Sydney did very well was write from a male point of view,” McMillen says. “Though her portraits of men are sympathetic, she’s very gimlet-eyed about them. …She was able to balance between being inside their heads and revealing things that you as a reader would see as limitations.”

Not only did Blair receive the Virginia Prize for Fiction for Buffalo, but she was also sent many buffalo trinkets and knickknacks following the book’s publication. McMillen says that Blair once remarked, “Had I known that was going to happen, I would have called it Diamonds.”

It’s Blair’s sense of humor, lightness and amiability that those close to her will miss the most.

McMillen attributes these qualities to the fact that Blair grew up in a Navy family, moving often. “She was always the new kid,” she says. “She was very flexible around people and put them at ease quickly. She was a very cheerful person. You were always happy to see her. Everyone was happy to see Sydney.”

Ann Beattie, a former UVA professor of English and creative writing, first met Blair in 1975. She even rented a house from her at one point on the Cobham property where Blair lived, which McMillen says bears some resemblance to the one featured in Buffalo, complete with copperheads. Beattie writes in an e-mail, “Privately and professionally, Sydney was always eager to hear about what mattered to you, and while she didn’t give advice directly, she had an amazing ability to lead you toward discovering the hidden joke in what you thought was tragic, or the problem implied in the plan you thought you’d so brilliantly figured out. She was always at least one step (and often half a mile) ahead of you.”

Friend and colleague Jeb Livingood says, “She was always this very bright and optimistic presence. Always laughing and finding the humor and joy in everything. It wasn’t cavalier or blithe or naïve. She had a sort of wicked sense of humor, she was often seeing the idiosyncrasies of what was going on in the situation. It was that sort of humor she brought to every occasion.”

Jason Coleman, who first befriended Blair through the MFA program in 1997, says he will remember her presence most, and then her voice. He writes in an e-mail, “It’s very painful to think I’ll never hear that voice again—that very quick, intense way she had of speaking, her exuberant laugh. Sometimes we got together to play music, and I will miss that delicate singing voice more than I can say.”

McMillen recalls traveling with Blair last spring to London. They were on their way to see the musical Sunny Afternoon, based on music by The Kinks, when Blair made a beeline to a man standing on the corner and asked him, “Is it you?” It turned out to be none other than Ray Davies of The Kinks. Blair told him she’d been a fan since she was 13. Later, McMillen knocked on Blair’s hotel room door and found her dancing and blasting The Kinks from her cell phone. “That’s a consoling memory,” McMillen says. “She was as happy as I ever saw her.”

McMillen, who lived near Blair, says, “We were in each other’s lives and pockets.” Even now, a month later, her dog keeps leading her up the steps to Blair’s front door. “So now comes the long art of learning to live without my friend,” McMillen says. “It’s hardly an art.”

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