After writer and UVA professor Sydney Blair died unexpectedly in December 2016 due to complications from pancreatitis, her children, Tom and Abbie Swanson, found a manuscript-in- progress titled Honorable Men: And Other Stories. When they revealed their discovery to their mother’s longtime friend, Sheila McMillen, she agreed to serve as editor to finish the work.
It proved to be a challenge, McMillen says, to piece together the collection, which explores the “complicated relationships between men and women.” More than half of the stories in the table of contents Blair drafted had been previously published in literary magazines. And while some of those magazines continue to thrive, such as Callaloo and The Texas Review, others no longer exist, which made it difficult to track down all of the stories. As a result, McMillen had to make some editorial decisions, selecting other stories to round out the book. Some she re-typed from print copies when they couldn’t locate digital files.
After McMillen sent Tom and Abbie the assembled collection, Abbie says, “I laid them out and Mom’s voice came through crystal clear.” McMillen agrees. “If you know Sydney, you will hear her voice, the way she would look at things and phrase things,” she says.
In one particular story, “Route 80: Wyoming,” Blair draws on the experience of driving with her daughter from New York to Oakland. As a reporter and producer now based in Los Angeles, Abbie says, “I was always moving around looking for the next good job.” Her mother, who joined her three or four times on her cross-country drives, “was very encouraging of all of our crazy plans for the things we wanted to do with our lives,” Abbie says. In the story, that support is tested by fear when a man poses a potential threat to her daughter’s safety.
As she ordered the stories, McMillen says intuition guided her sense of how they would build to the final story, the titular “Honorable Men.” That piece examines, from the perspective of two veterans, what the past can and cannot give us.
“Her understanding of men, and writing from their perspectives, is a hallmark of her work,” Tom says.
“Some of the men are not so honorable, so there’s a kind of ironic quality,” in the title, McMillen says. The characters in these stories, “are often quite intelligent, but they don’t really know their own mind. They are easily led by their emotions, the men especially.”
For Abbie, her mother’s deftness at crafting characters of either sex stems from the person she was. “She was so patient and thoughtful, and made everyone feel like she was concerned with them and focused on them. That’s why her stories are so good. She took the time, making sure she got the people right on the page.”
In the last year of her life, McMillen recalls, Blair was busy and happy. She traveled to California and England, and bought a house on the Rappahannock River, where she intended to spend summers with her grandchildren. She had plans to climb Mount Whitney, retracing the steps of her great-grandfather, Hubert Dyer, who made the climb in 1890 and would become a charter member of the Sierra Club. She had begun writing a novella about Dyer and was at work on Honorable Men.
“I think, had Sydney lived, she would have sent the book out for publication,” McMillen says. So when she and Blair’s children had trouble finding an interested publisher for a posthumous collection, they decided to publish it themselves. Once local artist Rosamond Casey—a mutual friend of Blair and McMillen—finished designing the cover, they were ready to go to print.
Currently available at New Dominion Bookshop, the book will eventually be available at the UVA Bookstores and online. Copies will also be housed at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, UVA Library and in UVA’s Special Collections. The inaugural recipient of the Sydney Hall Blair Fellowship for Creative Writing, a fund established by her family after her death, will receive a copy of Honorable Men, along with Blair’s novel Buffalo, this fall.
“In today’s world when everything is so fast-paced and we’re so focused on our devices,” Abbie says, “it’s nice to have good literature in front of you and stories that make you want to stop and reread it. That’s a rare find these days.”
For Tom, the publication of Honorable Men is “an opportunity for other people to have a little bit of insight into who she was. And it’s another opportunity to remember and celebrate her.”
“If Tom, Abbie, and I hadn’t done it, these stories would’ve disappeared,” McMillen says. “We didn’t want that to happen. For all of us, it’s a way to keep her voice alive in the world.”