Biography and memoir are central to Blackburn’s creative work. She has described her writing as ‘a way of understanding myself through understanding other people and the predicaments they are faced with’, and the archive vividly documents this approach.
The archive includes drafts and research material for nine of Blackburn’s published books. There are often multiple drafts, which may differ substantially from the final published text, showing her writing process in some detail. Files of research material and notes also reveal a diligent research process.
Blackburn has written on a wide range of subjects, and the research and creative processes used also vary. ‘With Billie: A New Look at the Unforgettable Lady Day’ builds on notes left by an earlier researcher, Linda Kuehl, to explore Billie Holiday’s life through interviews with those who knew her. Blackburn travelled to St Helena in order to write ‘The Emporer’s Last Island’ on Napoleon’s final years. Files for her books on historical figures such as Daisy Bates also show extensive archival research.
Files for Blackburn’s memoir of her life with her parents, ‘The Three of Us: A Family Story’, are a fascinating example of her use of research and writing to explore her own life. Blackburn uses material in her archive; her letters, and early journals for example, as a researcher would: so that they become source material for the book. The memoir also draws substantially on documents in the archives of her parents: the poet & Gregory Fellow Thomas Blackburn, and the painter Rosemarie de Meric, which are also housed in Special Collections.
Blackburn explored her own experience of donating material to Special Collections in ‘The Brotherton Archive and Me’, first broadcast on Radio 4 in 2010. The programme explored the process of releasing private literary material into the public arena, by talking to other writers, including Simon Armitage and Sophie Hannah. Blackburn memorably described the strangeness of encountering her younger self through the documents in her archive as ‘like meeting a stranger’.
The Julia Blackburn Archive has recently been catalogued and is now available for research.