Michael Knight is the author of two novels, Divining Rod and The Typist; two collections of short fiction, Dogfight and Other Stories and Goodnight, Nobody; and a collection of novellas, The Holiday Season. His fiction has appeared in publications such as Esquire, The New Yorker and Oxford American. He teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee.
Q (Meg Pokrass): Mentoring for other writers: At one time… were you mentored? Do you have thoughts relating to the mentor relationship for a writer?
I’ve been lucky to have good teachers my whole life. Back in the days when high schools didn’t have creative writing classes, a world class English teacher named Nancy Strachan was willing to read my stories on her own time. In college, Susan Pepper Robbins convinced me to apply to grad schools in creative writing. In grad school, Frederick Bartheleme taught me how hard it really is to write a good story-not just a story good enough for workshop but a real story, one with legs. I guess mentor means something slightly different though. Mentoring suggests a broader kind of education, being made to feel like a peer, learning what matters in a larger sense, etc. I wouldn’t be the writer and/or person I am today if not for my association with all of the above people but when I hear the word mentor the first name that comes to mind is George Garrett. George was my teacher and friend at UVa. I learned a lot about writing in George’s workshop but I learned just as much hanging around in his garage or driving him to readings when his vision started to go. From George, I learned how I wanted to live in the world as a writer. I still address most of my professional quandries by first asking, “What would George do?” It’d be nice to think I could have a similar effect on my students and on younger writers but I’m no George Garrett.
A mental ex-lax thing, do you have tricks to move things through when not feeling as inspired?
I read. It’s sometimes hard to convince people that laying around in the middle of the day reading is a vital part of my process but I really have found that if I just keep reading good fiction, good writers, I’ll eventually come across some perfect image or airtight scene, something that strikes the necessary chord and sends me running back to my own work, that makes me excited about writing again.
What is exciting about this time as a writer with the internet and what it offers. What is (conversely) not so good about it..?
To be honest the whole business terrifies me. I should admit that I’m near a Luddite, not by philosophy but by habit. I just recently got my first cell phone and that was only at my wife’s insistence. I should also say that my fear is not born of any kind of certainty. Quite the opposite. I don’t think anybody in the publishing world really knows what’s coming in terms of the internet. It just might be that the internet saves the short story, which I love, brings new readers to the form and provides an outlet for good story writers as more and more print markets dry up. It also might be that the internet will kill off brick and mortar bookstores, a particularly fresh wound as our local independent, Carpe Librum, is preparing to shut its doors and that makes me sad sad sad.
What are your favorite literary sites? What sites do you find yourself going to to read? Or your favorite web sites?
narrativemagazine.com is my favorite literary site. And this might be an old-fogey approach to the question but I also love the access the internet gives to print magazine archives. I’m a pretty frequent browser of The Paris Review and New Yorker sites as well.
Any favorite writing exercises would be hugely appreciated.
There are two exercises I almost always use in class. I’ve been using them long enough now that I can’t recall if I made them up or stole them from somebody else but I imagine most teachers employ some variation of these regardless. I’ve also used both of these as jumping off places in my own work.
Exercise 1: Describe the view from a window, any window, bedroom, barroom, bus, wherever, as seen by a character who has just received either some very good or very bad news. Have some specific news in mind but do not mention it in the exercise. Don’t even hint at it. The reader should be able to tell, if not the exact nature of the news, then tenor of it, whether its good or bad, simply by the way you describe the view. The object here is to give the reader a sense of a character’s internal life by relying on meaningful imagery alone.
Exercise 2: Write a scene, lots of dialogue, lots of body language, lots of concrete detail, etc., in which one of the characters is keeping a big time secret. She’s pregnant. He’s got cancer. Like that. Don’t mention the secret in the scene. Instead, focus on how keeping such a secret effects your character’s behavior, how he/she reacts to the environment and to the other characters. No, this is not an exercise in deliberately withholding information. The point is that the secret itself is less important than your character’s reaction to it. Even if the reader isn’t privy to the secret, we should be able to sense the tension it causes, its emotional effect.
This will probably be obvious to your readers but in both exercises, try to avoid the obvious manifestations of a particular emotion. If, for instance, the character is sad, steer clear of storms, dark clouds, etc. If the character is happy, avoid birds chirping, sun shining, like that. Also keep in mind that the reason we use imagery and action to capture emotion instead of explaining how a person feels or what they think, the reason we show don’t tell, the reason we dramatize in the first place, is that emotions are generally much more complicated than happy or sad. In a good story, the character’s response, that original and particular and individual reaction, is the way they feel. It’s the only possible way to make clear something that’s more intricate than adjectives and adverbs.
Can you give us a reading list of recent favorites?
Nicole Krauss, Great House
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Barry Hannah, Long, Last, Happy
Tom Franklin, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Sabina Murray, An Omnivore’s Inquiry
Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
Brocke Clarke, Exley
What writers, artists, musicians (dead or alive) do you turn to again and again for inspiration?
Tom Waits, Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, in particular), Flannery O’Connor, Wes Anderson, Lucinda Williams, Antonya Nelson, Ann Patchett, J.D. Salinger and on and on.
Anything you would like to share re: writing The Typist – anything about the experience of writing it you can share?
On a practical level, I set what seemed to me very modest goals for writing The Typist. I’m always hearing about writers who somehow manage to crank out 1,000 words a day or something and that always drives me crazy. I so rarely have days like that. I’m a plodder. With The Typist I tried to do 1,000 words a week. It’s the first time I’ve ever set a goal like that and it helped. I figured 1,000 words a week, 52 weeks a year, before too many years I’d have a novel. It kept me moving forward somehow, made the process less daunting.
On a personal level, I think it’s my best book. I felt ready to write it. I’m proud of my first novel but the writing was torture. Just misery. I think that’s partly b/c I’d never written a novel so I had a lot to learn but I think it’s also because I was writing that book under contract. It took a while before that novel became “necessary” for me to write. On a gut level, I mean. Does that make sense? For a while, I was writing that book for my publisher and my agent and not for myself. The Typist was different. I don’t mean to suggest that it wasn’t hard or that there weren’t times when I didn’t feel like chucking the whole thing and fixing a drink. But by and large, I felt confident all the way through that I would eventually find my way to the book I wanted to write.
Talk about writing stories vs. writing the novel.
I cut my teeth as a writer of short stories. And I still love short stories, both as a writer and a reader. Basically a short story takes a novel’s worth of emotional complication and compresses it down into this much smaller space which can make for a very intense reading experience. And stories are allowed a kind of air of mystery that I love, especially at the end. Stories generally close on an emotional upturn or downturn but all the loose ends aren’t necessarily tied up and that really resonates with me as a reader. It’s more like life. It feels more true. I think my experience as a story writer has definitely had an impact on my novels. Most of my favorite novels — The Great Gatsby, As I Lay Dying, to name just a couple — are less than three hundred pages long. I think that has less to do with a short attention span than with the intensity of the reading experience. The impact is less diffuse. And I try to bring that intensity to the page when I’m working on a novel — that sense of a emotion compressed into tight quarters, that air of mystery, that feeling that life is more complicated, more ineffable than the words right here on the page.
What is in the works?
I’ve got another novel cooking but I’m still in the germination stages at the moment. I’d tell you the details but I have a sort of teapot theory of writing — everything project has a certain amount of steam and talking about a project lets off just as much steam as writing it. I try to save my steam for the page. I’ve been writing stories the last few months. I wrote a vampire story. No joke. I wrote it on a bet with a graduate student and I actually think it turned out pretty good.
3 things and/ or habits every writer would benefit from.
Smoking. I’m kidding, of course, but truth is all my habits are bad. They’re personal and particular to my own neuroses.
Best advice you ever got.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday — and over the holidays, every Saturday — Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.