Interview with Michael Knight

Michael Knight  (photo credit: Judith Welch)

By James A. Jordan

Michael Knight has written two novels, three collections of short stories, and a collection of novellas. His novel, The Typist, was selected as a Best Book of the Year by The Huffington Post and was featured on Oprah’s Summer Reading List in 2011. In 2013, he received the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Excellence in Fiction. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Oxford American, Paris Review, and The Southern Review, among others. Atlantic Monthly Press published his new short story collection, Eveningland, in March of 2017.

Knight teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee.

Though Alabama features heavily throughout your writing, the stories in this collection are focused on the Mobile Bay area—both in terms of setting and people who have grown up in and around the Mobile. Would you speak a little bit about how place figures into the stories, and its role as a character?

I think of this book as a sort of love letter to my hometown, though, inevitably, that relationship is more complicated than the word implies. The place we grow up becomes the lens through which we see the world—our beliefs as an adult are often an acceptance of or rejection of what we learned in and about that place. As a kid in Mobile, all the adults I knew had grown up together, gone to school together, dated each other, and now I was growing up with their kids, playing football with their sons, chasing their daughters for dates. As the narrator in “The King of Dauphin Island” says, “…it was a beautiful life by any standard,” but simultaneously, without diminishing this beauty, such an insulated community can become suffocating. There is the burden of expectation and family obligation and, as you get older, you begin noticing cracks in the veneer. By 18, I was ready to bolt. Most of the stories in the collection are about that very thing: characters resisting or giving in to those burdens and expectations. I hope those feelings transcend specific place and class. Though I haven’t gotten very far from Mobile, both in terms of geography and in the sense that I can’t shake the subject. Getting older and being away from a place long enough, you see it more clearly and learn to love it again in a less nostalgic, more clear-eyed way. For all their faults, these people were and remain important to me. I wanted these stories to be honest about the complications of place, but I also wanted to write a book that my mother, who still lives in Mobile, could read and be proud of because she recognized these people and this place and because these stories reflect something true. I think this is the book I’ve been warming up to my whole life.

Eveningland marks your third story collection. How has your process changed when you approach compiling short story collections?

This is the first collection I’ve written with the whole book in mind. These stories are meant to stand alone, of course, but because there are recurring characters and themes and because place itself is so close to the heart of the book, my hope is that as you read along, the book begins to acquire a kind of novelistic force. While I’m very proud of Dogfight and Goodnight, Nobody, the truth is that, in both cases, I just kept writing new stories until I had enough to make a book. Only then did I begin looking for linking themes and trying to order them for an interesting read. Stories first, book second. With Eveningland, I wrote the last piece, “Landfall,” first and I liked it pretty well, but because it was novella length—too long for magazines, too short to publish as a novel—I put it in a drawer for a while. After the Deep Water Horizon spill, I wrote “Water and Oil,” and it dawned on me that these stories were set in the same world, geographic and social, and that the characters were likely to know each other. The idea for a collection of linked stories began to take shape and many of the other stories were written with an eye towards arriving at a collection that added up to something bigger and more powerful than its component parts.

Many writers, once they begin writing novels, stop publishing collections. You have continued writing both. How have you been able to maintain a balance between short stories and novels?

It’s a shame when talented writers quit the short story, especially when the decision comes down to money or readership—novels pay more, right, and they sell better and they often receive more critical attention. That’s not a particularly good reason to make any decision regarding literature or art. I love short stories. I love novels, too. It makes sense I’d write both. I think I’ll always write both. I can’t imagine otherwise. Some ideas are better suited to one form or the other, and my imagination, tends toward the story. I’m not sure why that is. Probably because I read a lot of short stories. I’m also not sure it’s a choice for me or something I maintain or balance. But even as I’m writing stories, I’m always looking for an idea that might be conceptualized into something longer, something that resists compression.

“Water and Oil” and “Landfall” bookend Eveningland, both involve a natural disaster—the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Raphael respectively—and both feature families directly dependent upon the Bay as their source of income. How do these two pieces serve to frame the collection?

I worry that the answer to this question is going to make the book sound awfully bleak, and I don’t want to believe that is the entirely the case. I think there’s plenty of love and hope and good humor in these pages, but there is a motion toward decay, toward the end of things. That’s one of the elements trying to give the book a kind of novelistic forward lean. “Water and Oil” is about a teenage boy’s initial perception of that decay and how he’s changed by that realization. He’s tainted by it, and the threat of oil corrupting this beautiful, natural place mirrors that corruption. That’s an oversimplification but you get my drift. The last story is about three generations of a particular family and their experience of Hurricane Raphael. This natural disaster, this unstoppable force that’s blowing in and wrecking everything is, in this case, also a sort of purifying force,  pushing the characters, some of them anyway, past that initial corruption and decay to a deeper understanding. So we reach the natural end and then we move beyond it, as in a novel.

One thing I was pleasantly surprised by in your Acknowledgments section was the thanks to writers, both living and dead, who have influenced your writing. Who are some of the other writers who have helped you grow and develop?

This list could go on forever but the names that leap immediately to mind are Tessa Hadley, Richard Bausch, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Barry Hannah, Jill McCorkle, James Baldwin, Rick Bass, Raymond Carver, Mary Robison, Thomas McGuane, Frederick Barthelme, Richard Yates, Antonya Nelson, Madison Smartt Bell. And now that you mention it, that strikes me as a pretty decent list of writers who have managed a balance between novels and short stories, many of them doing some of their best work in the shorter form—Yates, Nelson, Wolff, Barthleme, Robison. For my money, Jill McCorkle is one of the best—and I think curiously underrated—short story writers working today. Bausch’s Rare and Endangered Species is one of the books that made me want to be a writer. To take nothing away from his excellent recent work, Richard Ford had an amazing run in the late eighties and into the nineties. I discovered his books in grad school, when I was just beginning to find my footing as a writer but still trying to sort out the kind of work that I could do and wanted to do.

The first three stories in Eveningland all have protagonists under forty, while the rest of the stories (with partial exception to “Landfall”) have protagonists in their fifties and sixties. What are the benefits/drawbacks to narratives with young protagonists as opposed to older protagonists?

Funny that you ask this question. I started to answer by saying that younger protagonists lend themselves to coming-of-age narratives, not a bad thing in itself, but the motion in a story like that is almost always toward change and realization and that can, though does not always, limit emotional range and pitch. Older characters, by virtue of experience, the heft of it, lend themselves to more complex and murky interior lives, moments of change, positive and negative, that can’t be simply quantified. I think both of those statements are probably true, at least in part. There’s a grad student in our program, however, who has a theory about how human beings experience wonder and how we’re always coming-of-age, over and over again, for our entire lives and when you think about fiction—and life—in those terms, it alters the dynamic. The stakes are always life and death, always existence altering and impossibly dramatic for the characters in a piece of fiction regardless of age or experience.