Michael Knight





Knoxville's Michael Knight is the author of two novels (Divining Rod and The Typist), two collections of short stories (Dogfight and Goodnight, Nobody), and a collection of novellas (The Holiday Season). The Typist was selected as a Best Book of the Year by The Huffington Post, among other places, and appeared on Oprah’s Summer Reading List in 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines and journals like The New Yorker, Oxford American, Paris Review and The Southern Review, and have been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories, 2004 and New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2009.






 

His forthcoming novel Eveningland is already receiving amazing reviews, including these from bookseller Kelly Justice of the legendary Fountain Bookstore in Richmond VA: 


"Michael Knight is a writer as good and probably better than any in American letters living today. These stories will speak to you, break your heart, heal your soul.  This book is a perfect thing. Please pick it up.  Please read it and share it.  Nothing like this has come out of the South, or American letters for that matter, for a very long time. Stunning."

And this from Esquire Magazine:
"Long considered a master of the form and an essential voice in American fiction, Michael Knight’s stories have been lauded by writers such Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert, Barry Hannah, and Richard Bausch. Now, with Eveningland he returns to the form that launched his career, delivering an arresting collection of interlinked stories set among the “right kind of Mobile family” in the years preceding a devastating hurricane. Eveningland is a luminous collection from “a writer of the first rank.”

Michael once said on writing stories: “You are wanting to see something which is true, and to patch yourself into that truth.”

 

I've known Michael for a good number of years now and whenever possible we get together for dinner and enjoy each others company. He's not only an immensely talented writer but also a good, kind soul. He's the best kind of conversationalist, a lot of give and take. I like him a lot. Here are Michael's answers to my questions and then the ever popular Time Travel query.




Tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.


I live in Knoxville, TN, a place the Wall Street Journal once called “that scruffy little city on the river.” Something like that. The unofficial city motto is Keep Knoxville Scruffy and I think that’s what I like about it so much. Don’t get me wrong. Knoxville is a beautiful city in lots of ways, especially downtown, and we’re just half an hour from the mountains. We’ve got just about everything you could want from a place—great independent bookstore (Union Ave Books!!!) and great parks and green ways, some great high end restaurants and great greasy spoons and barbecue joints. But the city hasn’t been over-gentrified. It still feels real. Lived-in. 

Where were you living when you were 7 years old? Are they fond memories?



I grew up in Mobile, Al. Long before I was born, my grandfather bought a bunch of land on and around Dog River, which wasn’t a particularly fashionable location at the time. Too far from town, I guess. I can’t remember if he gave out parcels to his children as wedding presents or if he sold the land on the cheap. The point is my parents built a house on a little creek off the main part of the river and my uncle and his family lived just around the corner and some second cousins lived across the street from them, more cousins two doors down, and little further down the road was my aunt and her family.


Michael with his dad camping.



 Another uncle and my grandparents around a bend in the creek. A great uncle and great aunt near the mouth of the river. My childhood was so idyllic it’s almost embarrassing. Rural but close enough to town that it wasn’t quite the country. Surrounded by water. I felt comfortable piloting an outboard a decade before I ever drove a car. Family everywhere. You could be out playing around and you’d get thirsty and you didn’t have to go home for a glass of lemonade. You could practically just knock on the nearest door. Chances are I was related to whoever lived there. So yes, impossibly fond memories. There’s a nod to some of this personal history in the story “Water and Oil” in my new book Eveningland.

Did you have a favorite teacher and are you still in touch with him or her?


I’ve been blessed by so many great teachers in my life (Nancy Strachan, Patricia Marsh and Lou Currie in high school; Frederick Barthelme and George Garrett in grad school) but for the purposes of your question, I have to go with Susan Pepper Robbins at Hampden-Sydney College. 

This is the woman who saved me from law school. Professor Robbins taught all the fiction writing workshops at H-SC and she assigned exclusively the stories of Anton Chekhov for us to read. That’s it. All Chekhov, all the time. For the first month I thought she might be a little nuts, but eventually I realized what a gift she’d given me by forcing me to immerse myself in Chekhov’s work. She’s probably the reason I still love short stories so much and am still so devoted to the form. 

And yes, we are still in touch. In fact, I recently had the privilege of blurbing her new novel, There is Nothing Strange. If you’ll allow me to sing her praises for a line or two . . . There is Nothing Strange 

blends dark humor reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor with prose that calls Virginia Woolf to mind, tautly beautiful lines and images echoing each other from page to page. In the process, she manages to breathe new life into a particular brand of southern gentry—bank poor, perhaps, but rich in land and eccentricity, family name and huge regrets, tragic histories and complicated loves. Every single one of the people in her novel is a mess and what a pleasure it is to read their story. 

Is there a book that changed the way you look at life?


I’m not sure I can name just one. I know that’s a cop out but I feel like every book I have ever read and loved has contributed to the way I see the world. To Kill a Mockingbird mixed with The Catcher in the Rye mixed with The Great Gatsby and As I lay Dying. Chekhov’s stories, or course. I remember being rocked by Sula in college. John Dollar in grad school. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann just a few years ago. If this question referred to writing, I could probably give you a more coherent answer but you’re asking about who I am as a human being. Those things are related but not exactly the same so I’m going with what I’ve got.

Do you have a favorite children’s book and what about it makes it so?


The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders. 

 I bought it for my daughters but I think I like it more than they did. Stunning illustrations. A story that is equal parts silly and heartbreaking.
  

What are the funniest or most embarrassing stories your family tells about you?


I’ll tell you one that is a favorite of my parents now but was sore spot for them for a while. To get to the house I grew up in, you had to cross a railroad track. There was no other way. If there was a train—and there often was--you just got used to waiting. So one Friday, when I was 16 or 17 years old, I was headed home from a night out with my friends, already late for curfew and lo and behold there was a train, not just passing by but actually broken down across the road. At first I was impatient but then I realized I’d found the perfect excuse for missing curfew. I turned around and drove back to the little country store up the road and called my parents from the payphone—this was way before cell phones—and told my dad I’d been waiting forever but it wasn’t my fault. Damn train, etc. Not true of course but he bought it. Back I drove toward the tracks and got in the line of cars and settled in to wait. I was 5 or 6 cars back from the head of the line. I’d had a few beers. It was late. You can probably see where this is headed.

My dad had a Saturday morning habit. He was religious about it. He’d get up at the crack of dawn and drive into the empty office and knock out a little work and usually he’d been home before the rest of us dragged ourselves out of bed. This particular morning, he noticed that my car wasn’t in the driveway. You guessed it—he found me sleeping behind the wheel back at the railroad tracks, engine still running. I guess other cars had just been driving around me all that time. 

How did you meet your beloved? How did your first date go?


I met my wife in Charlottesville when we were both students at UVa—I was just starting grad school, she was finishing her undergraduate degree. We had a great first date. I cooked dinner (shrimp creole) and then took her to hear a bluegrass band at a bar called Miller’s. For some reason, we were the only people who showed up. Literally. It was just the band, the bartender, a waitress and us. Instead of playing from the stage, the band gathered around at tables and chairs. They played but it was more like a guitar pull on someone’s porch than a performance. It was really sort of magical. I should send that band a thank you note.
   

Is there a song that you listen to when you are feeling a bit down?


My wife makes fun of me listening to sad music almost exclusively—Tom Waits, Keith Jarrett, Robert Johnson, Velvet Underground. You name it. I tell her that’s what it sounds like inside my head. But if I have to pick just one song, I’m going with “Come Pick Me Up” from Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams. There’s something about that song. It’s sad enough to reflect the fact that I’m feeling low but the chorus rocks enough that you’re not quite wallowing. Emmylou Harris on backup vocals. It’s a doozy. 

How are you different now than you were twenty years ago?



Despite a certain level of goofiness in my behavior, I think I’m a much more serious person that I was 20 years ago. Maybe all of us are. The stakes feel so much higher since my daughters were born. I think this awareness manifests itself across my whole life—in my relationships, my teaching, even my writing. Twenty years ago, I was content with contentment, if that makes sense. Having a good day was enough. Writing a pretty good story was enough. Getting published was enough. That’s not enough anymore. Everything matters. 


And in a short essay…………………………

IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME


to any period from before recorded history to yesterday,

be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice,

actually experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all,

meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them.



When would you go?

Where would you go?

Who would you want to meet?

And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?




I’ve been thinking way too much about how to answer this question. This question is the reason it’s taken me so long to complete this assignment. I thought about going back to the ante-bellum South just to see how the region that I love and that I feel most at home in could have actually believed in the righteousness of its cause. That’s such a mystery to me.  And I kept thinking about what The Misfit says in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” He says, "Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead . . . and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him . . . I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't," The Misfit said. "I wisht I had of been there," he said, hitting the ground with his fist. "It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady," he said in a high voice, "if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now." Crazy as he is, he makes a pretty compelling case for bearing witness to a particular moment in history.

But if I answer this question honestly and on a purely personal level, I think I’d like to do high school again. I’d screw around less. I’d treat people better. I’d be a better son, a better brother. I think it took me longer than most people to realize that I was not at the center of universe. 

Thank you Michael, I absolutely loved Eveningland and recommend it to every stranger I see (well almost). Congratulations on such a fine collections of stories.



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