Nov 30, 2011

Interview with Clark Knowles

Clark Knowles' story, "Trash," was the winner of the John Gardner Memorial Prize for Fiction. Mr. Knowles agreed to be interviewed by Harpur Palate intern, Claire.

When and how did you first get started writing fiction?

I wrote my first story in high school, another couple in college, and called myself a writer all through my twenties despite the fact that I didn’t really write anything other than scribbles in journals. When I turned thirty, I began my real apprenticeship as a writer. I went back to school and started my practice. I’m a slow learner. It took a long time to really begin to feel comfortable writing stories. After about ten years of difficult and laborious trial and error, some sort of mysterious door opened and I passed through. That’s when I started writing fiction.

As a creative writing professor at the University of New Hampshire,
what would you say is the most important writing advice you give your

Trust yourself. Work very hard. Don’t let rejection get you down. The writing life is going to be way harder than you think it’s going to be. Be kind to yourself as a writer, but not mushy about the work. Hardly anyone wants to talk about revision, but that’s the only thing there is: revision is writing. You simply must be willing to break a story (or poem or essay) apart if it is not working properly. Perhaps most important is this: Read all the time. If you want to write, an intensive reading life is non-negotiable.

Do you remember how you first got the idea for the story, “Trash”?
What was the process of writing it like?

In the summer of 2010, I abandoned a novel toward the end of June. I had two months left of summer break and I didn’t know how to direct my writing time and energy. I decided that I’d write a story a week—eight stories in nine weeks. I wrote a thousand longhand words a day (give or take) and by the end of the nine weeks, I’d completed my goal. “Trash” was story number five in the list. The opening paragraph had been kicking around for a few years in a folder somewhere. I don’t think there was an “idea” per se, but I became very interested in how Nick observed the strange interactions of the adults in his life. He did a lot of watching in the story, so I was happy to let him take the reigns and do a little exploring at the end. By that part of the summer, I was well into a pretty nice rhythm with the writing. Since I was writing longhand, the sentences seemed longer, more fluid than they do when I’m writing on the keyboard.

What do you envision your purpose as a writer is? In other words,
what goals do you have in mind when you sit down and write a story?
Do you have an ideal reader?

My purpose is to heal the world….No, just kidding. That’s a really tough question. I’m drawn to it continually, even when I’m pretty sure I’ll just stop writing and devote myself to some other endeavor (which is a cyclical pattern of thinking for me—I probably decide to quit writing three or four times a year). Each story seems to dictate its own goals. It sounds a bit hokey, but I really try to stay out of the process as much as possible. Perhaps it’s better to let those folks more suited to figuring out those type of questions deal with it. In “Trash” for instance, I just wanted to tell Nick’s story. Ultimately, I found myself writing him into that strange abandoned house where he found the stuffed birds. I didn’t set out to get him there, but by the time I revised the story enough, it felt like the only place he could go. I didn’t know that his father would find the piece of pipe in the dumpster, either, but it felt right that he could have a little triumph too. I guess the goal, such as it is, would be to follow whatever thread seems to be unspooled as I draft and redraft. As far as my ideal reader, I feel I’m trying to write for people who like the same books I do. Recently, some friends of mine said nice things about “Trash” after having read it in Harpur Palate, and I realized that writing for my friends is a pretty nice way to look at it. It’s nice knowing that several of my neighbors liked reading my story.

What are you currently reading, and any all-time favorite writers or books?

Only the toughest question in the world! Right now I’m reading David Rivard’s collection of poems, Otherwise and Elsewhere, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day is one of my favorite books. I’m massively in awe of Jennifer Egan—both The Keep and A Visit From the Goon Squad knocked my socks off. Stunning work. When I saw that Goon Squad had a chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation, I thought, “there’s no way she can pull that off…” but she does. It’s spectacular. I love Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees and Jose Saramago’s Blindness. I’ve been reading Proust (three volumes down!) and find it maddeningly amazing. The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann ranks as one of the all-time great reading experiences for me, along with Eliot’s Middlemarch. I love Ian McEwan—Saturday is brilliant. I feel like I should mention so many people here! Raymond Carver and Jhumpa Lahiri and Graham Green and Graham Swift—how much space do you have?

What projects are you currently working on, and do you have any new
books or stories coming out?

I’ve had a lucky run recently. Aside from “Trash,” I’ve had stories in: Conjunctions, Eclipse, Limestone, and Nimrod. I’ve got a story coming out in Glimmer Train and just today got word that Bellvue Literary Review accepted a story. I’m working on a zombie novel. Hopefully I’ll get it written before the current zombie craze is over. It’s way outside what I normally write and I assumed it would be easily and quickly written. It turns out that nothing I write is easy or quick. So many zombie stories are rife with plot-holes, I just wanted to see if I could tell a good story… about flesh eating undead. I’m hoping it will be a massive best-seller so that I can afford my own private island somewhere. The ultimate writer’s retreat.

Clark Knowles teaches creative writing at the University of New Hampshire. His works have been published in numerous publications, including Pank, Zahir Tales, Inkwell Review, Red Rock Review, and The Black Warrior Review.

Check out a copy of 11.1 to read his amazing story, "Trash."

Nov 19, 2011

Updates: Event & Website

A Mid-Autumn Night of Literature was a great success! Thank you everyone for coming out to hear our excellent readers, Jim Capozzi, Adam Fitzgerald, and Andrei Guruianu.

Harpur Palate has a new website. There you will find information about submissions and subscriptions. You can now order subscriptions and individual issues via a PayPal account (and through the mail, as always).

The website is:

Nov 16, 2011

11.1 Design

Learn more about the cover design for 11.1 at

We hope you like the new look!

Nov 14, 2011

Interview with Kirby Wright

Kirby Wright's creative non-fiction story, "The Ethel Merman Show" appears in issue 11.1. Wright was born in Hawaii, and is best known for his two novels, Punahou Blues and Moloka'i Nui Ahina. Harpur Palate intern, Claire, interviewed Mr. Wright in conjunction with the release of our latest issue.

When and how did you get started as a writer? What is your writing
process typically like?

KW: This may sound weird, but I wrote my first creative nonfiction piece at age 9 on the island of Molokai. In that story, I am picking purple and red beetles out of horse manure and feeding them to my big brother, pretending they are M&Ms. Needless to say, there was sibling rivalry there. (What I actually fed my brother was onion gum, but that's another story). Anyhow, I sent the Beetle story to my mother in Boston and she got such a big charge out of it that I realized writing was a powerful thing. She shared it with all her Boston relatives and they liked it too.

My process is erratic. Sometimes I'll jam on something 12 hours straight, other times I won't lift a pen. I'm also a terrible reader. I know teachers say to read everything, but I think the voices of certain writers are boring. The poet in me demands fresh observation and travel, so that's why I went to the Czech Republic and Vienna. I don't necessarily write everything down immediately--I capture poetic images the way a man throws a net to catch fish. And I try to link those images later.

Hawaii features prominently in many of your works, including “The
Ethel Merman Show” and your novels, Punahou Blues and Moloka’I
Nui Ahina. How has the cultural experience of growing up in Hawaii
influenced you as a writer?

KW: I think my biggest influence was my part-Hawaiian grandmother. She had such incredible stories about the Roarin' Twenties in Waikiki and her cowgirl life on the rural island of Molokai that I probably spent more time listening to her than riding horses or fishing. She also told great ghost stories. Once I caught her talking to her dead mother. I did devise a way to fish and listen to her stories by finding a 100-pound cord line in the Wash Room with a giant hook. I strung an octopus leg through that hook and dropped it 100 yards out near our barrier reef, tethering the end to my bed post on the lanai. I would wait for the bed to jump from a strike while listening to my grandmother ramble on. I think it was important for me to have the experience of both a suburban lifestyle in Honolulu and a rural one on Molokai, and in a way I had 2 mothers since my grandmother watched over me for 14 straight summers. I carried rural and suburban/city stories between these 2 mothers, and naturally I exaggerated a few things to get their fur up.

In your experience, is it more challenging to write creative
non-fiction or fiction? Which genre do you prefer to write, and why?

KW: Both genres are challenging. Sometimes a small canvas fiction piece comes fast, and I just write it down like a court reporter. Often that piece comes in a dream. I'm really enjoying flash fiction right now. I'm actually using this form of fiction to procrastinate on my futuristic novel, telling myself, "Oh, maybe you can use these flashes in the novel." Sure. So, it depends what kind of fiction we're talking about.

I prefer to write non-fiction. I get such a charge out of going back in time and resurrecting those moments that shape a child's existence, such as my kid sister's struggle to make my father less of a tyrant. There's a tremendous sadness in her today, and I want to go back and figure a few things out for her and for me too. Writing it down is the best way for me to do that. I often use humor to help balance the sadness.

What advice do you have for young writers?

KW: Get away from the computer and go out and experience life. Don't let television and movies shape your creative self. Hear that bird chirping? Check out the shapes of clouds. The lean of a tree. Your singular voice is what's powerful, and you need to connect to your inner world by doing simple things, such as writing in a journal or drawing, or doing anything that only you could do. I would say that making short movies would be creative also because you'll learn how to direct and place characters, even if those characters are only dolls or household pets. Also, don't be afraid to lie. I'm not kidding. Lying is a good thing because, if you're challenged, you'll be required to continue lying to support that initial premise. That continuation process both stimulates the creative side of our minds and allows us to think on our feet. Now go out and tell a few fibs.

What are you currently reading?

KW: Kafka's prose poems/short shorts. I'm also reading Plath, Eliot, and a little Truman Capote.

What writing project are you working on now?

KW: A futuristic novel, due out in late April 2012. Want to come to my book party? I've got 2 former American Idols who'll be singing a duet.

Here at Harpur Palate, we look forward to reading Wright's latest novel, and are left wondering which American idols will be performing at the party...

Nov 7, 2011

Come to a Harpur Palate reading Friday, Nov. 18 in downtown Binghamton. Free admission & refreshments.