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."