‘Good Things’: An interview with author Nick Knittel

good things, nick knittel, New Rivers pressI expected someone older when I met Nick Knittel. It was 2009 and Knittel was part of my second-ever workshop at Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA program. He’d submitted a story about two little boys who’d lost their mother. Because the story featured a compassionate father, that’s kind of who I expected when I checked in on Enders Island.

Instead I met a young man, just out of undergrad, who could write a mean piece of short fiction.

Two years later, Knittel won our MFA program’s inaugural book prize (judged by poet Charles Simic) for “Good Things,” a collection of deep, quiet short stories. The book was released by New Rivers Press in October 2012. Now that first story I read – the one about the grieving little boys – is available for all to read, along with nine others.

This past Monday, Nick and I caught up to g-chat about “Good Things,” writing and what it’s like to publish for the first time.

Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted over the internet and has been edited. Typos have been corrected, and for the sake of clarity, some sections of the interview have been moved around.

UPDATE: This is a three-part interview. When you get to the end, click the appropriate link to go to page two or page three.

Fact and fiction.

Nick Knittel, Good Things, New Rivers Press

Nick Knittel

AJ: Nick, I know you from spending about 50 days over the course of two years on an island with you and 100 other writers, but my readers don’t know you… yet. Can you tell them a little bit about yourself, like where you’re from, what you like to write and the name of your book?

Nick: Of course!
Well, I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I lived for most of my life.
Most of my work is based on memories or experiences from my own life, which has resulted in a strange Frankenstein-kind of fusion of fact and fiction, something that I particularly enjoy, but can be kind of hard to write, since it becomes a weird way of exposing yourself as a writer to your audience.

AJ: The work in your book, “Good Things” is really interesting; most of the stories are quiet and deep, sort of Jhumpa Lahiri-ish, but I guess I never would have thought that a lot of them come from your own life. You use so many different kinds of narrators; the work never comes across as autobiographical at all. Can you give me an example of a story that fuses fact and fiction?

Nick: I would hate to say exactly which portions of the stories are directly related to me, but I’ve found that no matter how hard I try, some part of me ends up in the finished product.

AJ: That’s fair.

Nick: Right, and I think you would agree that it’s a trait many writers share. It’s almost impossible to separate one from the other in some cases. But I’ve found that the genesis for a lot of stories come from something that I’ve experienced; a moment with someone, or a phrase that was used, or a quick image that I remember from a kid, it all factors in one way or another. Many of the stories in “Good Things” stemmed from specific images that I had from high school and early college.

AJ: Okay, so you were the first winner of our MFA program’s book prize and Charles Simic judged that prize. One of his comments, I seem to remember, was that you seemed so young to be able to write stories like this. And I know you probably get this a lot, but that was my first impression when I met you at the MFA too. How do you manage to inhabit the wide range of characters you create? How do you get into their heads?

Nick: Funny story.
When I first gave my parents a preliminary copy of the book, my mother pulled me aside after she had read it and asked (very sincerely) “Is everything okay? Are you alright?”

AJ: Wow.

Nick: I thought it was funny at the time, but I’ve noticed that people have also done the same thing when I’ve brought up the book to family and old friends, people who might not have been familiar with the stories.
Because honestly, I’ve had a fine life. Normal parents, normal upbringing, suburbia and everything that entails, but like you mentioned, the stories and people I’m interested in are a little different.

AJ: Would you be able you sum up in a few words, the sort of story, character or struggle that attracts you?

Nick: A lot of the characters in “Good Things” are a little bit broken, a little bit sad, but even though they may be alcoholics or whatever on the outside, there’s a sadness inside that seems universal to me. Everybody wants to feel needed, everybody wants to feel loved, and often those urges are what drive people to do the things they do, whether good or bad.
I think that everybody believes they are capable of being a “good” person, but the struggle to get there can be long and hard, and that’s what interests me the most.

AJ: Was it your idea to name the collection “Good Things?”

Nick: Yes, it was my idea.
One of the main stories is entitled “Good Things” and I felt the struggle of the main character seemed to sum up the general quiet mood of the collection of stories, and also a little bit of its darkness.

The short form.

AJ: Everything I’ve ever read of yours has been short fiction. What about the short form appeals to you?

Nick: I guess I’ve always been really worried that I’ve overstayed a welcome.

AJ: Really?

Nick: Haha, a little bit!
I find that usually when I’m writing, I get a little concerned if I don’t have an exit plan. The story may last, 10, 20, or 30 pages, but I always have an idea for when I can make my escape.

AJ: That’s wise.

Nick: But that being said, there are many stories that don’t benefit from the short form. Sometimes you need to expand and keep creating.

AJ: Have you ever wanted to try a longer piece of work?

Nick: Yes, I’ve actually started something new that doesn’t seem like it can be contained in such a small number of pages. I know you have some experience with novels and novellas, but this is brand new territory for me, and absolutely nerve-wracking.

AJ: You can still have an exit plan for a novel! John Irving can’t even start writing until he knows how it’s going to end. But I digress.

Nick: Oh of course, but I have no idea what my ending is.
Not that I usually have a cut-and-dry exact moment for my stories, but I don’t even have a feeling for this, which is really weird.

Next section: Working with a student press and being published

Upcoming events, both actual and virtual.

Hello, hello! Just a quick post to make some announcements.

Come see me in Fairfield next Wednesday!

A week from today (Wedensday, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m.) , I will be at the Fairfield University bookstore downtown Fairfield to discuss and read from Beware the Hawk. If you’re in the area, come see me! I will be signing books and everything. And if you want a saw in what I will talk about about that evening, you can have one! Vote below.

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Interview with the editors of Spry Literary Journal.

Are you a writer? Do you write short? Boy, do I have a post for you! Later this week I will be posting an interview with the founders of Spry, a brand spanking new journal dedicated to the short form. I talked to them on Monday (Because we’re all hip and happening ladies, we did the interview via G-Chat) and I’m putting my post together this week. Check back to read an engaging interview and for the inside track on Spry.

Some changes ’round here

If you look at my blog on Tuesday nights, you might see some strange things happening in my sidebar, or even on the main page. (Like a link to my friend Alena’s blog under a category called “Link-a-Licious” in my sidebar.) That’s because I teach a blogging class on Tuesday nights and I use my blog as an example and sometimes, as a guinea pig. So that’s what’s up there. I haven’t lost my mind. Not yet.

UPDATE: Fellow bloggers, I have removed my Blogroll page. All my links are now in the sidebar. Some of my links are now gone – I removed a group of blogs that haven’t been updated in a very long time. But no worries, I will be changing up the links frequently.

Honor societies, permenant hall passes, and the dangers of not checking your email.

So this week I got a voicemail telling me that I was extremely late (*ahem* two days past deadline *cough, cough*)  in returning my form to accept my nomination to  Alpha Sigma Nu, an honor society offered by Jesuit colleges.

I had no idea what the caller was talking about, but I called her back posthaste. Turns out the university had been trying to reach me for a good month, but I didn’t check my school email* and I lost the form they sent to me in the mail. Kind of embarrassing.

Instead of hiding in the comfortable cliché of the reclusive, flaky writer and saying “why thank you, I’ll get that form in immediately,” I instead made a fool of myself, blurting out something like, “Honor society? Me? Why me?” I didn’t get an answer because after a month of trying to get a hold of me, I’m sure the person on the other end of the line was wondering the same thing. Or maybe she gets this sort of lack of common sense in the honors program all the time.

Permenant hall pass. Oh yes; I still have it. It says “permanent.” Think it’s still accepted?

All joking aside, I’m kind of excited. The last honor society I was a member of was The National Honor Society in high school, and that came with social acceptance, a yellow card that served as a sort of  permanent hall pass and the privilege of not having to attend study halls. After that, nothing. I was a solidly mediocre undergraduate.

So this is pretty cool; it never occurred to me that I could get into an academic honor society by going to school for something I love; maybe in undergrad I should have just majored in English. My grades might have been a lot better.

So, Alpha Sigma Nu, do I get a hall pass?

*Having graduated, and never having been a big winner of awards, I never see any reason to check my grad school email.

Publicity for me and a fellow MFA alum.

Check out the flier created for me and fellow Fairfield University MFA alumni poet (whew, that’s a mouthful) Colin D. Halloran.  The kind people at our MFA alma mater, Fairfield U, put it together for us. Thank you, guys! I will be there on Oct. 10 and Colin will be there on Oct. 19.

Colin’s collection, Shortly Thereafter, which centers on veternan’s issues (Colin himself is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan) will be released on October 12; he will be at the Fairfield University bookstore a mere week after the release, for a reading and signing.

I’ll be there nine days earlier, and as you know if you read this blog regularly, I’m looking for reader input about my talk that night.

 

Reading next Monday at Barnes & Noble in Stamford Town Center.

Hello everybody!

This is a reminder that I am going to be appearing at a bookstore near you. Well, if you live in Stamford, Connecticut, that is. And I sincerely hope you do, because next Monday, at 8 p.m., I will be the featured reader at poetry night at the Barnes & Noble in the Stamford Town Center.* I will be reading from Beware the Hawk. 
This is a big deal for me, because I used to report the news in Stamford and I was there all the time. I covered the schools there. I spent a lot of time in municipal meetings. I remember when that Barnes & Noble was a hole in the ground. Literally. It (and most of the  recent downtown development) was a hole, and there was a lot of argument in city meetings about it. That Barnes & Noble and I go way back.

Anyhow, I’m really looking forward to being in Stamford next week. I will have a bunch of books for sale as well. I’m also working on some other appearances in Connecticut and one in Massachusetts as well. I will keep you all posted on those.
Hope to see you next week.

I’d also like to encourage you all to keep voting on the name of the protagonist in Beware the Hawk. Voting is open until August 19, so vote as often as you’d like.

I have to apologize for being MIA lately, but I’ve been running crazy this month. I will be back soon with more announcements and posts.

* Much thanks to poet and fellow MFAer Nicholas Miele, who helped me set this up.