The last time I interviewed Michael Knight, he was a 20-something winner of the Playboy college fiction contest with both a short story collection (“Dogfight”) and a novel (“Divining Rod”) in release. In the 15 years since, he’s written three more publications – a novel, a short story collection and a book of two novellas – and settled comfortably into a teaching gig at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Clearly, it’s time to catch up.
I call Knight at his Tennessee home late on a summer Saturday afternoon. He’s been doing yard work, which I tell him would be a death wish in coastal Alabama’s current heat and humidity. “It’s not that bad here, ” he laughs, citing recent rains. Knight, the son of Barbara and local retired attorney Michael Knight, knows the Port City well, having grown up here and attended St. Paul’s Episcopal School. Married now and the father of two daughters, ages 8 and 11, he reports that they love Knoxville (“It’s like Asheville, N.C., without the tourists”) and have no plans to leave anytime soon.
Even so, Knight draws on his hometown roots for his fiction. “Everything I know about everything comes from Mobile, ” he says. Unlike some Southern writers, too many perhaps, Knight isn’t writing about broke-down mules, whiskey and Memaw on the porch, but rather about contemporary familial and relational issues that urban and suburban Southerners relate to. His work not only nails distinctive settings like Point Clear, Spring Hill and bustling riverfront shipyards, but also the thoughts and attitudes of the particular types of people who inhabit these places. All of this comes from Knight’s native familiarity, coupled with a strong literary voice. “I can get lost writing about Mobile in a way I can’t get lost writing about anyplace else, ” he says.
Knight’s talent was manifested early. His mother recalls him writing poems and “observations” for a first-grade school publication. As he advanced, he came under the influence of three very gifted teachers, Nancy Strachan, Patricia Marsh and Lou Courie, who encouraged him and helped him discipline his raw ability.
While he liked writing, law school was the more generally accepted career path endorsed by the Old Mobile culture from which he sprang. Trusting in this model, he took the LSAT and appeared poised for a legal career. It was then that a teacher noted his lack of enthusiasm and asked if he had considered going to graduate school in creative writing. “You can go to grad school in creative writing?” he remembers asking. “Why didn’t somebody tell me that five years ago?” Fortunately for Knight, his parents supported his somewhat unorthodox and, no doubt to them, scary choice. He ultimately took a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Virginia, and remains profoundly grateful for his parents’ “willingness” to let him follow his bliss.
After landing at UT, Knight did a stint as director of the creative writing program, but recently resigned in favor of the classroom. “I realized I enjoy teaching more than I enjoy budget meetings, ” he quips. Knight’s voice takes on more passion and vigor when discussing teaching. He enjoys his interactions with students and proudly cites several who have begun promising careers, including Adam Prince (“The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men”) and M. O. Walsh (“The Prospect of Magic”).
As for his own writing, Knight is putting together a new collection of short stories that are set mostly in the Mobile Bay area. The pieces in “Eveningland” have previously appeared in magazines and journals like the Oxford American, the Southern Review and Ploughshares. “I certainly consider myself a short story writer, ” he says. “Short stories come naturally to me. There’s something about the economy and compression. Short stories have emotional impact.” They also lend themselves well to workshopping, he says. “I tell students it’s a beautiful art form. I don’t pretend that you’re gonna get rich writing short stories.”
Indeed, most publishers want novels, which are easier to sell to the public. Knight can certainly write them and, in fact, has a new one underway. But even his novels aren’t long books; “The Typist, ” published in 2010, is 208 pages. Not surprisingly, the novels that have most influenced Knight are shorter ones like “The Great Gatsby” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” As for the future, Knight believes that online subscription sites like narrativemagazine.com and byliner.com/originals “might save the short story.” They pay and “have some chops, ” he says.
At the conclusion of our chat, I can’t resist asking the longtime Bama fan if he’s now a Tennessee Vols football supporter. “Oh, Lord, no!” – comforting proof enough that you can take the writer out of the culture, but you can’t take the culture out of the writer.
John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”
text by John S. Sledge • photo by David Luttrell