Mobile native Michael Knight (University of Tennessee creative writing professor and author of novels The Typist and Divining Rod) returns to the Bay area on March 14 for an event at Page and Palette to introduce his new short story collection, Eveningland.
From Asheville’s historic Haywood Park Hotel, Knight takes a break from his circuit of book signing events to discuss the short stories and novella within Eveningland and to explain why he’s always written about Mobile “and probably always will.”
MB: The stories collected in Eveningland, though loosely linked in plot, are strongly linked in setting. Did you originally set out to write a collection of stories based around Mobile Bay? In other words, how did this project evolve?
Knight: It’s funny, but I wrote the last piece, the novella, “Landfall, ” first and I liked it pretty well, and I had the sense that it was the start of something but because it was an awkward length for the publishing world — too long for magazines, too short to publish as a novel — I put it in a drawer for a while. A couple of years later, after the Deepwater Horizon spill, I wrote the story “Water and Oil” and it dawned on me that these stories were set in the same world, geographic and social, and that the characters were likely to know each other and the idea for a collection of linked stories began to take shape.
MB: Considering your last book, The Typist, was set in post-WWII Japan, did writing Eveningland feel like a homecoming of sorts? And do you find it easier or harder to write about home compared to, say, a city on the other side of the world?
Knight: There were stories set in and around Mobile in my first book and there have been Alabama stories or an Alabama connection in every single book I’ve written since, so in a way I’ve never really left Mobile as a subject. Even though The Typist takes place almost entirely in Japan, the protagonist is from Mobile. He arrives in Tokyo with a sense of place not so different from my own.
The difficulty with Japan was not so much the writing but the research, getting to know the place well enough that I could turn my imagination loose with confidence, if that makes sense. If I’m writing a story set in Mobile, for example, and a character is driving home from work and he hangs a right at a certain stop sign, even if I don’t recall what’s literally around that corner, I’m familiar enough with Mobile to imagine the scene — who might be standing on the sidewalk, what the buildings might look like, how the air feels on your skin, etc.
Here’s what I discovered after all that research on Japan: In a sense, we’re always writing about the places we know best, no matter where a story is set. If I’m describing the smell of a river in Japan or the way the shadows look in Hibiya Park, it’s really the smell of the rivers of my youth and the shadows in Bienville Square. That sort of sensory impression is like a fingerprint that a place leaves on you. It’s permanently imprinted on the imagination.
MB: As a creative writing professor at the University of Tennessee, when do you find time to write? Is it an ongoing process that you can pick up when you have a spare half hour, or do you need to set aside a couple hours to dig in?
Knight: I try to be rigorous — and I try to convince my students to be rigorous — about a writing schedule. I usually teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I set aside Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings to write. Five or six hours each morning. And that time has to be sacred. No exceptions. A couple of reasons. There’s something about that regularity that helps jumpstart the process. You’re training your imagination to be prepared to fire. Just as importantly, writing time is inevitably the first thing that suffers if you let life intrude. It’s not always easy to convince my colleagues that I can’t make a meeting because they want to schedule it during my writing time or to tell my wife that I can’t run up to the grocery store or whatever during those hours. But it’s necessary to think of it as a job. When I’m writing, I’m at work, that appointment just as important and unshirkable as anything else in my professional life. What I have found is that once you start making exceptions, it just gets easier and easier to make more exceptions and, before you know it, it’s all exceptions all the time and you’re hardly writing at all.
MB: You use the natural world and the Mobile Bay area to create a strong sense of foreboding in some of these stories. In “Water and Oil, ” the Deepwater Horizon spill slowly creeps into the Bay “black as a bad mood.” In “The King of Dauphin Island, ” the island itself, it seems, is liable to wash away. Do you think local readers might be surprised by the ominous undercurrents within these stories?
Knight: The natural world is always fertile ground for mood and atmosphere, no matter the setting. In some cases, that’s purely figurative — setting reflecting a character’s interior life. A kind of metaphor. But there’s also a literal component here. I wasn’t living in Mobile when the Deepwater Horizon blew, but I can remember so clearly tracking the oil on TV as it crept down the coast toward Mobile Bay, that helpless feeling, and I think anyone who lives in Mobile has experienced being glued to the Weather Channel to watch a hurricane out in the Gulf, wondering where it will land, worrying. There’s genuine suspense in those experiences, no metaphor required.
MB: You chose the title Eveningland after coming across a line in Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer: “It should be quite a sight, the going under of the evening land.” What about that line stopped you in your tracks?
Knight: There were two things that I loved about the Percy quote and that seemed right for this book. First, I’ve always found evening to be the most beautiful part of the day, that soft light and those long shadows, and that beauty reflects my memories of Mobile, but evening is also a sort of last gasp before night settles in and I have the sense that the world depicted in Eveningland, the world that I grew up in, is, for all sorts of reasons, beginning to fade away or at least beginning to change in irrevocable ways, and no matter the undeniable imperfections of these characters, there’s a powerful sadness in that that seemed worthy of my attention.
MB: Did you look at this collection as a way to finally get Mobile out of your system, or should we expect more stories down the road based around the azalea city?
Knight: No question Eveningland represents a love letter to my hometown, but I don’t think I’ll ever be done with it. I’ve always written about Mobile, and I probably always will. You’re right, though, this is my first purely Mobile book, and I do feel like this is the book I’ve been warming up to my whole life.
Catch Michael Knight at Page and Palette on March 14 from 6 p.m. – 7 p.m.
Click here to read John Sledge’s 2013 profile on Michael Knight from the MB archives
Interview by Breck Pappas