Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions from the road while on book tour. The novel’s protagonist, Lenore Littlefield, is a student at an all-girls boarding school in Virginia. The details are wonderful — graffiti inside the dorm phone booth, modest teacher housing near campus. What aspects of Lenore’s experience were you able to draw from your own time as an undergrad at Hampden-Sydney College, an all-male Virginia school?
There are a number of details in the novel borrowed not just from Hampden-Sydney but from single-gender schools all over the state. There’s the bell in the Briarwood quad, rung by the students at meal times and to signal the beginning and end of class and so forth — that’s taken directly from H-SC. And you’re right, that dorm phone booth is very much like the ones in the dorms and fraternity houses at H-SC. The school colors and the layout of campus are borrowed from Hollins University, where my sister went to school and where I taught for a year as a visiting writer, and the dell at Briarwood bears a resemblance to a dell at what used to be called Randolph-Macon Women’s College and, of course, the name of the school references Sweet Briar. Those are just the physical details. There’s also something about removing the opposite sex from the social equation that changes the way you form friendships, and I think that’s true of Lenore’s experience at Briarwood and both my experience as a student at H-SC and observing the young women at Hollins University as a teacher.
Disney’s real plan to build Disney’s America, a Virginia theme park dedicated to the history of the United States, would have coincided with your time as a student in Virginia. Were you aware of the proposed theme park at that time?
The Disney’s America Project coincided with my first year in the MFA program at UVa, and the whole state was caught up in the controversy at the time. Looking back, it’s almost hard to believe, but the notion of Disney as the curator of American history for generations of young people was downright scandalous for a lot of people. Just like everybody else, I had plenty of opinions on the subject, but the truth is I’d mostly forgotten about it by the time I started working on the novel.
What I wanted, quite simply, was to write a Virginia book. Almost all of my fiction is either set in south Alabama or feature protagonists from the area, but I went to college in Virginia and did my MFA in Virginia, and I was a visiting writer at Hollins University before moving on to the University of Tennessee. This time in my life spans roughly a decade — from age 18 to 28 — big, essential, life-shaping years for me. Great years. I even met and married a Virginia girl. I wanted to write a book that investigated and did justice to my experience in Virginia. Given the nature of that experience, I figured that such a book would probably be set on a campus and be about academic life somehow. I’d been working on the novel on and off for about a year and was having a hard time getting the book off the ground when I had dinner with my godfather, Stillman Knight, and he reminded me about the Disney project. Almost right away, I began to suspect that the Disney project might provide an interesting backdrop for an academic novel, adding some texture and complexity and depth that my initial attempts were lacking.
In this novel, the past figuratively (and in some cases literally) haunts the present. Why was the proposed theme park and the question it raised — how we should remember the past — such a good vehicle for exploring a place like Briarwood School for Girls?
The initial connection between those two things — the Disney theme park and this fictional boarding school — is pretty straightforward. We’re always haunted by the past on all sorts of levels, national and personal and everything in between. That’s not even a particularly original idea, though it is one that I’ve brooded over in fiction for a number of books and stories now because how we remember the past shapes who are as individuals, who we are as communities, who we are as a country and so on. This idea strikes me as particularly relevant to Briarwood School for Girls — and actual places like it — where there’s such a strong sense of tradition and such a vital connection to a shared past. The experience of a student at such a place in 1994, when the novel is set, was probably not so different than the experience of such a student in 1894, if that makes sense. If I might paraphrase a line from Faulkner, at a place like Briarwood School for Girls, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Truth and fiction blend so completely in this story, for Lenore who feels herself dissolve into the character she portrays in the school play and for the reader who knows that parts of this fictional story are based in truth. While writing the book, was it fun working in that blurry space?
Yes, and for so many reasons that to really answer this question would take much more page space than you can possibly give me. The short version goes like this: On a micro level, it made sense to me that Lenore, as opposed to the adult characters in the novel, is still so young that her identity remains in flux, so maybe she would be subsumed a little by this role in the school play and maybe even take a kind of refuge in it, because she doesn’t really want to face the truth about the complexity and difficulty of the choice she has to make in the novel. On a macro level, the way her real self begins to dissolve into the role she is portraying connects, for me at least, to bigger-picture ideas about history and the way the past keeps repeating itself on all these different levels.
We noticed that two characters, Coach Patricia Fink and reclusive writer Eugenia Marsh, both share the names of a St. Paul’s English teacher of yours, Patricia Marsh. Was this an homage to a former educator?
I’m so glad you noticed! Neither of those characters bears much resemblance to the actual Patricia Marsh but those are definitely and deliberately references to her. She was a huge influence on me. I was not what you would call an ambitious student, but Ms. Marsh saw a measure of potential and dragged it out of me in her class. She was a force of nature, and she has that in common with Coach Fink. She was also an intriguingly eccentric and deeply thoughtful person, traits she shares with Eugenia Marsh.
You’ve told us before about the importance of keeping your writing time sacred. For you, what does a successful writing session look like?
It has less to do with page count or word count or practical progress and more to do with total immersion. If it’s a little difficult for me to leave the fictional world in which I’m working and re-enter the real world where my wife and children and students are waiting, if that real world looks a little hazy and false because my mind is still lost in the fictional one, then I’ve probably had a pretty good writing day, whether I’ve written half a page or 10 pages.
We love the book jacket, and, upon further inspection, discovered it was designed by your wife Jill. How fun was that collaboration?
She’ll be thrilled to hear it. Jill is a talented artist and a professional designer, and she did a magnificent job. The word collaboration is, however, a little strong. She did almost all of the heavy lifting. I had a vague notion for the cover, involving the school crest and Disney, and I described this to her as best I could, and then she went off and designed seven or eight covers, all very different, all very interesting, only a few of which bore a resemblance to my idea. She absolutely made it her own. Then we sent all of those covers to the publisher and, after some debate, we landed on the existing jacket. You should see the covers we didn’t use! I hated having to pick just one, but the final cover, for me, evokes the loveliness of old Disney animation without being simply pretty. There’s something a little dangerous about those thorns. I should add that I’m grateful to Grove Atlantic for giving me the freedom to approach the cover in this way. That is definitely not common practice in the publishing world.
In his new novel “At Briarwood School for Girls,” Mobile’s own Michael Knight takes readers inside the life of Lenore Littlefield, a student at an all-girls boarding school in Virginia. As the book jacket explains, “She plays basketball. She hates her roommate. History is her favorite subject. She has told no one she’s pregnant.”
When Disney announces its plans for a historical theme park just down the road, students and teachers are forced to grapple with what it means for the future — and how best to handle the past.
Excerpt from “At Briarwood School for Girls”
Outside, snow glittered on the bare branches of the oaks and crusted the roofs of buildings like icing on a display of day old cakes. The ground was pocked with footprints, thousands and thousands of them, charting the progress of all the girls on campus from the dorms to the dining hall and from the dining hall to class and from class back to the dining hall for lunch. Lenore added her footprints to the multitude, the snow just deep enough to crumble into her saddle oxfords and wet her socks. She was halfway to the dining hall, when Mr. Bishop’s dog came bounding up beside her. The dog shimmied and wagged, a tennis ball in his mouth. She heard Mr. Bishop’s voice from up the hill. “Pickett,” he was shouting. “Here, boy.” Pickett did not heed his call. Instead, he sat on his haunches and dropped the ball at her feet.
Mr. Bishop trotted over, his breath misting in the cold.
“Sorry about that.”
“No worries,” Lenore said. “I like dogs.”
She tried to hand him the ball but he waved her off.
“He wants you to throw it.”
Pickett was swiping the ground with his tail, eyes fixed on Lenore. So she cocked her arm and let it fly. The ball sailed through the air and Pickett bolted after it, his black coat a perfect contrast with the snow. He fetched it up and brought it back, clearly pleased with himself.
“Do you believe in ghosts, Mr. Bishop?”
She could feel him staring at her, wondering about her. The thing about Mr. Bishop was, he wanted to teach you something. That wasn’t always the case. Some teachers wanted to entertain or impress you, some wanted you to like them, some just wanted you to behave for an hour and move along. But Mr. Bishop believed what he said in class. He was almost too earnest. Even now, he was giving her question more consideration than it deserved.
“I believe a place can be haunted,” he said, “if that’s what you mean. By the past or history or whatever. And people, too. People can be haunted. But if you mean actual spirits from the other side, then no, I don’t guess I do.”
Lenore wiggled her toes inside her shoes.
“Why do you ask?” he said.
“Oh, you know the stories about Thornton Hall.”
Mr. Bishop smiled. “Does this mean you’ve had a run in with Elizabeth Archer?”
“I’m pregnant,” Lenore said.
She hadn’t meant to tell him. She felt as startled by her revelation as Mr. Bishop looked and she had the strange sensation that she might suddenly float up off the ground, her heels lifting out of the snow and then her toes and she imagined gazing down on Mr. Bishop and his dog, a hovering ghost of herself.
“You can’t tell anyone,” she said. “You have to promise.”
“Lenore,” he said.
“I’m serious, Mr. Bishop.”
She heard him say, “Lenore, wait. Lenore. We’re not finished talking about this, Lenore,” repeating her name like an incantation, like it had some power over her but she was already leaving him behind. The dog padded after her for a few steps but Mr. Bishop called him back and this time he obeyed.
Excerpted from AT BRIARWOOD SCHOOL FOR GIRLS © 2019 by Michael Knight. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.