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Tuesday
May202014

"A Different Galaxy in My Creative Space": An Interview with Clark Knowles

Clark Knowles teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire. He received his M.A. in fiction writing from the University of New Hampshire, and his MFA in Writing from Bennington College. The Arts Council of the State of New Hampshire awarded him a Individual Fellowship for the year 2009. His fiction has appeared in recent issues of: Harpur Palate, Conjunctions, Limestone, Nimrod, Eclipse, and Glimmer Train Stories.

His story, "Life, After," appeared in Issue Fifty-One of The Collagist.

Here, Clark Knowles talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about subconscious decisions, mysterious creative moments, and a strange dream.

What can you tell us about the origins of the story “Life, After” (the how, when, and/or why of your beginning to write the first draft or conceiving the initial idea)?

I was in the English office at my school (University of New Hampshire) and the cover story to the Writer’s Chronicle was a piece called “The Afterlife of Henry James.” A colleague of mine (the wonderful poet Shelley Girdner) and I thought that would make a great title for a poem. She wrote a beautiful poem with that title, and I wrote the little prose piece that starts off my story, “Life, After.” Once I finished imagining the afterlife of Henry James, I thought I might try to imagine the afterlife of some other great writers. From there, I just followed the path.

How did you choose the writers whose afterlives you would give us your vision of? Are all of these dead authors especially meaningful to you in a personal way? (How have any of their works informed or affected more of your own writing?)

They are special to me and I’ve read widely from all of their works, some more than others. I’ve read almost all of Hemingway, a ton of Woolf, a boatload of the Russians, a handful of James, a good chunk of Dickinson, Joyce, Bukowski, and Wallace. I wouldn’t say I’m a scholar on any of these authors, but I know I’ll return to all of them again as a reader, because they all have something that calls my attention. I don’t know why I chose these writers over others. No Faulkner? No Morrison? No Dante? No George or T.S. Eliot? For every writer here, there are dozens left off the list. The selection process felt organic; I didn’t choose with a particular plan in mind, at least not a conscious plan. Perhaps I’ll write part two someday—or turn it into some sort of longer meditation on the writers that fill my shelves.

Describe your process of imitating the linguistic styles of some of the prose authors you chose to include. Which writer’s voice did you find most challenging to adopt? (most fun? most educational?)

Joyce was certainly the most difficult—I wanted to capture the fluidity of his voice without actually trying to copy anything directly. Much of his section came after I meditated on perhaps the most beautiful final paragraph to any short story ever written—“The Dead.” There is something about all that snow falling obliquely that just kills me. I wanted that image to be in Joyce’s section. I had the most fun writing the Dickinson and the Hemingway sections. I loved the idea of Emily Dickinson being her own instrument of creative power and I wanted her to be happy for some reason; I wanted Hemingway to be a part of one of his stories—and I wanted him to be really alive, vital, in the moment. I don’t know if Hemingway ever actually got in the ring with a bull, but I think he’d appreciate the little inviting flick of the wrist I gave him as he called the bull toward him.

The ninth and final writer in the list is, of course, you, Clark Knowles. (I assume the number nine was chosen carefully, perhaps in reference to Dante.) What made you decide to use yourself as subject of the story’s last arrival? What was it like to construct an impression of your own afterlife?

I should just agree and say, “Yes, I chose number nine carefully…because of Dante…or perhaps John Lennon…” but I can only say that I arrived at number nine and found myself at myself on the list. Perhaps I was thinking of nine subconsciously. I hope I was. It’s always been a significant number to me. Still, I can’t say that it was chosen on a conscious level and not chosen carefully at all. I teach fiction and in my classes we talk often about the act of creation and how it has to be maintained as a mysterious process to some degree. We talk about the structures of stories, about character, about how authors approach the image, about the role of imagination, about language—always language—but I tell them that part of the role of the fiction writer is to cultivate the mysterious creative moment—to explore it, certainly, but also to hold it close as one might hold close any sacred thing. I suspect that I knew all along that I was writing toward my own self in this piece, but I couldn’t tell you why. I can’t analyze it because when I think about it, it pulls me back into the creative space. As to observing myself in the afterlife; that stems from a strange dream I once had (and have written about in several different stories) in which I was in a plane crash and all went black. Gradually, it grew light again and I was standing in a large bright room—like a large library with lots of heavy wooden tables. I wandered around until I saw my wife sitting at a table. She said she was glad to see me because her and my daughter had been waiting for me. Whatever afterlife I imagined for myself, it had to include both of them.

What writing projects are you working on now?

So many! I have an apocalyptic/zombie novel called Apocalypse Nation that I really like that I’m doing some final edits on which I hope to interest someone in. It’s very different from anything I’ve ever written before—it actually has a plot, which I can’t say I have much experience with. It was a blast to write, although quite difficult in many ways. Last summer I wrote the draft of a new manuscript called Once in a Lifetime and during the school year, I transcribed my handwritten notes to the computer. Over the summer, I hope to heavily revise and hone that book—another book that’s very different than anything I’ve ever done. I’ve placed short stories in lots of reviews and journals, but I’ve had less luck with placing longer pieces, so I’m just having fun writing what I want to write. Hopefully, someone will see something in them worth publishing. Over the winter, I took an online workshop with Peter Markus that knocked my socks off. With a little guidance from him, I found myself writing short stories that felt like they came from a different galaxy in my creative space.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend to everyone?

I loved Tim Horvath’s Understories and Elise Juska’s The Blessings. And Rachel Kuschner’s The Flamethrowers. I also recently read Beckett’s trilogy—Molloy, Malone Dies, and the Unnamable—so fantastic. And weird. I read Delillo’s White Noise, which is flat out great. Last year, I read all of Camus’ fiction—I’d never read The Plague before—and I can’t even imagine why it took me nearly 48 years to find that book; it ranks as one of my all time great reading experiences. This year, I’m reading all of Thornton Wilder’s novels. We have to do that, I think, just dig into authors, get them into our systems. I’m not an analytical reader—although I think I’m a relatively sophisticated reader. I’m just fueling up so that when I sit down to write, the tank is topped off.

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