An Interview with Reginald McKnight
Renée Olander | February 2000
Reginald McKnight's most recent collection of short fiction is white boys (Henry Holt, 1998). His earlier works include the short-story collections The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas and Moustapha's Eclipse, and a novel, I Get on the Bus. He has received an NEA fellowship, an O. Henry Award, the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Excellence twice, the PEN/Hemingway Special Citation, a Pushcart Prize, the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, a Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship, and, most recently, a Whiting Writer's Award. He has edited Wisdom of the African World and African American Wisdom (New World Library). Mr. McKnight teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Renee Olander: Congratulations-white boys is a great book. I admire the weaves of characters, voices, locations, and themes, and how you illuminate the dimensions of gender, color, and militarism in our culture. These weaves and themes are present in your earlier books but are more pronounced in white boys, particularly in the title story, where much of the power comes from the point of view, which shifts among the perspectives of different colors and genders in a militarized environment. Did you see this book as a movement forward?
Reginald McKnight: Yes, very much so. I discovered the power of point of view after I finished I Get on the Bus. I read many of Russell Banks' books-he is a master of point of view; he has absolute, impeccable control of point of view, and then I read lots of Chekhov, and I'm sure Banks has studied Chekhov. Before writing "the white boys" novella, I read Chekhov's only novella, The Duel. It's an amazing story with a kind of invisible but precise prose, and the narrator is never overbearing; all it does is serve to open up each character, although I'm no Banks, yet, and certainly not a Chekhov.
The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas was an experiment; it started off as a series of exercises. I was preparing a course on point of view for my graduates and undergraduates, and I thought that the only way to really learn how to manage various points of view was read each of those points of view and then do exercises. I wrote stories from each exercise, and they ended up becoming a whole book. I've just tried to extend that experiment with "the white boys" and the whole collection.
Voice has always been the thing that I think is most prominent, or noticeable, in my work-the variety of voices, interlocking voices, alternating voices.
Olander: There is experimentation in much of your work. You push the envelope by playing with point of view, tone, style, and the concept of a story-especially in "Homonculus," "Big Bob," "Roscoe in Hell," "he sleeps," and "The Voice." As you write, are you conscious of choosing, for instance, a tongue-in-cheek tone, or, in I Get on the Bus, the very abrupt sentences?
McKnight: My writing used to come in a more organic way-I would hear people talking in my head, and then I would start writing stuff down, and I wouldn't say it was like taking dictation so much as just listening to your subconscious. Your brain is a superhighway of information of all sorts, and some of those points of information intersect and create synthesized experiences that are similar but very different from your own historical background or experience, but I feel in a way that everything is sort of firsthand.
I Get on the Bus was more planned in a certain sense; I wanted to have absolute control of voice. Even though it's a first-person, present tense, highly subjective narration, I wanted the narrative to have the feel of a detached first person, which would suit the character, a man who is exceedingly out of touch with himself and the rest of the world. But it also had to be a very neutral kind of voice. I don't use contractions, as you'll notice, when Evan is narrating the story in his head. Of course, when he speaks to other people, his voice is more or less normative, but for one thing, I knew I would be plugging all kinds of voices into that main, neutral-sounding, detached first-person, so I didn't want to have too many abrupt shifts.
If he's being embodied, or eating the soul, so to speak, of an African person or someone whose voice is very different from his own natural speaking voice, I thought that the shifts would be too abrupt if we moved suddenly from vernacular English to something altogether different. Does that make sense? I thought about it in terms of a kind of structure with many apertures or ports in it, so that you could plug many different sorts of voices into it.
Olander: Some reviewers wrote that your central character, Evan, is mad, or that he becomes mad as the book progresses. I hadn't read it that way, and I wondered if their views made sense to you.
McKnight: No, he didn't go mad, but I don't blame Americans and Western thinkers for having no way to categorize what's happening to him, other than madness.
Olander: In " Mali is Very Dangerous," a character says, "I'm American, I don't believe in shit," referring to the witchcraft and shamanism. In The Bus we have the voices of Aminata and of Wanda-perhaps representative of Africa and America, respectively-and Aminata accuses Evan of thinking Africa is all a place of crazy voodoo. But at points in the book, as a reader, I felt a little queasy, wondering whether it were being suggested that Africa is a surreal place of weirdness! At least one reviewer, Charles Johnson, was critical of the book for that reason. Do you think The Bus fuels the Western stereotypes of Africa, despite the many passages that also clearly critique it?
McKnight: Africa is what you make it. I met many expatriates who had discovered many different types of Africa, many Africas. I was like every other skeptical American, and stuff opened my head up.
Charles Johnson can write any kind of Africa he wants to; it's his choice. I've been a scholar of African literature and folklore, ethnography, and ethnology, and I've never encountered his kind of Africa. I can't call the things that make up Evan's Africa "voodoo," that wouldn't be the correct word, but really "animism" isn't the correct word either. It is the way people think about the world; the way we think about the world makes the world what it is. I know Americans have a hard time with that, but they're just going to have to get used to it. Everything in the physical world that we've created-everything in the physical world that's manufactured, of human origin-was conceived in the mind first, and that's all I can say about what kind of Africa I've discovered.
I'll tell you something about that book I've never said in an interview before-a lot of the more quotidian stuff is completely made-up, and a lot of the weird stuff is completely autobiographical, but there is no way of really talking about it in rationalistic, scientific terms. I didn't go around with spectrometers and barometers and those sorts of things; one thing about Evan is that I made sure that my narrator had some kind of physical condition which for some readers might explain his apparently delusional thinking. Evan is the kind of character for whom reality isn't his strong suit in a certain sense. And then he smokes marijuana on top of that, which is hardly a major hallucinogenic drug, but I figured, you know, a few puffs on a marijuana cigarette for some readers might explain certain things. The one character who is probably the most mysterious, the most steeped in this other way, this African way of thinking, is an American, Ford, a quasi-comical character who is dead serious in his own way. And as for the African characters, you might notice that many of them are as uncertain as Westerners about the ancient African sciences. They're between two worlds, between two modes of knowing, two ways of thinking. These ways are, for the most part, mutually exclusive. Perhaps one must give up one's tere in order to have one's Volvos and toaster ovens and CD players. Who knows?
I hope that the book is a highly subjective experience of Africa, and I don't think anyone has the right to make the argument that I'm misrepresenting Africa. How do you misrepresent a place with 52 countries, 1,500 cultures, 1,800 languages, and every type of racial and cultural makeup somehow represented on that continent?
Olander: There are so few books set in Africa written by Americans and read by Americans that people who read them might be concerned about how Africa is represented-
McKnight: That's the thing that really gets to me about writers and the late 20th century; suddenly, we're responsible for representation of this, that, or the other. I'm not a politician. I'm not a statistician. I'm a writer, and this is the kind of thing that writers have always done-tell their own stories.
I used to be somewhat apologetic about I Get on the Bus, and I tried to tread very carefully over those issues, because I was highly aware of them. I was writing the book during the time of The Satanic Verses debacle, when Rushdie had to go into hiding. So there were things I put in the book, and then took out, and then I thought, "No, I should stick to my guns," and then I put them back in and ended up taking them back out; I was really very conscious of what amounted to subjective experience. It's the point of the book. But I was also aware of how subjectivity turns back on itself. Readers will always do what they will. Whatever Evan is, by the end of the book, he is no longer so much a victim of other people's subjectivity. He finds his own way, a very odd and painful way, but he takes possession of himself, accepts his version of things.
Olander: You said, "I'm not a politician," but there is social and political commentary in your fiction. What is the function or value of fiction, or of any art? Do you intend to make political commentary?
McKnight: I try very hard not to make any political statements. In the ultimate sense, art should bring us joy, and I mean joy, not happiness, not entertainment, but real joy, the sense that life is deep, limitless, and meaningful. Raymond Williams talks about the tension that lies between those who argue art ought to be or is wholly political and those who argue that art ought to be or is wholly Ã¦sthetic; he says it's a range set between the two poles, it has to be, because art isn't an epi-phenomenon of other phenomena, it's reality itself; it is real. And people respond to it in a variety of ways, a multiplicity of ways. I don't expect my work to have any necessary political or Ã¦sthetic effect.
I sometimes don't know why I write fiction and I don't know why people read my work, to tell you the truth. I'm gratified that people do read it, but I never want my work to be considered anyone's tract.
If I have anything to say that is more or less political, it is something that really doesn't need to be said at all-that is, that black life in this country is so multifarious, so complex, that it can't be known, it can't be encompassed by ideology, it can't be encompassed by any mind, it can't be described or explained or put into parentheses or stuck in display cases in museums-it is a process, and that blackness, in terms of what it is, begins and ends with the individual experience of every individual who claims it or borrows it or is saddled with it.
Because race is a political and economic construct, I get fed up with it. It's all a construct we make up as we go along-blackness or whiteness or whatever it's called is defined by the age, by certain polemical pressures. You could literally wipe out so-called blackness in certain respects with a few laws, but somehow this amorphous indefinable process has a life of its own. All I'm doing is adding my voice to a vast number of other voices; it's distinct, I'll give you that. I think that's kind of the point.
People could look at white boys, the whole collection, and say, "This guy is probably saying that blacks and whites are just never gonna get along," but that's not true. It's not true at all. If you're moved at all by any of those stories, what moves you is the fact that it's too bad that blacks and whites don't get along very well today. Another theorist, Hayden White, says that all art, all literature, is utopian. I think he means that whether your book is 1984-dark or whether it's a sort of literary fluff, the picture that's rendered of the world always makes us reflect on how different the world could be if only we could imagine it, or how terrible the world may be if there are certain things right now that we don't change. But I don't feel responsible for that as a writer; I just tell stories.
Olander: In I Get on the Bus, one of the last sentences of the book is, "Sometimes I really hate being black..." I wasn't sure if I was prepared for the statement-despite Evan's grappling with issues of "blackness" throughout the story. What do you think about that passage now, or what were you thinking as you were finishing the book?
McKnight: If you look at the vernacular, it's not Evan speaking, not his voice. Not many people notice that, and if it were Evan speaking, I don't think it would be an apt conclusion, but yes, it raises more questions than it answers; actually-there's a real strong possibility it's Ford's voice-
Olander: I must've misread it-because in my notes, I wrote, "Evan said..."
McKnight: No, you didn't, not at all-it's meant to be ambiguous. I've got it right here because I was going to read from it tonight-Ford says,
"You know something, homeboy?"
"What." He is shaking. His nostrils flare. There is something like terror in his eyes.
"Sometimes, you know, sometimes I really hate being black."
From Ford, that's a kind of blues expression.
A friend of mine told me about a scene he saw in a bus in New York: there was a guy on the bus and he was saying, "Man I hate motherfuckin' niggers, niggers ain't shit, I hate niggers," and a white guy turned to him and said, "Hey, that's not a very good thing to say, why don't you knock it off? I mean, that's really bad language and it's wrong to say, you must be outta your mind," and a black woman turns on the white guy and says, "Hey, he's got a right to speak his own mind." The first speaker was black. The typical sort of New York scene.
If that's Ford right there, and I don't know if it is or not, and I don't really care, in a certain sense, he's really saying, "Ain't life a bitch?" But I knew that expression would certainly be controversial, would certainly get people's attention, would certainly annoy people. I know why it would sting and disturb some people. Part of being black, as we know it today, is dealing with self-hatred. Dubois speaks about this through the years. Black people anticipate both black and white observation. Ford had taken himself from under "white eyes," but still couldn't find an abiding comfort under "black eyes." At the end of the book, we hear Lamont, an "authentic" African, suggest that Ford isn't a genuine Muslim, and, perforce, an inauthentic black man. A friend of mine, a Nigerian man, once told me that Gov. Douglas Wilder came to visit his town. People were excited, saying to one another, "Imagine, the first black governor of an American state, coming here! My God, this is a proud day." But when Mr. Wilder actually took the stage and began to speak, many people whispered, "Who is this guy?" "Yeah, where is our black American governor? Why is this white man speaking to us? Who is he?"
Ford is very isolated, you'll notice. Other Americans disparage him because he's trying to "become African." He had lived an invisible, no-account life in California. This Senegalese regarded him as a trouble-making buffoon. Such a parallax breaks the spirit, now and then, makes one sing the blues.
If you felt unprepared for his lament, it's probably because we're unaccustomed to its being prompted by black-to-black social intercourse. It's usually the sort of thing black people utter after dealing with whites.
Art shouldn't be harmless, joy or no joy. It should get under your skin.
Olander: Since you said "nigger," let's talk about language. A reviewer from the Columbus Dispatch said I Get on the Bus is "full of a kind of dialect that, if written by a white man, could be called racist. Is it?" The word "nigger" appears in your short-story collections: a trusted character intentionally inflicts pain by calling another character "nigger"-black mothers call sons the word, and white people call their black lovers "nigger." In those cases, the black recipient of the word thinks it was inevitable. Then there are usages between characters not necessarily insulting each other. Even though the word "nigger" is present in many of your works, it seems to be used rather sparingly.
McKnight: It's used in the right places at the right times, I think. I'm worried about words that'll offend my mother more than words that will offend the delicate sensibilities of journalists.
A few summers ago, I heard Peter Matthiessen reading from one of his manuscripts, a book that's probably out now or soon to be out-it was set in the 1860s or 1880s or something, and there were black people, so the word "nigger" was used. I wasn't disturbed by it, because it fit the context of the time, and vernacular, and place-yet I got a letter from another black person, a woman who attended the same reading. She wrote me a couple of weeks later and said, "Don't you think it was just awful the way Matthiessen used the word 'nigger' 46 times?" She actually counted the times he used the word! I was surprised-she said she stopped counting after 46-and mind you, I was surprised he had used that word so many times in that 45 or 60-minute reading, but no, I wasn't bothered.
I hear the word used a lot, and I wonder where suddenly all this politeness is coming from, where writers can't even use the word. It's a terrible word, but its use still reflects social realities. We can elide all manners of nastiness from American fiction, but we'd be lying if we left out racial epithets. Everyone knows this. Every time my story "The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas" is anthologized-it's very popular for junior high school-type books-they have me cut out the word "tits" and they have me cut out "shit" and "fuck" if it's in there-I don't even remember anymore-but they never touch the word "nigger." It's an interesting word because it is so powerful, and I don't like to use it freely. There are many times I could use it when I don't, when I know it would be ordinarily used in conversation between black people or among white people, but it would be over the top. To throw more light on the word, you use it, I hope, with some care.
Olander: Can we talk about the relationship between African proverbs and African-American proverbs, since you've edited two collections of them? Comments in your preface to the volume of African wisdom suggested to me that when you went to Africa, you had a sort of hypothesis that there were relationships between the two. Could you talk about what, if anything, is uniquely African, or African-American, about the wisdom you've collected?
McKnight: There are very few proverbs that have survived from Africa to the U.S. There's one, "ndanka, ndanka moi djappa golo tinaye," which means, "Slowly, slowly you must stalk the monkey through the bush," which is Senegalese, and is "Softly, softly, catch the monkey," in the Caribbean, and there's an American version; 50 or so have survived from Africa to the Americas. I haven't thought of writing any more about the proverbs-the books are very frustrating to do because they take a year or two to finish, and I haven't given them much thought since my days when I felt more connected to anthropology. I tend to use them in stories. Sometimes they generate ideas for stories, that sort of thing. I don't think much about the strong similarities between African America and Africa, partly because they were so consciously wiped out on this continent, and so it's really very difficult to even find them anymore. It's sad, it's disheartening.
Olander: Have you read much of Zora Neale Hurston's anthropological work?
McKnight: Yes, I have. Without Hurston, I doubt half of what we have now from Africa and slavery times would have survived. Things are better now, of course, though there are still too few black anthropologists. What's sort of remarkable to me is that any of the African wisdom survived. What an overseer's whip and a legislator's gavel didn't wipe out, I'm sure that Madison Avenue and mass media will completely finish. The great thing about African America is that history still matters to us, however much that might annoy others.
Olander: Which of your published stories were inspired by proverbs?
McKnight: Definitely "He Sleeps" (white boys); all the moralistic proverbs about love were an influence/inspiration. Actually, that story began as a poem after I did the first wisdom book; I don't rely heavily on proverbs-I only used a few in I Get on the Bus-but I want my work that's set in Africa to be repositories of folk wit and wisdom, a direct influence of reading everything by Chinua Achebe.
Olander: You mentioned autobiography in your fiction, and you share with some of your characters an interest in anthropology, a military childhood, and military service. How free do you feel to use your own experience or that of people you know for fiction?
McKnight: I've never answered that question adequately in the past, and it's hard for me to, because a magician doesn't like to give away his secrets. I very consciously monitor how much of my life and the lives of people I know end up in my work. I don't like for there to be too much; I only want for there to be a feel of autobiography. If people put all of these things together, they'd think I was 86 years old if I actually lived all of these stories. But I have had many very disparate experiences, and I've lived all over the world-I've moved 43 times in my life. I've met many different types of people, and-I have a very bad memory in certain ways-my long-term memory is quite good; my mid- and short-term memories are not so hot. So I can paraphrase but never quote people exactly. I paraphrase experience, too. If I'm writing about something that happened 10 or 15 years in the past, it has a way of blending with other kinds of memories.
Olander: In every short-story collection there is attention to story as story; characters say things like, "I have to finish telling you this story today, because another day it'll be a different story."
McKnight: Fiction is a lie that is truthfully told, and truth is always a matter of context. It's impossible to tell a story twice exactly the same way or to receive it exactly the same way. I listen to books on tape, and I've had vastly different experiences with the same tape, but the only thing making the difference is the gap of time between listening to it. Even in my readings I change things, even when they're written down.
It's always a matter of audience and creator, or auditor and teller, at every given point in time. I always write stories to a single individual. I tend to write them almost the way you'd write letters, and they're addressed in a very conscious way to a particular reader, but if my relationship with that reader changes over time, we have a falling-out, it can really affect the story, sometimes to the point of my not being able to finish it. Each and every story I've ever written has been written for a particular audience, once or twice to a general audience, mostly to an individual person. And that always shapes voice, shapes story. Stories are always told within stories.
Olander: Have these individual audiences ever been aware of the stories written "to" them?
McKnight: Only in one case has someone been aware of their influence as the primary audience, an ex-girlfriend, and I sent her the story and heard nothing from her in return. I just watched Deconstructing Harry, which was very disconcerting-Allen plays a writer/novelist who writes thinly veiled autobiography and his lovers and ex-wives revile him for the things that he writes. Pretty unsettling stuff for writers to contemplate. What I've found in my own writing is that sometimes my friends and family believe with no basis in fact that characters in stories are based on them, and, conversely, when characters are based on them, they don't have a clue.
Olander: Let's talk about male/female relationships. In several stories, men are portrayed as-and even called-"dogs"! You do a great job of showing a sort of pack mentality of men or boys in stories like "First I Look at the Purse" and "Quitting Smoking," where the central character is remembering how he and his friends watched a woman being abducted on a street and didn't intervene. Many of your male characters have trouble relating to women-and there seems to be a feminist perspective coming through in your work. What do you think about this?
McKnight: I used to call myself a feminist, and then I debated whether it was okay for a man to refer to himself as one. I can be a supporter of feminism, I suppose. I haven't decided for myself-I didn't raise the question for myself, I had it raised for me-so I'm grappling with that. And it may have to do with the fact that I grew up in a household with two older sisters, and a mother who has a very strong personality-I had two very strong parents. I never had the sense that one was stronger than the other, or that one submitted to the other; they are both very dynamic people. My father is on the retiring side, an introvert, and my mother is very extroverted.
I'm always trying to balance my own anima and animus, trying to reconcile the two, or keep one from dominating the other, because I think that's probably the only way to live with any kind of sanity.
I have two children who are both girls. I hate the idea of sending them out into a world in which they have to be second-class citizens. It infuriates me, because no McKnight of mine is going to go out into the world and get her ass kicked just because she's a woman.
I never really thought about how it went into my work. I focus on the voice and the character, I focus on the language when I write, and I tend to write, as many poets do, by lines, line by line. I would say that my attention is so squarely on voice and on person that I don't have any ax to grind whatsoever. Well, perhaps I do, but I'll just say that I don't think about it much.
Olander: There is a reference to Susan Brownmiller in one story, and I get a sense from the body of your work that you have read feminist theory.
McKnight: Quite a lot of it.
Olander: You have been "balancing" your teaching load, full-time parenting and home-schooling, and your own writing, which is a kind of load less common for men than for women. How difficult is this?
McKnight: If you look at the biographies of people who were both parents and writers, you're left with the impression that there are lots of kids who didn't like the writing aspects of their parents. When you look back on your own childhood, there aren't many great transcendent times with your parents, but the ones you had were really grand. I remember my mother teaching me to do the cat's cradle. I loved just being with my mother-she sat down with me spontaneously, pulled out a string from her sewing kit, made a loop and said, "Look at this, son." It was a small and simple moment, but one of the best of my life.
Even if I screw up as a parent, I'm pretty sure I inspire moments like those in my children's lives. All you can do is the best you can do. For good or ill, it's important to be in your children's lives. I think more men are doing this sort of thing, and it's imperative that no matter what the conditions of a marriage, both parents should be involved in their children's lives.
Olander: Several of your stories center on children's lives and perspectives. How difficult is it for you to conjure up complex portrayals of the terror of being a child-in adolescence, in a racist world? Do you immerse yourself in an adolescent perspective? Are you drawing from your own experiences?
McKnight: Or have I grown up yet and left adolescence? I'm not sure if I have. You cut a tree in two and you can see the sapling on the inside. We're the same way, layered with more experience, but the old experience is still there. I still feel connected to my childhood. And of course, when you have kids, as you know, that brings all the memories back up fresh.
I don't think of myself as someone like Beverly Cleary, who actually writes for kids. And I don't have to draw so much on my own experience, partly because there are times when my experience is just too idiosyncratic and too weird. I was an odd kid. Of course, for most kids, part of their adolescence is feeling different from every other kid in the universe, but it would be too self-indulgent just to look at and process my own childhood.
Olander: Several of the kids in your work have military fathers, as you did, and although one reviewer said that your work focuses on the "spiritual rootlessness" which is central to the African-American experience, I wonder if the sense of rootlessness he picked up on could have just as much to do with the constant moves.
McKnight: That's a very nice phrase, "spiritual rootlessness." Maybe I was rootless in terms of a very broad and complex African-American experience, but I have my family, and each individual is responsible for his or her own spiritual reckonings. I don't think that it's a spiritual rootlessness at all. I was very caught up by the civil rights movement even though I was on the banks of it and I was watching from the provinces, you could say. There's no escaping-in this country-blackness in any way, unless you can actually physically pass. You internalize everything, but still you have to deal with it. It's always there in every corner of every house.
Olander: Do you think the President's initiative on race is a positive thing?
McKnight: It could be a poultice that could lift up the infected material. But I'll tell you something: I wouldn't want to be a president in the late 20th century or early 21st century of this country, because there's plenty of confusion. People don't really know what they're talking about when they're talking about race. They're really unsure.
Olander: Maybe the word race should always be put in quotation marks.
McKnight: It ought to be. It's a word that's been absolutely meaningless for science for half a century, and of some value to politicians and polltakers, but in terms of what it really means-no.
Olander: It's creepy how ads for the same products in different magazines are geared so differently based on the color of the magazines' readerships-
McKnight: Lord, yes they are. It's the royal scam. But this Presidential race initiative-it may or may not work; it's up to every single individual, it really is. But it has to start somewhere, and it's probably a good idea. It's an easy thing to criticize and say it's naÃ¯ve. You can only look at it two ways: either the race issue is insoluble, or race itself, the concept, just has to be defeated, but it's embedded in our genes-color difference, and perhaps, as well, our predilection for perceiving difference and making the physiognomical leap. Our problem with race, I'm pretty sure, is not that race exists, but that we can't help creating it in our minds. We're too multifarious for there to be a single race; that's genetically impossible. So it's something we're probably always going to be grappling with as a species. But it's always good when people try to heal old wounds and prevent new ones.
Olander: Last week I heard Ralph Wiley (former Sports Illustrated writer and novelist) speak, and he claimed that Mark Twain is the underappreciated and misunderstood American Shakespeare. I remember an ambivalent reference to Twain in one of your stories-what do you think of Twain?
McKnight: Twain as the American Shakespeare? If you want the great American novel of that century, any boob has got to realize it's Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Let's face it-it started the fucking war, basically-or, at least it fanned the flames. But America has never really needed a Shakespeare. Twain was a very good writer and he did voice in interesting and remarkable ways, and he was a wonderful social critic. Huckleberry Finn has some good points, but too few and too late, in a certain way.
Olander: There's humor in your work, even in some of the most tragic moments. Is this planned as comic relief?
McKnight: It's a natural thing. I used to be alarmed by people's responses to my work. I wasn't always prepared for laughter from audiences, even though I found things funny.
Apparently, many comedians grow up in households where the mother was an exact psychological opposite of the father, or where there was a lot of contradictory parenting going on. My mother is pretty funny, a Texas extrovert, and I hear she was a class cut-up in high school. My father is very serious. But the humor in my work has never been intended as comic relief; it's just a part of my makeup. I can't help it.
Olander: Do you read when you're writing fiction?
McKnight: Yes. For a while, I believed that you weren't supposed to do that. But what else is going to feed the fires, if not other people's work?
Olander: You said that The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas grew from exercises you did along with your students. Do you still do such exercises, or write when you teach?
McKnight: No, not anymore. I'm too busy. I tend to read more poetry and drama when I write fiction. After you've taught fiction writing for a few years, you hear yourself repeat a certain number of theoretical axioms, discoveries you make about prosody and style. Sometimes I worry about those because I try very hard not to teach prescriptively and to regard each story as a thing unto itself. But still, after a few years, you just find there are certain common sense approaches to writing. The theories are tested virtually every day in a writing class. When I return to my own work, I tend to apply them in an almost a priori way, which I think is the right thing to do. I realize that fashion is always a part of any Ã¦sthetic process. For example, for a long time it was fashionable to write, "It's so cold, said he," whereas the fashion today would be "he said," instead. Language is plastic, somewhat preserved by recording, but even that changes with each generation, because each generation feels a sort of inborn responsibility to express itself differently from previous generations. And I'm sure Madison Avenue is also having its effect. But I'm always looking for new themes for teaching.
Olander: MFA programs have been criticized for, among other things, churning out technically capable but uninspiring graduates. As a faculty member of an MFA program, what do you think of this?
McKnight: A teacher I had once said to me, "It's a whole lot easier to teach writers than non-writers." The arts are always going to have a feeling of mystery-you can't teach that. There's a certain sensibility that some students have and others don't. But I have seen some students come to MFA programs and graduate before they have really come into their talent. Some never develop at all. But there are scientists who never publish papers or whose theorems are never proved.
MFA programs are new and therefore highly suspect. We've got to give this more time. If I ran MFA programs, I'd do things differently. For instance, experienced students would lead workshops, and professors would sit in to observe and step in when necessary to prevent bloodshed. Tutelage/conferences would be the core of the instruction. There would be more reading, including some theory. I'm not even sure MFA programs should be ensconced in English departments-maybe they would be better served by fine arts departments.
Olander: You're teaching like a madman right now-so what's going on with your writing?
Renee Olander is a lecturer at Old Dominion University, where she teaches literature and creative writing.
McKnight: Nothing. I owe my publisher another book yesterday, and I don't see any time in the future when I can just write.
Olander: Does that worry you?
McKnight: My life doesn't feel like a writer's life anymore, and I've been working pretty hard to get back to it. I read somewhere it takes 45 days to break a habit and 21 days to start one; I'm in a hard-ass, overdisciplined way trying to write for 21 days, because I think it's going to take consciousness to get me back to that unconsciousness, that more organic way of writing-and I've got to get back.
Renee Olander is a lecturer at Old Dominion University, where she teaches literature and creative writing.