Michael Knight’s Stories to Put in Your Pockets
by Jon Michaud
In this month's Book Drop, Jon Michaud talks to author Michael Knight about his new short story collection Eveningland. The two discuss the difference between writing short stories and novels, embracing the influence of other authors, and how a collection of stories by John Cheever inspired his book.
In “Smash and Grab,” the second story in Michael Knight’s new collection Eveningland, a burglar named Cashdollar, searching for jewelry in a house he believes to be empty, gets knocked out by a blow to the head. When he wakes up, he finds himself duct-taped to a chair, face-to-face with his assailant:
Opposite him, in an identical chair, a teenage girl was blowing lightly on the fingers of her left hand. There was a porcelain toilet tank lid, flecked with blood, across her lap. On it was arrayed a cell phone, a pair of cuticle scissors, a bottle of clear polish, cotton balls, and a nail file…. Her hair was pulled in pigtails. She wore flannel boxers and pink wool socks.
I’d argue that the unsuspecting reader might find him or herself in the same position as Cashdollar. We enter this book of stories, which are mostly about the gilded, well-to-do citizens of Mobile, Alabama, looking for jewels, only to be smashed across the head. Knight’s fictions are elegantly written and easy to read but they pack a punch. “Smash and Grab” contains two unexpected twists and ends with the teenage girl, Daphne, taped to a chair, asking Cashdollar to “let me have it.” The reasons for the reversal are devastating and completely credible.
A similar dynamic is at work in the book’s opening story, “Water and Oil.” Seventeen-year-old Henry Rufus Bragg spends his summer patrolling Mobile Bay in his skiff, looking for oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Henry is on the cusp of adulthood. Though he has taken on this serious summer job, he still spends his spare time building model airplanes. He becomes infatuated with Dana Pint, a slightly older “marina girl,” who toys with him and then breaks his heart. Henry exacts a cruel revenge, but what gives the story its extra kick is that it’s narrated by a third party—an older man at the marina whose age gives him, and the reader, a longer perspective on this youthful romance.
One of the pleasures of Eveningland is the unforced overlapping of characters and themes from one story to the next. The book gathers momentum as it moves forward, less in the manner of a plot being advanced and more like the accretion of experience as you age. The book feels lived-in. Knight, who teaches at the University of Tennessee, told me that he worked on these stories for about a decade, beginning with the novella “Landfall,” which describes the destructive arrival of a fictional hurricane.
I liked “Landfall” pretty well and I had the vague 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. Some 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.
There’s another subtle structural element to the stories. In his acknowledgements, Knight notes that some of his favorite writers are “directly referenced” in the collection, including Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Donald Barthelme, and Alice Munro. As I read I tried to divine which writers influenced each story. I asked Knight if he had “channeled” any of these writers while working on Eveningland. The process was more complicated than that, Knight explained. For example, “The King of Dauphin Island”—about a rich widower who buys up all the property on a Gulf barrier island—was initially inspired by Barthelme’s “So I Bought A Little City.”
The thing is, I couldn’t get the story off the ground. I tried a variety of voices and styles and points of view but each attempt just lay there on the page, flat and empty. I always read a little before I start writing in the morning and one morning, by chance, I picked up a collection of Cheever stories. I read “The Geometry of Love”, which I hadn’t read in years, and I liked it all over again so I flipped pages and read “The World of Apples” which blew me away, and that’s when it began to dawn on me how I might be able to write “The King of Dauphin Island.” I could pull way back in the third person narration and “tell” the story in a sort of mannered and old-fashioned way, as opposed to “showing” it all the time with scenes, not as ironic as Barthelme, not as poetic or rhythmic as James Salter, something else entirely. It felt more like finding a magnificent new narrative tool than channeling, but I can say for sure that that story might never have been written if I hadn’t picked up that specific book and read those specific stories on that particular morning.
Eveningland is Knight’s sixth book and his third collection of short stories. I asked him about the differences between writing short fiction and novels. He acknowledged that “short stories are close to my heart,” and continued:
Short stories are allowed an air of mystery that I love, especially at the end. Stories generally close on an emotional upturn or downturn but all the loose ends aren’t necessarily tied up and that really resonates with me. It’s more like life. It often feels more true. Somebody much smarter than me—if I could remember who, I’d give them credit here—once compared short story endings to carrying a stone around in your pocket and you keep on touching it and nagging it and rolling it around for hours—days even—after you’ve finished the story. There’s a great deal of truth in that, I think, the idea of that kind of reverberation in a good short story ending.
I’ll be carrying the best of the stories in Eveningland around in my pockets for a long time.
The Book Drop is a monthly column of thoughts, trends, and tidings from the desk of our librarian, Jon Michaud.
Jon Michaud is the author of the novel When Tito Loved Clara, named a best book of 2011 by the Barnes & Noble Review. He was Head Librarian at The New Yorker from 2003 to 2012. Prior to that, he worked in libraries at Time Inc. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and Culture Desk blogs, Jon also reviews books for The Washington Post. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and two sons where he is at work on a new novel.
You can find him on twitter @jonmichaud