Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: Interview with Roger McKnight

Roger McKnight hails from Little Egypt, a traditional farming and coal-mining region in downstate Illinois. He studied and taught English in Chicago, Sweden, and Puerto Rico.

His latest collection of stories, Hopeful Monsters has been published by STORGY, and within his collection (our review of which you can read here), he displays his writerly gift for maintaining – even though his characters struggle in an America fraught with lousy jobs, racism, busted relationships, damaged war vets, and homelessness – a subtle but believable hint of optimism that things will turn out alright in the end. 

McKnight currently lives in the North Star State, where he is Professor Emeritus in Scandinavian Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and how you got here

MCKNIGHT

I grew up in downstate, small-town Illinois. My family background was working-class. I went to college, mainly to play baseball, but eventually woke up and decided to study English, whereupon I grew disillusioned with the sporting world’s hierarchy. I became an English teacher. In my twenties I lucked out and got a Fulbright to Sweden, where I learned a few things about society’s and government’s responsibility to the citizenry. After Sweden, I spent a year in Latin America. I came to Minnesota to attend graduate school and have lived and worked here since then. Folks in downstate Illinois dismissed Minnesota as “cold weather country.” I embraced it because of its humane value system. From this vantage point, I’ve watched the world change, Minnesota included.. How I got here? Mainly through a desire to see a bit of the world and understand how people live and think.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

MCKNIGHT

In college, I was asked by a baseball teammate, what would you dream of being if not a baseball player? Without hesitating, I replied: A writer. I never became a pro baseball player and so….

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

MCKNIGHT

Henry David Thoreau, for his critique of American materialism. Plus, any writer who can let words flow and not have to revise, as I suspect was the case with Dickens.

INTERVIEWER

It’s been said that “all writing is autobiography”. How much of what you write is based on personal, autobiographical experiences or ideas that you’re working through?

MCKNIGHT

First, everything I write that is set in Illinois has huge autobiographical aspects; it’s part of my mental fabric. Second, I chose to make Hopeful Monsters mainly about Minnesota because the stories in that collection take place in geographical and mental territory (i. e., Minnesota & Sweden) that is more ‘psychologically neutral’ to me. The stories in Hopeful Monsters all spring from episodes and people I’ve observed or experienced and then created tales about. Since I wasn’t born and raised in Minnesota, however, the stories don’t have the connotative impact on me that Illinois stories would have. I feel this fact has freed me to observe people and happenings more objectively and fairly in Humble Monsters. The more objective-sounding my stories are, the better the narratives become.

INTERVIEWER

Your short story collection, ‘Hopeful Monsters’, introduces us to a plethora of different characters – all of whom feel exceptionally real – but often also exceptionally flawed; there is no person we meet for whom everything seems to be going well or okay. There’s that classic joke writers say about how it’s impossible to write a story about a successful person who is happy and for whom everything works out okay, because a) no one would believe it and b) nobody would want to read it. Why do you think we, as humans, are drawn to flawed characters and tragedy?

MCKNIGHT

The stories in Hopeful Monsters cover 50 years, from 1968 to 2018. My fictional characters are troubled souls living in troubled times, as we all are in reality. Stan in “Genuine Souls” arrives in Minnesota during late summer of 1968. It’s spelled out in the story that the 1968 baseball season is ending then. I assumed readers will also understand that that’s the same week and the same year that the civil rights demonstrations were disrupting the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, with police violence against demonstrators, still an infamous happening. Then came Vietnam and Watergate, as discussed in “Out the Window.” During the 5 decades since 1968, Minnesota has changed and suffered the same troubles as the world-at-large. Why would I ignore those dramatic, earth-shaking transformations and write about characters “for whom everything seems to be going well”? Things aren’t going well, not even in Minnesota, this former “northern European ethnic enclave.”

INTERVIEWER

‘Hopeful Monsters’ is such a wonderful book (and story) title. How did you fall upon it, and how important do you think titles are when putting together a story or book?

MCKNIGHT

The short story title and the book title, Hopeful Monsters, were not my original fixture in writing the story. The original image and inspiration for the story was a forlorn dove I watched tough out a 3-day April blizzard on a tree limb in my backyard. I was amazed that it survived and flew blithely away. As I wrote the story, the dinosaur motif occurred to me unexpectedly. Catchy titles may attract buyers, but titles don’t always reflect content. Don’t judge a book by its title. Who would buy Moby Dick and Hamlet for their titles alone?

INTERVIEWER

The writer, photographer and publisher Matthew Smith has written (for Nothing in the Rulebook) about the craft that goes into putting together a collection or series of stories or photographs. What do you think is important to keep in mind when putting together a story collection? How do you choose which story appears at which point, and how closely did you work with your publishers, Storgy, to do this?

MCKNIGHT

On my walks around various city lakes in Minneapolis and St. Paul through the years, I noticed the changing ethnic makeup of the picknickers and swimmers at the beaches and playgrounds. It was clear that the ethnic makeup of the crowd of frolickers surrounding Lake Nokomis in “The First, Best Bus” (set in about 2018) had to differ radically from those at the same lake in “Genuine Souls” (set in 1968). Storgy and I worked together all along in chronologically aligning the stories toward dramatizing those changes in society. Given the clear chronological framework, putting the collection together was relatively straightforward. Remembering to dramatize changes and not expound on them was the difficulty. Kristine’s jest about getting four seasons everyday can be read as presaging the many troubles to beset the land in the coming years.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk us through your writing process?

MCKNIGHT

I write best in places where total silence reigns. Unfortunately, Americans seem (in my homespun opinion) dreadfully fearful of silence and addicted to noise, even in libraries (in fact, they’re often noisiest). As a result, it’s hard to find silent spots. When I succeed in finding one, I try to let the story grow organically one painful sentence at a time. I can’t write from outlines, and I never know at the beginning of a story how it’s going to end or at least not specifically how the ending will take form. I enjoy revising what I write more than actually composing it from scratch.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

MCKNIGHT

Yes, I once read a text by George Orwell, who wrote that in many of his literary feuds he came to feel anger and revulsion toward his opponents. But once he met them in person he came to understand them as real persons like himself. Though I have dramatized some opinions in my stories through different characters’ comments and/or actions, I have also attempted to retain a sense of ambiguity about those opinions. That is, nothing appears as fully clear-cut right or wrong. That’s illustrated when Sylvia in “Victoria” drives off at the end of that story wondering if there’s a difference between ‘good’ and ‘right.’ And when Karen and Josh in “Loving Søren” wrestle with their own attitudes about judging others as they attempt to understand Kierkegaard. Maybe fictional characters can cross over ethical boundaries, but writers (including polemicists) almost always need some restraint.

INTERVIEWER

Looking around at current trends in the writing industry at the moment, what are your thoughts and feelings on the way the industry is developing? What should we be looking out for over the coming months/years? And how would you advise aspiring writers to break out onto the scene?

MCKNIGHT

I don’t really know that much about this matter. From a purely personal viewpoint, I can only express disgust at American publications/publishers who openly invite, even beg for, submissions and then clearly don’t even bother to read the submissions they receive. Or who refuse the submissions they do receive with the lame, disingenuous form-letter explanation that “it doesn’t meet our needs at present” without their ever having stated what their needs are. British editors are, in my experience, more responsive and civil. For aspiring writers, be persistent, don’t give up until you find an editor who believes in you and who follows up on promises.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

MCKNIGHT

Another collection of short stories (but no theme developed as of now). A novel maybe, but it has to be something I know a lot about, and that limits me. Not politics, not the environment, not sports, etc., but something about how the mind works.

Quick-fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

MCKNIGHT

Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

INTERVIEWER

Can you name a book you love, and a book you hate?

MCKNIGHT

I love the novel Rövarna i Skuleskogen [The Thieves in Skule Forest] by the Swedish writer Kerstin Ekman. I don’t have any hated book(s) per se. As Schiller wrote, Where they burn books, they will burn people.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

MCKNIGHT

Liked the movie Bladerunner, but never read the book.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

MCKNIGHT

Hieronymus Bosch

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

MCKNIGHT

Can’t answer that. The list would be endless.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

MCKNIGHT

The Swedish novelist/dramatist Hjalmar Söderberg (1879-1941)

INTERVIEWER

If writing didn’t exist – what would you do?

MCKNIGHT

Daydream

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?       

MCKNIGHT

Do I have any talents at all? Not sure. Somebody asked Einstein once, “How can a person live with all these original ideas like yours?” Einstein replied, “I wouldn’t know. I’ve only had one.”

INTERVIEWER

What’s your most embarrassing moment?

MCKNIGHT

As a child waking the neighbours in the night and asking them to come over and stop my parents from fighting.

INTERVIEWER

Something you’re particularly proud of?

MCKNIGHT

Succeeding in leaving the South and moving up North.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

MCKNIGHT

Descending the mountain, he stopped walking.

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