Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Conversation with Nick Arvin

Nick Arvin is the author of the short story collection, In the Electric Eden, Along the Highways, which was featured in The New Yorker and the novel, Articles of War. He grew up in Clio, Michigan and earned degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan and Stanford, and he has worked in automotive engineering, forensic engineering, and power plant engineering. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a member of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop faculty.

Articles of War was named a book of the year by Esquire Magazine, was winner of the American Arts and Letters Rosenthal Foundation Award and the American Library Association’s Boyd Award. It won the Colorado Book Award and was chosen by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper as the 2007 pick for the One Book, One Denver program.

I had the pleasure of taking Nick's Experimental Fiction workshop at Lighthouse in late 2007.

Your work has been featured in The New Yorker; you’ve published a successful debut novel and a collection of short stories. You have an incredible pedigree and your first novel was met with critical success and reviews in all of the best publications. Does all of this praise and attention create additional pressure for you?

It feels strange to be described that way. In my mind, I'm still pretty much just a chump from a small blue collar town struggling to piece together sentences and hoping that maybe someone will like them when I'm done. Just the other day I got a form rejection from The Colorado Review for a story I'd submitted.

At the most basic level, having had some success doesn't affect things much; I mean, it's not as if while writing a sentence I'm simultaneously thinking, I wonder what the American Academy of Arts and Letters might think of this? (I'm more likely to be thinking, this is really bad. Could I possibly be writing a more bad sentence than this?)

When I step back and look at what I'm doing a little more broadly, having had some success is usually more of a help than not, because it provides some validation. I've managed to write some publishable things in the past, so it seems like there's a decent chance that maybe I can do it again. Maybe I'm not wasting my time. I remember well enough what it was like when I sat down to write every day with nothing to back me up but a lot of rejection slips, struggling with the feeling that I was doing all this work and quite possibly, basically, I wasn't even very good at it. So, no, on balance, having had some success doesn't cause me to feel a lot of pressure; it's more like relief.

How much do you care about reviews?

I feel anxious reading any review, even if it's on some completely obscure blog, and it only takes a mildly negative comment to set my teeth on edge for days. But, taking the long view, it's absurd to hope for complete understanding or sympathy from every reader or reviewer, and the best work is often divisive. When I was at Iowa, at some point I began to recognize that my best pieces were the ones that some people loved and that some others disliked intensely. For a work to have an effect, it's important that readers react passionately to it, and in creating the opportunity for that reaction, you are probably, and perhaps inherently, going to create the opportunity for some to react with a negative passion. That said, the great majority of the reviews of AoW have been extremely positive. I've got no complaints.

Were you ever hooked on one particular writer’s work?

At various times I've burrowed into Italo Calvino, Borges, Alice Munro, Graham Greene, Dostoyevsky, Cormac McCarthy, others.

But, actually, I find I often do a funny thing when I encounter a writer I really like, which is to put off reading their other work into the indefinite future, and I'm not sure if I do that because I want to save it for a day when everything else dismays me, or if on some level I feel like the anticipation of reading something really good is even more delicious than actually reading it. Usually I do eventually get around to it, but it can take years.

Who’s your favorite contemporary writer?

It's tempting to work up a long list, but I'll just say that the first name to come to mind is Edward P. Jones. I admire his work of the last several years enormously.

Were there any classics that you wanted to read and wanted to like that you just couldn’t get through?

Generally I enjoy reading the classics, and I rarely abandon books once I've gotten past the first two dozen pages or so, but this did happen recently with The Man Without Qualities, by whatshisname, which I gave up on at around page 200. I found I'd begun to regard reading it as a labor, and there was just no reason to put myself through that.

The interesting thing about it was that I had told a friend I was planning to read TMWQ, and she was interested in it, and I said I'd let her know what I thought when I finished. So then I had to write her and tell her about giving up on it, and she wrote back wondering why I was so apologetic about not finishing the book. And I discovered that I really did feel apologetic about it. Which is kind of absurd. But -- and probably this happens particularly with a classic -- I realized that I tend to think, or feel, like my inability to enjoy a book that a lot of other people have enjoyed represents a failure of sympathy or empathy or intellect or something. And maybe it does!

I’ve gotten jaded about assuming that all works that garner awards and positive praise are worth my time. I sometimes believe the emperor has no clothes

I can certainly agree that there are plenty of empty suits (armies of them!) wandering around looking for an emperor. But this also comes back to the idea that, basically, you can't please all the readers all the time. I'm more than willing to allow that there are some great books that don't seem so great to me and yet are nonetheless great books. Literature should be larger than the horizons of my individual taste and understanding.

Who’s the best writer I’ve probably never heard of?

Go read Wright Morris, particularly Plains Song and The Works of Love.

Stephen Goodwin in The Washington Post Bookworld said, “No writer in America is more honored and less read than Wright Morris.” Why do you think that is?

Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House, captures it better than I could: The Works of Love, about a man whose life never amounts to very much and who lives his life in a semi-trance is written in a relentlessly peculiar style... After a few awkward gestures toward plot, the novel's story line, such as it is, renounces conflict in favor of meditation. Declarative sentences often switch direction and conclude with question marks... If it were not for its seemingly banal Midwestern settings and lower middle-class characters and laconic narrative voice, the book would have long ago been classified as European experimentalism at its most willful and extreme... The result is a terribly eerie novel about a specific kind of American emptiness..."

What Baxter is saying here is particularly true of The Works of Love, but it would also more-or-less apply to most of Wright Morris' work that I've read. I think the plotlessness, in particular, probably puts off a lot of readers. In this way Morris is similar to WG Sebald, who I know you've read.

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given?

When I was at Iowa, I met with an agent who had read a couple of my stories, and she told me, basically, that these stories weren't very good, and that I should try writing closer to my own experience. She suggested a novel about a man who grows up in Michigan and goes to work for Ford and maybe writes, too (i.e., a thinly veiled memoir). The stories that she had read both went into my first book, and in hindsight she was offering simply awful advice, although at the time it really shook me up. I'm very glad I had enough self-confidence (and supportive readers) to ignore it.

This "write what you know" cliché irritates me because I don't understand where it comes from. I've read a lot of mediocre fiction in a lot of workshops, and whatever problems those pieces have had, it's almost never (if ever!) that the writers have stretched too far outside of "what they know." It's often the opposite, in fact. I suspect that "write what you know" is a thing people tend to say when they don't like what they've read and they're too lazy to think very hard about why that is.

Contrast this with the "show don't tell" cliché, which also irritates me, because there are plenty of situations where telling is more effective. But I at least understand where it comes from, because I have seen writers (usually rank beginners) who simply don't know how to write scenes or develop physical detail and even experienced writers will sometimes gloss over a difficult emotion or interaction with a summary word or phrase, so that it becomes tempting to offer up that particular cliché. But I resist, I really do.

What would you like to talk about, but no one has ever asked you?

Well, a topic that I'd like to see more writers address, because I think it's important and because I don't actually have any clear ideas about it myself, is how fiction fits into modern life and whether it should adjust itself in some way to the pressures now on it.

What I mean is that there was an era when the printed page was the only mass media there was, and if you wanted to immerse yourself in a narrative, you either got someone to tell you a story orally or you sat down and read a book or magazine or newspaper. I suppose if you lived in a city, maybe you could go to a play. Now, however, you have a lot of options for finding various kinds of narrative -- movies, TV, radio, blogs, video games, pod casts, and probably lots of other formats that I'm too square to know about. So, because people have finite time to spend on these things and they have all these new alternatives, it's not terribly surprising that people are reading less than they used to. What I've been wondering is if written fiction ought to adjust itself in some way to fit into this new situation, for example, by emphasizing its unique strengths relative to other media forms (and if so, what are those strengths?).

It's become almost a commonplace to say that recent fiction has been heavily influenced by cinematic techniques, and generally cross-pollination between the arts is a good thing, but is there a danger that readers might begin to see a novel, any novel, as merely a kind of half-assed movie? (I think there actually is a danger of this, based on how quick people are to ask me whether my novel will be a movie, and ask this in a way that seems to imply its potential will only be fully realized if it does become a movie.)

I think that one clear advantage written fiction has over other narrative forms -- movies and TV in particular -- is in its ability to depict an inner consciousness. But I'm not sure that means we should all be hot on the heels of Joyce and Faulkner.

I'm curious what you think about this, particularly since you have some experience in both writing fiction and in blogging. Do you see the two forms engaging the reader differently? Are you aware of trying to take advantage of those differences?

I do strive to take advantage of those differences in fiction. The books I love do things that only fiction can do. The characters have rich interior lives and the writers use language in a way that can only be appreciated when it’s read. I don’t think of blogging in the same way I think about fiction writing, because it’s a dialogue. Frankly, if I thought about it as writing, as opposed to the public whining I do with my online friends, I’d never post anything.

Kurt Vonnegut said “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Do you write with a particular reader in mind?

Not really. I write to please myself, mostly. That is, I try to tell stories that I would like to read, and to tell them in a way that's pleasing to me. Most of the day-to-day decisions in writing are really micro-level questions of diction, syntax, physical detail, and it would seem very strange to me to try to guess whether my wife would prefer, say, "gasping" or "wheezing" in a particular sentence. And I also feel like, if I'm not writing to please myself, why bother? I mean it's not like it pays well.

Is there anything you want to reveal about your second novel?

Let's just say it features more car crashes than an entire season of Dukes of Hazzard.

I look forward to reading it! Thank you for taking the time to entertain my questions.

* * *

Articles of War is a wonderful novel, now out in paperback. Since we don’t discuss it in this Q&A, please be sure to see Articles of War reviews here. See my review of it at The Book Book.

For additional interviews with Nick, see 20 Questions with Nick Arvin and this Interview at BookThink.

Do you think that whether or not a book is adapted to film is now a standard for whether or not the book is successful? How often do you tend to read a book as if it were a movie? What are your thoughts on how fiction is adapting or might adapt to keep pace with our world?


Rob in Denver said...

Thanks, Lisa. This was a great interview!

Rob in Denver said...

As for your questions... I don't think a movie adaptation for a book defines said book's success. I just think it's an adjunct to how good a story is.

If you take the book NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, it's so spare and McCarthy's prose is incredibly economical. There's nothing really about it that screams, "This will look so good on screen!"

But what makes it work is that the story is so compelling and the characters are so rich that it works better than a lot of books that eventually do get adapted to the screen.

Then again, there are a lot of bad to mediocre books that get made into movies, too. But those usually have some sort of universal hook that we latch on to. So, really, I think the biggest influence on what gets adapted is driven by commerce. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not really tied to the relative merits of the source material.

Josephine Damian said...

Great interview, Lisa! What was most amazing is that he got a story in the NYer and still has to put up with rejection.


I especially liked his comment about the emperor's clothes :-).

Since I rarely even watch movies anymore - too busy with school - I do tend to read the book before getting around to the movie.

Charles Gramlich said...

Very Nice. He's definitely down to earth. I really liked what he had to say about books versus movies. I get comments all the times about how cinematic my books are, which actually kind of irritates me because I really hardly ever watch movies or TV. Of course I have seen them, but they don't really have much of a specific influence on my writing.

Larramie said...

That was most impressive, Lisa but I had to smile at the fact you knew "the best writer I've probably never heard of?"

No, I didn't. ;)

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Mr. Arvin's work sounds outstanding - I'll be sure to check it out. I definitely agree with his 'write what you know'/'show don't tell' criticisms.

And how awesome is your question about classics that you just couldn't finish? That question alone could spark a whole post!

Melissa Marsh said...

I love how your questions were out of the ordinary - not the "typical" Q&A's I've seen for a lot of writer interviews. Well done!

And I will definitely have to read this book, seeing as how it deals with WW2!

Carleen Brice said...

Thanks Lisa and Nick. This was a very interesting exchange! And...wow...after all the acclaim still a form rejection letter! Good to know. I think??

Lisa said...

Rob, I don't think a film adaptation or no film adaptation really says anything about the book, but I think that authors are always asked (my guess is the question comes primarily from non-writers) whether their book will be made into a movie by random readers, therefore implying that in their minds, a book really isn't successful unless it is going to be made into a movie. To me, it's nice icing on the financial cake for the author if it is, but as a reader, I don't care either way.

Josephine, I think knowing that even someone like Nick is not immune to rejection letters is a comfort to the rest of us. It's clearly never, ever easy for anyone.

Charles, I think the question would annoy me. I hope to one day find out :)

Larramie, Actually I did not know the work of Wright Morris, but since we did this Q&A over a series of emails, I Googled him. I cut the extraneous part of my emails (like where I said I hadn't heard of him, but did a search) out of the post.

Orchid Hunter, I really liked his "worst advice" answers too. The topic of the classics is an interesting one and I appreciate that Nick was honest with his response. I did a post quite a while ago about the issue of whether we really love certain books/classics or if we just really want to love them. Lots to expand on with that topic, isn't there?

Melissa, I have to give Nick credit for the types of questions I sent him. When I first asked if he'd be willing to do a Q&Q, Nick challenged me to come up with some questions that he hadn't been answering in all the other interviews and readings he'd been doing. I'm glad he asked me to do it because I love the answers he came up with and I loved covering some new ground. And yes -- since you write about WWII, this is a "must read" for you!

Carleen, I think it's very good to know.

Ello said...

Excellent interview! And I loved Articles of War! I thought it was really an excellent, spare book.

Shauna Roberts said...

Thanks for doing this interview. I particularly liked the discussion about whether books need to change and what books provide that other media don't. Very thought provoking.

Shauna Roberts said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sustenance Scout said...

Terrific, original interview all around. Thanks to you both! This nugget is my favorite:

"For a work to have an effect, it's important that readers react passionately to it, and in creating the opportunity for that reaction, you are probably, and perhaps inherently, going to create the opportunity for some to react with a negative passion."

Also the discussion of the inner consciousness no other art form captures, of fiction's unique ability to reveal a character's "rich interior life." How cool is that. K.

steve said...

Very thoughtful questions and answers. After having written a mystery story set in 1959 Venice, California, I'm happy to read Nick Arvin's words on "write what you know." Ditto with "Show, don't tell."

I agree with you about film adaptation, but I still have fantasies of Navi Rawat playing Helena in the film adaptation of my Dickens Challenge novel.

The Writers' Group said...

I really enjoyed this, Lisa. I especially liked Nick's ruminations on reviews, feedback, and write what you know. I'm with him --except I won't actually read any of my reviews...Thanks so much for this!


Rebecca Burgess said...

My God Lisa, I love your blog. What a wonderful interview--great questions and amazing answers by Mr. Arvin. Thank you for this, I really enjoyed.

Lana Gramlich said...

Another entertaining & enlightening interview. Thank you!

Patti said...

i like that he hates the cliche of "show don't tell"...i do too. yet i fear my reasons are different than his!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf