Niya C. Sisk interviews author Jen Knox
NIYA: Detail, detail, detail. You are a brilliant seductress of story and your weapon is image detail. But you also balance what you weave with intimacy of scene and time. While I don’t want to say, “How do you do this?” I have to ask how do you recall becoming this type of writer stylistically? Or anything at all you’d like to say about this observation?
JEN: I often begin a short story or essay by meditating on the day-to-day details of life. This could be as simple as observing a child laughing loudly in the milk aisle at the grocery; smelling sausage, maple syrup and pancakes on a cold morning; or catching glimpse of a particularly insincere smile between two people at a coffee shop. In these moments are the material for complex and vibrant stories.
Because my writing begins with detail, I try to sustain the vivid nature of that original image. As I revise though, I often realize I didn’t even come close. So detail is not only the catalyst but what I look to add after a first draft is complete. Where follow-up scenes feel flat, it is the senses that bring them to life; so as I revise, I try to slow down and imagine each scene, injecting it with as much concrete detail as I can.
NIYA: Is Alice Munro an influence? And others that are significant you could talk about a bit?
JEN: I listen to and read Alice Munro’s stories often. She’s an amazing writer and so precise. What I love, as a reader, is her characterization. Munro’s characters do not feel airbrushed. I read them and believe that they are flesh and blood; their everyday dilemmas become as large as my own. I once tried reading Munro as a writer. I was all set to take notes and look for specific technique, but the reader in me took over. I was sucked in. That’s great writing! I like to think writers, such as Munro, influence me through mere consumption. Other authors I read and love include Joan Didion, Edwidge Danticat, Tobias Wolff, James Thurber, Flannery O’Connor, and Donna Tartt. I just began reading Tartt. In fact, I’m still reading The Goldfinch, my first book of hers, and it is one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
NIYA: I am impressed by how you take us through time, aging people and their stories in juxtaposition with the pug in “After the Gazebo.” I felt I knew the pug intimately simply by the first description of his skin. And then I began to see the pug as watcher; a gatekeeper of time and of age. Can you speak to the genesis of this story? It’s excellent and so powerful for our theme this fall.
JEN: I love how you phrased that, a watcher and gatekeeper, because that is exactly how Prince seemed to come to me. He was a device on surface—the one factor that set so many things in motion that could arguably have led to the unnamed couple’s fate—but things are never that simple. A single decision may set others in motion, and this was the guideline of the story, but I wanted to show that perspective allows for what the obvious does not. The beauty and heartbreak in life is often brought on in degrees and in deep feelings that extend beyond belief to transcend our reality. Prince is a survivor, and he is a watcher, yes. He goes through the motions of his role, but something deeper motivates him and that thing may transcend life and death. I suppose that part’s up to the reader.
NIYA: In “The Prize at the End of This” I didn’t feel bad for the main voice/character in this piece. I thought I would. Instead I felt inspired and wanted to sit in pow wow with her — learn from her philosophies in life. How do you suspect you accomplish this neutrality/peace when taking the reader into our deepest fears of a life well lived by the end of things?
JEN: This piece actually arrived at a real-life failed attempt to write a bucket list. I figured it would be a fun exercise to write this list, but it turned out to be quite difficult. I began putting it off as I might an unpleasant chore. As fun as it was to fantasize about zip lining over beaches in Haiti, I realized what was scaring me was that I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do. To distance myself, I began to write about not being able to write. I realized that seeing the end may offer some perspective, and I began to write a story. In this way, I attempted to examine not just the fear, but the nature of fear, which is often not logical yet so utterly consuming.
NIYA: CR Stories is privileged to have your voice in this edition of the magazine. Your pieces are moving and very rich. The language, pacing and ground you cover is remarkable. Why did you choose Curly Red Stories?
JEN: I remember arriving at Curly Red Stories and reading Joshua Mohr’s interview then his dynamite second-person narrative some time ago. I too am a natural (curly/wavy) redhead, so the name stuck, as did the impression from Mohr’s work. Later, I retuned and read more. And later, more. I read a lot of good work online, but it is less common to find a lot of good work in one place, so I’m thrilled when I do.
NIYA: What are you up to? What’s next for your fabulous career? Your goals as a writer in the next year or more?
JEN: I have a short chapbook forthcoming and a short story collection completed. I have also completed a novel. (Funny how that works: nothing is complete for so long, then all of a sudden it seems all the ends tie together.) The novel, We Arrive Uninvited, is about a girl who believes her grandmother’s schizophrenia is a misunderstood gift. As she learns her grandmother’s story, it is up to her to decide what is real. A portion of it is excerpted at WIPs. I’m very happy to be completing this novel. In many ways, the story surprised me but only in positive ways. Also, the subject matter is important to me, which makes the completion all the sweeter. I am also working on a novel that is more magical realism and odd. This one’s fun, and I have yet to title it.
NIYA: Thank you, and is there anything else you’d like to add?
JEN: Thank you, Niya. I’m a fan of Curly Red Stories, and I’m proud to be a part of your literary community.