The short story is a distinct form, different from the novel, with its own traditions and challenges, and its own pleasures and rewards. Good short-story writers don’t necessarily write good novels, and good novelists aren’t necessarily good short-story writers.
Michael Knight, the head of the University of Tennessee’s creative writing program, has been known for most of his decade-plus career—much of which he’s spent in Knoxville—as a short-story writer. He’s been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, and Playboy; his two story collections, Dogfight and Other Stories (1998) and Goodnight, Nobody (2003), and the two novellas included in The Holiday Season (2007), sold modestly but earned almost uniformly positive reviews. His second book, in 1998, was the novel Divining Rod, but his reputation rests almost exclusively on his stories.
“What I love about the short story, as a writer and a reader, is this sense of taking a novel’s worth of emotional complication and compressing it down into a very small space,” Knight says. “To me it makes for a very intense reading experience. And I also like that short stories, they allow for an air of mystery. What you leave out is as important as what you leave in, and there’s almost never a perfect resolution at the end of a short story.”
So when his former publisher offered him a substantial advance—“more money than I’d ever made in my life,” he says—to write his second novel, Knight’s response was complicated. It was just before he moved to Knoxville in 1999, and he describes the next three years as “one of the worst experiences of my life.”
“It was enough money that it was impossible to turn it down,” he says. “Since those first two books, I had written five new stories that I really liked that all wound up being published in really good places, and I wanted to finish that book of stories and set that aside. I didn’t even have an idea for a novel. They just said, ‘We’ll give you X amount of money if you write another novel,’ and I kept saying no. They said, ‘Well, what about if we give you Y amount of money?’ So I spent three years where I wrote almost nothing. I would write six pages of some idea and then abandon it. I was incredibly unhappy as a writer.”
Circumstances change, though. Knight’s just published his slim second novel, The Typist, and it could mark a significant turn in his career. In July, the Huffington Post named it one of the most anticipated novels of the second half of 2010, and reviews are expected from all the major big-city newspapers. The Typist is an ambitious historical novel set in Japan just after World War II, during the American occupation led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur; the placid, lyrical tone is similar to Knight’s previously published fiction, but the subject matter and setting are altogether new. The story follows Francis Vancleave, a clerk in MacArthur’s command—the title comes from the fact that he can type a remarkable 95 words a minute—as he drifts through the last few months of 1945 and negotiates a tangle of complex relationships: with his roommate, who is caught up in the ugly side of the black-market economy; with MacArthur and his family; and with his wife back home, a young woman he barely knows.
Shannon Burke, the author of the acclaimed novels Safelight and Black Flies, who lives in Knoxville and has formed a close friendship with Knight, says he thinks The Typist is his best work yet. Knight goes even further in his assessment of the book’s place in his career.
“You know, honestly, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, by a pretty long shot,” Knight says. “It may be, in fact, the best thing I’ll ever write, which is a sort of grand and terrifying feeling, you know?”
Knight, 40, grew up in Mobile, Ala., in the 1970s. His life wasn’t much like what’s typically depicted in the Southern fiction of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. His childhood, in fact, was one of some privilege. Even now, he seems a product of the Southern aristocracy, tan and thin with a shaggy thicket of brown hair, a frat boy edging into middle age.
“I think my experience growing up was pretty standard middle class,” he says. “I can remember reading Flannery O’Connor in high school and I loved it but it seemed like she was writing about a foreign world. ... Another one of my favorite writers is Walker Percy. He was the first writer that I read who was described as a Southern writer who I felt like the experience he was writing about was one I could connect with, that was similar to the world I knew about.”
He wrote stories as a child; he says his mother still has copies of 10-page “novels” he wrote in middle school. But he never considered writing as a career option until the last semester of his senior year at Hampden-Sydney College, an all-male private school in Virginia.
“Writers always seemed to me like mystics or magicians or something,” he says. “And I wasn’t one of those, a mystic or a magician, and so I couldn’t be a writer. I was all set to go to law school my senior year of college. I was talking to one of my teachers, a creative writing teacher named Susan Robbins, who said, ‘What are you going to do?’ This is a pretty standard question you get spring of your senior year. I said I was going to law school and I guess I didn’t sound very excited about it. She said, ‘Well, have you ever thought about going to grad school in creative writing?’ And I said, ‘You can go to grad school in creative writing? Why didn’t somebody tell me that five years ago?’”
Knight got a master’s degree from the University of Southern Mississippi and an MFA from the University of Virginia. While he was still in Virginia, he met his wife, Jill. (They now have two children, Mary, 8, and Helen, 5, and live in East Knoxville.) Knight also started getting stories published in prestigious magazines and anthologies. (He’s pretty sure that the publication of his story “Birdland” in The New Yorker in 1998 once helped him and Jill get a table at a posh Charlottesville restaurant.) After a brief period teaching at a prep school in Baltimore and as a writer in residence at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va., he joined UT’s English department in 1999.
College creative writing programs are generally geared toward short stories. They take less time to write and can be polished over the course of a semester, unlike a draft of a novel, which might take years to complete. But that emphasis on stories is at odds with the book market, where novels are more valued.
“Stories are like poetry. Hardly anybody reads them,” Burke says. “Short stories are closer to poetry than they are to novels.”
Knight finds the commercial resistance to stories frustrating, and he doesn’t like the critical prejudice that favors novels as somehow aesthetically superior or more complete than short stories.
“I would take Flannery O’Connor’s collected stories over just about any other book ever published, or any of Chekhov’s collections, or any of Carver’s collections,” he says. “It’s a matter of size—bigger is better. There’s also readership. Going back to the graduate students, we have these terrific students who are by and large writing short stories while they’re in graduate school, and then lately have been having a lot of success getting their short stories published in prestigious places. And they go out and they have success getting agents, good ones, not shysters, and they go out on the market and the first thing an editor says is, ‘What a great collection of short stories. Do you have a novel?’”
A few years ago, Knight, an avid fan of Alabama football, read an article in The New York Times about the Atom Bowl, a football game played on Christmas Day in 1945 in Nagasaki, Japan, where the U.S. had dropped the second atomic bomb just a few months before. The game, played by two teams of U.S. Marines who were part of the occupying force after World War II, was intended to boost troop morale.
“You can imagine—there were over 200,000 servicemen stationed in Japan at the time, all of them between 19 and 25, and there were a number of genuinely fine football players in the Pacific,” Knight says. “So they got these guys together and they played this football game. I had this base interest of college football, plus both my grandfathers were in World War II, but one of them served in the Pacific. He was actually on the beach when MacArthur landed, when he came back to the Philippines. So there was a kind of personal connection to it.”
Knight worked on a novel about the game for a few months, but he stalled after about 50 pages. He put the manuscript aside and finished the two pieces of The Holiday Season.
“There just wasn’t any heart,” he says of his early draft of what became The Typist. “It was all idea. It was me using the characters to intellectualize rather than telling a story.”
While he was on a book tour to support The Holiday Season, Knight encountered a man who sharpened his personal connection to the Atom Bowl story and also helped him shift the focus away from the game and toward a more intimate perspective on the occupation. Robert Waller, whom Knight met after a reading in Gainesville, Fla., had been a clerk under MacArthur.
“He had been a typist in MacArthur’s command, stationed at Tokyo around the exact time I was interested in,” Knight says. “We started talking, and not only was he a typist in MacArthur’s command but he was from the part of Alabama where I grew up, so I felt like I could understand his experience in some way. And his experience is not totally dissimilar to mine—his father was a judge, my father was a lawyer. All of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t a multiple point-of-view book about this football game. It’s a first-person point of view told from the perspective of this young guy from Alabama who’s in this crazy place, this incredibly complicated and interesting bit of history.’”
With that hook, he started writing and doing historical research at the same time.
“I had this idea that I was going to do enough research to be able to imagine the place but not so much that my imagination would be stifled by the facts,” Knight says. “A historian would find that ridiculous. ... I started off trying to write the book before I’d done much research at all, just trying to imagine my way into the place, and kept having false start after false start after false start. But gradually, the more I read I found this base of core knowledge or experience to be able to imagine it.”
The Typist owes a significant debt to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for its particular first-person perspective and for its shimmering, crystalline prose. The similarity isn’t accidental—Knight says Gatsby is one of his favorite novels, and he found inspiration for the voice of his narrator, Francis, in Gatsby’s Nick Carraway. The circumstances of the story are completely different, but like Nick Carraway, Francis is as much an observer as a participant in the plot for much of the book. Francis often feels lost, like he’s searching for something that he can’t quite identify. In the end, back in Georgia after he leaves the Army, he seems to have found some peace, though his moment of grace is quiet, ephemeral, and even a little ambiguous. It’s the kind of mysterious ending Knight likes in short stories.
Knight has also absorbed the elegant, gleaming precision of Fitzgerald’s prose style. That’s what Burke most admires in Knight’s previous work. Burke and Knight share economy and efficiency as writers, but otherwise they’re very different. Burke’s style is informed by the other great American novelist of the 1920s and ’30s, Ernest Hemingway—blunt and clipped, almost journalistic, where Knight’s is wistful and poetic. It’s Knight’s command of his particular voice that sets The Typist apart from his earlier novel, Divining Rod, and it’s why the new book fulfills Knight’s transition from short-story writer to novelist.
“His tone is like gold,” Burke says. “If I can ever get that, I definitely can’t sustain it. If you can, it invites readers in and gives a book a warm feeling. That’s what a lot of his stuff has, and it’s probably the best skill he has. It’s enviable.”
Knight’s not quite ready to give up on short stories, though. He is working on both another collection and a draft of a third novel; he probably won’t decide which one will be his next project until after he finishes the promotion for The Typist. But what he’s learned about himself as a writer gives him new perspective on his career and its possibilities.
“It’s one reason I’m glad this book is coming out—I feel like I was a much more experienced writer when I was writing it,” he says. “I knew what I was doing when I was writing this, as opposed to Divining Rod, which I’m very proud of. But I had no f--king idea what I was doing when I wrote it. I felt that as a writer I was grown up enough and experienced enough to write a novel that was in my control.”
CORRECTION: In the original version of this story, Michael Knight was quoted as saying he prefers "Ferber's" short-story collections over most other books. Knight actually named "Carver," in reference to Raymond Carver.