Interested in a more behind the scenes type look at an accomplished, Alabama-native writing process and life experience? Or even want to know more about Disney’s controversial 1990’s theme park flop known as Disney’s America? We at The Mire certainly did. So, we reached out to author Michael Knight to discuss his new Virginia based all girls boarding school novel, At Briarwood School for Girls, to ask him a few questions about his writing process, what it’s like being a southern author, and get his opinion on the nonfictional Disney’s America that bases his fictional novel.
Stephanie Hull: Having read At Briarwood School for Girls, what inspired you to write about an all girls boarding school? Ironically, I recently visited an all boys boarding school in Virginia and it was almost identical to your depiction of Briarwood, except for the obvious difference in gender. What was your research process for writing this novel? Was it the same as your preparation for your other books?
Michael Knight: The truth is I didn’t set out to write a boarding school novel. I wanted, quite simply, to write a Virginia book. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama but I went to college in Virginia and I earned my MFA in Virginia and I taught for a while at Hollins University in Roanoke, big, essential, life-shaping years for me—I even married a Virginia girl—and I wanted to write a book that investigated and did justice to my experience. Given the nature of that experience, I figured this book should probably be set in academia but I was thinking a college campus, maybe a sort of satire of the academic life, but the pages that emerged in the early going were at best mildly amusing and mostly without substance.
It wasn’t until I relocated the story to a boarding school that the novel began to acquire a kind of heft in my conception. I still hoped the book would feature elements of academic comedy but the stakes were raised, the everyday dramas of the young characters taking on new weight. The way this change altered my perceptions of the adult characters was particularly surprising. It seemed to me, suddenly, that the teachers and coaches at Briarwood School for Girls had a greater depth of responsibility for their charges and the failure to live up to those responsibilities risked more significant consequences for everyone involved.
Stephanie: Although the broad subject of an all girls boarding school sounds like it would mostly be aimed towards young adults, I actually found that your novel was appealing to a much broader age range. Was this your intent? If so, what elements did you add to help expand the audience of this novel? What do you think is universal about “coming-of-age” that relates to different stages of adulthood?
Michael: As the previous answer might suggest, I’m not sure I was thinking so much about audience in the beginning. I was mostly looking for the story. I have two daughters, however, both teenagers, and it occurred to me at some point that I might be writing a book that they’d be interested in reading, and I suppose that might have shaped the telling a little bit. You ask about coming-of age narratives and I can say for sure that one of the things that intrigues me about the boarding school novel as a kind of subgenre is the way the best of them intensify traditional coming-of-age narratives by confining the story to a space that is both sheltered—by privilege, by geography, by tradition—and unfettered at the same time. In such a space, adolescent characters generally have too much freedom for their own good but also a false sense of security created by the place itself, the idea that nothing too terrible can happen in the shade of those old trees and inside those lovely old buildings and that, whatever mistakes the characters might make, a soft landing is guaranteed, when, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
I also believe that the notion of a “coming-of-age” shouldn’t only apply to young characters. Really all the phrase suggests is an important change in perception, a new way of seeing the world, and if that’s true, then people are coming of age over and over again for their whole lives.
Stephanie:I know that At Briarwood School for Girls is set in the 1990s, but how much of what you wrote about was inspired by society today? Did you go into writing this novel with an ultimate message you were wanting to portray? Do you ever go into writing with a certain message you are wanting to leave your readers with?
Michael:I never enter a work of fiction thinking about “message.” Too much focus on “message” and the fiction is all idea without the richness and texture of life or the complexity of actual human beings. I think about characters instead, about story. Part of the process of writing draft after draft, however, is figuring out what the book is about, trying to understand the nature of the story that you’ve told. I’m going to answer part of your question about “society today” in my next response. There’s some overlap in my thinking.
Stephanie:The concept of Disney’s America is really intriguing to me and I didn’t even realize that it was a real project until researching it while reading your novel. What about Disney’s America interested you and made you want to feature it in At Briarwood School for Girls? Did you keep up with their plans for it when Disney originally released their plan for Disney’s America in 1993? If so, how did you feel about it then and why do you think it is important to resurface this idea now?
Michael: I was in graduate school at UVA when Disney announced its plans so, yes, I was aware of the project and everybody in Charlottesville had an opinion. It’s hard to believe, looking back, but the whole thing was downright scandalous. There is a moment in At Briarwood School for Girls when Bishop, the history teacher, says,“If individual experience molds us into who we are as human beings, then surely community experience—national experience—defines us, too. As a group, you know, a tribe. We take pride in the same triumphs, share disappointment in our failures. Our history is what makes us into a country in the first place . . . No doubt all history is subjective but it follows that if we have a false impression of our history, then we have a false impression of who we are.” Those words, for me, are true across time, whether we’re talking about the 1890s or the 1990s or the 2090s. They are especially true at this moment when the country seems so polarized and nobody can agree on even basic facts, much less big picture social and political truths. It’s important to remember that we share a history and to be honest about that history, for better or for worse. That’s what we have in common and what we always will.
Stephanie: I recently read that you grew up in Alabama, what impact would you say your southern roots have had on your writing? I also noticed that At Briarwood School for Girls is not your first book having a Southern setting/influence. Do you impart some of your own experiences in the South into these?
Michael: I believe that there’s a direct link between memory and imagination so no matter what I’m writing about I’m bringing to bear my experience of the South in general and my experience of growing up in Alabama in particular. I’m going to have to paraphrase here but in her book, Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande says something like “No one was born in just that place of just those parents at just that moment in history. No one has had the exact same set of experiences that you have had. If you can figure out a way to describe the world as only you, out of all people on earth, must see it, then you will inevitably have a piece of fiction that is original.” I think that’s what we learn when we apply our experience—of place and everything else—in fiction. We learn how we see the world. And that’s important. If Brande is right—and I think she is—then the only thing we have to give into the larger conversation of literature is our own unique blend of memory and imagination.
Stephanie: Entering the writing scene can definitely be a challenging task for many aspiring writers, how did you begin your writing career? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? What advice would you give to aspiring writers, especially high school students?
I thoroughly enjoyed reading At Briarwood School for Girls and look forward to reading some of your other works. Is there anything that you currently working on?
Michael: I’ve been writing in some form or another since I was a kid. My mother still has boxes of “novels” that I wrote in middle school. None of them are more than ten or twelve pages long. The pleasure of it, then and now, is that feeling of getting lost in some imagined world or of living inside someone else’s life. It’s thrilling, losing yourself like that. I’ve probably said this before but I write fiction because I love to read it and my advice to aspiring writers is just that—read like crazy!!! That’s how every writer everywhere has ever learned to write. You read a novel or a short story that you like and then you imitate the things you admire in its pages and you add those techniques to your repertoire and gradually, after enough practice, your own voice begins to seep through and suddenly you have a piece of fiction that’s original and truly yours.
It’s funny that you ask about current projects. There’s a kind of exhaustion of the imagination that occurs after one finishes a book. The well feels awful dry. So I’ve been reading a lot lately, filling the well back up, thinking about new stories.
Michael Knight is the author of the novels The Typist and Divining Rod, the short story collections Eveningland,Goodnight, Nobody, and Dogfight and Other Stories, and the book of novellas The Holiday Season. His novel, The Typist, was selected as a Best Book of the Year by The Huffington Post and The Kansas City Star, among other places, and appeared on Oprah’s Summer Reading List in 2011. His short stories have appeared in magazines and journals like The New Yorker, Oxford American, Paris Review and The Southern Review and have been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories, 2004 and New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best 1999, 2003, 2004 and 2009. Knight’s forthcoming collection of linked stories, Eveningland (Atlantic Monthly Press) is available for preorder and will be out in March 2017. Knight teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee and lives in Knoxville with his family.