Michael Knight’s most recent novel, Eveningland explores the humanity of the people of Mobile, Alabama. As Rick Bass succinctly says of Knight’s characters, “They’re isolated from one another, to one another...walled off with no real exits.” His characters navigate various stages of their lives and Knight’s precision to detail roots the stories in both a time and a place.

Over lunch at Southern Spice, a restaurant that serves home-style Cajun food, Knight talks to me about the writing process and the themes that show up in his work.

Candace Hartsuyker: Your stories have been noted to be reminiscent of both Tobias Wolff and John Cheever. How would you say your style is similar to theirs and how does it differ?

Michael Knight: John Cheever and Tobias Wolff are two writers who made me want to be a writer. I read those stories when I was younger and I’m sure in lots of ways their styles have seeped into my subconscious. One of the things you do when you’re trying to learn to write (something that every writer does), is to imitate the writing you admire until your own voice comes to the surface.

In my most recent book, there’s a story called “The King of Dauphin Island” that I struggled with for a long time. I couldn’t find the right voice or the right point of view for it. I always read for a little while to get the brain going before I write. One morning I just by chance pulled John Cheever’s Collected Stories off the shelf and read a story called the “World of Apples.” Halfway through reading that story, I knew how to tell “The King of Dauphin Island.”

I decided I was going to have a more distanced third person narrator who tells the story to the reader rather than relying on scene. In that sense, Cheever not only had a subconscious influence but a very direct and deliberate influence on Eveningland.

Hartsuyker: You’ve written everything from short stories to novellas to novels. What challenges have you faced when writing a novel versus a novella?

Knight: As a writer, I gravitate toward the short story. I love to read short stories. A great short story takes a novel’s worth of emotional complexity and compresses it into a much smaller space, which for me can often be a more intense experience than reading a novel. A story works by filling up with emotion and then compressing it down. The reader is aware of this, so it’s almost as if the short story is straining against the boundaries of the form.

When you start a novel, you’re beginning to be aware that your emotional response as a reader is going to be more diffuse. To me, the tricky thing is how you address the means of the plot and have bubbling underneath a story this big emotional complexity. Every scene needs that emotional complexity.

Whereas with a novel, you’re aware from the beginning that it has to be driven by something other than just compressed emotion. The plot has to be a little more complex or there has to be a few more reversals or pivots with the characters to sustain that amount of pages. These are practical notions that can affect a scene because you have to think of what kind of work the scene can do.

For novellas, most people agree that it should be more than 50 pages but less than 150 pages, but no one has a clear definition of it. I think that most of my novellas have either been failed short stories or failed novels. You realize at a certain point that there’s too much story here to contain it in a certain amount of pages and you’ve got to break those boundaries and let it go where it wants.

It happened to the novella “Landfall” at the end of Eveningland which tried to be a novel, but it just kept feeling baggier and baggier and the tension kept leaking out of it every time I tried to expand it. I felt like it kept becoming a stronger piece of fiction the more I compressed it down. For me, it’s always been about how to settle on the length and the form and the shape of this thing and the way that tension is sustained in the most effective way.

Hartsuyker: Many writers have the fear that they will write the same type of story over and over and their writing will become too predictable. One of your strengths is seamlessly creating suspense and giving your stories unpredictable endings. How do you go about keeping each new story fresh?

Knight: As a writer, if you begin to become aware of this problem than you can decide how you’re going to resist the predictable elements of this scene. You have to have the same joy a reader feels, so you can try to think of a way to pivot or reverse a scene or a character in a way that surprises you as much as the reader.

Hartsuyker: Short story collections often share a common theme. What is your process in assembling a collection of short stories? How do you know which short story should go first?

Knight: This has been a different experience for me between my first two books and this most recent book. For the first two books, I just kept writing until I had 12 or 15 short stories, and then once I had enough, I started looking for recurring themes and seeing if there was a way to arrange them in such a way that they would be interesting for the reader from beginning to end.

With Eveningland, that collection was different. It was the first book I’d done where I had the whole thing in mind to a certain extent and that was partly by accident. I wrote this novella “Landall” a long time ago, and it was too long for a journal but too short to publish by itself, and it sat in a drawer for a while.

Then I wrote “Water and Oil” and it occurred to me that these characters were part of the same social world and that they might know each other. I began to think that I had enough material for a book. I took a couple stories that I’d already written and reconfigured them to fit this world that I had, and then I wrote the last 3 stories with the whole book in mind.

There are a couple movements in Eveningland where we go from youth to age and innocence to decay. As I was conceiving the later stories, I was thinking in terms of how I could not only write a good story but how I could make sure it had a narrative purpose that fit with the book as a whole.

Michael Knight teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee. He is the author of two short collections, two novels and a novella. His short stories have been published in The New Yorker, Oxford American, Paris Review and The Southern Review. His most recent short story collection, Eveningland, won the Truman Capote Prize for Short Fiction. Michael Knight was the visiting fiction writer at McNeese State University this fall.

Candace Hartsuyker is a first-year fiction student in the MFA program at McNeese State University and reads for The McNeese Review.