A Conversation with Thornton P. Knowles
Thornton P. Knowles (1931-1998) was interviewed on August 9, 1983 at his home in Elkins, West Virginia by Rodney McDaniel, the publisher and editor of the Mountainside Review. It is reprinted here.
Do you consider yourself mainly a novelist, short story writer or poet?
I think of myself simply as a writer.
What do you like to read?
When I'm writing I don't read anything. Between projects mostly contemporary mainstream novels, some crime fiction, and a little poetry. I don't read many short stories, particularly those in so-called literary magazines and journals.
What do you have against short stories?
Nothing. I just don't like the show-off pretentious stuff.
Do you think your work will survive?
A century from now only a handful of today's writers will be remembered. The novelist who writes for the ages is a fool and will, fortunately, be among the first to be forgotten. As for me, no one will know my name ten years after I'm gone.
Does that bother you?
No. Why should it?
As a writing teacher did you encourage your students to pursue careers as novelists?
Of course not. For one thing, except for a handful of writers, such a career doesn't exist. I tell writers to learn a craft or profession. If they want to write in their spare time, great. Only the crazy ones with big talent make it as novelists.
Have any of your students done this?
Not to my knowledge.
Does that disappoint you?
No. Why would it?
How do you feel about not being famous like, say, Truman Capote?
Capote writes well for a boozed-up drug-addled mental case. He's an oddball who's paid a big price for his talent. If he's remembered it won't be for his writing. The last thing I want is fame.
Have you won literary awards?
You know the answer to that.
I don't write what critics consider serious fiction--so called literary novels. Most of the award-winning novels I've read are unreadable.
Do you get writer's block?
No. I hear they now have a drug for that. Perhaps someone should create with a drug that kills the urge to write. Get to the root of the problem. Think of the misery it would save, like the polio vaccine.
You are a practicing psychologist. Do you regret the effort you've spent writing?
V. S. Pritchett said, "The professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and has become almost nothing." This may be true, but in the end we all become nothing. So if you've got nothing better to do, go ahead, write your life away.
Do you fuss over every word?
No. There was a Rhetoric professor who before killing himself reportedly spent three weeks laboring over his suicide note. I guess "good-bye cruel world" wasn't good enough for him.
Is that story true?
Do you have a favorite writer?
I like George Orwell, and Charles Bukowski is pretty good. That's about it.
Do you mind being edited?
Yes. I knew a police officer who tripped getting out of his patrol car in front of a store being robbed. His gun went accidentally off and the bullet hit the robber right between the eyes. I put this into one of my novels, but the editor took it out because it was unrealistic. I never spoke to that editor again.
Is that true?
They say kids can't write. Do you agree?
Johnny can't write because Johnny can't think. Half of his brain has been sucked out of his head into his television set.
You write about crime. Did you ever consider becoming a police officer?
Absolutely not. If I were a cop I couldn't be trusted with a stun-gun. I'd zap every jerk that crossed my path. Give me the lip? Zap. Give me the finger? Zap. Walk away when I'm talking to you? Zap. I'd be a real Thomas Edison out there. No, I wouldn't last two days on the force.
Do your readers know what kind of person you are?
I hope not. I'm not a navel gazer. When I look at my belly I see lint.
What do you expect in a good novel?
A good story, interesting characters, some dark humor and crisp dialogue. I don't like long speeches. I don't like being preached to.
What did you read growing up?
I read true detective magazines--Master Detective, Official Detective and True Detective Mysteries. I liked stories by Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson and Alan Hynd. My mother worried that these magazines would have a bad influence on me. They did. I became a novelist.
Do you consider yourself well-adjusted?
Adjusted to what?
You know--to life, people around you.
I'm introverted, self-loathing and a bit narcissistic. I'm adjusted to that. I don't care about anyone else.
Are some of your characters based on you or your experiences?
In fiction it's impossible not to be influenced by real life. But if you're asking if I ever murdered someone the answer is no.
In what ways are you introverted?
I hate crowds. I don't like noise, especially coming from people. I don't go to sports events, amusement parks, concerts, firework displays, rallies, or church. I think people who stand around waiting for the big ball to drop on New Year's Eve are idiots. I don't like being around drunks or extraverts. I'm quiet and private and loath myself for doing this interview.
Why are you doing it?
For my publisher's publicist.
Do you watch much television?
No. A student once asked if I knew how television worked. I said yes, you put a bunch of people incapable of embarrassment in front of a camera.
Have you been married?
Mind saying why?
Let me ask a question: Who has more freedom--a single man in the Soviet Union or a married man in America?
Are you a writer who teaches or a teacher who writes?
The bartender at a writer's conference in Morgantown, West Virginia wore a name tag that read: Truman Capote. In the spirit of the joke I ordered an In Cold Bloody Mary. The barkeep didn't crack a smile because the joke was professorial, smarty-pants humor. I got drunk on the horrible thought I had become one of them, a cold-blooded academic.
Dose being a psychologist help create round, fully developed characters?
No. As a kid growing up in West Virginia I had a better understanding of human behavior than I do now. I have no idea what makes people tick and no one else does either. Because they are real to me, I don't know what motivates my characters.
You've lived most of your life in West Virginia. Is that by choice?
Yes. Take away all signs of human life and it is the most beautiful place on earth.
Why are there so many unpublished novelists?
I don't know, but imagine the agony of aspiring to be something for which you have no talent. What's worse--a gifted novelist with writer's block or an untalented writer who can't stop writing?
Have you submitted a manuscript or proposal no one wanted?
Yes, many times. For example, my collection of malapropisms called Pomp and Circumcision created a rejection storm that sent my agent packing.
In high school did any of your teachers recognize your talent?
No. I was considered an idiot by all my teachers. They had my number.
A critic noted that few of your characters are happy?
My villains are happy.
Some of your villains are religious people and men of the cloth. What do you have against religion?
Nothing. I just don't like charlatans.
Do you think ministers are fakes?
The ones I create are. I write fiction. I get to decide.
But aren't you worried that readers will be offended?
That's not my problem.
Have you been sued?
Not really. A student once threatened to sue over a low grade that kept him from graduating on time. He's now a college professor.
Do you think humor is an important ingredient in fiction.
It is for me. But not all people appreciate it. To those readers I'd recommend literary fiction. Those books are written by people with no sense of humor. They don't know that pretentious writers are the joke. There is nothing funnier than a pretentious person.
Do you get along with fellow writers?
I don't know that many personally, I try to avoid them.
They are boring, always crying in their beer. Poets are the worst.
Have you been on a book tour?
No. I don't do readings or book signings either. My life is humiliating enough. I'm doing this interview though.
And thank you for that. It's been interesting.
You are welcome. Can I go?