Charles Tan interviews S. P. Miskowski

S.P. Miskowski is the author of the Shirley Jackson Awards nominated novel Knock Knock.

First off, what was the most challenging aspect when it came to writing Knock Knock?

The most challenging aspect was establishing the point of view that would work best. When I found the point of view the story opened up for me.

The first draft of Knock Knock was about a young couple coming to live in a small town in Washington State and falling under a malignant, possibly supernatural influence. The husband had relatives in this rural town and was content to live there temporarily. The wife (Lydia) was pregnant, missed the city, and felt trapped by circumstance. The early draft alternated between third person omniscient and third person limited (Lydia).

This approach was never quite satisfying. I wanted to look more closely and intimately at the town and its inhabitants. I wanted to do more than catch glimpses of them from the perspective of an outsider. Lydia was a bit of a snob. She had a tendency to reduce and caricature the country people she met. All along I thought there was a deeper story hidden in the lives of the town’s residents. Eventually I would also discover Lydia’s real connection to the town.

I tried looking at the interior world of a resident. This was better. It provided a contrast, and I ended up with the story of Ethel, a woman who didn’t want to have a child. I wrote a whole draft of the novel following Ethel. That was too bleak for me! I started longing for another contrast. And I wondered what it was that made Ethel afraid to have a child.

Considering Ethel’s friends Beverly and Marietta as they might have been in grade school gave me the idea of a childhood oath, a bit of foolish magic that prompted an uncontrollable entity. The more I wrote about these three girls the more I wanted to see them advance through several decades. How does the girl become the woman? How does the oath haunt each of the girls?

In each chapter I took a different character and adopted third person limited point of view. We see the town from all of these vantage points. In this way I was able to cover many years and changes in a novel that is 300 pages long instead of 700 or 800. I hope the shifting perspective allows complexity and subtlety in a book where I am not doing extraordinary things with language. I think the novel is both straightforward and layered.

How different was writing a novel from writing short stories and plays? Did the latter influence the former (and vice versa)?

I began my writing life with short stories and had quite a few stories in literary magazines before I turned to drama. Theater was a lark. I took it up out of a desire for camaraderie in the creative process. I stayed because the theater artists I met were wonderful people with a lot of talent and wit, and because the form was such a challenge.

In novels and short stories you can cheat a little if you want. You can show for a while and then tell. You can let the reader know the ideas and themes without sounding ridiculous. On stage this hardly ever works. Unless you’re deconstructing you have to strive to build your ongoing ideas into the structure of the play. You have to use repetition, juxtaposition, contrast. Having characters stand around discussing the play’s ideas will be deadly unless you’re Tom Stoppard and it’s a comedy about people who discuss ideas.

The discipline required to write drama, therefore, was good practice. Sometimes I got it right and sometimes I failed, but the struggle was worthwhile. I think my short stories are better for it. In a short story I’m now less apt to pontificate than I was in my twenties. I trust the reader to figure out what the story is about, if that matters to her.

Novel writing seemed so daunting that I never expected to tackle it. Then I encountered a place, an imaginary town where people construct their lives around local myths and personal fears. This place required a novel in order to expand and take on the nuances I wanted it to have. So without knowing exactly how to write a novel I pursued the story and made changes as I went along.

Last week I finished a novella related to Knock Knock. It’s fairly complex for a novella. Yet it took a fraction of the time to write. I knew the characters well and I knew from the beginning it was crucial to establish the point of view that could sustain the book. So I gave it a lot of thought before I started, and the writing took less time than I expected.

Ultimately, the writing process is largely solitary whether you’re writing a novel, a short story, or a play. A play or a novel is a long haul. If you’re writing a play that long haul is punctuated by moments when you gather with charming, delightful people and read the script out loud. That’s fun. Then you have to go away again and write the next draft. So the nuts and bolts are slightly different, but there is no way around the solitude. You are alone in a room inventing a world.

What’s the appeal of horror for you?

Horror is merely an extra layer on literary fiction. It is the acknowledgment, by the author, that mortality is horrifying. The idea that we must die and everyone we love must die. I think horror is a perfectly reasonable response to that.

For years I read more general fiction and was vaguely dissatisfied. What I found appealing was fiction that people usually labeled dark or strange. Flannery O’Connor’s work is too easily dismissed as moralistic. Whatever her personal beliefs, her fiction is often marvelously ambiguous and edged with an awareness that we are all playing for time in an uncertain universe.

I always liked strange writing, even if it was non-fiction and came from a place and time that was foreign to me (Thomas de Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” for example.) Editors and directors have always said that my stories and plays are dark and strange. So embracing horror is nothing more than recognizing that what I have to say, and how I say it, is often dark, even when it’s funny.

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