Interviews · 05/28/2019

An Interview With Michael Nye

Michael Nye discusses his novel All The Castles Burned (Turner Publishing) and his editorship of STORY with Kathy Bates.

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Kathy Bates: It’s exciting to hear the about the relaunch of STORY whose origins date back to 1941. As the new editor-in-chief, what are your plans for the literary magazine, and what should readers and aspiring writers look forward to?

Michael Nye: I wish I knew! What I ultimately want is a really terrific magazine of stories. That may not be a very satisfying answer, but at this stage, I worry a little bit about boxing myself in and committing to a direction I may not want to go down. For example, we’ve been floating the idea of a theme issue, quietly, not very publicly, and I’m just not sure I want to do that.

What I do hope is that STORY will find a loyal readership and highlight terrific writers. Our new issue features writers from the recent past (the 2014-16 editorship) and a first ever publication, which his difficult to do nowadays. Our summer issue features flash fiction and a 58 page novella, and a writer from yet another incarnation of STORY (1989-2000, under Lois Rosenthal). We want to build on our past and yet also be something new. And we really believe in the value of reading print, having something in your hands, rather than reading online, so we are committed to a triannual publication schedule delivered to a mailbox rather than an inbox.

KB: All the Castles Burned is your first novel. Why did you choose basketball as the primary vehicle to build Owen and Carson’s relationship? Was it more for personal familiarity or is there a deeper connection this sport* *in particular plays that may have been easier for the character engagement?

MN: Basketball is unique in that it is a team sport that an individual can practice alone. This allowed me quite a bit of flexibility for building scene and character: Owen can be introspective or alone or he can be in the rush of a high school game. It suited the characters and story well, though if I’m honest, I also just love the game of basketball and writing about it in a way that, I hope, is unique was a fun challenge for me as a writer.

KB: Your novel, however, is more than just a sports book; it touches class, family and friendship dynamics, memory, perspective, and choices. But when you consider the basketball scenes, details, and structure of sport writing, what helped you to build the seamless transitions between sports and the deeper nature of the themes?

MN: I think it really is how basketball can allow a person isolation: time to practice, shoot, and ruminate alone. The game means different things to Owen and Carson, and yet, for boys, particularly at that age, bonding over sports is fairly common. There isn’t any talking, it’s competitive, and society expects sportsmanship of boys. That gave me a lot of ideas, themes, and concepts that are engrained in our culture and challenge them, look at them different, and put these two characters in a position to make choices with lifelong consequences.

I’m also a basketball fan myself, and having a knowledge (however shallow) of the game gave me lots to ponder and reexamine. I’ve read countless essays and articles about the game, played and watched thousands of games, and still find aspects of it mysterious and strange. As long as there continues to be a sense of curiosity for me as a writer, that same quality of exploration should, in theory, show up in my novel too.

KB: The majority of the story takes place in the mid-nineties at a prestigious private school. What were your motivations for this setting in terms of Owen and Carson’s relationship?

MN: I’m currently working on a new novel that is set closer to the present, and the challenge is, partly, attention. The world is endlessly fascinating, and finding aspects that can bleed into my novel from the news, my relationships, or my neighborhoods are endless. The present is almost always one big distraction. Setting the novel in the past allowed me to keep some of the elements of technology that are really difficult for fiction (Google, mobile phones, IG) out of the story altogether. That simplified things, in terms of crafting scenes.

But it also was the point. The great thing about any first person novel is that the speaker knows everything: he or she is speaking at the end of the narrative, the survivor of the events that are about to unfold, and the narrator’s ability to highlight or shadow his or her own story is what’s really compelling to me. The book isn’t just “what happened to Owen Webb?” but “who is Owen Webb, the man telling the story, now?” His narration colors his story, shades it, obfuscates, illuminates, and using time was a powerful way of achieving that mystery.

KB: Can you talk a little about your writing process, especially revision? How many drafts did you go through?

MN: I’m honestly not sure, but I would guess five or six drafts. The big change was a structure, which happened very late in this process. Initially, the novel was split evenly between two approximate periods: 1994 and 2008. I stayed with this for a long time before finally deciding, thanks to a conversation with a writer-friend, that it didn’t work. So I made the bulk of the novel 1994-95 and only the final two chapters in 2008. This was a big structural change that I only figured out over the course of, frankly, many years. How many drafts? Tough to say.

KB: When compared to your shorter fiction pieces, what would you say was the most challenging aspect in regards to a work of this size? What simplified?

MN: Knowing when I’m wrong. It took me a very long time to figure out the timeline didn’t work. With a story, it’s easy to see over, say, twenty pages when something is or is not working, or at the very least, to point to the part isn’t working and see it on the whole. With a novel, that’s much more challenging. This could an argument for outlines, though I worked with an outline and it didn’t go any faster.

This is a dumb and obvious thing to say but: writing a novel is hard. Not hard like laying brick or digging graves, but mentally taxing, particularly when done alone and in isolation. Being able to cognitively step back and see the macro and micro landscapes of a novel is a challenge that every writer struggles with.

KB: Most writers are constantly juggling ideas and projects, moving from one to the next as time allows. Along with the anticipation of Story’s new issue in February 2019, what’s next for Michael Nye?

MN: Everything? I’m continuing to get an infrastructure in place for STORY so that our summer and fall issues go a little bit smoother than our spring issue did. In addition. I’m working on a new novel and, just maybe, finalizing a new story collection as well. Always writing, always editing. There’s never a lack of stories to write or projects to work on. If only there were a few more hours in the day.

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Michael Nye was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. He attended the Ohio State University, where he graduated with a B.A. in English, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he earned his M.F.A. in creative writing. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in American Literary Review, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Epoch, and New South, among many others. He lives in Colombus, OH.

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Kathy Bates studies Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock where she is co-Managing Editor of Equinox literary magazine.