This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.
Robert Knox is a husband, father, a correspondent for the Boston Globe, a staff writer for the online journal Verse-Virtual, and a blogger on gardening, nature and other subjects. His short stories, poems and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary publications. He was named a Finalist in the Massachusetts Artist Grant Program for a story about his father (“Lost”). His story “Marriage” placed in a fiction competition held by Words With Jam and was published recently in the anthology An Earthless Melting Pot. Another story has been accepted for publication in the upcoming issue of The Tishman Review. Several excerpts from Suosso’s Lane, his recently-published novel about the Sacco-Vanzetti case, have been published in journals. A collection of his poems (Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty) is scheduled for publication in 2016 by Coda Crab Books. His short story “Commitment” was published in our first issue in August 2015.
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3288 Review: When and where did you first start writing? Can you point to a single moment or event which started you down this path?
Robert Knox: Probably the near the end of my first marriage, many years ago. I was young, she was younger, we didn’t know who we were yet. I needed an outlet for well-bottled feelings (sounds like an old vintage). Youthful, painful, feelings of both betrayal and self-reproach. An early course in disillusionment. The need to express those kind of feelings, the deepest, most private sort – they don’t have to be painful, but in my case they were – in some sort of artistic way, to express yourself in some work – I think that’s fairly universal. I began writing poetry then, or writing some words with the self-conscious intention to write something meaningful. Something that I would be willing (at some point or another) to show other people. I wrote poetry for years, published some; then when life happened – happily, for me – I switched mainly to prose. I’ve gone back to poetry recently, taking as my subject my efforts to plant a new perennials garden; a kind of metaphysics of nature, or man-and-nature poetry. Now I’m publishing poems again. But in between I wrote a lot prose both on the job, because I was working for newspapers, and off. I’m writing more fiction now than ever.
3288 Review: Marriages require deep personal investment no matter the outcome, and perennial gardens are by their nature multi-year projects. In your story “Commitment” you explore the life of a young man conflicted about the draft, which itself can lead to many years of deep personal involvement. In your other work do you also explore the moments on the precipice of large life decisions?
Robert Knox: In my story “Commitment,” a young man fails to appreciate the nature of the commitment he is making when he mails his draft card back to the government to signal his unwillingness to take part in a system that is sending men like him to fight in Vietnam. Then he makes another commitment, a marriage, while still an undergraduate, to a young woman who knows nothing about this act of principled law-breaking that imperils their future. At the story’s end, the young man know he still needs to learn what a true commitment means. The commitment of marriage is itself the subject of another story of mine (titled “Marriage”) in which the new husband learns that the decision to wed – one of those “precipices of large life decisions,” as you put it – is only a first step and that the hard part begins after you tie the knot. I do think these questions are fertile ground for storytelling. They force us to consider the central questions of our lives; what are our values? how do we wish to live? Another story of mine (entitled “Fathers”) considers the investment other family members make when a loved one, a son for one of these fathers, a daughter for the other, announce a decision to join their lives. Finally, a different sort of commitment, to an ideal, a cause, is explored in my novel Suosso’s Lane, which treats the life of one of the defendants in the world-famous Sacco-Vanzetti case. My treatment of the character of Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who lived in Plymouth, Mass., before being accused with fellow anarchist Nicola Sacco of a crime they almost certainly did not commit, explores his life-defining commitment to the belief that the structure of society must be fundamentally altered to a system in which no one is forced “to play the wolf to his fellow man.”
3288 Review: In addition to prose, you are also a journalist and a poet, with a collection of poems (Gardeners Do It With Their Hands Dirty) coming out next spring. What can you tell us about the book?
Robert Knox: The poems in this collection were written in the last three or four years after a long period of concentrating on prose fiction and journalism. I wrote occasional poems when they came out on their own, but made no effort to collect them or publish them. Then we moved to a new house, where I worked at home, and my wife and I decided to replace a modest residential lawn with a perennials garden. Perhaps from spending so much time outdoors in the company of plants and giving myself over to the repetitive physical tasks of planting, watering, weeding, and perhaps therefore growing a little quieter inside as I listened to my thoughts, I found myself writing poems again. Gardening seems to me naturally meditative. I renewed my acquaintance with Walt Whitman’s great work “Leaves of Grass,” and found inspiration in the common stuff of life. Poems seemed to come out of the mental space cleared when your thoughts are not taken up by the work of the world. They fell back into the rhythm of my life because I made time for them, or cleared a space. The children were grown and now were growing their own lives. I was finding garden metaphors for everything. Not all my poems are about nature, though seasonal imagery does appear to fall into the lines of most, like the delicate gold coinage of autumn, the soft or brittle snows of winter, the blown blossoms of the growing season. Some of the poems in this collection are about people, politics, the times and mores, the emotions that elbow their way in, demanding their say, including those you didn’t wish were knocking on the door of your heart, claiming a seat by the fire. Happy or sad, the process of working a poem satisfies an urge that’s a little bit different from all others. It’s like going back to an old tool box and finding someone (or something) has sharpened the tools.
3288 Review: Do you find that your journalism work takes some of the energy you would otherwise use in your more creative writing? Or are you able to take the people and events you encounter as a journalist and use them as fuel for your fiction and poetry?
Robert Knox: Speaking as somebody who spent over a decade on a novel (obviously not exclusively), I have to acknowledge that journalism took up almost all my writing time and energy for five days a week for the three decades when writing for newspapers, and sometimes editing, was a full-time job for me. It no longer is a full-time job and for a number of years my newspaper work has slipped back toward the part-time category. I love having more time and energy for creative writing. That said, journalism provides more rewards for the creative writer than anything else I’ve experienced. For one thing you learn any craft by doing. And in newspaper world, you’re doing it – writing, working with language – all time because the deadlines don’t give you any space to procrastinate or decide whether you ‘feel like’ writing a certain story, editorial, feature or book review. You have to. As for the stimulus of meeting people and getting into new fields of interest, everything you do, every person you meet, interview, or watch chair a meeting or give a report is unguided research for the stories you want to tell, the worlds you want to create in your work. The ‘realistic’ bent to my current fiction is influenced, and fed, by that wider contact with the world reporting on it required. Even now I miss “the interview” – that unnaturally enhanced and focused conversation – when you are providing an ear for someone who very much wants his or her story told, either because they’re talking about what they love or, in the controversy-driven stories, because they want to get their point of view across to the public. When you’re writing creatively, you always want to know how your characters see things.
3288 Review: Three decades as a journalist seems like it would provide ample material for a memoir, particularly as that time span covers some huge changes in the technology and practice of publishing. Have you had any thoughts in that direction?
Robert Knox: My time with newspapers did see a lot of changes in the world of publishing. I got in at the end of the literal “cut and paste” era. At that time newspaper editors sketched out a layout for each page, passed each of these “dummies” to the paste-up artist, and sent each piece of copy separately to a typesetter. The paste-up crew took these pieces, plus the photo prints produced by the publisher’s darkroom, and using an exacto knife cut and trimmed everything to put the page together on a “board.” Then they brought everything to the editor to stare at and decide whether all the elements were “straight.” Then we proofread for hours and stared at each other’s pages to make sure there weren’t typos or misspellings in the headlines, or the lede, or the photo captions, and that all the “jumps” ended up on the pages where the jump-lines said they were supposed to be, and we could safely (sometime around midnight) put the paper “to bed.”
Digital printing entered the newsroom in phases until the process resembled the way publishers such as Caffeinated Press are likely to produce today’s books and journals.
I think everybody who works in journalism has thought about a memoir. At present I’m still interested in exploring the fictional potential of the stories and experiences of those newspaper days. I think I already mentioned that one of the characters in my recently-published novel Suosso’s Lane – is this what they call a plug? OK, let’s call it a plug – is a reporter. The whole book is set in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where I worked for a local paper with roots in the early 19th century. A big piece of the story takes place in the contemporary town and makes use of places and institutions familiar to me and to anyone who has lived there recently – to which I append the usual disclaimer that all characters and events are fictional. Further, I drew on newspaper life and the perspective on small-town life it gives you for a fantasized parody of my life and times in Plymouth, in which I did things like send the paper’s cartoonist to cover explosive local meetings in the hope that a fist fight would break out and he could capture on the spot caricatures. This manuscript eventually became so eccentric that I put it aside, despairing of ever finding an audience, or a publisher, for it.
I’ll conclude this response with a brief word on memoirs (though this may be a question we can return to) – in short, I don’t really like them.
3288 Review: Can you give us some background on your novel? How and when did you decide to write a story based on Sacco and Vanzetti? Did it grow out of a general interest in that era, or did it grow from interest in the event itself?
Robert Knox: Timely question. Suosso’s Lane (available here), my story on the Plymouth, MA origins of the Sacco and Vanzetti case was, published recently as an ebook, with plans to eventually have it published in print.
The idea to write a story about the case developed from moving to Plymouth and then going to work or the community newspaper group that covered Plymouth and neighboring towns. I had learned about the case long ago, and continue to be mildly shocked that like other labor-oriented and progressive causes it has disappeared from common knowledge, had long lived in Massachusetts, but only after living in Plymouth for a few years did I learn that Bartolomeo Vanzetti was living in the town at the time of his arrest. Plymouth’s self-image is all about the 1620 Pilgrims, but the town, like much of the Northeast, became an industrial center after the Civil War, its factories luring immigrants from Europe. Vanzetti found his way to Plymouth in the early years of the 20th century and lived with an Italian family from his own region (the Piemonte) near a big factory in North Plymouth. The town takes no public notice of his existence or of the world-famous Sacco-Vanzetti affair. Because he was found guilty and executed? Because his anarchist views were wildly unpopular with Yankee Plymouth? In fact, the Massachusetts establishment hated everything about Sacco and Vanzetti – including their immigrant status – and aside from a flurry of interest during the Dukakis administration, no one has ever wanted to re-visit that century old judgment. And misjudgment.
An anniversary issue of the community paper I worked gave me the opportunity to research the local angle on Vanzetti’s story. A few years later a nonfiction anthology on 20th century Plymouth history enabled me to stretch that work into a magazine-length piece (“Trial of the Century: Local Amnesia”).
From conversations with my wife, Anne, I developed the idea of a ‘history mystery’ story centered on the efforts of a current day history teacher to dig up some lost piece of evidence that would establish Vanzetti’s innocence of the crime (a payroll robbery-murder) he was convicted of. But as I worked on the book, it became clear to me that I had to inhabit the person of Vanzetti and his circumstances more fully. There are scores of books about the case, examining the trial, the evidence, the legalities, but remarkably little on the record about Vanzetti the man, aside from the letters he wrote from prison. I do think that the issues of his time, a hundred years ago, have become our issues again. The exploitation of workers by a super-rich class – the robber barons of Gilded Age compared to today’s “One Percent”. The fear-borne prejudice against immigrants, or “others” – Southern and Eastern Europeans (Italians, Poles, Jews, etc.) were regarded as an inferior race. The use of the police, and secret police (“intelligence”), to protect the status quo. The FBI was invented to deal with Italian anarchists like Vanzetti and his “comrades.” Today the current head of the FBI tells us that criticism of the unjustified police killing of black men keeps police from doing their job.
So as I worked on Suosso’s Lane, the book came to feel increasingly relevant. One of its current-day characters is an African immigrant trying to keep from running afoul of the law. My Plymouth history teacher finds that one of his American Indian students is homeless, because of quarrels over a piece of property his family still owned. The real estate bubble of the early 21st century leads another of my contemporary characters to commit murder to protect a deal that will make him rich. (He’s unmasked by my nosy local reporter.) Do Americans care about anything today but money? The history teacher comes to feel that the demonization of the voices on the left – anarchists, socialists, populists – is one of the reasons that contemporary American society has lost its balance.
Maybe a longer answer than you’re looking for. But the book’s been a pretty long journey for me.
3288 Review: With two books on their way to being published, what’s next? Time for a break, or do you have another project lined up once they hit the shelves?
Robert Knox: Thanks for asking. I have a lot of backed-up projects, so the question is where to begin. What I have been working on regularly over the last six months is a new novel set in the early 1970s among young people living together in what they wish (or do they?) to turn into a “commune”. A couple of the characters in “Commitment,” the story published by The 3288 Review, play a role in this story. The big ethical issue here isn’t the draft, but drugs. The narrator’s girlfriend becomes addicted to heroin, and he feels a moral responsibility to get her off. However, everybody in his commune uses drugs too, different ones — “good drugs,” they believe. But is their behavior so very different, or are they simply holier than thou? I love writing this story, so I hope it works for others too.
I also had an idea for a linked-stories novel size manuscript set on a campus in the late sixties and early seventies. “Commitment” would fit right into the middle of this one. And I plan to continue writing poetry and publishing in Verse-Virtual.com. It’s an unusual poetry journal because it publishes a new issue every month, and the editor (Firestone Feinberg) not only publishes a lot of work but encourages interaction among the contributors. It’s another approach to community.