The author of eleven novels, Craig Nova has been lauded by critics and fellow writers and has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. His writing is remarkable for its linguistic precision and attention to structure. But he is far more than a writer’s writer—his plots are engaging and often employ elements of genre to seduce readers to a style that is deeply literary.
As a teacher, Nova is ceaselessly generous, returning students manuscripts with a list of suggestions that sometimes exceeds the length of the piece itself. Nor is he stingy with his creative input, composing possible additions to a student’s story with a poetic facility that suggests someone totally at home in his craft. As a man, Nova is likewise generous. He chooses his words slowly and with a bemused cock of his head that makes you feel that anything he says is a work in progress—one as carefully considered as the novels themselves.
If you would like to know more about Nova, please visit http://craignova.com.
Raul Clement: Your work has been compared to William Faulkner—a similarity particularly evident in your novel The Good Son. But as any high school senior can tell you, Faulkner is famously difficult. Your books on the other hand have a clarity of syntax and situation that makes them accessible, at least as far literary novels go. How much do you think the writer owes the reader—if anything at all—in terms of readability and basic entertainment?
Craig Nova: I have long believed, and I would like to think that I have long practiced the results of, a personal theory that I put great stock in: the most important person in a novel is the reader. In fact, I think it is important to realize that the novel exists in the reader’s mind, and this entrance—or for the reader to allow this entrance—is an act of supreme grace and generosity, just as it is something that should be treated with respect, and not casual respect either.
Also, as a writer and as a reader, and as I grow or change as a writer, clarity becomes not only more important, but more fun and more satisfying. The most rewarding thing, in particular about the modern age because communication is so easy, is for me to get mail through my website, and the person who has written has understood the book perfectly. The best feeling there is.
As far as The Good Son is concerned, I wrote this at the happiest time in my life. I had sold the book for enough money to live on for a couple of years, and so my wife quit her job at CBS news and we moved to a small house in upstate New York. It was on some family land that fell under my stewardship and I ran it as a tree farm. Mostly this means changing the composition of the species of various strands of trees, surveying the lines, etc. And so I worked on the book in the morning and then in the woods in the afternoon. Things I saw in the woods (ruffed grouse, foxes, deer, snakes, etc.) began to work their way into the book. Our first daughter had just been born.
The entire experience, that is leaving the city for a place like this had a feeling that was essentially Russian, as though we had been banished to some distant estate. And the illusion was made perfect by the fact that a large Ukrainian community was nearby and they built churches with onion shaped domes. I felt like Turgenev. And, in fact, when I wrote a little book about fishing [editor’s note: the book is Brook Trout and the Writing Life], Turgenev was much on my mind.
Anyway, I think the author owes the reader: clarity, story, emotion, enlightenment, and the author also owes the reader something else, which is to stay the hell out of the way.
RC: In your essay “The Novelist in the Political Age,” you argue that political novels fail for because they are more concerned with propping up an ideology than being faithful to reality. But don’t you think that there are complex human beings behind political realities, and that locked into false ideologies as these human beings might be, there is a deeper psychological truth to their actions worthy of fiction? I.e.- is it possible that the problem arises not when writers write about politics but when they write about politics politically?
CN: Yes, that’s it exactly. The political impulse takes over, and it doesn’t allow the writer to explore all those things that the political doctrine doesn’t like. And the more intense the doctrine, the more silly the book, that is not as a piece of propaganda but as a novel. Think of the people who spent time in the Gulag for cracking a joke about Stalin.
The best political novel ever written (Darkness at Noon) never mentions any particular party, time, or person, or issue. It’s just a trial where a man has to lie.
Mostly, writers are best not with theories, which politics loves, but the details and the stories that make us human.
RC: Several of your books blur the lines between genre and literary fiction. Wetware, for example, borrows heavily from science fiction while Cruisers features elements of noir and the thriller. What interests you about this cross-pollination?
CN: I guess the impulse to do this comes from the fact that I am a sort of failed inventor, that is someone who is always futzing with things (I should include here the drawings for the Nova Salami Slicer and the Nova Street) and yet there is something serious in this, too, in that I think there is a moment of tremendous vitality when a genre or when anything sort of only half reputable becomes respectable. It is, in the case of the novel, the moment when the best ones get written. The Great Gatsby was written in that transitional time, that is just before Gatsby novels were sort of shameful, like eating chocolate in secret.
RC: Your novels seem very interested in class. In The Good Son, Chip offends his father by bringing home Jean, a woman who doesn’t fit in with his father’s upwardly-mobile plans. A psychological tug-of-war follows. Is your interest in class routed in something in your experience? If not, what is your attraction to this theme?
CN: Well, where class is concerned, I have to say that like all writers I am drawn to those things that have around them a sort of official silence. That is the secret of American society: that it has an increasingly rigid class structure, and yet we aren’t supposed to say a word about it. And then I’ve noticed that of the varieties of pain there are in the human condition, the ones that come from social barriers are right up there near the top . So, between these two things, the forbidden and the painful, it’s hard, as an American novelist, not to be concerned with social class.
And, of course, the best American novels are about this, or one of them is, and that is The Great Gatsby. Just think of the gulf between Wilson, who owns the garage, and Tom Buchanan.
Also, I’ve found that when a writer approaches what is officially silent, it is possible to produce some strong dramatic effects.
And then, too, I grew up in the golden era of California, where class awareness was minimal, although of course we knew it was there, but then I went east to school, and suddenly I was confronted with a more established stratification, which, in the beginning, I thought was somewhat amusing, but then I realized they weren’t kidding. The gulf between a public school in Hoboken and St. Paul’s School is pretty stark.
So, I guess one of the things I am interested in is the toxic effect such divisions have on people, and on the world they live in. Or how, because of this, a lot of Americans haven’t got a clue about each other, aside from the most distorted notions.
And, I guess, I want to write about characters, from whatever background who have, above everything else, a sort of basic, if not natural dignity. This is what I am really compelled by: the dignity you run across that is, well, just there, all by itself.