Interview with Craig Nova

  • September 17, 2013

Craig Nova is the author of 14 novels including The Good Son. He has received awards in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Interview with Craig Nova


About All the Dead Yale Men

All the Dead Yale Men begins, “The odd thing is that when I looked into how I was being cheated, not because of the money but because of the principle of the thing (fathers shouldn’t cheat sons), I discovered things about my family, and my grandmother in particular, that I never dreamed possible. Dark indeed are the family secrets that never quite disappear.”

Who wouldn’t read on?

The Q&A

Do you believe there is an essential quality to a book that may be the most important thing that the reader learns, a kind of reward for the reader’s time, and the rest is hopefully a great ride? If so, do you begin with this quality or does it come in the process of writing?

Yes. This is at the heart of why I write a book, and often, in the beginning, it is a general impulse, but in the end, I think, writing a novel is a matter of discovering what it is that made the first impulse come alive. And, the really odd thing, the critical item, is that this reward, and it is a reward, comes not as something that can be summed up (not “Life can be hard, etc.”) but something far more satisfying and complicated. And, in fact, it is not even verbal. The correct comparison, I think, is with music, and that what you are left with after reading a really good book is a kind of ache, the variety you feel when you have listened to a piece of music that moves you. It is a matter of feeling something that seems true about that complicated, terrifying, lovely experience being human is. 

The best way to hide is to tell only part of the truth. In the story, this is what Frank MacKinnon, the main character, learns from reading his grandmother’s diaries. But it kind of sounds like the way all the characters are living. True?

Yes, this is surely true, but I think this is a reflection of the fact that often what we know and what we can say are not the same thing, and also, we know, if we have had much experience with, say, love, or danger, that the hardest thing sometimes is to keep one’s mouth shut. It is hard, because the character and people for that matter want to talk, if only to get relief from what is eating at them. So, in this case, if a character is telling only part of things, it is out of love or a desire to protect, just as it is an expression of one of my pet theories, which is that under these circumstances, the reader knows what the character can’t say. And this knowledge increases the reader’s knowledge of the character’s loneliness, and if you can feel a character’s loneliness, you can feel the character. 

“Her husband’s shadow fell over her like a sheet.” This could be interpreted in a number of ways but most obviously good or bad, is he smothering or protecting her?

This is one of those moments I have tried to describe above, a sort of musical one, that is, it has a small ache. Yes, it could be ominous, an approach of darkness, but yes he is there for her, too, although maybe not in terms that are totally benign. So there it is. As often in ordinary life, this is a complicated matter, and it is a pleasure to encode this in description, so that it is seen or felt rather than summed up. If a writer has to sum things up, I am not sure the job of being a writer is successful. 

“Life is ninety-nine percent anxiety and one percent fear.”

This is one of the main character’s observations. He likes to think about things and a lot of what he does is sort of off-camera, that is the expression of what he is thinking (such as, for instance, buying diamonds for a woman he had been involved with years before and out of a sense of appreciation of her when he was too young to understand just how vital she was).

But, here, he is trying to come to terms with the fact that most of the things we worry about don’t happen. And the ones that do happen, that ones we should really be afraid of, don’t announce themselves in advance (a diagnosis, say, of cancer, an automobile accident, a sudden death of someone we love, etc.). Or, even if we have a hint, it often works out. The difficulty in this is that that one percent that is fear (or really causes fear) is so hard-hitting as to leave us terrified. The question is how do you distinguish between the two? This, I think, is a fundamental human problem: what to worry about and what to forget.

“Life is a series of problems with moments of unbelievable happiness.” Do you think life is easier when segmented, ordered and labeled? 

I think this is an accurate statement. The idea of a general happiness is, I think, for children, but in fact, we have moments that are so profound (the birth of a child, say) that somehow, at the time, obliterate a lot of the memory of the hard work it takes just to keep everything going. 

Frank doesn’t seem to experience fear or anxiety, maybe not unbelievable happiness either. He’s more purposeful though his situations provide every opportunity for all three emotions. Is this the other revelation, a simple satisfaction trumps all? Does not giving into emotion absolve one from the danger of feeling?

I think this is a case where I have let the circumstances speak for themselves, and to leave the reader room to come into that anxiety that he is worried about. First, Frank has been with a best friend when the friend commits suicide, actually slips through Frank’s hand and falls from a bridge, and the friend does this because he is afraid of a scandal. Frank is being threatened with a scandal. Frank’s daughter has threatened him with no longer loving him if she finds out that he has made her boyfriend disappear and, in fact, Frank had an unwitting role in this. He is terrified, as all loving fathers are, of losing the respect of a daughter. He is afraid of losing his job, and the life that is dependent on it. So he is in a box, and we see him, a smart man, work his way through it, saying what he can, doing what he can, being steadfast, coming to terms with his own refusal to feel things. So, I think you can say that he really is scared. 

But, here, I have let the details speak for themselves. 

Frank thinks that he can use the law to make a sort of order that he thought of as a variety of beauty. Don’t we wish all lawyers thought this way?

At one point, I thought I was going to study law and this attitude, of course, was the attraction.  To say that it is a sort of idealism is so insufficient as to seem naïve in itself. Still, every now and then you will run across a lawyer who believes this.

I think the truth is that no matter what you do, after you have done it for 20 years, you think in a way that this activity requires. That is, if you are a lawyer, after 20 years you will think like a lawyer. If you are a surgeon, after 20 years you will think like a surgeon. If you are a novelist, after 30 years you will think like a novelist (which means looking for coherence, hidden connections, patterns, those things that people feel but don’t admit to and are glad to see that someone else has the guts to do).

“In the kitchen the coffee in my cup got cold as silence flowed into the house like a fog.” There is so much beauty in Frank’s observations. Did anything about him surprise you?

Yes, the depth of his morality and the depth of his feelings for his daughter and his wife. 

He describes his daughter’s boyfriend as possessing both a horror and a charm. In fact, all of his associates seem to fit this description and now that you’ve mentioned it, in a way, so do most people. Do you think you’ve just worded it succinctly? Could it be why “Gods delight in the complications of being human,” which Frank says later

I guess this is a way of saying the people really are full surprises, in cliché speak, but more intricately that people are not absolutely certain who they are, and that sometimes they surprise themselves with an action that leaves them mystified, but when they think about it realize was inevitable.

We spend our children’s childhoods giving them the tools to make us approve of them and yet, somehow years later, their approval, when we’re after it, seems so much more important than ours ever did to them. How’d that happen?

I don’t know, but it surely happens. Here, though, is the way poetic justice works this out: the children will experience the same sensation when they have kids themselves. 

The head or the heart. It is a question this reader doesn’t really understand. Doesn’t the hunter already know which is better for the kill?

It is the difference between the possibility of having to track a wounded animal and not having to do so. Both shots are fatal, but a head shot is faster. A heart shot can allow an animal to run some distance, and so will have to be tracked by blood trail. An animal can move its head at the last moment, but is far less likely to move the upper body. I used to hunt with my father-in-law, but I no longer hunt. 

Your character has a “ceremony of anxiety.” Do you? If so, will you describe it for our readers? 

I think it depends on the specific anxiety, to be as precise as I can. For instance, I often think that because I am wrong a lot of the time, if I imagine the thing I am worried about, and since I am wrong, it will not happen. Is this magical thinking? I am afraid it is. But when the dark wall of fear approaches, people will do just about anything. I try, although this is what takes the most effort, to face things clearly, but in the midst of complicated problems, this is not obvious … it goes back to an entry in Camus’ notebook: “That wild longing for clarity …”

You’ve written an autobiography. You write fiction. Which one provided the most freedom? How differently did you approach the writing?

I’ve just finished a memoir about the irregular life of a novelist, something called, “Funny Thing, Never Happened to Me: Cliff Notes from the School of Hard Knocks.” I can say this is so much easier to write than a novel as to be an altogether different activity. You just write down what happened.

In a novel, you write what should have happened, and that should is a very complicated matter, a combination of your beliefs, sense of drama, morality, sense of humor and other beliefs. This is where the hard work comes in … is what you write an accurate expression of what you believe?

Orhan Pamuk describes writing as a middle-class art. Do you agree? Why or why not?


I guess this has to do with how you define middle class. But I know what he means, and I wish this wasn’t the case. But the problem here, in this country, is that Americans are so squeamish about class as to make, in fiction and in particular in the movies, the working class invisible. When was the last time you saw a movie about a man or a woman who worked on an assembly line or did piece work or drove a truck or a cab or was a plumber?

Not for decades. I think that an audience exists for such a book, and, you know, just talking to you makes me think I should write one.

Do you think that television serials like “The Wire” or “Downton Abbey” are killing the novel? Why or why not?

Surely, these shows are cutting into the novel’s domain, but I think the novel is changing, and what it does now is a sort of applied epistemology, that is, it allows us to figure out what we really believe, and if it does that, it will be fine. And will be picked up by HBO.

Also, many, many novelists are finding a sort of second job in working for places like HBO. And Netflix is now producing shows, which novelists are participating in.

The modern age in a nutshell: nothing simple, nothing clear. That is why the novel will flourish: that is, if the novelist is adept enough to be definite, clear and satisfying.

When I googled Craig Nova, there is another column that comes up indicating that people that search for you also search for James Salter, Joy Williams, Leonard Michaels and Ann Beattie. Can you speculate as to why? Do you like the company?

My god, who wouldn’t be happy to be in this company? Some of them I know, by the way, and Ann Beattie is someone I am honored to call a friend. She is talented, smart, morally alert, elegant, really elegant, has a great sense of humor, and after a certain point, what more can a human being have? She is terrific. Burning the Days, one of Salter’s books, is a favorite. [There’s a] great story in it about when he was learning to fly and got lost on a night flight and crashed into someone’s front porch.

What makes a person a reader, and generally a lifelong one? Can you describe your most memorable experience of or with a book?

I don’t think that reading is a solitary pleasure, but a communal one. That is, you don’t really enjoy a book until you have given it to someone you like and that person has enjoyed it, too.  This is a great pleasure.

As to that quality that makes a reader, well, it is the ability to enter into a world just by the reader’s imagination, or quality of mind. It is being nibbled away at, to some extent, but at the same time, books are selling enough to produce billions of dollars. So they aren’t disappearing altogether. 

I think, too, that the number of people who want to write is growing and this means that these people are readers, if only to discover some method that will be useful to them.

As for me, I wanted to be a surgeon, but then read Albert Camus. That was it. I was a goner. 


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