Knight, who has written two novels--The Astonished Eye and Beneath a Whiskey Sky--served for years as both a psychologist and professor at Western Illinois University. He and his wife, Sharon, live in Macomb, Illinois. Q: What can you tell us about your story collection Trace Elements? How did it develop?
A: I hadn’t thought of developing a collection of my short stories, primarily because I had written in multiple genres: mystery, science fiction, horror, western. I didn’t see a unifying theme or genre among my stories. However, when I was approached about the possibility of a collection, I took a fresh look at my stories and separated my best stories into three general groupings: The Human Mystery, which contained mystery stories that focused more on the human condition than crime and punishment; Darkness and Light, which were darker suspense stories, and Beyond Human, which included more science fiction and horror. The strange thing is, although the genres seem in some ways incompatible, each story in Trace Elements explores human struggles through a humanistic lens, which is the collection’s unifying tone.
Q: You’re a clinical psychologist and an Emeritus Professor of Psychology. Did your clinical and teaching work influence your writing. If so, how?
A: Without a doubt. What I came to appreciate is that my forty years as a therapist gave me a rare opportunity, namely that I got to know many, many human beings extremely well, in some ways better than their family members since they shared unexpressed or hidden parts of themselves as therapy progressed. I hope that my fiction reflects that as I try to explore the amazing complexity that we all possess. When I began writing fiction seriously, I tended to avoid focusing on psychology, psychotherapy, or psychotherapists being central to my stories. I’m not sure why I thought that would be a good idea, but I dismissed it early on. I’ve had so many fascinating and touching experiences as a therapist that I wanted to share them in some way, of course always disguised and expanded upon. For example, the opening scene in my short story “The Glassy Apes” was something I experienced. I was called to a nursing home late one night, during a blizzard, to provide an assessment on a patient who’d just been transferred there from a state hospital. When I arrived to his room, I found a middle-aged gentleman sitting on his bed, rubbing his head as he rocked himself, and smiling and chuckling almost constantly. It was clear that I couldn’t interview him. He was unable to speak and, in fact, didn’t perceive me as another being. I seemed to be just another object in the room to him. So I spent significant time just sitting with him, observing him. It was clear that whatever he was experiencing, it was delightful. He was clearly joyful. And yet—because we lived in different worlds and he was unable to communicate—I had no clue what glorious world he was experiencing. One reason I began the story with that was that it was a profound experience, and I never wanted to forget that gentleman.
Q.: In his Introduction, Ed Gorman states that some of the stories remind him of Carson McCullers. Care to comment?
A: That’s certainly a comparison I never would have imagined, but I think I understand what Ed meant. Carson McCullers often wrote about outcasts, quite empathically. On a similar note, David Pitt of Booklist, in reviewing Trace Elements, referred to the characters in my short stories as being damaged and marginalized. Both Ed and David were accurate but honestly, I had never conceived of my characters in those ways, perhaps because I accepted them as primarily heroic characters who were distinctly human and facing life challenges as we all do. In my years providing therapy, the simplest and most powerful lessons I learned were that human beings are consistently doing their best, that each of us genuinely perceives a different world, and that in some ways we’re all essentially alone. Also, I came to appreciate that true empathy is the closest we humans have to a superpower. Empathy isn’t about feeling sorry for others, although it enriches our compassion; it’s experiencing another’s life as if it were yours, without losing the quality of “as if,” as Carl Rogers observed. Empathy changes lives, both for us and for the people with whom we empathize. It expands our insight, openness and humility, just in its practice. Impressive.
Q: Do you think reading for fun can educate us emotionally?
A: Absolutely. At its best, fiction provides us with a safe yet powerful way to exercise our empathy, as we imagine what it would be like to have a character’s perceptions, feelings, experiences. In doing so, we can easily become less judgmental of others in our lives, more familiar with our own values and struggles, more curious about others’ lives, better able to see commonalities with our fellow humans, just to name a few. What delightful side effects from the enjoyable and entertaining act of reading.
Q.: Who do you admire among writers? A: I’m always seeking out new authors, and am heartened with all of the quality writing that’s available to us. So I’m sure I admire a countless number of writers. However, I’ve has long-standing admiration for several authors: Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ed Gorman, Philip José Farmer, William Kent Krueger, Mort Castle, Joe Lansdale and Haruki Murakami.
Q: Do you have an author whose work surprised you, who you never would have predicted you’d enjoy?
A: Max Brand. When Ed Gorman suggested I write a western novel, he wanted me to see how well-written and compelling a western could be, so he brought me a handful of Max Brand’s novels. I hadn’t read many if any westerns at that time, and reading several of Max Brand’s novels demonstrated how insightful and wonderful a western novel could be. Brand’s writing, and Ed’s urgings, led to my writing Beneath a Whiskey Sky.
Q: What books have you reread the most?
A: I actually don’t reread books often, because when I finish reading a book, it always seems that there are ten more vying to be next. But as I look back, books I’ve reread include Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, Philip José Farmer’s Venus on the Half-Shell, and Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life.
Q: Do you plot in detail before writing or dive straight in? Or, a mixture of both?
A: A mixture of both, I think. While I have a general idea of the story’s journey and destination, I only plot in detail two or three chapters ahead. That leaves room for surprises and unplanned detours, which make the writing process that much more fun for me, and hopefully for the reader as well.