Interview with Roger McKnight Conducted by Dan Stubbings

Today I am delighted to be interviewing Roger McKnight. Author of Hopeful Monsters a wonderful collection of short stories recently published by Storgy Books.

Thanks for taking the time to do this Roger I really appreciate it.

DS: For readers who aren’t familiar with you as a writer would you mind telling us a little about yourself, and how you first got into writing?

RM: I was born and raised in downstate Illinois. I worked as a teacher in Chicago, Sweden, and Puerto Rico before coming to Minnesota for grad school. I now reside in Minnesota.  I’ve always been a writer, though first as a student of journalism (whose courses I didn’t much like but learned from) and then on scholarly research projects.  I’ve always written fiction.  In recent years I’ve worked with a bit more determination at getting my fiction published. Composing stories was my dream even in childhood.

DS: Addiction and Obsession are two key themes throughout the collection. What made you decide on these themes and how did you shape your stories around them?

RM: I consider addiction, if by that is meant drug or alcohol abuse, to be a key theme only in “Rain Shadow” and “Iago.” What interested me most in those stories was not the substance abuse per se, but the mind-set that led the characters Raul and Nick down that path.

Obsession as a theme occurs during the stories, in my opinion, only in the sense that the world has been experiencing troubled times ever since Vietnam.  Most of us, as I see life around me, are eager, if not desperate, to find answers to those troubles, both world-wide and personal. In some cases, as in “Forgetting She Forgot”, they search insistently for answers to life dilemmas (resulting, in this story, from a disaster such as Desert Storm) that aren’t wholly of their own making.  If the present-day search for answers can be described as an obsession, then we’re all probably obsessed to one degree or another. Being troubled by what’s facing us is what flesh is heir to.

By the same token, one can empathize with the anxiety experienced by Jake and Al in “Basic Skills,” even though they keep their feelings under wraps below the surface.

DS: You have lived in both Europe and the US? What are the differences in cultures that interest you? Which have helped inform your writing?

RM: I’ve lived in Scandinavia and the US.  Differences do exist, no doubt about it, but they are hard to put a finger on in brief. In general, one feels more respect for human dignity in Scandinavia, on both the personal and governmental levels.

I tried to write that attitude into “Out the Window,” in which the Swedish employees and the Swedish government have every seeming reason to toss the hospital patients out in the cold, especially the ones who came to Sweden from other countries, and some Swedish employees would not be against doing so.  Yet society chose to keep, house, and protect the helpless.  In that story, Laila has a lot to teach Ewen.

As for Hopeful Monsters as a whole, reviewers tend to remark that the stories all hold out some hope in the end. That softening influence comes from my experience of Scandinavian life and culture, an attitude that’s not wholly missing in Minnesota and will be needed greatly as the state becomes increasingly multi-cultural.

DS: I adored how you drew history into your stories, to reflect how turbulent the world has been over the years. How much research did you do for each story?

RM: For some stories, much research was needed. With tales like “Iago,” “Out the Window,” “Down the River,” and “Sixteen,” I read a lot and talked with people who were there and experienced it.

For example, what happens/happened in a crack house; what was the history of institutions for the developmentally challenged in Sweden; how could the Civil War Era’s Old Slave House have existed in a free state like Illinois and why would Abraham Lincoln have visited there and dined with the illegal slave owner while blacks were held captive in the rooms above them; what was it like fleeing Somalia and coming to the US (I got that straight from a 15-year-old boy in Minnesota).

For other stories, I used my own memories from living in the US and Sweden as events happened, including hearing detailed descriptions of washing diapers by hand, as in “Speed Clean” (though I had to read up on Speed Clean washing machines, even if my own mother owned one).  Fact and fiction blend together and suggest the truth.  Research and lived experience worked in unison.

DS: Where there any moments when you were writing the stories that you thought I am maybe going to far? If so in which stories and why?

RM: In the expository sections of the stories I never made any authorial claims to the truth or any favouritism. I made a conscious effort to address vital issues without taking an authorial stance. Some of my characters do take definite stances, but throughout the stories I worked at maintaining a sense of ambiguity about the status of their attitudes.

In “Victoria” Sylvia agrees to do what she can to help Tori, but she isn’t sure if it’s the right thing to do.  She ends the story wondering if ‘good’ is always the same as ‘right’.  In “Loving Sören” Karen and Josh have definite opinions on sensitive issues, but they are willing to reserve final judgment on them while trying to figure out if they truly understand Kierkegaard or not.  “Yesterday’s Storms” brings up the debate between creationism and scientific proof.  That debate is never settled in the story; the issue ends in ambiguity. Ex: Gerome first argues for an expanding universe, but he ends up describing a closed universe.  It’s not clear what he, an astronomer who’s expected to know, does believe in, except the beauty and mystery of what’s out there.

No, I never went too far. I made an honest effort to address important issues without being polemic.

DS: Would you mind talking a small about your writing style please? As I find it extremely unique. I am curious to learn how it developed and where it first came from?

RM: I can try out some comments on my writing style, but I’m not sure exactly what to say. First of all, I didn’t know it’s unique.  If it is, that’s surely because I think in an unlikely combination of academic circumspection and straight-to-the point southern Illinois rural dialect mixed in with some Minnesota neologisms (a contrast I vaguely touched on in “Speed Clean”).

Also, I read lots of Scandinavian literature, in which understatement and chariness of comment are common.  There’s kind of an iceberg effect in much Scandinavian lit, in which as much is left unsaid under the surface as appears above it. What one critic called “the art of the half-told tale.”  I hope my stories tell more than half, however. I try to be somewhat subtle.

DS: Who would you say were your writing influences growing up? Which writers would you encourage everyone to read and why?

RM: Steinbeck.  Hemingway.  Edwin Arlington Robinson.  Winesburg, Ohio.  Spoon River Anthology.  T. S. Eliot. Thoreau.

People should read: the Swedish novelist and dramatist Hjalmar Söderberg (1879-1941). 

Try his novel Doctor Glas.  It’s about a medical doctor, who goes about committing the perfect crime.  And his collection of stories called in English simply Short Stories.  You might have to get them through a library or very good bookstore.

For a perfectly structured drama, I suggest Miss Julie by the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg (1849-1912).  Study how the drama’s skilfully put together.

DS: Finally what is next for Roger McKnight?

RM: Another collection of short stories.  Maybe a novel.  I’m fishing around.

Thanks to Roger and Storgy Books for allowing me to do this interview. The interview was carried out over email. Thanks Roger for your insight answers to my questions.

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You can buy the book now! On the link below:

HOPEFUL MONSTERS: Paperback & Ebook available now!

 

Review of Hopeful Monsters by Roger McKnight Written by Dan Stubbings

Why Not Pre-Order Now by Clicking This Link: https://storgy.com/2019/08/02/hopeful-monsters/

Book Synopsis

Hopeful Monsters: Profound Book of Short Stories Explores Humanity Through Lens of Minnesotans. Roger McKnight’s ‘Hopeful Monsters’ is a beautiful collection of short stories, reflecting on Minnesota people, that takes readers on a journey through pain, defeat, triumph and hope. Covering social issues including immigration, race and social injustice – McKnight showcases humanity through the periscope of one of the United States’ most unique groups of people.

Roger McKnight’s debut collection depicts individuals hampered by hardship, self-doubt, and societal indifference, who thanks to circumstance or chance find glimmers of hope in life’s more inauspicious moments. Hopeful Monsters is a fictional reflection on Minnesota’s people that explores the state’s transformation from a homogeneous northern European ethnic enclave to a multi-national American state. Love, loss, and longing cross the globe from Somalia and Sweden to Maine and Minnesota as everyday folk struggle for self-realization. Idyllic lake sides and scorching city streets provide authentic backdrops for a collection that shines a flickering light on vital global social issues. Read and expect howling winds, both literal and figurative, directed your way by a writer of immense talent.

Review

Upon opening Hopeful Monsters Roger’s voice bursts off every page like a lightening bolt begging you to listen. His voice is a road map helping us peel away the hidden meanings behind his words. It felt almost at times as if he was giving me a social commentary on our current climate. Presenting stories that focused attention on several problems throughout the world that effect everyone in one form or another.

One story that struck this point home most was a story called September Mist. A story of two people who love each other deeply but because of race and other circumstances can never truly be together. Roger’s words seem effortless as he conveys the struggle these two face to be accepted within their respected communities before they can even begin to see a future together. A line that stood out for me on this theme was “Yes, some places black folks don’t go very often-not that we can’t-we just don’t” said by Eve. One of the two main voices in the story when encountering glances from a white gentleman in a restaurant. I couldn’t help but draw parallels with the segregation of blacks in the 1950s in the US and wonder whether Roger was trying to get the reader to realise that unfortunately some of these longheld prejudices have never truly left the modern world.

A story which I have read countless times was Rain Shadow. The story centres around a group of homeless people who tackle daily battles with each other as well as their own demons. Roger explores many different problems that impact upon the group from addiction to helping draw one another back from the brink. The reason I keep coming back to it is because of its rawness. Roger presents in sixteen pages, a hollowing account of what it truly means to be homeless when all you have is your own thoughts and a few friends to keep you sane. Nothing feels overexaggerated or put in simply for dramatic affect. The scary thing is he was only scratching the surface.

Addiction is a theme that Roger revisits numerous times using different characters throughout the collection to display his message. Roger paints the corrupt forms that addiction takes in a way that I haven’t encountered previously. He uses addiction as a hook to help show the depths that a person will go to get their fix regardless of the consequences. Whether it is relationship break down, loss of their job, or their kids being taken away. Yet he does it in a way that never comes across as judgemental showing the reader that even the best person can make the wrong decision.

This truth is displayed wonderfully in a story called Iago where our character goes to the pits of society in search of what he thinks is eternal bliss. I felt this was the most powerful story in the whole collection as it demonstrates the dark horror of drugs. Exposing the reader to the wide spreading effects addiction can have on a community in a sensitive and eye-opening verse that forces you to push the boundaries on what you think you know.

What I adored most about Hopeful Monsters was the fact that Roger highlighted the plight of several vulnerable groups within his stories. He wasn’t afraid to discuss sensitive topics such as suicide, homelessness, addiction, and mental health creating an array of intriguing characters and scenarios to give a voice to the forgotten in our society.

Every story seems to be centred around some key universal themes that help to create a narrative that explores the hidden corners of the mind and society. Begging the question how much has really changed? For me Hopeful Monsters is more than a short story collection. It is a memoir of how different life choices can set a person down a path that sometimes they cannot return from. I look forward to reading more of Roger as this collection was a work of art. It receives 5 stars. A must read.

I received an advance copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This doesn’t affect my views.

About the Author

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Roger McKnight hails from Little Egypt, a traditional farming and coal-mining
region in downstate Illinois. He studied and taught English in Chicago, Sweden,
and Puerto Rico. Swedes showed Roger the value of human fairness and gender
equity, while Puerto Ricans displayed the dignity of their island culture before the
tragedy of Hurricane Maria and the US government’s shameful post-disaster
neglect of the island’s populace. Roger relocated to Minnesota and taught Swedish and Scandinavian Studies. He now lives in the North Star State.