As I noted in my review of his latest novel, The Reconstructionist, Nick Arvin really captured my attention with Articles of War. He was gracious enough to participate in a Q&A for that novel so I was excited about getting his perspective this time around. Luckily for me, he agreed to take some time to answer some questions.
First, a brief bio:
Nick Arvin is an American engineer and writer. Born in North Carolina, he was raised in Michigan, and graduated from the University of Michigan and Stanford University with degrees in mechanical engineering, and from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has worked in forensic engineering and accident reconstruction.
Now, on to the questions.
1) They say that all writing is autobiographical. What made you decide to tackle forensic engineering or accident reconstruction – something you have direct experience with – in your second novel?
I did work in accident reconstruction; I sort of stumbled into it. I had worked as an engineer for Ford, but I quit that to do an MFA in creative writing, and then ended up living in Denver on some grant money for a year after the MFA. When the grant ran out, I started looking around for a job in engineering. I’d worked in the automotive industry, but there isn’t much of an automotive industry in Denver. Then I realized that there were a couple of forensic engineering companies that did automotive accident reconstruction. So I sent them my resume, and one of the resumes happened to land on the desk of a guy who’s a reader and was impressed that I had published a book of short stories. Soon I had a job.
I knew from the first day that I wanted to write a novel about the work — the work itself was basically a process of creating little mini-stories about the accidents we were working on, and these accidents were dramatic and tragic, and the process of creating these mini-stories was really interesting, but also discomforting in the way that it required applying cold, analytical techniques to examining terribly human situations. So, the work had all these interesting layers of narrative and emotional disconnect, and I knew I couldn’t cover all of it in a short story. So I collected material from the job in a notebook for a couple of years, and then began to try to figure out how to structure it into a novel. Writing the novel took about seven years altogether.
2) Engineer and writer seem like such very different careers – like they would bring very styles, perspective and different world views. True? Did you bring similar skill sets to both jobs or was writing a break from your “day job” (when you had a day job)?
Actually, I still have a day job in engineering. Most writers need a day job. Nowadays I work on the design of power plants and natural gas facilities. I tend to think that my involvement in engineering is good for my writing — it keeps me out in the world on a daily basis, meeting new people, seeing new things. And it’s corner of the world that most writers never see.
As for the first part of your question, I recently wrote a short essay for the Wall Street Journal on the topic of how writing and engineering mesh. I won’t rehash it all here, but suffice to say, I believe there’s more overlap between the two careers than people might think.
3) What is it about car accidents that they seem to touch our lives in such important ways?
Your life is going along the way it always does, and then all the sudden an accident comes in sideways, creating terrible death and injury and remorse. Abruptly, the path of your life is very different. It forces the people who survive these events to look at themselves and who they really are, what is important to them, and who they want to be, for good or ill. It has a huge effect. And it’s happening all the time, somewhere. We all know someone who it has happened to.
4) Why are accidents so hard to explain – why do people have such a hard time getting details right? Do we over-value eye-witness accounts?
Accidents are by definition unexpected, so it’s not like anyone ever says to a witness: here, watch these two cars smash into each other and remember as much as you can. Instead, something happens at the corner of vision, or you hear a sound and then turn to see the aftermath. And then, in one of these terrible cases where litigation arises, a hundred detailed questions are asked of the witness. And the witness feels maybe just because he was there he should know the answers, and he wants to please the questioner by giving the right answers, so his brain tries to fill in the missing information with a story that makes some sense. None of this needs to happen consciously, of course. Our brains make up all sorts of stuff all the time to fill in for the things we don’t know. Most of the time it doesn’t matter.
There are a ton of studies out there showing that, basically, witnesses suck. They’re polluted by biases and they make up stuff. But to reconstruct events from physical evidence is time-consuming and expensive, and that process too can be polluted by biases. Probably we’re just stuck living with a large degree of uncertainty about the nature of factual truth.
5) It seems there is a little meta-fiction or the very least some literary references weaved into the story. Was this a way to note the influences or just an interesting way to explore the ideas the characters were wrestling with? Or neither?
Or both! Definitely both. I think you’re referencing the way that the character Boggs blasts audiobooks at top volume from his convertible. That Boggs did this came to me very early in the writing process, and it helped me to get a handle on who he is. That being so, I needed to give the reader some idea of the kind of books he listens to; it’s kind of like when you look at a person’s bookshelf to try to figure out who they are. And it also gave me an opportunity to allude to some writers in the past who have touched on the book’s themes.
6) There is an awful lot of time spent driving in cars in the story. Was it a challenge to convey a real sense of what long distance driving is like without obviously letting it unduly bog down the book?
Yes… I wrote a lot of material about driving that I later cut, and there’s still plenty in the book. The nature of long distance driving has always been fascinating to me — it’s at once dangerous and meditative and maddening. I wanted to explore that. And I wanted to explore the roadside landscape, because we spend so much time in that landscape, and yet we hardly look at it. But I was aware, too, of the need to keep the story moving and the characters developing, and I did my best to balance all of those elements.
7) It struck me that you were really trying to depict the interior lives of your characters and how their exterior lives don’t always match up to their interior assumptions and beliefs or how these worlds often collide with unintended consequences. Are novelists like psychologists in some sense? What do you find interesting about your characters?
I suppose that novelists are amateur psychologists in a sense, although I try not to think of it in those terms much, for fear of reducing my characters to psychological constructs. The danger, I think, is that you could lose the contradictory elements of surprise and mystery that make characters feel real.
As for the characters in this book, I think you put it very well. The real world keeps refusing to conform to their assumptions and expectations, it eludes their attempts at analysis. I think we all struggle with this, in different ways. How the characters deal with that disconnect between inner process and outer reality is what’s interesting to me.
8) You have also written short stories. What is the challenge in writing short stories and how is it different from novels? Do you plan to continue to write both?
Yes, I love both short stories and novels and plan to keep working on both — as well as the middle ground of long stories or novellas, which may finally have some opportunities for reaching readers via electronic publishing. The main difference, for me, is that with short stories I feel like I’m always starting at the beginning with a blank page again, which requires a burst of raw creativity that’s sometimes hard to find, while in a novel I follow the same characters and themes day after day, year after year, which can feel like a grind. It’s nice to be able to work in one mode until I get tired of it, then switch to the other.
One of the curiosities of this business is the way that MFA programs tend to push writers to write short stories, because they are easier to workshop; but once you are out in the world, the publishing industry pushes for novels. Write a collection of stories and send it to New York, and the response is almost always something like, “This is lovely, but do you have a novel?” Chad Harbach’s essay on this topic, “MFA vs. NYC,” is very smart.
But there are some writers, like myself, who have day jobs outside academia, which provide a certain freedom from those two pressures. I don’t teach in an MFA program, and to pay the bills I don’t have to make a ton of money off my writing (though, to be clear, it’d sure be nice!). I try to use that freedom to follow my interests and characters wherever they may lead, and let a story find its own form and length.
9) There are some TV or movie type elements in this novel (a sort of CSI subject). Have you been involved in screenwriting? Any interest in trying your hand at that?
Generally, I tried to avoid making the book feel like it’s made-for-TV, because I tend to think that literature these days is already overly influenced by the conventions of screenwriting. But it’s also simply inherent in the material in this book that it has CSI, police procedural aspects to it, and I wanted to do justice to those parts of the story.
I’ve never attempted to write anything for the screen. Sometimes I think it might be fun to try it out, but to date I’ve never gone any further with the thought. I always seem to have a novel or short story that I’m more interested in. Maybe someday.
10) You have been involved in teaching writing. What is the best advice you were giving about how to succeed as a writer?
Read as much as possible. Write as much as possible. Work to find your inner voice and be true to it. Listen carefully to the advice of others, and then quietly reject most of it.