20 Questions with Nick Arvin

It is funny how we stumble upon good books and where that leads. While in Washington, D.C. recently I was waiting for a meeting and began browsing the book store at Union Station. I wasn’t really planning to buy anything (wishful thinking I know) but came across Articles of War by Nick Arvin. It had everything I find tempting in a book: it was short, well designed, and had an intriguing premise. I decided this was great plane reading and bought it. It turned out to be a great little book (read my review here).

Doing some research I came across Nick’s home page and decided on a whim to ask him for an interview. He graciously agreed to do an email Q&A. What follows is the result. For those not familiar with Nick, here is a short bio:

Nick Arvin grew up in Michigan, and he earned degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan and Stanford. For several years he worked in product development at Ford Motor Company. He now lives in Denver, Colorado, where he works in accident reconstruction and forensic engineering. Arvin is also a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the recipient of a Michener Fellowship, and the author of a collection of short stories, In the Electric Eden. He is on the faculty of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

On to the Questions . . .
1) What author(s) inspired you growing up? Who made you want to take up writing? Who do you read now?

For the most part I read pretty normal stuff for a boy growing up in America – stuff like the Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, and then a lot of science fiction. Toward the end of high school I drifted into writers like Calvino, Borges, and Garcia Marquez, and then began reading more widely in literary fiction. That was about the time when I began to try to write fiction myself. Two short stories that I encountered around that time made a big impression on me – “The 400-Pound CEO,” by George Saunders, and “The Dream of the Consortium,” by Stephen Millhauser. A lot of my earliest writing strained, badly, to emulate those two authors.

At the moment I’m into the Russians – The Gambler, by Dostoyevsky, and Dead Souls, by Gogol.

2) How did you get from mechanical engineer to writer/novelist (And what is forensic engineering anyway?)? What interested you about the Iowa Writers Workshop? Would you recommend that to other young writers?

I had begun writing short stories in high school, but this was in a small town in Michigan, and you would have had to travel pretty far to find anyone who was making any money writing fiction. I happened to do well in math and science classes; and where I grew up, people with those skills typically went on to study engineering, so I did too. After college, I worked in product development at Ford for almost three years, and I nearly drove myself insane, working the day job for long hours, then coming home and drinking coffee to stay up and write. Finally, I was able quit Ford to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

I became interested in an MFA primarily because I saw it as a more satisfactory and structured way to take two years away from work than just being unemployed and writing in a basement somewhere. I applied to the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, frankly, because of its reputation. I had a great experience there. Should I name drop? I had one workshop at Iowa, led by Marilynne Robinson, that included Lewis Robinson, Curtis Sittenfeld, John Murray, Joshua Furst, Oscar Casares – all of whom have now published books and several others who I am certain will be publishing their work in due time. Thomas O’Malley, for example, who has a terrific first book coming out this summer. That was just one class. It was absolutely extraordinary.

I currently work part-time in a forensic engineering company where I examine car accidents. I analyze details like tire marks and vehicle damage to try to work out what happened and how fast the vehicles were traveling.

3) In your mind how does your engineering background help and how does it hinder your writing?

I don’t really think about it in that way. It’s just what I do. It’s a job. It hinders by taking up time that might be spent writing, but it helps by paying a good wage, so that I’m able to work part-time as an engineer, put the rest of my time into writing fiction, and live relatively comfortably.

4) How did you come to write Articles of War? Your short stories were about machines; did you think your first novel would be about war?

I had no intention of writing a novel about war, but then I stumbled across the story of Eddie Slovik. Slovik was an American GI in Europe who became the only American to be executed for desertion since the Civil War. I found his story extremely moving, and I began writing the material that eventually became Articles in an attempt to explore some of the themes and issues raised by what happened to Eddie Slovik.

5) How does someone who hasn’t been in the military and who hasn’t seen combat, come to describe it? How were you able to imagine and communicate that perspective?

I read as many memoirs and oral histories by men who served in Europe in the Second World War as I could. Then I simply tried very hard to imagine my way into these situations.

6) Articles is less than 200 pages. Was there a temptation to make it longer? Shorter? Was there a lot of revision involved?

For me, writing always involves a tremendous amount of revision. The manuscript of Articles was about twice as long at one time, intercut with a second storyline involving a whole different cast of characters and settings. A piece of writing always evolves in ways that I could not begin to predict when I set out. Which is what keeps the process of writing interesting.

7) At what point does a short story become a novel or novella? What is/was different for you as you approach the two?

For me, in this case, at a certain point in the process it became apparent that the material I hoped to explore could not be contained in a short story’s length. The approach does change when you know you’re trying to writing something that will be longer than a short story. A good short story will often contain no more than one or two scenes, whereas in a longer work, each scene has to be cast such that it opens into the next, and there’s somewhat more freedom to explore descriptions of setting or emotion or whatever catches your fancy.

8) How would you define what a novel is? Is an emphasis on emotional/psychological development important? Articles seems to deal with Heck’s inner life despite the action elements.

I guess I’m wary of trying to offer a definition. The difference between a short story and a novella, or between a novella and a novel, is almost a metaphysical question. It’s certainly subjective, and for me it’s a matter of feel. I do like how an inner life can be explored in a novel. That’s something the Modernists opened up for us, and it seems to me at this moment that maybe the novel is better suited to that type of exploration. But then, I’m sure that a contrarian could quickly point out any number of short stories that also explore a great deal of inner life, and I would happily concede the point.

9) Is ambiguity or not taking clear sides a way to let the reader’s imagination and perspective fill in behind the lines so to speak? You seem to leave a lot of questions unanswered, is this part of this; is it an intentional style/tactic?

It’s my theory that the difference between engineering and writing fiction is to some extent a difference in attitude toward ambiguity. An engineer is paid to be a problem solver, and an engineer hates ambiguity, because his task is to find a solution to the second decimal point. One of the things that I love about writing, on the other hand, is that it gives me an opportunity to explore areas of ambiguity without any particular need to solve or close off the ambiguity. I find life as it is lived to be filled with vast spaces of difficult and irresolvable questions, and so I hope my fiction reflects that.

10) Given current events, it is tempting to describe (and some have already done so) Articles as an anti-war novel. What is your reaction to that? Was that your intention or part of your mindset as you wrote?

Myself, I never thought of Articles as an anti-war novel while I wrote it, and actually, Kevin, I think the discussion around this topic in your review of Articles is excellent.

But, at the same time, if someone does interpret Articles as an anti-war novel, that’s fine. Once a book has left my hands and gone out into the world between covers, it becomes the readers’. I’m grateful to anyone who picks it up and reads it, and I’m certainly not going to begrudge or second guess anyone’s personal reactions and interpretations.

11) Do things get politicized too easily in our culture? Is writing about World War II – a “good war” – different than writing about Vietnam or Iraq? Was that intentional or just circumstantial?

You know, I thought the reaction to Articles might be more politicized than it has been. One or two blogs have called it “anti-war,” but I don’t think any of the mainstream press reviews have given it that label.

I’m not sure that I would approach writing about Vietnam or Iraq any differently than I went about writing a novel set in World War II. But it’s also impossible to really know until you’re into it. The material you’re working with creates its own demands.

12) What do you think about comparisons between Stephan Crane and the Red Badge of Courage (young, non-veteran, novelists writing about war, etc.)? Is that a complement or a distraction?

Some of both, I suppose. It’s certainly very flattering to have my novel compared to Crane’s, and I love The Red Badge of Courage, and I understand why that comparison would come to mind for a reader. But, at the same time, there are a lot of rather extreme differences between that novel and mine, and the shorthand comparison isn’t entirely helpful, I think, if it’s raised without also touching on those differences.

13) Is there something quintessentially Midwestern about Heck? Does he reflect in some way your background or experiences in Michigan, Iowa, etc.?


14) Is there a fine line between self-preservation and cowardice; between survival and deceit? Are Heck and Albert/Claire wrestling with the same issues from different sides?

Per question 9, I tend to think that if you look closely enough, you will find fine lines in every direction, and that all of us are wrestling with more or less the same issues, from different sides.

15) Is there a sense that you have to cut off a part of you to survive in these extreme situations?

Well, certainly you have to change, which is what tends to make interesting literature.

16) Does the baby at Heck’s door represent an opportunity for redemption for Heck?

Oh, I hate interpreting my own work; what it is is what it is on the page.

17) In order to keep my Blogger Union card I have to ask: do you read blogs?

There are a few blogs that I check pretty regularly. I’ll put in a plug here for Rake’s Progress, a lit blog run by a guy in Denver, where I also live. I’ve never met Rake, but I like his blog, and I like that, among other things, it helps to build a sense of literary community in Denver.

18) What kind of impact do you think Lit Blogs have on the publishing world?

Well, most of the dedicated lit bloggers seem to me to be very serious, intelligent, enthusiastic readers (which in this context may appear to be patent flattery, but it happens to be true), and it seems to me that having a community of comment from such readers out there on the internet, for anyone to read and participate in, should only help strengthen the world of literature. At least I would hope so.

19) Has your experience with the publishing world been a positive one? Were there any misconceptions or stereotypes that you brought with you to the process that were changed by actually going through it?

I have been very happy with my current publisher, Doubleday. You know, honestly, at the moment I can’t think of anything I’ve encountered in the publishing process that didn’t conform more-or-less to what I’d been told about and warned about beforehand. The people I’ve met in the publishing industry have been, really without exception, very nice. All of them love good books and great writing as much as you and I do, because there’s really no other reason to be in that industry. But, many of them are overworked, and at the end of the day there are business decisions to be made about the allocation of limited resources.

20) What is next for you? Do you have a book project you are working on?

I have a couple of new short stories that I’ve been polishing up, and there’s a new novel that I’ve been working on/struggling with. I’m not ready to talk about it yet, except to say that this one has a contemporary American setting, and I hope to god that it comes together eventually, because I’ve put a lot of work into the thing already.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).