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An Interview with Nick Arvin

This year’s One Book, One Denver selection is Articles of War by Denver novelist and engineer Nick Arvin. The novel tells the powerful story of George Tilson, a World War II infantryman from Iowa who is nicknamed “Heck” because of his aversion to swearing. I recently interviewed Arvin for the Rocky Mountain News in an article that runs today in advance of his appearance at Manual High School in Denver on November 14th. The paper didn’t have room to print all of Arvin’s thoughts about writing, so I’m sharing the extended conversation here with NewWest.Net/books readers.

NewWest: I read that you did a lot of your research at the Denver Public Library.

Nick Arvin: Yeah, almost all the research I did was from books. For someone working on a novel, the stuff that was most useful to me was the memoirs and oral histories. I also looked at some coffee table books that had a lot of pictures. I found those really useful to glean details.

NW: Once you did the research in books, how did you imagine what Heck was going to go through?

NA: The way I approached it was sort of an ongoing process where I was writing at the same time that I was doing the research. I was lucky to have a grant that gave me a year to just work on my writing.

NW: What grant was that?

NA: It was a Michener Fellowship. So I did most of the research that year. I would write in the morning when I got up, and in the afternoon I would go the library and work on the research side. Sometimes I was researching things that I knew I needed to research, like the Huertgen Forest and what exactly went on there. And other times I was reading more randomly and finding details and then putting them into the writing. To some extent the writing was guiding the research, but it was also going the other way as well–I’d find things in the research that I knew I wanted to put in the story, and find ways to make it work.

NW: When you were writing the battle scenes, did you visualize it before you wrote? Or did your envisioning of the scene come through the act of writing?

NA: During some of the more vivid stuff…where as a writer I was trying to draw out as much of the feeling and the emotion of that moment as possible–like that first scene where (the protagonist) is caught under artillery barrage–one of the things I realized is that first of all, you work at putting yourself into a quiet place and trying to mentally put yourself as deeply into that situation as possible.

But the other thing I realized is that you don’t need to have a sense of that entire experience all at once—just enough of it to get another word down. I sometimes found myself moving through the different senses: What’s it feel like? What’s it smell like? What’s it taste like? By breaking it down and making the problem smaller, it’s less overwhelming than approaching it as if you need to engage with that entire experience all at once.

NW: The book throughout is very sensory, and I wondered if that was your entry into Heck’s experience, since you haven’t served in the military.

NA: That’s right, I haven’t. From the beginning I was very intent on trying to get as deeply inside that experience as I could. It was just a matter of reading as much as possible and thinking about it as hard as possible.

NW: Did you feel intimidated to write about this material, since you haven’t had military experience?

NA: I did. What got me started in writing the book was reading Eddie Slovik’s story. (Slovik was a WWII infantryman and the only American soldier to executed for desertion since the Civil War.) I came across it at a time when I was looking for something to write about. But I put it aside in part because of that (intimidation). Before I got going, I didn’t have much knowledge about World War II, so there was a lot of research to be done. Not being a veteran added another layer of intimidation for me.

But I found myself getting obsessed with Eddie Slovik’s story, and I figured other people have done it— Stephen Crane did it, not that I’m any Stephen Crane. But knowing that other writers have approached that kind of experience without having been veterans themselves showed me a sort of path.

NW: Did you question how you would react to being thrown into a war as you wrote the book?

NA: Certainly, that’s something I couldn’t not think about when I was working on it, but there’s no way to know the answer until you find yourself in that situation. I think that’s part of what drew me to the story in the first place. Boys spend so much time running around, shooting at each other with fake guns, that you inevitably think about the question of how would you react if you found yourself in a war. And there’s just no way to know.

NW: Articles of War has received so many accolades and prizes. Which of those honors has been the most meaningful to you?

NA: Maybe it’s just because it’s the most vivid to me right now, but One Book, One Denver has really been great. I think the thing that’s the most exciting about it is that One Book, One Denver isn’t an award per se, but an attempt to get the book to readers. And as a writer, that’s really what I want all along is readers for the book.

NW: I interviewed T.C. Boyle recently, and he said that he loves participating in community reading programs because people don’t usually have a book in common to discuss—the only thing people tend to have in common are TV shows.

NA: Yeah, and hopefully any work of literature gives you a little more depth to work with when you’re talking to your friends and neighbors, versus the kind of pop-cultural stuff that we usually have in common some of the themes of love and death and how we deal with those things.

NW: Have people in Denver been talking to you about the book?

NA: A lot of people come to talk to me at work about it. I didn’t know what to expect there, and I’ve been really surprised and pleased at how into it they are, and how excited they are to read a book by someone they work with. I think there’s only been one person who just randomly started talking to me–a barista in a coffee shop who recognized me. He hadn’t read the book yet, but he said he was going to.

NW: How have the events for One Book, One Denver gone so far?

NA: The dramatic reading was fantastic. An actor was reading the book and it was really neat for me to hear the book read by someone who knows what he’s doing. I read it all the time, but I’m not an actor. He was able to bring things out of the sentences that I didn’t even know were there because of the way he delivered it. There was guitar accompaniment as well, which was so neat that we’re going to have the guitarist accompany my reading on November 14th. The other event was a “Write Your First Novel” class that I taught. It was sort of strange to try to teach people how to write a novel in just one class. I spent a good part of the time just talking through the process of writing Articles of War and just describing what I learned about writing along the way.

NW: When did you move to Denver?

NA: In 2001.

NW: What brought you here?

NA: My brother had moved here a year earlier, and so I visited him and I liked it. In 2001 I graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I was awarded the Michener Fellowship. That money was unattached–I could spend my year writing anywhere I wanted to.

NW: And of all the places in the world, you chose Denver.

NA: I chose Denver. I like being outdoors and I love mountains, so the spot was great. And I’ve been glad to be here the last few years because the city feels like it’s been changing so quickly, and it’s been interesting to see, to watch what’s going on downtown, and watch how the cultural scene is changing.

NW: What was it like to have a short story published in The New Yorker?

NA: It was great. I think that was the most flabbergasted I’ve ever been, when I got news about the publication. Because with a book, there’s a process of sending it to your agent, getting feedback from your agent, and your agent sends it to editors, and editors give you feedback. So you sort of know what’s going on. But I had sent this story to my agent and enough time had passed that I had sort of forgotten it was out there. Then one day he called me and said, “The New Yorker wants to publish it.” And I said, “Eric, if you’re making this up, I’m going to fly up to New York and kill you.” He said, “Wow, that’s the most dramatic response I’ve ever gotten from you.” So that was definitely a highlight of my little career so far.

NW: Did you have to do many revisions to the story?

NA: They didn’t want any large changes–just a bit of a different ending, in the last sentence or two. But there was a lot of editing. I really enjoyed it actually, because it was the most intensive line editing I’ve ever gotten. It was all for the better, and it was a back-and-forth process–it wasn’t like they were forcing changes on me. It went through the editor I was in touch with, the fiction editor, and the copy editor, and each one of them had really detailed line edits that they would fax over, and then I would work through those. It was great, I really liked that.

NW: Do you work full or part time as an engineer?

NA: It’s a part-time job. I took two years off recently, at about the time when Articles of War came out. I was working at that time for a forensic engineering company, and I quit when the book came out because I’d gotten some money from that, and took a year off. My wife and I spent three months of that time in Spain, and then my son was born, so I spent the first year at home with him. It was really nice. Just this last May, I started working again, part time for a company that designs power plants. It’s a totally new field for me, so it’s a pretty steep learning curve. But it’s been interesting.

NW: Do writing and engineering use different parts of your brain, or are there ways in which they are similar?

NA: I think it’s more similar than most people would think. A lot of engineering requires creativity, and a lot of writing requires some of the analytical stuff that you use in engineering–being detail-oriented, checking things again and again. But, most engineers are really bad writers, and I’m not sure why that is.

NW: Maybe they just don’t work at it very much.

NA: Yeah, well that’s certainly part of the problem. Writing is definitely something that you learn from doing it again and again and again, and a lot of engineers seem to be people who avoid writing at all costs. The engineers who are not good writers tend to be people who aren’t readers. I don’t know why the field would tend to attract people like that. But on the other hand, there are a lot of engineers who surprise you and are really good readers and writers.

NW: What are you working on now?

NA: I’m working on another novel, and I’ve been trying to avoid talking about it too much.

NW: Does having had such success with your first novel make it easier or harder to approach the second?

NA: It makes it easier in the sense that I feel like I’ve had some success as writer. I think one of the problems that anyone who writes fiction who hasn’t had some publications struggles with is the sense that they may be entirely wasting their time. Not only does fiction not pay well anyway, but also if you haven’t had some publication success, it’s hard to know if you even have any talent at it.

NW: So success gives you permission to keep going.

NA: Yeah, it gives me some validation. So in that way, it makes it a lot easier. People sometimes ask me if I feel intimidated about writing the next novel, and I haven’t felt that. Maybe I will once it’s heading into publication–if it ever does.

I try to write every day. I had a teacher who emphasized the idea that you need to focus on the process of writing, on what you’re doing day to day, and not worry about the product. If you focus on that process of writing every day, you’ll at least in theory end up with a good product. So I cling to that philosophy.

NW: Does your new book have a contemporary setting?

NA: Yes it does. It’s not a war novel and it’s not even a historical novel. It’ll be quite different.

NW: Do you feel more comfortable writing stories set in the past or in the present?

NA: There are pluses and minuses to both. Whatever I’m not working on seems like the thing that’s going to be easier. So right now because I’m working on a contemporary novel, I feel like a historical short story would be the easiest and most pleasurable to write.

NW: Does your voice or writing style change depending on the setting?

NA: When I’m working on something historical, incorporating the details of a particular setting changes the voice, just because the words you’re using are different. When I was working on Articles of War, I was very aware of The Red Badge of Courage and some Hemingway stuff–very poetic fiction written about war. Not that I wanted to steal that voice, but I was caught up in it to some extent.

I try to adapt my voice to the material. In a way, war is so surreal, so different from the ordinary world. A lot of the objects of the ordinary world are involved–the houses and the fields and so forth–but they’ve been radically changed in ways that you wouldn’t expect, so it creates a sort of surreal landscape. Just in trying to capture that, you end up needing to use a certain amount of metaphor to bring it out.

Now I’m working on something more contemporary, not set in a war, and it takes a different tone. And it’s also a matter of keeping in mind the point of view you’re working from, the character, and trying to use a voice that maybe isn’t their voice but that it allows an articulation of their experience.

NW: It seems that there are two different types of novelists–those who write big, sprawling works, and those who write tightly focused books. Articles of War definitely falls into the focused camp. Do you think you’ll always write that way?

NA: I’d like to. It would be really hard for me to write a big sprawling book because I write very slowly, and I write a lot of stuff that I end up throwing away, which is part of why it’s so slow. Then I revise pretty intensively and work through things sentence by sentence, so a 500-page novel would just take forever to write. And I like short novels. I’d be really happy if I just wrote short novels for the rest of my life. It sort of bothers me sometimes that there’s this sense that to be a really, truly serious literary writer, you have to write a big novel. I don’t understand where that comes from.

NW: I think it’s harder to write short.

NA: I just think a tightly focused short novel is such a wonderful thing. Even in terms of trying to capture the great American novel of the American experience–I think Gatsby did that as well as anything, and it’s almost novella length itself.

NW: Has becoming a father given you a different perspective on the parents that you portray in your writing?

NA: Yeah, it certainly has. I haven’t gone back and reread the entire novel since it was published, and so at the dramatic reading of the book, the actor read a portion of the novel that I haven’t read again since it was published. It was the portion in Iowa, talking about what happened to his mother and his relationship with his father. It was interesting to hear that again, and there were a couple of details that I had forgotten were in there, and I thought, “Oh, that’s really good!” It was accurate.

NW: Which details?

NA: One that particularly struck me was the way the mother talks to him.

NW: Oh, how she talks to him like a baby even when he’s grown up?

NA: Yeah. I hadn’t had a baby at that point, and I guess I was surprised that I knew that that’s how people talked to babies. But apparently I did know that. One of the things that I like about writing is the process of discovery as you go along and realizing that you know things you didn’t know. That’s a more retrospective version of that, but sometimes when you’re writing you gain some insight into character or the way people behave, and it’s something that comes out of the process of writing. In a sense you knew that, but it’s not until you work through it on the page and really articulate it that you understand it better.

NW: Do you think you’ll ever set any of your fiction in Colorado?

NA: Yeah. This sort of relates to the question of being a parent. I tend not to be able to write about an experience immediately. I have to give it time before I write about it, so I don’t know when I would actually start incorporating fatherhood and parenting into my writing, but I’m sure I will eventually.

Writing about Colorado is similar. I actually just wrote a short story set in Colorado. I’ve been here for six years, and it took about five before I felt comfortable enough with the setting before I started putting it in my writing.

NW: It seems like there are a lot of writers who live in Colorado, but few who set their fiction here.

NA: Yeah, it is interesting. I don’t know of much of anything that’s set in contemporary Denver.

NW: Denver shows up as the villain in some of Kent Haruf’s books.

NA: On the Road was set partially here. I think eventually I’ll be setting fiction in Colorado. The novel that I’m working on now is in sort of a generic setting, but I’m thinking it’s Michigan, because that’s the place I was most familiar with before here.

NW: Well, maybe the next one will be the Colorado book.

NA: Yeah, maybe it will.

Nick Arvin will read from Articles of War at Manual High School in Denver on November 14th (7 p.m.).

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