Letitia Moffitt: It seems to me you write just about everything! Poetry, creative nonfiction, stage plays, novellas, and now a dystopian novel—impressive, to say the least. What made you decide to write this particular novel and how do you think your experience writing in multiple genres has contributed to it?
Lania Knight: Thanks! I am eternally curious, so maybe that’s part of why I like to try my hand at different genres and forms. This novel came from a difficult place, actually. I had a long commute at the time, through a desolate landscape—flat, windswept, and dominated by industrial agriculture. My job was especially challenging, and I had difficulties at home with members of my family struggling with various mental health issues. So, it was a tough time.
One day, driving to work, I was listening to Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire on audiobook, and a livestock truck overtook me on the highway. There were pigs inside, I think, and the sides of the trailer were covered in piss and shit. A thought went through my mind—what if those were humans? The confluence of that tough drive, hearing Pollan’s take on how we might actually be domesticated by plants and not the other way around, plus being overtaken by the shit-stained tractor-trailer amidst the barren landscape combined with my personal and professional struggles and all mixed into a big brew that somehow brought forth from me a dark narrative of where humanity was headed. At least, humanity in the American Midwest.
My experience in multiple genres has made my writing tighter. Drama has helped my dialogue, as well as character development. Through writing my own plays and doing live readings of other writers’ plays, I understand more how to access character through embodiment, through feeling a character in my body. I spend a lot of time in my head, so it really helps to physically sense a character. Poetry has helped with the rhythm of my language, with imagery and the tone of particular passages. I’ve always been very sensitive to language on the level of the line, and now that I’ve started writing poetry, I can see that this attention is part of the poet’s eye for detail. I don’t struggle with myself so much during edits because I know this fine tuning line by line is just how I work, and I see that it’s normal. Whereas before, as a prose writer, I thought I was being too picky. Now, I trust my ‘ear’ more—I know when it sounds and feels right.
The difficulty for me with having written in other genres is that it’s tough to get a book of any length onto the page. I find myself wanting to say more with fewer words, and that can present a challenge for writing novels. This novel is fairly short, as I think most of my books are likely to be.
LM: A key character of Remnant is a young girl, which might appeal to young adult readers. Yet there are some very harrowing scenes of violence and violation in this story that could be quite upsetting even to an adult reader. While it could (and I daresay should) be argued that it’s necessary at times to upset readers, how much did you consider a specific intended audience during the process of writing the book?
LK: Oh, excellent question. Actually, for the initial part of writing, until I’m sure what the story is and who the characters are, I’m writing for myself. This book in particular was really for me. All the challenges I described earlier were made a little easier by writing this book. If I was angry or tired or frustrated, I’d hurl my feelings into a scene I was writing. It was a way of fighting back against what felt like a kind of violence in my life. I didn’t have much control at the time – I just had to keep going – and writing this book helped me find a way to get up each morning and get in the car no matter how angry or empty I felt.
There are some harrowing scenes in the book. My feeling about difficult scenes is that they must be worth it. If there’s a rape scene, or a death scene, you, as the writer, must have good reasons for putting the reader through that. Also, there are ways to orchestrate intense scenes so that the reader understands something terrible is happening or has happened, but they are shielded slightly through narrative distance. On the other hand, there are ways to make it more painful, such as by letting your reader form a bond with the character, and then letting them witness something terrible. But after the terrible scene, there has to be something more. At least, for me there does. I don’t want to feel trapped by the difficulties of my life or my experiences, and I don’t want to trap my reader. Instead, I want my reader to feel the pain/loss/violence, and then watch as the character finds a way to move through and beyond the difficulty.
I also felt it was necessary to include difficult scenes because I wanted to say something about the world as I see it. I started writing this long before Trump was elected, but the hatred and violence that has come out since, has actually been part of American culture all along. One of the themes in my book is coercion. There are blatant ways the characters are forced into certain situations, and there are also more subtle ways. As I began examining my life during that time, the difficult job/drive/family stuff, I also began to realise how many choices I’d made that weren’t really mine—they were encouraged or suggested or pushed on me by others. Now that I’ve lived out of the country for two years, I see how aggressive American culture is, from guns to superficial friendliness, from industrial agriculture to automobiles. I wanted my characters to recognize how little choice they’d actually had in their lives, in much the same way this recognition was unfolding in my life.
LM: A lot of dystopian fiction—perhaps all of it—directly or indirectly suggests a sort of “cautionary tale” about what could happen if certain aspects of our world continue unabated, such as climate change. At the same time, I imagine writers of these books would not want their work to be boiled down to a simplistic Lorax-like warning (nothing against the Lorax; he’s cool). Fiction is more than message; it is also aesthetic appeal and emotional connection and a lot of other things. At the same time, there is a message here. How did you handle the challenge of creating a work of fiction that could both entertain via a made-up world and yet also reflect aspects of the real world?
LK: I would never want my work to be seen as a rant. In some ways though, this novel was very much like writing a rant. I was so angry about my life, about the parts I couldn’t control. I was also angry at my culture, my country, big business, the food industry—structures far bigger than me, bigger than what I can have any effect on. I read somewhere along the way, maybe it was Vonnegut, that a fiction writer’s job is not to provide answers, but to give us better questions to ask of the world. Why is my life like this, and what the hell can I do about it? On the other hand, I know the best way to connect with anyone is through story, and in particular, through the story of the individual. The film Reporter follows a NYT reporter in Africa covering the AIDS epidemic. He takes two students with him, and through their eyes, we see that what the reporter has to do, what anyone telling a story has to do, is find one person, and through that individual’s experience, the audience can identify with the pain, the loss and grief, even if it’s overwhelming. We can’t understand the death of 1,000’s, but we can understand the death of an individual. It’s this power of one person’s story that keeps my work from being a rant, I hope. What keeps the reader engaged even though I’m saying the world is going to shit around us. Because I have one (or actually several) point of view characters through which to understand how terrible things are, the reader can process the bigger message, the rant, if you will.
LM: Let’s talk craft. A lot of popular post-apocalyptic and fantasy fiction has a single point of view, often in first person. First person offers immediacy and perhaps greater solidarity between reader and protagonist. Remnant uses multiple third-person points of views, which is far more complex. Can you talk about your decision to structure the story this way? What were some of the challenges?
LK: The initial reason I used more than one point of view was because I quickly realized Esme, the first character, didn’t know enough to tell the entire story. She also wasn’t old enough, worldly enough, complex enough to tell it all. Her life up until the opening of the novel is shielded, so she does provide great access to the reader: as she learns about this world, the reader learns too. However, I couldn’t get the world-building going quickly enough with just her as a focal character, so I chose other characters to tell other parts of the story.
In early drafts, I was rotating through nine different characters’ points of view, but my editor suggested I narrow it down for the first half of the book so the reader could better connect. I learned a ton about structure by telling the story through multiple POV’s. For each chapter, I had to figure out who would grab the baton and why. What were they going to witness? What thing were they going to figure out about the world or about themselves within the space of the next chapter? And how did their discoveries fit in with the overall message of the book, the overall storyline? Arranging the story in a mostly linear, chronological way helped to simplify it. Near the end, there are a few flashbacks and references to previous events, but it’s late enough in the book that the reader (hopefully) won’t find it too disruptive.
LM: Writing is sometimes seen as a self-imposed form of torture. Personally I find that largely bogus—writing is fun, or we wouldn’t do it! What was the most enjoyable part of writing this novel?
LK: My favorite part was working with my editor at Burlesque Press. Daniel really helped me shift from writing for myself to writing for a reader. With my first book, Three Cubic Feet, I had a sense throughout how to make it accessible to the reader. Perhaps that’s because it was a simpler book—a single, first person POV story told over a two-week period.
During the revision process with Daniel, because I trusted him and knew he thought Remnant was a great story, I was able to make huge changes. It took loads of time, and much of it happened just before and after moving to England, but it was also enjoyable. It reminded me of when one of my plays was produced in Columbia, Missouri. I was in graduate school studying creative writing, and a grad student in drama directed the play. As the director, he had the outsider’s view, the central focus through which everything else was filtered—all the lines, the stage production, the actors’ and their costumes, everything! Working on this book with Daniel was collaborative in some of the ways working on that play was, which I loved. Any chance I have of connecting with others at any stage of the writing process, I’ll gladly accept. That’s part of why I love teaching creative writing—I get to be part of the process of emerging writers finding their stories and getting them ready for publication. I’ll never be the type of writer who wants to sit alone in the garret and toil away. I’d much rather write in the coffee shop amidst the hum of conversation and the hiss of the espresso machine, preferably with friends writing around the table alongside me.
LM: So what’s next?
LK: I’m sending out loads of poetry, short fiction, and personal essays. The next big project is a fictionalized memoir/autobiographical novel about why I came to England. I ask myself every few weeks why I needed to move across the world, and each time, I get a slightly different answer. Most days, it’s on the level of ‘I came here to save my life’. Grief, loss, self-discovery and fun with online dating – it’s all in there. And loads of scones and tea and a pint or two at the pub.