BOOKTHINK: How much time went into the research for the historical aspects of this book?
ARVIN: In my research, I did a lot of reading of memoirs and oral histories.
In the course of working on the book. I had one year where I had a grant, the Michener Fellowship, which was free money to go write for a year, and during that year I spent about four hours a day writing and about four hours a day on the research. The whole process took about three years, I think. It was a lot of time in the library, and I also spent a couple of weeks in France and in Germany traveling around to the different locations I was writing about, looking for setting details. It was one of the last things I did, when I was nearly finished with the book, but I do think it helped a lot in terms of defining the settings.
I enjoyed the research. I've written short stories which are contemporary where little or no research was necessary, and then I've written some historical fiction like this novel, and it's kind of nice to be able to do research and look for interesting details. Sometimes you find a detail or some element of story in the research that you know is intriguing and something you immediately know you want to include in your story. It can be a little more difficult when you are working with stuff you are just making up out of your head; it's harder to be sure that what you're making up in your mind will be interesting to other people. That's something I enjoy about historical writing, you have more of an objective view of the elements that you're including in the book.
BOOKTHINK: Was there any particular inspiration that led you to write about a young man from the Midwest caught up in the agonies of WWII?
ARVIN: It started with Eddie Slovik. While looking for ideas for a short story, I was Googling "Detroit," and I pulled up an article in the Detroit News about Eddie Slovik and his story. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Eddie Slovik, a private in the U.S. Army during WWII, was the first American soldier to be executed for desertion since the American Civil War; his death plays a pivotal role in Arvin's book.) I went back and looked for other articles about him. I hadn't ever heard of him. There was a TV movie made about him starring Martin Sheen that came out, I think, in the late 70s, which was before my time. I know that when I mentioned it to my dad, he remembered the movie. Eddie Slovik's story got me thinking about, particularly in a draft war like World War II, how you just take everybody who meets certain physical requirements, and end up pulling in people like Eddie Slovik. From everything I've read, he wasn't suited to be a soldier. And he understood that, and that's probably the irony of it. It's a very morally complex issue.
BOOKTHINK: I kept thinking how brave Heck was and in the book, and he thought he was a coward. I was wondering how many of us could bear up under those circumstances.
ARVIN: Yeah, that's what I was going towards - that he was someone who was really trying to do his duty as the army defined it, but some other level of his mind wasn't willing to go forward. I'm drawn to these situations where the essential things people believe or want are put into conflict with each other, and they have to work through it.
BOOKTHINK: And the ending was interesting - I prefer it when an author doesn't wind up everything too neatly for you.
ARVIN: Some people love that ending, and some people hate it. It seemed like a story that shouldn't have a conclusion. I wanted to leave a door open, not make the ending too definitive.
BOOKTHINK: What are your writing habits? Is there any particular routine that works best for you?
ARVIN: Traditionally, I've done most of my writing in the morning, but I find that's changing somewhat now. I work on a laptop, and I'm able to distract myself endlessly with the internet. So I try to find a quiet place where there isn't any WIFI, where there is the least amount of distraction.
BOOKTHINK: You wrote a delightful book of short stories (In the Electric Eden, Penguin Books, 2003), and you've also had short stories published in magazines. As a writer, do you prefer the short story?
ARVIN: No, I like them both. Usually if I've been working in one form or the other for awhile, I start craving the other one. I've been working on a second novel for quite awhile now. But I've given myself a break for the last month, and I've been working on short stories. It's been nice because I've been feeling a lot of energy and feeling creative and enjoying working on the short stories.
I had a short story, "Along the Highways," published in The New Yorker last year. There's no better place to publish a story than The New Yorker - it was a real thrill when they accepted that.
BOOKTHINK: Recently, I read your story "What They Teach You in Engineering School" from In the Electric Eden. I really enjoyed this story - there's so much irony in life, and the story rings true. I could feel this character wanting approval from his dad so badly, and to see him keep coming upon situations where he couldn't win it was painful, and yet the story had a certain beauty to it.
ARVIN: When I was in Iowa at the Workshop, I wrote that story in the class with Ethan Canin. He is a doctor as well as a writer, and he said it rang true for him, in part because he also has had the similar experience of being expected to know things medically that he doesn't know - even when you're supposed to be an expert, there's only so much in a particular field you can really know. I've certainly had that experience of something going wrong with somebody's car, and hearing, "Well, you're the engineer, you should know what the problem is." It gets sort of laborious to try to explain the difference between a mechanic and an engineer.
BOOKTHINK: Who are some of your favorite writers?
Most recently I've enjoyed some of the work Edward P. Jones has published. His novel The Known World was great, and he's got some wonderful short stories. I just finished Independence Day by Richard Ford, and I liked that a lot. I've always like Alice Munro. And Virginia Woolf is a writer I keep coming back to; there's something about Mrs. Dalloway I like very much.
BOOKTHINK: You are on the faculty of the Lighthouse Writer's Workshop. Can you tell us a little about that organization?
ARVIN: It's a non-profit organization here in Denver. They do a number of things - more recently they've started getting into working with middle school and high school aged kids, working with them to improve their writing, working with them on poetry and fiction. The workshop started out as an MFA quality teaching program that doesn't require you to actually quit your job, offering evening classes that fit into people's work schedules.
I don't teach a lot for them, but I am teaching one class right now that meets once every two weeks, and we are working on longer short stories and novellas. It's really enjoyable; it's a great way for me to keep in touch with the literary community here and to talk to people who are as passionate about fiction and writing as I am. A lot of the students are really good writers, and I learn quite a lot from reading their work and listening to them talk about each other's stories as they try to figure out how to make them better.
Writing by itself is such a lonely profession, so much of it just sitting in a room by yourself and trying to channel your thoughts in a creative direction. It's nice to have a way to connect with people through the workshop.
BOOKTHINK: Can you tell us anything about your next novel?
ARVIN: It's not under contract yet; it's about half done. I'm trying to work some of the accident reconstruction work I've experienced into a novel. So I'm working with a character who is involved with that work and eventually is involved in an accident himself.
One of the things that is really interesting about that type of work is that on the job, you focus very obsessively on the four or five seconds before and during an accident. You spend hours and hours focusing on that period. But what's really important is what happens afterwards, in the ways that an accident changes people's lives, at least from a storyteller's point of view. As an engineer working on these things, what's important is not what happens to people's lives, but the details - how long is this tire mark or similar facts. It's a very strange way of looking at things because you're aware at some level in the back of your head that people's lives have been wrecked or changed by this accident, and yet you have to be concerned about how many degrees the steering wheel turned.
BOOKTHINK: I am certainly looking forward to your next novel - and I am sure we'll be hearing more about you and your work in the future. Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.
ARVIN: It's been my pleasure.
Fiction by Nick Arvin:
"Along the Highways," The New Yorker, May 9, 2005
In the Electric Eden: Stories, Penguin Books, 2003. ISBN: 0142002569
Articles of War , Doubleday, 2005. ISBN: 0385512775. Anchor, 2006. ISBN: 1400077346. (Available from Doubleday/Anchor in North America and from Hutchinson in the U.K. Audiobook version by Highbridge available on cassette or CD.)
For further information, visit
< to previous article to next article >
Questions or comments?