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At 33, Nick Arvin is a rising star in the galaxy of American literature. His collection of short stories In the Electric Eden has received glowing reviews, The New Yorker recently published his story "Along the Highways," and his debut novel, Articles of War, was selected as one of Esquire's Books of the Year in 2005.
The American Academy of Arts and Letters has recognized him with the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and he has also been awarded a Michener Fellowship. Nick currently lives in Denver, Colorado, where he is on the faculty of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
Articles of War is the story of George Tilson (nicknamed 'Heck' for his refusal to use profanity), an innocent eighteen year old from Iowa who is drafted by the Army and sent headlong into combat in World War II's European theater. Though we observe many battles in this book, the most heart wrenching is Heck's battle with his own fear as he struggles to accept his cowardice and the shame that accompanies it. The climax of the book arrives when he receives a dreadful special assignment; this becomes the ultimate collision of his conflicts about himself, his rational fears, and the severe demands of war.
Never having been a big fan of war novels, at first I resisted reading Articles of War, but reviews like these convinced me to reconsider:
"[A] short, furious novel ... Articles of War presents a tough and visceral vision of war as 'a universe unto itself' and a moral crucible." (New York Times)
"Not typical first novel material: a deeply affecting story of a young Midwestern soldier's struggle between courage and cowardice during the last year of World War II, written with such emotional acuity and elegant minimalism that comparisons to Crane, Mailer and Hemingway seem inevitable." (The Journal News)
"Shatters the monolithic facade of war ... Articles of War stands out as a surprising achievement for our times ... and far transcends any boundaries of war literature." (The Bloomsbury Review)
I am very glad that I overcame my initial trepidation. I enjoyed this novel from first sentence to last, quickly empathizing with Heck. Arvin explores the turmoil and confusion of mortal combat with insightful and graphic detail.
Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Nick Arvin:
BOOKTHINK: Thank you for talking with me today. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
ARVIN: I grew up in Michigan. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, and I completed a master's degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford; from there I went to work for Ford for about three years. I quit Ford when I went to the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
BOOKTHINK: You still do some work in engineering, am I correct?
ARVIN: I did until about a year ago. I spent about three years here in Denver working for a forensic engineering company. I was basically supporting the engineers to testify as expert witnesses in court cases, primarily working on car crashes and looking at the physical evidence like tire marks and crush to the vehicle, to reconstruct what had actually happened. I was working part-time for them, which was an ideal situation. I quit after the company broke up, but this was right around the time that Articles of War came out. Financially, that book has done pretty well for me, and that gave me some flexibility to take some time off.
BOOKTHINK: How long have you been writing?
ARVIN: The first fiction that I wrote was in high school. I spent a summer writing several short stories to amuse myself. I probably got the idea from my mother who wrote short stories and some novels. She had one or two stories published in literary journals, but she was never able to sell any of her novels. So I developed a strong sense that writing was a terrible career.
Actually, in college, I thought about switching to an English major because I wanted to write. But I ended up sticking with engineering. I enjoyed engineering, and I figured I'd be able to be an engineer and write a lot more easily than I could be a writer and try to work in some engineering in as well. It's nice to have a career that actually pays money to fall back on as a writer.
I got serious about writing after I got out of Stanford and while I was working as an automotive engineer for Ford. Ford was a big company, and it was difficult to feel like you were actually getting anything accomplished. That motivated me to focus on the writing. So I would write every evening for a couple hours after I got home from work and kept that up until I got to Iowa.
Different things work for different people. But I'm glad I stayed in engineering. I think it gives me a perspective that's a little different from most writers. You don't need to be an English major to write fiction. If anything, it might hinder you because you start thinking in terms of literary criticism. I've never found thinking that way about my writing in advance is helpful at all. I try to think of it as storytelling, and keeping a reader interested. Ultimately you hope to weave in a certain amount of irony and metaphor and things like that, but that's the icing on the cake.
BOOKTHINK: You are a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
It's a very old program. Flannery O'Connor was one of their early graduates. It was a wonderful experience for me, I think because I'd had a job as an engineer and had tried to write in the little bit of time I had left over, and when I went off to graduate school to study writing, I had permission to write all day every day. It's a program that really emphasizes getting out of your way and giving you as much time as possible to write. There's one workshop a week where there is a teacher facilitating, and you sit around with maybe a dozen other students and talk about each other's stories. Other than that, the class time demands are minimal. There are other classes you can take, classes offered within the Workshop, literature classes in the English Department - actually you can take classes anywhere in the University. But, you know, I avoided those classes. I mostly wanted to write.
BOOKTHINK: How difficult is it to get into the Iowa Writers' Workshop?
ARVIN: It's pretty competitive. I think when I was there, about 5% of the applicants got admitted. When you apply, you send in stories and write an essay about why you want to be there and send letters of recommendation - all the things that are usually required in an admissions process. But basically they take out everything except those short stories and give them to a group of students to read. A couple of different students read every story and give them a rating, I think, from 1 to 5 with comments. Those get passed on to the faculty. Frank Conrad was head of the program at that time, and he actually was still going through and reading every application. It was a big thrill for me just to get into the program.
BOOKTHINK: You received excellent reviews from a number of distinguished critics for your first novel, Articles of War. Did the book-buying public respond as well as the literary critics?
The critics' reviews were really gratifying. In terms of sales, it did quite well, but wasn't a real break-out. One thing that's been interesting to me is people's reaction to Articles of War. Recently, at a book signing in California there was a woman who came up and talked to me about the book. This woman said she didn't usually like war novels, but she really liked this one. That's something several women have said to me ... that they liked this book, even though they don't like war novels. I think that may be because I'm trying very hard in that book to examine Heck's feelings, and particularly fear, which seems like a very rational and obvious thing to feel. But that feeling is often generally glossed over in a lot of writing about war. His emotions make sense for what is going on around him.
BOOKTHINK: Your descriptions are vivid. When I read Articles of War, I felt such sympathy for Heck. He was such a likeable character, and it was easy to feel you were there with him.
ARVIN: Thank you. I try very hard to find the right words, the right sentence to encapsulate something. I think by natural inclination, if I can say something in a sentence rather than in a paragraph, or in a paragraph rather than a chapter, I'd rather do that.
BOOKTHINK: Your writing has been described as "spare, clear, precise" ... do you think you see words and communication differently as an engineer?
ARVIN: That's something I wonder about, and I don't know - it's sort of a chicken or the egg thing. I don't know if I became an engineer because I tend to think that way anyway, or to what extent the training in engineering led me to that kind of thinking and writing. But I definitely prize precision and conciseness. There are books that are very wordy and go on and on that are just beautiful, and I love those books too, but I don't try to be that kind of writer.
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.)
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