Nathan Knapp’s debut novel, Daybook, begins with a pithy epigraph from Emil Cioran: “A writer’s ‘sources’? His shames.” The quotation serves as a guiding ethos for the book, and perhaps a challenge to its author: just how much personal and cultural shame can Knapp mine, and what shape will it come out to be? What follows are long, skillfully crafted paragraphs—without so much as a single space break—that explore childhood, fatherhood, a marriage on the skids, multiple generations of religious indoctrination, family skeletons, living and exiting and later returning to Knapp’s beloved Oklahoma woods.

This is Knapp’s homeland—the southeast corner of the state specifically, the most lawless corner, where bank robbers once hid out from the law before Christian fundamentalism took root—and he feels ambivalent about this complex place. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, deep into the coronavirus pandemic, he (or the narrator) visits his family and goes deer hunting with his grandfather. It’s a ritual for them, for most men in the area, and in those conifer woods the subject inevitably turns to death. “My papa said to me that his son, my uncle, had told him that he wanted his ashes scattered here on the day of the first snow of the year after his death.” 

Death permeates these pages all the way through. We amble along gravesites in cemeteries and battlegrounds. But desire is perhaps the book’s primary subject: sexual and aesthetic desire. How complicated these fraught impulses can be in our current era, especially if we allow ourselves to be honest about them—categories and shame be damned. This is a brave book, like no other I’ve read. It’s an attempt to reckon with the paradoxes of the American quotidian and locate rarified beauty in its crevices. We spiral in and out of a consciousness that is self-aware, vulnerable, and absolutely committed to his art.

Knapp and I spoke over video in April 2024. We discussed the impact where he grew up had on his writing, and what he thinks of language, the quotidian and taboos in literature, and more.

Jason Christian: Before we discuss the book, I want to ask you how to talk about it. It resembles a journal or testimonial in some ways, so I keep wanting to refer to “you” instead of “the narrator.” How should I speak about the book?

Nathan Knapp: I think it would be foolish for me to try to dictate how somebody received it. Whenever I’ve talked about it with my editor, he always refers to the narrator, and usually when I respond back to him, I refer to myself. But I have always been a little bit skeptical of the idea of a speaker, even in poetry. And I know that that’s sacrilegious, in some ways, to how a lot of people or even most people (especially in academia) think about the author. Certainly not how I was told to think about it in grad school. When I read a poem, I think about the poet, and when I read fiction—even when it’s obviously fiction, or obviously structured like fiction—I still think about the writer behind it. That’s who I have in my mind, regardless of how obviously made-up or not-made-up the book is. I consider myself a novelist, so I think of Daybook as a novel. At the same time, I do like how none of the official copy about the book specifically uses the word fiction. There’s a lot more anxiety, I think, about the dividing lines between what is and isn’t a novel and what is and isn’t fiction in the States than in, say, Europe or Central and South America. I’ve for a long time been drawn in the direction of blurring those distinctions. Still, I say, and insist: it’s a novel.

I’ll use “you” and “the narrator” interchangeably, then. In the book, you talk about an attempt to write a novel that didn’t go anywhere, but there was this one character that stayed with you who has a life of her own. She speaks to you as an independent entity, an autonomous being, and lays out a theory of authorship. “A novel,” you say she says, “must be written in two languages. First in the one the author knows, and then in a language the author does not know. This second language is most important . . . for it is in this unknown language that the novel itself speaks independently of its author.” Can you say a bit more about this idea?

This is a notion that’s been in my head for a while. I think that if a novel is going to be interesting in any notable or powerful way, it needs to get inside or underneath your consciousness. There’s the novel that you write in the language that you speak. But there’s also some version, or at least I hope there is, that consists of some kind of interior language that you don’t know, a kind of unconscious or deep inner part of you. As Cormac McCarthy talks about in his essay about the Kekulé Problem, our unconsciousness doesn’t even have a language, or at least doesn’t usually speak to us in the form of language. He was interested in how the unconsciousness speaks in symbols—but also how it’s this thing that we have inside of us, that’s older than us, and in some ways smarter than us, and also inextricably bound up with us, but hardly ever deigns to communicate with us directly. It’s a very curious thing to be a human being, with this whole other inaccessible part of you, that’s inside of you, that occasionally will give you a burst of wisdom or can answer a problem that you’ve been trying to solve. But it won’t just speak to you, as McCarthy points out. And I think that the notion that I write about—of writing a novel in two languages—is perhaps related, if certainly far less intelligent than the way McCarthy talks about the problem of the unconscious. I do like the idea that fiction ought to gesture towards something that you can’t know or be certain of—ideally something that you’re terrified by—but that’s also inside if you.

The way you describe it, it sounds a lot like what dreams do. And you talk about dreams all throughout this book.

A dream is like a conversation that your inner self is having with your sleeping self. There’s something really spooky to me about that. And I think that there’s also something there connected to the writing self. You know when you’re writing and the writing takes a turn for something that you didn’t know you were going to go to, whenever you end up saying something that you had no idea that you thought, and you write it down, and you recognize it as your own thought, but you’d never previously had that thought until you actually made it appear on the page? I think that there’s something really dreamlike and kind of ghost-like in that process. There’s a line somewhere in the book where I talk about how a character is like a ghostly visitation from the author to the author. Something extremely weird about the whole process.

You develop a major theme around looking (or not looking) and the implications of each, and by including this in the book, you force the reader to look at those things too. Talk to me about why you felt the need to do that in this book.

Being raised, as I was, in a fundamentalist, cloistered, backwoods environment in southeast Oklahoma, it was emphasized over and over that I shouldn’t look at or listen to certain things. I was forbidden to watch most movies that weren’t westerns or to listen to most music that wasn’t so-called Christian music. I was strictly forbidden to look at anything sexual at all as a teenager, which was impossible to do as a kid in the early aughts in the first stupid dawning of the internet, and I think that in some ways I maintained that ban on looking and transposed it onto my own sexuality as an independent adult, who no longer believed in those things. And so, part of the impulse to write this book was to be completely honest and open about sexuality in general and my sexuality in particular with myself, and then I realized that that would involve forcing the reader to do so as well. I got so embarrassed during the writing process and so mortified by the thought of other people reading it, particularly people that know me, that after writing the first sixty or seventy pages I stopped for like six months.

You write that this was a book most authors would only allow published after they were dead (if ever). 

I just sort of pretended like that was the case. But I think I say somewhere towards the end that the experiment was to have it come out while I’m alive.

I have to say, I haven’t been this embarrassed on behalf of an author since I read Knausgård.

[Laughs] That’s a great compliment to me.

It had that feeling of laying it all bare. Did it ever enter your mind that you might have to tone it down? How did you navigate that idea of being true to yourself and taking risks that might offend your family or readers?

When I wasn’t actively writing about it, yeah, I did think about how it would come across, particularly to family. When actually writing, when actually sitting at the table on my patio with my fingers on the keys: no. Not at all. I refused to tone anything down or leave anything out that felt important to me to include. It was important to rigorously not think about it while I was writing. I decided to worry about it after I was done. And then I didn’t really need to worry about it until I sold the book and the final edits were complete. At that point: yes! I worried about it! Damn near had panic attacks for a week or two after the first ARCs came in.

Let’s talk about your paragraphs. Some of them are long and contain enough material that they feel like small chapters. And there are no space breaks in the entire book. Tell me about the structure of the book and how it came to be. Was there a method or did it come out organically? 

The structure was one of the first things that came to me about the book—really only after four or five pages or so of the first draft, a couple days into working on it. I knew very early on that I would only be able to start a new paragraph at the point where I’d referenced something from an earlier paragraph. Whenever I’m beginning something new—which is usually just hoping that the thing I’m beginning is actually a thing—I’m always looking for a constraint of some kind. Some kind of blueprint inside the work that tells me how it works. For Daybook, that was the structure of the paragraph, which could only conclude once I’d made reference in it or even directly quoted some earlier line. This was both an immense relief to know, when it came to drafting, but also opened up and even emphasized the book’s strangely folded sense of time and space. It also afforded opportunities for bizarre juxtaposition, the chance to go from talking about one of my father’s hunting stories to James Joyce’s coprophilia to the day in grade school that I learned the meaning of the word poon—I’m forever grateful to the classmate who whispered this to me instead of shouting to all of my fellow fifth-graders that I didn’t know it—to the destruction of Atlanta by the army of William Tecumseh Sherman. 

Once I found that method, I knew it was a book, and was pretty sure the whole thing would work that way—as a braided pattern of image and memory. It’s definitely not something I thought through before I sat down to write it. But it was something for which I was listening. And it stayed true throughout the revision-process. There was one point in my second draft where I tried to abandon the form, and the writing died on the spot. So I went back to it. What I learned is that for me, the whole process of writing, in the drafting-sense, is an attempt to find that particular form that is peculiar to the work—and then, in the revising and editing process, to dig as deeply into the possibilities of that form as I can. 

You don’t seem to have much use for plot. What do you look for when you read a novel? What do you want out of a novel?

So, there’s this quotation from a TV interview that Bernhard gave where he says—or the subtitles read—“internal procedures that nobody sees are the only interesting thing about literature at all.” I’ve been thinking about versions of this question, or rather the answer to it, for a while, but I guess I’m looking for an intense connection to another mind. That’s all. I don’t really care what a novel is about in a narrative sense. And that’s what’s tremendously moving about a writer like Gerald Murnane—his major interest is racehorses and his file cabinets and, well, looking at stuff. Ultimately, you feel this immense connection in his work to a very particular mind. Bernhard’s books are basically one big spiraling, howling complaint, with an incredible force of hysterical rage that turns into laughter: for me, most importantly, reading him is getting to be in his head, in his soul, in his eyes and even—this is perhaps too much but I’ll say it anyway—in his mouth. It’s the same with Joyce in Ulysses and in Faulkner’s best work and Gombrowicz’s Diary and Berryman’s Dream Songs and in Sontag’s criticism, all the things I like best. You’re inside of a mind. Therefore, also, a body. That’s the attraction of fiction to me.

Jason Christian is co-host of the podcast Cold War Cinema. His writing has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Gulf Coast, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in Atlanta.

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