The Process and the Witchcraft: An Interview with Nick White

by K.R. Mullins

K.R. Mullins: Thank you so much for speaking with us! I want to start this off by just asking a little bit about your relationship to craft. How do you think about your process of writing and storytelling?

Nick White: So, I would say my process is very chaotic. One of the things that I have learned is that every project I work on, whether it is a short story, a flash piece, or a novel, it teaches me something that I didn’t know before. With each new project, we’re inclined to think that once we finish that we’ll have learned something and we’ve grown as a writer. In some ways that’s true, but that comes later. At the very beginning of a project it’s always felt like I’m starting over. I feel a constant sense of starting over from scratch and that is both exhilarating, because it’s like “oh there’s all this possibility!” but it can also be deeply overwhelming. I have found that, for me, drafting, having time to work during the week, keeping myself on task—that’s the focus of my process.

Craft comes later for me always, in revision, once I have what Anne Lamont calls the “shitty first draft.” We can equate this to other art forms. I talk to my students about this idea of making pottery, where usually we would think of the messy draft as being that clay that you put on the wheel and spin, but for me I want to go even deeper than that. Starting out is like going to the river and scrounging the mud and the clay up with my hands and toting that back. For me, that is what drafting feels like. It’s getting the clay with my bare hands and getting filthy and getting in there and it’s just a huge mess.

Craft is the tools that I use after I’ve gotten the gunk out of the river. But for me, that getting the gunk is always the hardest, and the most intimidating. I know intellectually that this is the process and it’s going to be fine, but every time I restart that process anew, it’s always intimidating and it always feels like, “oh my god, am I going to be able to do it?”

Right now, I’m working on a novel and it takes place at a queer commune in the backwoods of Mississippi. A different character comes to live on this commune. For my first year, maybe even two years of working on this project, I spent a lot of time researching various parts of the queer community that weren’t taught to me in school, like the Radical Faerie movement of the late 1970s. I spent a lot of time just lost to research because it was so interesting to me as a queer person, as a gay person, reading about these people who came before me. People, for example, like Harry Hay, who had radical ideas that many people would still consider radical today. This was from a time before AIDS, when the queer community was really trying to figure out who we are and what we are going to do in a meaningful way. Reading his writing and reading the writings of other radical fairies or on other queer folks at that time was just so wonderful, feeling like “oh my god, this is my history!” and I got lost to that. At some point, I had to remember that I was telling a story here, and I need to write at some point.

So the process for me has been starting with the research, taking notes, interviewing people, reading books, and then I had to start writing, sitting down and drafting every day. Working on a novel feels like working on a very small portion of the quilt to me. I can only see that portion of the quilt right now because I’m so close to it. Sometimes I’m drafting and I don’t realize that I’ve changed things, because I’m just moving the threads around. Sometimes I’ll move a thread and not realize that I’ve gotten one part looking great, but I’ve screwed up a bunch of other stuff. Which is to say, for me, focusing on craft first is a mistake. I think other writers can, but for me, it’s a mistake to try to be too organized or think too much about craft. I have to just be messy and get that shitty first draft out. Once I have that, I feel like then I have something tangible I can work with, and it feels a lot easier to get my hands around it.

KRM: I really like this! I agree with you—there is so much of queer history that we just aren’t taught in school, and doing that research first can be so deeply rewarding, both for the work and on a personal level. I’m curious, because you mentioned that you’re starting with research, but you also talked about that entry point into the work, that idea of going to get the mud from the river before you can even start to work with it. How do you decide, to use the metaphor, where to source the mud? Do you start with a kernel of a story, or do you discover that in research? 

NW: Oh, I start with the story. I start with the kernel of the story, which always comes from things that have happened in my past. For this current project, I’m thinking a lot about where I grew up. I grew up in the country, in the woods of Mississippi in an area that they call Possumneck, which is very small. I’ve written about it before—being from there. But that’s where I grew up, near small towns but sort of away from small towns too, because I was deep in the woods. My parents, my mom’s family, everyone all lived on one road, a county road in between two counties, one very affluent, one very poor. This is near Black River, which is sort of central Mississippi. You can imagine, growing up with that large family around me, there were always these dramas upon dramas that I’ve lived with. 

I don’t know why, but one of the things that I remember and was thinking about a lot was this home for troubled teens or teens who were in the foster system that was just up the road from us. 

One night, one of the girls ran away from the home, and she found her way to our little place in the country. She was going up and down the houses knocking on the doors, in the middle of night, asking for water and food. I think I was around 12 at the time, maybe younger. I remember being awake because I used to stay up late at night, and I remember being in my room and hearing someone knock on the door and being freaked out because we’re in the middle of nowhere. You know how our imaginations work when we’re young, so I’m trying to figure out if I really heard that sound, and then thinking “oh my god it’s ghosts” or something. I remember poking my head outside and no one was there. That was spooky in itself. We learned later she went through other houses and eventually found her way to my Aunt Patsy’s house. Patsy is a night owl like myself, so she found the girl and brought her some water. I can’t remember why she was running away or anything that came after the story. I just remember that notion of someone wandering around in the woods while everyone was sleeping. I was struck by just how much she wanted to get away, you know? To go into the country in the dark in the woods, the idea of the mix of courage and desperation that it takes to run away, and then to start knocking on doors. 

That has always stayed with me, that moment. That is where the novel idea began, using the story of a young teenage girl escaping a situation and ending up in the woods. In my project, she finds a queer commune of men, and that’s what I’m working on, what it is for her to be there, how her presence disrupts it, but also how this brings them all together in a shared mission to help her. That was the very, very smallest kernel of the story that has since developed and gone on, but that is where it began.

I was already thinking about communes and Radical Faerie sanctuaries and that sort of thing because a couple of years ago, I was at the Sewanee Writing Conference, which I highly recommend, and someone told me that there was a huge Radical Faerie Sanctuary on the mountain nearby. And I was like, what is a Radical Faerie? What is this? You know, what is this magical place? And then, through that learning about other sanctuaries, other queer spaces in the woods, I had these two ideas of the girl in the woods and the Radical Faerie Sanctuary, and I brought them together.

KRM: That is incredible. I’m thinking about the parallels between this and your first novel, How to Survive a Summer. I’m struck by how this new project is a safe space for queer people in the woods, as opposed to the conversion camp in the woods where that novel is set, which is obviously a stark contrast to what you’re writing now.

NW: Yeah, I’m going back to the woods! I’m going back to the woods and trying to queer the space.

KRM: I love it. It’s like there’s a reclamation aspect, right? I have a question about the structure in your novel How to Survive a Summer actually. In the book, I feel like you structure the narrator’s unique relationship to trauma in a non-linear way. We have the present, and we have the past, but it does hop back and forth. I’m curious about your decision to move between past and present timelines, and the craft behind that.

NW: Yeah, I think I wanted us to go back and forth in time. I imagined the trauma as kind of a “thing” at the center, this awful trauma that happened at this camp, and in my mind I was working with the idea of the novel moving between past and present to circle around and get closer and closer to this white hot heat of that trauma, like pebbles in a pond, rippling out throughout our narrator’s life. I don’t know if that’s craft, or psychological, or witchcraft, but that’s what I was thinking. 

KRM: That’s fascinating, because something else that really struck me about the novel was its handling of the trauma at the center of it. Without giving spoilers, I noticed that one of the things that this novel does is that it subverts a lot of traditional trauma narratives. There’s a lead up that suggests the center of this novel will be one grand moment, but then it ends up taking another direction entirely. And by misdirecting reader expectations, I felt like the novel could then show the full scope of the horror that’s been happening the whole time, all the moments before and all the moments that come after. It feels like you’re pointing to the fact that this type of trauma is not quantifiable, while also opening the door for that sort of reclamation space we mentioned earlier. I’m fascinated by that, so I’m curious about some of the decisions you make when you think about how to tell stories that are about oppression, about queer oppression, about trauma without kind of falling into a trap of making those stories only trauma.

NW: Thank you so much for that. It’s interesting to think about that book now, because I feel so separated from it. But I think in my mind I was trying to do exactly what you were saying, showing that it wasn’t just one thing. It could never be just one thing.

Often, as a writer I think about the truth of experience. And oftentimes—this is not a complete binary—but oftentimes I can definitely understand the impulse to flatten the truth of experience to fit a tidier narrative. I really wanted to resist that as much as possible, while still understanding that my reader wants to have a good story told to them. That has always been something that I think about, especially in terms of telling queer stories. 

I read this wonderful book by Jane Allison called Meander, Spiral, Explode. It’s about experimental narrative structures. It’s kind of a wacky book, but I loved it. She uses these natural phenomena to explain various forms narrative structure can take. She starts off with the most classic one, which we remember from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction where she takes the three-act structure and turns it into the inverted check mark, and that’s how you write a short story: rising action climax, falling action, all of that. I think that’s really useful, but Allison uses that to talk about a wave. Then she starts talking about other forms that occur that stories take. She has a wavelet, she has a spiral. She talks about how a novel can exist in cells. She has all these different patterns and it was really useful for me in thinking about the ways in which my own stories don’t have to follow the form that was laid out of rising action, climax, falling action. I can play around with that and that was really liberating for me.

When I’m thinking about a project, I need to have some idea of what I want the form to look like in the end in order to shape the story. I think I need that in order to continue to write—I need a place that I’m writing to. I’m also very cognizant of the fact that it is almost certainly going to change once I get it all out. It will all be rearranged and I am okay with that. I think it’s almost like working with scaffolding. I have the scaffold for how I think things are going to go, but once I get the stuff all together, it’s going to take a shape of its own. There’s only so much I can control as a writer because eventually the piece kind of takes on a life of its own and I have to shift to just managing it. 

I think talking about writing makes me sound like a mystic.

KRM: I think that’s often what talking about craft sounds like, especially in the abstract, because so much is universal but also deeply individual and so it’s hard to navigate the space between those. I love when a piece gets to that place of surrender where your plan falls apart and the work takes over.

NW: Absolutely, yeah.

KRM: How do you approach longer and shorter work differently? How are those processes different for you? Or do they start out different but then become the same? 

NW: I think we all have biases as writers and readers, things that we really like when we read and things that we get caught up in when we’re crafting a piece, whether it’s a short story or a flash piece or a novel. I find it really grounding to start a piece as close to a fictional scene as possible. That’s always been a grounding force for me. This is how I teach writing, too. There’s this great book by Sandra Schofield called The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer and I teach sections of that book in my workshop all the time just because I think it’s a brilliant way to think about fiction through the use of scene. For me, scene is like, the first building block, regardless of length.

Right now I am going most specifically back and forth between my novel project and flash fiction. I find on days that I teach, I’m not able to relax my brain enough to approach the novel, but I still like that feeling of having written, and so flash has really been an open space for me to work on something shorter. In flash, it’s more important what you leave out than what you put in. That may be true for novels and short stories too, but I recognize it most in flash. Flash is the art of omission, and letting implication and ambiguity serve the reader. I love that because I think it pushes me to be a more careful writer on the sentence level. I love spending time on flash on the days I can’t get into the novel, using flash to just think about sentences and moving sentences around. It’s a lot of fun for me. 

KRM: Definitely. And flash is a very expedited process because you can get the whole first draft down in a much shorter time.

NW: Yeah, and it’s almost like a confidence builder too, I think, working on flash. I can spend an inordinate amount of time on one paragraph in the novel and then by the time I’ve finished I’m like, “oh my god, I am not a writer, I am awful. I should never write again.” With flash it’s like, “oh, hey, I do kind of know what I’m doing” or “maybe I’m not as inept as I thought.” Or maybe I am as inept as I thought, but the genre of flash allows me to lie to myself more.

KRM: Absolutely. Since we’re talking about shorter fiction, and you are judging our contest, I want to ask an impossible question. What is it that you look for in short fiction? What is it that grabs you when you’re reading?

NW: Oh, this is probably going to be an unsatisfactory answer, and I am plagiarizing Benjamin Percy who was plagiarizing Barry Hannah, another Southern writer. But Benjamin Percy has this great craft book called Thrill Me. It’s a collection of essays that he wrote and he has a great one on making the ordinary extraordinary. It’s kind of a spin-off of Charles Baxter’s “Defamiliarization” essay, which I like to teach my students. The title comes from a conversation—and I’m going to get this wrong so full disclosure, this is not the exact right story, this is the broken story I remember being told to me from someone else who heard it from someone else—but I remember being told that Benjamin Percy was in a workshop where Barry Hannah was teacher. Someone, maybe Benjamin Percy, asked Barry Hannah what he was looking for in fiction and he just looked at them and said “thrill me.” You know, thrill me.

I think that’s what I’m looking for. I love all genres. I’m a very promiscuous reader. I read a lot of different things. I think it’s healthy to read multiple books at one time. I think going into a contest like this, it’s more important for me to keep an open mind and just enjoy the stories when I’m reading them for what they are, and letting them take me where they want to take me. I’m very excited. This is so fun. This is one of the most fun things to do, to judge a contest like this.

KRM: I can imagine, and thank you again. We’re so excited to have you.  That’s all the questions that I have but I wonder if there’s anything else that you want to add or something we didn’t talk about that you’d like writers to know.

NW: Sure, absolutely. I think a lot of beginning writers think that just because they are new to this, or because they feel insecure, that means that they shouldn’t write. But this feeling of insecurity and this feeling of, “oh my god, I’m not good enough” or “there’s so many people better than me” or “does this even matter?”—that feeling is something that every writer I’ve ever spoken to, whether they have won the Pulitzer Prize or not, has felt, and feels at regular intervals during a project, before a project, after a project. That’s normal. 

One would think validation would help , right? From workshop, or from publication, but validation is not lasting. There are many people who will tell you you’re doing well, and there’s just as many, if not more, who will tell you they don’t care, you’re not doing well, your stuff doesn’t matter. 

The thing that keeps me going back to the page is the process. I enjoy the process of creation, the process of writing, and something that I have fallen in love with time and time again is teaching myself and re-teaching myself to really value and respect the process of making things with words, with language. And that is the thing that keeps me coming back. Regardless of whatever may come of it, whatever the final product might be. I think that the process of spending the days of our lives writing, communing with language and our imagination—that is the closest thing that I have in my life to a spiritual practice.

Parts of this conversation have been edited and condensed for clarity.

You can find Nick White at his website:

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