Three Cubic Feet is a new novella by Champaign resident Lania Knight. It’s her first book, and she will be reading from it on Wednesday, June 27th, at 4:00 p.m. at Illini Union Bookstore. The novella is about a 16-year-old boy who is gay and living in Springfield, Missouri. I spoke with Knight recently about the book’s characters, their world, how the novella was written, and Knight herself.
In Three Cubic Feet the author goes out of her way to orient the reader to Missouri in general, and Springfield in particular. An example from the book:
I slow down in a neighborhood bordering the college campus. I’m shivering. I let go of the handlebars to blow on my hands, trying to keep them warm. I recognize the huge old houses that have been converted into law offices and apartments. This is close to Tom’s house. Across the railroad and two streets over, then about five blocks down.
I asked Knight about the emphasis on setting. She explained to me that, in part, it was important in the context of the difficulties the protagonist and some of his friends experience because of their sexual orientation:
In some ways, it was important for me to kind of get it right in terms of providing a setting. One that felt real and layered. Like being able to describe the geography, the town. Another thing I felt was important is that Springfield is very conservative. It’s the headquarters for the Assemblies of God church, and several of the most ultraconservative politicians from Missouri have come from Springfield. So, even though the rest of the country is experiencing kind of a renaissance, or opening, to LGBT youth, there are a lot of pockets where it’s not happening. Where people chose not to come out to everybody — especially in a high school situation.
I didn’t go to high school in Springfield. My link to Springfield is that one of my husband’s best friends lived there, and we used to visit him a lot. So, I don’t know if Springfield High School is a place where you would actually just never tell anyone that you’re gay, but I kind of assumed that because of the general nature of how the town is. This friend of ours who is gay, he has a professional life there, and he’s very clear that there are certain people you don’t come out to. You keep it separate.
One thing that struck me about the teenage characters of Three Cubic Feet — especially the 16-year-old protagonist — is that they seem more mature and together than most of the adults they interact with. Many teenagers imagine that their parents are the source of their problems, when in reality they’re just being self-absorbed adolescents, but in this novella the kids really do seem more together. I asked Knight about this, and she replied:
I don’t think that was intentional — more of the reason that happened is because my focus is definitely on the teenagers and seeing them as very complex people and trying to give them their due. I’ve worked with a lot of youth, and people who aren’t around teenagers are either scared of them or angry at them or annoyed with them. There’s a feeling of not wanting to deal with that energy and moodiness or whatever. So my intention was to try to respect the teenagers and how complicated they are as people and how much of a struggle it is. So seeing the world through their eyes, the parents become the challenge. The parents don’t have things figured out. So, I didn’t intend to make the parents the less mature ones, but seen through the lens of the teenagers, it happened.
A book about a teenager or a gay teenager?
One of the major conflicts in the novella is between the protagonist and his stepmother, who tries to either head off problems before they happen or just creates problems where none exist, depending on how you see it. Knight described the situation to me this way:
The mother is kind of overprotective. I wanted to portray that relationship as something that typically happens between mothers and kids when the teenager is trying to pull away, be more independent, and make more decisions for himself — just how difficult that is to negotiate.
But the teenager in question is gay. I asked Knight if this was a book about a teenager with typical coming-of-age problems or a gay teenager with problems related to his sexuality. As Knight explained it, there seems to be some combination of both, but she didn’t work out the ratio beforehand:
It took me a long time to write this book, so what it was about evolved over time. I got through it and revised it several times, and each time I revised it something really big changed in it.
In the first few drafts, the parents weren’t really in it much. They were kind of sketched in. I didn’t intend to make some kind of statement — it just happened that he was gay. I didn’t say, “I’m going to write a gay character.” It was more like I wanted to write from the point of view of a male teenager, and I’m attracted to men, and I wanted to be able to represent that to the character. So it just came together.
It also felt like it was an important story for our time. So once I had that, I did a lot of work to make sure I could be authentic about it. I did a lot of interviews and read lots and lots of books. I had several gay friends — from all the way from 16 to around 57 years old — read it to try and help me gauge if I got it. Because I’m not a 16 year old year gay teenager.
Seeing characters in three dimensions — literally
Knight told me that a lot of people helped with Three Cubic Feet as it went through a number of drafts, including — unusually enough — stage actors:
My first pass through the book, I took a playwriting class when I was working on my Master’s Degree at the University of Missouri, so I had to set the book aside to write a full-length play. Then I thought, I know these characters really well, I’ll just write a play about them. The process of writing the play was the first time I got away from what it feels like to be a fiction writer — which is very solitary. You’re in your head. And with playwriting, as soon as I finished writing something up, I had to hand it to someone else and they started reading it out loud. And so I saw very quickly how I’d pass something on to someone else and it would become three dimensional. So when I went back to writing the book, everything I had seen and learned writing the play — everything the characters did on the stage was like a gift because I brought it back. So this book might be a lot more collaborative than other books.
The protagonist of Three Cubic Feet knows his local botany, since he inherited some plant taxonomies from his deceased biological mother, who was a botanical illustrator. From the book:
Wet leaves blanket the ground beneath the trunks of gnarled oaks lining the raised edges of the gravel road. The roadbed has sunk lower than the forest floor from years of erosion. Further into the woods, a hint of green, so slight it seems like a haze, shimmers beneath the hickory and sassafras and leggy saplings gliding by on either side.
I asked Knight if she shares her character’s ability to identify plant life around her, or whether it’s something she had to research for the book. She replied:
It’s definitely something I have. My first degree was in plant science and environmental conservation. I got a Bachelor’s in Science from the University of New Hamphshire. I love botany, and I studied in New Hampshire, but I lived in Missouri for almost 20 years. I fell in love with the Ozarks and I know a lot about the forests there. I was part of a forest activist group for a while. So, he gets it from me.
On the dust jacket of her book, it says of Knight, who is a transplant to Illinois, “She misses the Ozark Mountains. She blogs about writing, dreaming, teaching, and the strangeness of living in a cornfield at www.laniaknight.com.”
The “strangeness of living in a cornfield” — what’s up with that? Knight told me that she’s getting more used to living in East Central Illinois the more time she spends in C-U:
One thing that’s making it easier is that the people here are amazing. The music scene is incredible. My husband is a musician, so we’ve met a lot of people through his music. I’m meeting more people through the Red Herring writing group as well. During the summer I don’t go out of Champaign-Urbana a whole lot because I don’t teach at Charleston. So part of what reminds me that I’m living in a cornfield is when I drive to Eastern. Industrial Agriculture is not my thing; I think part of why I’m sensitive to it is that my first degree is in plant science and environmental conservation.
Also, I had lived in Missouri for a long time, and had a lot of friends there, but I’m making friends here so that helps.
So what is she working on now? It seems that her current project is kind of … dreamy. Knight explained:
I’m working on a short story collection, and it’s totally different from the book. The short stories are kind of connected by themes. They all have a myth or fairy-tale aspect. I do Jungian-based archetypal dream work with a group in Vermont. I’ve been doing that about three years. I talk to a therapist every week about my dreams and we talk about my life and stuff like that. Through the dream work that I’ve been doing, I started reading more about Jung and more about myth, so most of the stories have some sort of autobiographical element and some aspect of myth or fairy tale in them. So it’s very different from the book, where I didn’t know what the end would be when I started writing it. With these stories, I know what the end is going to be.
I enjoyed Three Cubic Feet. It reads easily while simultaneously dealing with some weighty themes. I also liked its sense of place — the descriptions of nature in particular.