Smile Politely

Nina King Sannes discusses sustainable agriculture and fiction ahead of PYGMALION

Nina King Sannes stands against a green background. She is a white woman with reddish brown short hair.
Nina King Sannes

When most people hear PYGMALION, they think “music.” And it’s true — there are tons of excellent music events happening. But, as I wrote in my recent interview with poet Deon Robinson, I want to make a case for the non-music events also happening at the festival. Between Made Fest, the Human Library, and all the other lit events happening (all lit events are free, by the way!), there’s plenty for the more art-minded folks to check out next weekend as well.

Nina King Sannes, an MFA candidate in fiction writing, will be doing a reading at Analog Wine Library along with other third year candidates. Originally from the South, King Sannes moved to Champaign-Urbana two years ago for grad school, and says this is the largest city she has ever lived in. In addition to writing, King Sannes is in an indie folk band and is a music photographer. Ahead of her PYGMALION debut, I spoke with her about her writing process, how she handles writer’s block, and how her background in sustainable agriculture features in her fiction.  

Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: How did you get started writing fiction?

Nina King Sannes: Compared to most of my peers, I came to writing relatively late. For my first twenty odd years, I was first and foremost an avid reader. During a working class and rather isolated childhood in the rural South, reading was my key to accessing and experiencing the broader world. Additionally, much of my young life was characterized by a struggle with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, and fictional narratives — fictional worlds — were my best and most effective form of escapism.

After a realization (in the bath, no less) that if I loved books so much I bet I could try to write one, I started taking writing classes in my fourth year of college, as a challenge more than anything. And I found that I really loved it. I had been STEM-headed since childhood, and outside of musical performance I had never really delved into the arts. Having that book inside my head, having some means of expression, something to work on, even — it felt like time meant something again.

It would have come to nothing if not for Michael Koch, though. He taught the narrative fiction writing class that I took in my final year of college, and he took a special interest in me. I’m struggling with the feeling that that statement sounds self-aggrandizing, but it is more to say, I really believe that some sense of confidence is absolutely necessary to the decision to pursue a creative project, to convince yourself to keep going even when writing feels (inevitably) like pulling teeth. The interest he took in my writing nearly singlehandedly gave me that necessary confidence to move to the huge and mysterious Midwest to pursue writing. Michael Koch passed away a little more than a year ago, and I will forever be grateful for his kindness and his interest — which really did make all the difference. He is missed greatly, here and elsewhere.

SP: What is your writing routine like? Do you have a favorite place in C-U to write?

King Sannes: I have long since understood about myself that I can’t write well in my own home. I wrestled with it for years — I tried all the tricks, but there’s always the lure of the bed, chores, dogs to pet. My routine now always includes a café, and most of my novel has been written at Café Kopi or at Caffe Paradiso.

Something I wasn’t prepared for when I started writing was how comfortable I would get in the space of writer’s block. Contrary to the version of writer’s block I had seen in media — where a writer cannot bear to write a word for weeks to months, experiences something profound, then goes into a lifetime of happy profusion — at some level, writer’s block is always near me.

When I’m feeling stuck, I try to write as though no one will read it. It feels strange when you know that you are writing for an audience, hoping and praying for an audience, not to mention your thesis advisory board. I try to find that joy I felt when I was pulled out of sleep in my bedroom in the great dismal swamp of North Carolina, prying open my laptop in the dark in some furious fit of self-expression, to write something that never would, and never did, see the light of day. An underrated aspect of literary productivity (and in my book, by far the most important) is joy in the creation.

SP: I read that your writing “explores the beauties and horrors of womanhood and contains themes emerging from her background in agriculture and her upbringing in the rural South.” Can you expand on this?

King Sannes: Before entering this program, I got my undergraduate degree in sustainable agriculture, and spent much of my time working on farms. Much of my inceptive motivation for writing my novel was my immersion in my undergraduate studies, which necessarily brought with it an understanding of the precarity of our capitalist agricultural system, how the course of unchecked climate change will bring widespread destruction to our ways of farming, and to our food supply, and soon — within-our-lifetimes soon.

My work encircles themes of violence against women and the industrial agriculture. These themes seem disparate, I know, but they both betray roots of violence, of power and destruction, of resistance. My novel is set in a near-future southeast, in which the collapse of agricultural economy instigates a brutal patriarchy. My novel is essentially dystopic, and we know that dystopias are, more than anything, a critique/warning of modern power structures.

I’ve long since known about myself that immersing myself in consummately grim literature is untenable for my sanity. Therefore, in my novel, I try as much as I can to have joy be the teacher. That’s been my struggle of the 2020s, to wedge joy in amongst the destruction, and make it fit.

SP: What should people expect from your appearance at PYGMALION?

King Sannes: I will be doing a reading of a short story, and I will be reading alongside my brilliant colleagues in my third-year MFA cohort — members of both the fiction and poetry program.

SP: What are you most looking forward to at PYGMALION?

King Sannes: I’m terribly excited for the Made Fest, especially with the involvement of the Urbana Museum of Photography! Only a calamity would keep me from seeing performances by Free Range, Thelma and the Sleaze, and Kangaroo Court (a band comprised of my partner and dear friends) — as well as, of course, the readings done by my MFA cohort and our faculty.

SP: What’s next for you?

King Sannes: In this third and final year of grad school I will be polishing (i.e. rewriting) my novel under the advisership of Alex Shakar, the director of our creative writing program. I’m excited to read and write more, to photograph more, to immerse myself to the ears in the arts — and most of all, to let joy be my teacher.

PYGMALION: Creative Writing Program Readings
Analog Wine Bar
129 N Race St
Sept 23rd
Sa 7:30 p.m.

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