Updated: Jun 17
by Maryanne Knight
When it comes to writing, Nick Barner is just getting started. An experienced chef and farmer, Nick is turning his hand to a different type of creative work with impressive results. His short story, "Hex Education," featured in Santa Barbara Literary Journal: Volume 6, masterfully portrays a 17th-century New England winter in a chilling first-person narrative from the widowed school teacher, one year from the passing of her spouse. Personable, with an easy-going manner, Nick and I talked about life and writing.
Maryanne Knight: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Nick Barner: I'm from Maine, originally, back in Maine now, temporarily. Education-wise I went to art school in Chicago as a teenager, and then I've cooked and farmed for the rest of my adult life. I am going back to school to get an MFA in creative writing, but I've been a cook and a chef and a farmer for the past decade. That's what I've loved doing. And most of that time, I've been writing, too, definitely in the second half of that career. That's what I'm pursuing as the more primary path in my life right now.
MK: What got you interested in being writer and a storyteller?
NB: Writing has been something that I had turned to kind of rarely, but at more crucial points in my life, before I started taking it up all the time. For a long time, it's been in the back of my mind as something that I wanted to do or try, but never gave myself a lot of permission to do. I thought that would be a change that I'd make concurrently with moving from cooking to farming, and I think that worked out pretty well. And being in Los Angeles was really great, because it was really easy to access a community of people trying to write. I joined writing groups and had a lot of friends and creative spheres there, people who were open minded about sharing drafts and working on some more experimental projects and everything. It was a great place to get going.
As far as influences, I am pretty all over the map, but I've always been influenced by weirder stuff, or stuff that is considered weirder. In terms of classics, I really like Poe, and I unabashedly am a huge fan of Joyce, too. Most of those older authors gave me some permission to really just go into my own weird proclivities and dive a little deeper and not be afraid to make some stuff that I didn't know where it would wind up. And then, more contemporary stuff. I am really into Samuel R. Delaney, a sci fi author. And Brian Evanson is a really big influence on me right now. So is Jessie Ball.
MK: Your story in Volume 6, "Hex Education," takes place in the middle of a very harsh winter in 17th-century New England. You did a really good job of conveying the sense of despair that February in New England can have, which the whole settlement had. What got you writing about this time and place? And why this story?
NB: I set a lot of stories before this one in New England, because I was writing in L.A., and at this time, it was in the middle of some of the worst smoky air from the wildfires. We’d wake up every morning and have a headache from smoke inhalation. So, it was maybe missing New England, although I ended up writing about the worst, most harsh parts of living there. Also, I was trying to convey what might have pushed this character to become the person that she was, and I think the weather, really harsh weather that you're unprepared for, can be really harrowing. It can be a humbling, even spiritual experience, and spirituality was a really big part of Calvinist life. I thought of that like a man versus nature, like doom in the hearts of the citizens, and everything like that. That was the vibe that I was going for. I was also reading Moby Dick, and reading a lot of descriptions of bad weather and its negative consequences.
"It had been February when I lost him and now it was February again. Both months felt sunless. The ground was deep crusted snow when he died. I had been trudging homeward from the Brewster’s. I hauled with me an armful of split cedar. My husband and I had burned our wood already, and he was succumbing to the chill. That was when I noticed through the dark window my love’s face, expression stuck, eyes bearing forward like two painted coins. At first I smiled to see him upright, but then I understood. I ran inside, touched his cheek, unfolded his body like a stuck hinge. I laid him flat, put my face to his belly, let my tears find his shirt." -Hex Education
MK: It felt like you really knew the history of the place. You never state exactly what year it is or what community it is. But I felt like I could almost pinpoint both the time and place, just looking up a few of the references that you made. One of the things that you really did well was your choice of language. What did you do to get your language right?
NB: Most of it is just about feeling. But I did a lot of research. I limited her vocabulary to what she would be actually experiencing, just trying to be in the protagonist's head and, not talk about things she wouldn't know about. I did a lot of research about, not this particular settlement, which isn't real, it is a fictional one, because I wanted to avoid getting bogged down in a real historical fiction story, but about the Calvinist settlers of New England. Some of their remaining firsthand accounts of what they were having a lot of trouble with. And so there's some really interesting language in that, there's a lot of real gems.
MK: You do a great job of getting into a character's head. How do you do that?
NB: I don't know if it's something I'm aware of when I'm doing it, but that's how I develop the style of the story. I really think a lot about matching the style and voice to the form of the story. And so, in order to find the specific style of a specific story, especially in a first-person story, I naturally go deeply into the perspective of the protagonist, and try to come up with some ways that would make these stories their specific stories. That results in some very deep, personal, first-person narrative. I think of that as the point of first-person, most of the time, unless it's like a Great Gatsby style, where it's not really about the narrator.
"A decayed pumpkin is the hex-most thing a nostril can waft, Ephraim had once said to me. He’d harvested a vine, found one rotten. But a fresh one is ambrosia, he’d added. He then took his knife, cleaved into a bulging fruit, presented me an orange slice. The squash’s inner hue was so brilliant, its rind so vivid and hard. Ephraim was right. It smelled of private pleasure, something for which He would forgive a little greed." -Hex Education
MK: I am always curious how other writers fit writing into their busy lives, because that's one of the most important things, making the time for it.
NB: I am a routine-oriented person. I usually have a strict writing routine. Strict is the wrong word, because I want to do it. I'm more productive when I have a busy schedule. That's just who I am, because I live by a calendar, and, I just dedicate all of my free time to writing. Virtually all of it.
I write mostly in the morning, but I try to be good at writing at any time, because sometimes there isn't a lot of it. And sometimes, you gotta write after work, even though maybe you're tired, and would like to do something else. After you get going, you don't want to do anything else. I think that's probably the part that a lot of people stop at is just getting going. If you just sit down and start, you're likely to write for a while, and then you can get a lot done. And don't work on too many things at a time. I am very tempted to start like a million stories. I have a lot of ideas, and I want to just get them on the page. But, I think I'm pretty good about remembering to actually finish things. And then, you can move on, and check out the notebook where you wrote down all those ideas, and you probably find that a lot of them are awful anyway.
Ultimately, it's a matter of scheduling, like anything else. If you have three jobs, you can still work it out. So if you have one or two jobs, you can probably also write.
Listen to Nick read from his story on our YouTube channel!
You can follow Nick at nicholasbarner.com.
M.K. Knight has been an active participant in the Santa Barbara Writers Conference since 2013. Her short stories “The Demon Lover” and “Solipsicity” are featured in Volumes 2 and 5 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. M.K. lives in Southern California.