UMSL alumnus examines tangled intricacies of adolescence, tragedy and human resilience in debut novel

UMSL alumnus Michael Nye and his debut novel

Michael Nye, MFA 2006, says the guidance he received from UMSL faculty members John Dalton and Mary Troy had a deep impact on him as a fiction writer. His coming-of-age story, “All the Castles Burned,” is set for release Feb. 13, and in April he’ll be giving several readings in Missouri. Nye is also the author of the story collection “Strategies Against Extinction.” (Images courtesy of Turner Publishing)

Michael Nye remembers the University of Missouri–St. Louis as the first place where he finished writing a novel. That was 12 years ago, when he was a graduate student in the MFA in Creative Writing program, and he’s attempted several other novels since.

The forthcoming “All the Castles Burned,” his first to be published, is the anticipated result of what Nye describes as his fourth try.

“There’s a lot to be said for being stubborn,” Nye says of his literary journey thus far. “I’ve been working on ‘Castles’ itself for three or four years, but scenes from it have been showing up in my fiction writing for over a decade.”

Set for release Feb. 13 from Turner Publishing, the UMSL alumnus’ book has already garnered praise from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, the latter outlet describing the coming-of-age tale as “a sports buddy novel that is surprisingly sensitive.”

Indeed, as Nye brings Owen Webb and his adolescent world to life over the course of 333 deftly crafted pages, the story has a depth to it that runs deeper than the high school hallways and basketball courts where much of it occurs. Along with the fraught nature of friendship, achievement and first love, “All the Castles Burned” explores class struggle and family tragedy.

The turbulence that the book’s teenage protagonist encounters is at times autobiographical, Nye notes. The tale takes place in his own hometown of Cincinnati, and the increasingly troubled home situation that Owen becomes desperate to avoid isn’t too far removed from Nye’s own experience growing up.

“Joseph [the father] closely mirrors my own father,” the author says.

Nye, who became the managing editor of The Missouri Review soon after earning an MFA from UMSL and moved away from the Show Me State just a couple years ago, also shares a love of basketball with his main character.

“Unlike Owen, I was pretty terrible,” Nye adds. “But I’m an active pickup basketball player and have been for years. I used to play in gyms and parks around St. Louis, and when I was in Columbia, I played at MizzouRec three days a week.”

Now based back in Ohio, where he juggles his writing alongside a full-time job doing search engine optimization for AARP, Nye is presently recovering from an injury he sustained during one such pickup game. He broke his tibia in two places in September, and he’s got several more months of bouncing back ahead of him, even as he starts to travel around to promote his new book.

“I’m back to walking, but with a limp, and it may be summer before I play again,” he says.

In April he’ll make at least three stops in Missouri, with the first scheduled for April 16 at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as part of River Styx’s reading series (plus a campus visit earlier that day as part of a noon reading series at UMSL’s Gallery 210). Nye will also visit Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau on April 17 and the Unbound Book Festival in Columbia from April 19 to 21.

He says he’s glad to revisit the Gateway City, where he has fond memories of honing his craft for three years at UMSL. Along with “critical guides” like Mary Troy and John Dalton in his pursuit of the art of the novel, he found his classmates to be a wonderful resource.

“I came into the program not knowing Marie Goyette, Reggie Poche, Seth Raab, Becky Pastor, Dylan Smith and so many others,” Nye recalls, “and the time we spent writing, reading, talking about what we were working on, taking courses together, going to events and trying to figure out what would be next was an invaluable part of my writing education.

“It’s a nurturing, supportive program that was the foundation for all the writing I’ve done in the subsequent years.”

Since his UMSL days, along with “All the Castles Burned,” Nye has published a collection of short stories, “Strategies Against Extinction” (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012). His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in American Literary Review, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Epoch, Kenyon Review, New South, Normal School, Sou’wester and South Dakota Review as well as other journals.

Asked whether he has any advice to offer other writers, Nye has two main suggestions: Read widely, and don’t quit writing.

For him that means getting up at 5:30 a.m. every day and adhering to a strict schedule of writing for three hours before diving into his other responsibilities.

Especially when he is working on a first draft of something, Nye says, it’s a real battle.

“The trouble I have with first drafts is that I don’t know where the story is going, and I find that frustrating,” he explains. “There is some joy in the process of discovery, but once I have a draft done, I know what to add, what to subtract, what to expand, what to conflate.

“The first draft is like pulling teeth, a painful process, while all the writing pleasure for me is in the hard work of revision and seeing my characters and their stories through the different prisms of each draft.”

Nye reads everyone from Stephen King to Leslie Jamison, he says. When pressed to name a few of the writers he most admires or has been influenced by, he settles on F. Scott Fitzgerald for his “prose and themes of class and ambition,” Zadie Smith for her “wit, narrative voice and storytelling,” and Richard Russo for “humor and generosity.”

As for those who pick up “All the Castles Burned,” Nye says he hopes they find it both entertaining and engaging.

“I hope they discover it to be a really good read,” he says, “something to dive into.”

The book is available for pre-order online.

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