Interview by Paul Polycarpou; Photography by Jerry Atnip
J. Kline is a man with a plan. Recently relocating to Nashville from Eastern New Mexico University, Kline has accepted the presidency and the challenge of Watkins College. And he is loving it. Bold new plans to expand the facility are already in place, and you can feel the electricity crackling through the hallways. This one-time playwright and card-carrying actor is ready for his next scene and for his close-up.
Which living person do you most admire?
I will never forget the best teacher I ever had—John Clark Pratt, an English Professor at Colorado State where I went as an undergrad. He gave me terrific instruction on how to be a writer, through a combination of kindness and critique. He was also Ken Kesey’s editor, a novelist, and a career Air Force fighter pilot. That’s a pretty high bar.
Who would you like to have a long conversation with?
Maybe the novelist Thomas McGuane. A brilliant writer with a great understanding of human nature. He has a gift for articulating the not uncommon, cascading continuum of bad decisions men can make.
What was the last great book you read?
Purity by Jonathan Franzen.
The last great movie?
The Godfather, for the eleven-billionth time. I think it’s just perfect.
What’s the hardest part of what you do?
There’s nothing I don’t like doing. The most challenging aspect is that I have the primary responsibility for the perpetuation of this institution and, more important, the people who make us up.
What gives you the most satisfaction?
We’re educating artists, and for me there is nothing more important than that.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I watch a lot of politics. For me it’s an art form. I like the discussion. I feel very privileged to live in this country at this time for the freedom of thought and expression we get to enjoy.
What do you think of the art galleries in Nashville?
Zeitgeist is great. The Red Arrow Gallery is interesting to me every time I’m out there. Fortunately for us there are a lot of really good art galleries in town.
What music do you listen to?
Right now I’m addicted to Lake Street Dive; I like the blues. My favorite song is “Nessun Dorma,” which I acknowledge is a cliché; after that “Thunder Road” by Springsteen.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I don’t drink cheap liquor. I don’t drink that much liquor, mind you, but I’ve given myself permission to have the good stuff.
What’s your greatest fear?
I try to live in the moment; I have wishes but not expectations. That said, the responsibility for the institution sometimes keeps me awake at night.
What’s your motto?
It’s not enough to be an abstract good person; you must do good works.
Who’s your favorite artist?
Rauschenberg. I have always loved art, but a visit to a Rauschenberg exhibit at the National Gallery in D.C. left me enamored and challenged and changed my perception of modern abstract art.
What do you like most about Nashville?
It’s a real Southern town and although not by birth, I am by inclination a Southerner. There’s a genuineness and a warmth here that I have not found in other places I have lived.
What do you like least?
The traffic is a nuisance but it’s really not that bad. I lived in both D.C. and L.A.; try that for serious traffic. I’m a middle aged American with a great job. I have nothing to complain about, ever. If I have to sit in traffic in my nice car for ten minutes, for me it’s almost a privilege.
What would you tell your 12-year-old self?
You didn’t see that coming! And then I would tell him that, whatever it is, this too shall pass.
Describe the characteristic you most like about yourself?
I am almost always in a mild good mood.
And what do you like least?
I can be judgmental. I can define a person or situation by a very limited number of factors. I’m working on it.
What would you like to change about yourself?
I’m perhaps overly content with being by myself. I would like to make more of an effort to be social, but I’m kinda ok hanging out with me. We always agree on what to watch on TV.
What would surprise us to know about you?
I am personally and professionally very transparent. It’s very easy to know what I’m thinking; just ask me. I don’t have any deep, dark secrets.
What annoying habits do you have?
I am compulsively neat.
If you could live anywhere else, where would that be?
My favorite city is Venice.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
I would work in the theatre again; I was a playwright and an actor for a long time. There is nothing more immediate, frightening, and transcendent than telling a story in real time—at least for me.
What is a treasured possession?
They don’t make shrouds with pockets in them. It’s all just stuff.
What are you most proud of?
In the early 90s I wrote a play, The Angels Share, about the Vavilov Institute in Leningrad, which we toured in Russia. It was very well received in a time of U.S.-Russian tension. I’m proud of that.