I once watched Bruce Machart teach a class. It was a humbling experience. Machart was eloquent and funny and inspiring. He made me think about fiction –- the mechanics of plot, specifically, but all of fiction really -– in an entirely new way. When the class was over, I asked, only half-joking, if I could audit.
I knew Machart back then as an emerging short story writer, and I was lucky enough to read drafts of some of his subsequent work.
I felt even more fortunate to snag a galley of his first novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, which has been earning starred reviews and huge buzz.
The novel traces three generations of ornery Texan farmers and includes –- among its other attractions -– illegal horse races, family feuds, drunken adultery, and enough lyrical violence to draw comparisons to Cormac McCarthy.
Without spoiling any of the plot twists, the simplest way of putting it would be that the 40-year-old Houston native has a beautiful way with human ugliness.
I caught up with Machart in the midst of a barnstorming tour of the country.
Your prose is unusually lush. Reading the book is very much like living in the rural Texas of a century ago. Did you ever live on a farm? How did you capture it so precisely?
Thank you. It’s good to hear you say that, and especially so because I haven’t ever lived on a farm. I am a city boy, raised in Houston, but my father grew up on a cash-crop farm in south Texas, not far from where the novel is set. As a kid, I spent a few days every year in the country, mostly running into electric cattle fences and being zapped unconscious (long story) and shying away from the bulls in the pasture (short, clearly Freudian, story). As for how the country got onto this city boy’s pages…I think that’s simply what writers do. We try to pay attention to the things we don’t know. The best way into a character, for me, has always been through the body, through the five senses. Experiencing the world that way is one of the few common denominators of the human condition.
I was also struck by the insistent morality of the book. Most of your characters are damaged souls who make bad decisions, and yet you somehow resist condemning them, or granting them false redemptions. How do you manage to sympathize, I guess I’m asking, without sentimentalizing?
This is my biggest struggle as a writer, I think. I have to resist the idealism that I tend to tote around with me. Some days I am in awe of the species. Some days I’m pretty thoroughly disgusted by what we’ve done to ourselves, to each other, to the planet, etc. But I’m a realist, and I have to avoid making my characters better or worse than they are. Human beings have been screwing up in the same delectable kinds of ways since the beginning of time, and, as Lee K. Abbott once wrote, it’s the realist’s job to “write it all damned down.” In short, I love my characters because, to me, they are human beings. Loving another human being has never been dependent upon our loving every last unfortunate thing that they do or say. Who could survive being held to a standard as uncompromising as that?
Even though you’ve been publishing stories in venues like Story and Zoetrope for a decade, this is your first book. Was there ever a point in the journey where you were ready to give up?
Weekly. Every day that I managed to convince myself that I would rather drink a beer (or five) or watch a ballgame or take a nap. Each of those days is a kind of giving up, a battle of one will lost to another. But there wasn’t a day when I believed that I would give up for good. Not one. I’m not what you might call a multi-talented individual. Really, writing and teaching are the only things I do particularly well. I’ve heard writing described as a daily act of bravery. I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far. Working three dreadful jobs to keep your children fed seems brave. Typing words on a page…not so much. But if I can have it both ways, I do feel like a coward on days when I could write but manage to do something else instead.
I know you’re from Texas, so I hope it’s not obnoxious to ask if any of the stories in the book are rooted family history.
It’s not obnoxious. It’s a natural enough curiosity. I’m surprised at times that it seems to be such a pervasive curiosity, but the more I think about it, the more I recognize it as a compliment. If you’ve imagined something well enough, and gotten it vividly enough onto the page that people wonder if some kernel of it is “factual,” then I guess you’ve done your job as a writer of realism. That’s the whole point, after all–to get the reader to believe in the artifice of the art. For this book, all the events and the plotting and the dramatic situation are pure fiction. My father did once tell me a story about some boys from his home county whose father used to hitch them to a plow. There necks were permanently cocked to one side or another as a result. I heard that story many years ago, and it seemed so outrageous and impossible that I thought, Hell, if I can make that believable in a story, I’ll really have something.
What sort of research did you do, both in terms of the family archives, and the history of the region?
I went to the library in Lavaca County, where the book is set. Librarians are the finest human beings on the planet, if you ask me. They make it their vocation to help other people get what they need. I once heard Tom Franklin say that all you really need to write a novel set in the past is a Sears and Roebuck catalog from whatever year it is you’re writing about. So I got one of those. And I read all of the small-town newspapers from the surrounding four towns that printed weekly papers in 1910 and 1924. I read all of them. The ads, everything. It was important to know that there were things in the world such as California Fig Syrup, and that one could cure just about anything with it: malaise, female trouble, headaches, distemper, jaundice, bowel issues by the dozens. Anything. The stuff was freaking miraculous!
As a huge fan of your stories, I have to ask: will we be seeing a collection from Bruce Machart anytime soon?
I’m pleased to be able to answer that in the affirmative. Short stories are only slightly more marketable these days than is, say, proud and vocal liberalism. But it’s a lucky time for me. My collection, called Men in the Making, will be out next fall–also with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Most of the stories were actually written before the novel, but I’m working on the last one right damned now.