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Bruce Machart's debut collection of stories, Men in the Making, follows the widely acclaimed first novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, which was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the fall of 2010. Winner of the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Prize for fiction, the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association's Reading the West Prize, the novel was named a Barnes and Noble "Discover Great New Writers" selection and a New York Times Book Review "Editors' Choice." Chosen as a Top Ten title for 2010 by Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and The Wall Street Journal, the novel was a finalist for the American Booksellers Association's Indie's Choice award and the PEN/USA Literary Prize. The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, Machart graduated from the MFA program at The Ohio State University in 1999. He is currently Assistant Professor of English at Bridgewater State University. He lives in Hamilton, Massachusetts.
Men in the Making is your second book, following the novel The Wake of Forgiveness. Do you find it challenging to move between the longer and shorter forms of fiction?
I do. It gives me fits. In the simplest sense, of course, all modes of storytelling have the same common denominators. Whether we call them character, setting, and conflict or, as I prefer, people, place, and problem, this holy trinity of narrative comprise all we need for story. But on the other hand, while writing the novel, I relished in the space the form affords. Space to follow a character who seems to come out of nowhere and “appears” in the story. Space to focus in more protracted ways on setting and the consciousness of characters. Space to relax, knowing, day by day, that I didn’t have to “finish” anything but a bunch of sentences. There’s great compression in a short story the same way there is even further compression in poetry, and "...and I put a lot of pressure on myself when I write with the distillation of story in mind."
At the same time, is this in part what draws you to the short story?
Absolutely. I find short stories (as a reader) to offer the biggest bang for the proverbial buck. As Poe said, they are meant to be read in a single sitting. And still you can get a lifetime, or one of the most affecting and beautiful moments of a lifetime. Life’s little epiphanies. Or the workaday made wonderful. I feel the same thrill when I finish a short story, whether I’m reading one or writing one, as I do when I finish a novel. That this is true always astounds me."
Most of the stories seem to center around work, mostly blue-collar work, and how the men in the stories move between the testosterone fueled worlds of manual labor and their domestic relationships. Is there a particular dynamic between these two worlds that interests you as a writer?
At the most basic level, I suppose that I just have a hard time believing in stories in which no one seems to have a damned job. My first creative writing professor, Jim Robison, once said something to the effect that he couldn’t trust a story in which the characters didn’t work. That stuck with me. But I grew up in a working class family, and I had to work my way through school. I think I’ve spent maybe 6 months total without a job since I was fifteen years old. I value hard work, but I am mostly interested in relationships. Levine gets at this in his great book of poems, What Work Is, and Tolstoy wrote from prison that the most difficult work in life comes in forging lasting and empathetic relationships with other human beings. To me, these two kinds of work…well, they work together. When I envision a character, I usually think first about who they love, how they fail in that love, but what they do for a living, how they toil, usually isn’t far behind.
And you’ve had many of the same jobs as your characters.
I have. I’ve worked offshore, though not for long. That was the loneliest work I can imagine. And I’ve worked in industry, in warehouses, as an industrial salesman. In graduate school, I drove a medical courier route to make extra money. I had a call come over the pager one day, and all it said was, “Dedicated job. Premium. Outlying hospital to OSU pathology. Fetal demise.”
At first I didn’t know what the hell this meant. But when I realized the implications, I took the job. Someone had to do it, and I wanted it done respectfully and right. I drove out into the farmlands of Ohio and picked up the body of this stillborn little boy, and I drove him into the city. I remember that I didn’t play the radio on the drive back. It didn’t feel right to have the car anything but quiet. It felt like such an important, almost holy task. There was no way for me NOT to write a story incorporating that. I had to find out what that job had really meant to me.
As in your novel, landscape seems particularly important to these stories, but in this case the landscape is just as often urban as rural. How do you envision these various terrains and the effects that they have on the characters?
I can’t imagine characters without imagining two distinct places. To my way of thinking, we are all in two places at once. We carry wherever we’re from with us forever, and that place informs and sometimes conflicts with wherever we find ourselves in the “here and now.” A city boy in the country will forever feel somehow out of place. The opposite is just as true. I was raised in the big sprawling city of Houston, but I spent a lot of childhood time in the country, working on my uncle’s farm, fishing with my granddaddy, getting schooled at cards by my grandpa and aunts and uncles and cousins. I have both places inside me, and it seems to me that this is one of the most captivating powers of fiction. We get to see the characters in terms of what is both within and without. No other art form can get so fully and seamlessly into the human heart and body and mind. This is the trump card of subjective narrative, and I’m going to play it every chance I get.
Copyright ©2010 Bruce Machart. All Rights Reserved. Author Photo: ©Christopher Jean-Richard.