Tag Archives: Bruce Machart

Talking with Bruce Machart (Men In The Making)

7 Feb

Texas born and raised Bruce Machart studied writing at Ohio State University with Lee Abbott and published his well regarded first novel The Wake of Forgiveness in 2010 followed by his well-crafted story collection Men in the Making in late 2011. He teaches at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and is working on his second novel.

The congenial conversation below touches on Houston sports culture, choosing graduate writing programs, writer’s writer Lee Abbott, the renaissance of the short story, the rigors and trials of writing fiction, Peter Taylor’s story “The Old Forest”, Richard Yates, LTAs, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, making movies from fiction, Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog , what Machart reads and a full array of incidental matters one learns in a comradely chat about stories and life.

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart

BM: I just read your interview with Nicole Krauss

RB: Any thoughts?

BM: It’s interesting. She seems a little resistant.

RB: Uh, yeah. I was surprised that she didn’t get upset when I said I was going to make stuff up. I recall she said, “Don’t make up too much.”

BM: She came across as being kind of standoffish, you know.

RB: I would say she was very concerned how she expressed herself. I would think her revising process is laborious. Enough about her. Where were you born?

BM: Houston Texas.

RB: You weren’t educated there. Why would a guy from Houston go to Ohio State?

BM: I went to the University of Houston for my undergrad—it took me 9 years. I was a working class kid. I had to work my way through.

RB: Why did you want to go to college?

BM: It seemed like it was expected in my family—despite the fact that nobody else in my family had gone. My father’s a mailman, my mother’s a nurse. She went to nursing school, which back in the day didn’t require a BA or BS. I always did well in school and it was just the expectation that I would go. I wanted to do something greater than a job without a college degree would afford.

RB: Were those the years Houston had a good basketball team (known as Phi Slama Jama)?

BM: No, not particularly. That was a little before me

RB: But the Rockets were a winner?

BM: Yeah

RB: Do you care about sports?

BM: I am a big football fan. And a big baseball fan—this news (about being moved to the American League) about the Astros has me a little messed up. I am a National League kid.

RB: Me too. What’s wrong with those people, they already have an American League team in Texas?

BM: They are banking on there being a natural rivalry between the Rangers and the Astros. The Astros are in such bad shape they might as well rebuild for a whole new league.

(Discussion of new playoffs and rebalancing the leagues ensues [redacted])

Bruce Machart by Robert Birnbaum

Bruce Machart by Robert Birnbaum

Anyway, I went to Ohio State because they gave me a scholarship.

RB: Did you apply anywhere else?

BM: I did. I applied to Syracuse and Brown. Iowa, of course,just about everybody applies to Iowa. I was looking to leave Texas.

RB: Those schools make a lot of money from their application fees.

BM: God, I guess!

RB: Iowa gets over 1200 applications for 20 something slots.

BM: Something like that. That’s outlandish. I was happy where I ended up. I had a teacher and a grad student who had taught me and they had gone to Ohio State. Both said you gotta go work with guy Lee Abbott. Nobody other than writers know whom this guy is.

RB: Another writer’s writer. Ignored because of geography?

BM: Maybe, because he is a New Mexico writer who spent his whole academic career in the state of Ohio. He Was in Cleveland for a while and then Ohio State. But maybe not—he wrote short stories.

RB: Maybe there is a renaissance for the short story?

BM: If that’s true I don’t see it happening.

RB: Then why write them and have them published?

BM: (laughs) Because I love them. I don’t think there would have been any hard feelings between my publisher and me if I had said, “Ahh, we don’t need to worry about these short stories.”

RB: They would have been easily dissuaded from publishing them—why did they?

BM: If was part of a two book deal.

RB: Isn’t usually the case that the stories get published first then the novel?

BM: The motivation is the same —to lock up the novel. There are some obvious exceptions to the rule. It was a marketing decision and they seemed to think if we built a following with a novel, it was easier to debut a novel than a collection of stories. It is often done the other way around. Many of the stories were done before the novel. I would have preferred to have a book in the world and it would have helped my academic career in terms of getting a tenure track job much earlier. But they seemed to think it would work better this way. I thought it would too. I don’t see it working out that way—this book isn’t getting review attention.

RB: I haven’t seen any. You are following a trend though by thanking your publicist in the acknowledgments.

BM: Yeah.

RB: Ten years ago or so that wasn’t done.

BM: I’m new to the business. So before the novel came out I didn’t realize I would have the kind of contact with [my publicist] Taryn [Roeder] that I’ve had. She’s been fantastic. She does a beautiful job.

RB: She was especially solicitous about this book. Who knows—it seems like publicists have longer tenures at publishing houses than editors. Though Adrienne Brodeur has been there a while.

BM: Yeah, there are some benefits to that. The Harcourt Houghton merger has been referred to as the “night of long knives.” (laughs) When it happened I was really fortunate that Adrienne was one of the people who stuck around. She has been a great advocate of my book.

RB: What kind of attention did your novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, get?

BM: Fantastic for a debut novel, that leans toward the literary side.

RB: It does?

BM: (laughs) In my opinion it does.

RB: ‘Literary side’ meaning its well written?

BM: Meaning that there is something beneath the surface. I teach my students the difference commercial fiction and literary fiction —why we can sit here and talk for hours and hours about the same book or about the same chapter or the same story. There are thematics there. I don’t pay much attention to them when I am writing but it happens—sort of bubbling up from the sub conscious.

RB: What do you pay attention to when you are writing?

BM: My sentences.

RB: Can you leave a sentence before you think its perfect?

BM: I write very few new words at a time. And then everyday when I go back to work I start some number of pages back, revising sentences and t hat helps me reengage with the story—to get back in that, what [John] Gardner called that “fictive dream”. I always leave a sentence half finished, the old Hemingway-Andre Dubus trick. By the time I get there I have usually been working for an hour, hour and half, revising sentences, previously adding sections maybe adding paragraphs maybe cutting substantively. I feel like I am already back in the story and then I right a rough draft.

RB: As you pick it up do you know what is going to happen in the story?

BM: Sometimes. If I am in the middle of a scene, often times I’ll leave a scene half written because there is a line of dialogue and I am not sure what the guy would say next. Often times I have no idea where things are going.

RB: Why, coming from a working class family, did you want to become a writer?

BM: It’s so lucrative (laughs). My parents were comfortable middle class.

RB: Were there books in your house?

BM: Always. My mother was a big reader. My father reads histories and biographies—voraciously, but tends not to remember what he has read. Which would be wonderful—he can read a book he read four years ago (both laugh)

RB: Maybe he doesn’t remember because he has no conversation or dialogue about his reading.

BM: I don’t know.

RB: Its hard to remember stuff if you don’t use any of it. Like learning a language. It’s hard to memorize it without using it.

BM: Yeah, without making it the context for something greater. I think he reads for entertainment, for personal enlightenment, especially with fiction

RB: When you were an undergrad what were your ambitions?

BM: Oh, I was going to be a lawyer.

RB: You were?

BM: Of course (laughs heartily)

RB: And when you applied to graduate schools you intended to get an MFA ?

BM: At that point, right. (laughs) Yes, in a manner of speaking. At that point most of my eggs were in one basket to use a bad cliché. But I had been encouraged.

RB: By your parents?

BM: Yeah.

RB: Do you have siblings?

BM: An older brother who I’ll get to see next week. My parents had 2 boys when they were in their early twenties— they waited 10 years, decided they would like to have a girl and they did, then there was the subsequent mistake thereafter. So we ended up with three boys and a girl. Its kind of like 2 families with the same parents—so far spread apart.

RB: Did you visit any of the campuses you applied to?

BM: All of them. I went to Brown, Syracuse— I didn’t realize it was going on but it was right in the middle of that strange rift at Syracuse. Back in the mid 90’s.

RB: Was George Saunders already there?

BM: Melanie Rae Thon was there, Tobias Wolff. Michael Martone. Some kind of unfortunate drunken thing happened between a faculty member and a graduate student. Something verbal, an insult and it divided the program. And it was adrift for a little while until Saunders got there.

RB: You applied to four schools but you wanted to go to Iowa?

BM: That’s sort of the dream but in hindsight I think the preferential treatment and playing favorites at Iowa and they don’t at Ohio State and everybody seemed to get along.

RB: Who was at Ohio State?

BM: Melanie Rae Thon had moved from Syracuse. Lee Abbott was there. A wonderful poet, who has since passed, named David Setino (sic). Bill Rorbach a novelist who was teaching mostly non-fiction. And it’s grown since. Michelle Herman was there. They were teacher writers in many ways under respected in the commercial end of the business but great critically acclaimed writers. But Lee Abbott was just a fantastic teacher. He could see right to the heart of what was wrong with any story. And he only dealt in craft. He would allow people to rewrite stories, psychoanalyze characters any of that bullshit you sometime see in creative writing workshops.

RB: I’ve never read anything by Abbott

BM: I am always delighted if I run across a name and have not read anything by them—it’s an opportunity. So often I am reading and reading, trying to find something I like.

RB: William Boyd once mentioned Justin Cartwright to me and it took me 15 years [with great delight] to get around to reading him.

BM: I don’t know his work.

RB: He is South African living in Britain. The Song Before it is Sung was the novel that impressed me. It involved the failed July plot to kill the Führer in 1944 the friendship of one of the conspirators and Isaiah Berlin. Did I ask you why you wanted to be a writer?

BM: (laughs) Yes, and I told you. It’s so lucrative.

RB: Apparently (laughs) that didn’t register.

BM: I don’t know. The only thing I can point to is that I was always a voracious reader. My mom was from Mississippi I am named after this little town there called Bruce, Mississippi.

RB: Nice. I’d like to have a town named after me.

BM: Yeah, well. I think it’s the other way around. But she was always putting books in my hands. Eudora Welty, some of the easier Faulkner when I was a teenager.

Men in The Making: Stories by Bruce Machart

Men in The Making: Stories by Bruce Machart

RB: What is the easier Faulkner?

BM: (laughs) I don’t know—the shorter, less modernist novels. May be The Hamlet and stuff like that? And so what I wanted to do was read. And I got to the University of Houston—actually I went to SMU for a couple of years and was accumulating debt for an undergraduate education. I thought that was ridiculous and went back home.

RB: Houston is a public university?

BM: Yes. And at the time a really inexpensive one.

RB: They actually have pretty good writing program now.

BM: They actually had the first Ph.D. program in creative writing in the country and is widely considered one of the best. It’s big—they offer an MA, an MFA and a PH.D. There are a lot of students. Big faculty.

RB: What counts for a thesis for a Ph.D. in creative writing? A novel?

BM: The same thing that counts for an MFA thesis. I don’t think the length of the project —it’s not a matter of quantity. They do more course work and the 2 foreign language requirement. Comprehensive exams, whereas MFA’s usually just defend thesis. I don’t see why it’s necessary but it’s becoming more and more popular.

RB: How many people have PH.Ds in Creative writing?

BM: I have several friends who have done it. There have to be 10 or 12 programs now at least.

RB: What does it do for you?

BM: What it does for you in the academic market, with liberal arts schools, it makes you more marketable. One of the statistics that they are after is the percentage of PH.Ds on the faculty. It affects their Princeton Review ranking. Or their USA Today ranking. [At least] in the smaller schools. Still it’s mostly a matter of what have you published, ”Do you have the MFA and what have you published?”

RB: When you were a young writer what were the stories you were drawn to?

BM: The only story I could point to that was instrumental in me deciding. “Maybe I don’t just want to read stories and figure out what they mean? Maybe I want to figure out how they mean what they mean” was Eudora Welty’s “Powerhouse. ” I go back to that story all the time. You think about what that story is about. Nothing really happens. And yet it manages to peel your scalp back. It’s so powerful. I read a lot of the Southern writers.

RB: Peter Taylor?

BM: Yes, “The Old Forest”. Such a beauty of a story.

RB: I have the collection that story is part of and I have never gotten past that story.

BM: I don’t think you need much else.

RB: Sometimes a concise tidbit from a writer will satisfy your interest. For me, I was reading Roth’s American Pastoral** and came upon a passage about the unknowability of other people and it just stunned me with its precision and eloquence. I stopped reading the book at that point.

BM: “Okay I’m done. Got what I need.”

RB: Yeah.

BM: As soon as we got there, Lee Abbott was raving about this guy, Richard Yates who at the time nobody but other writers and critics knew. So I read Eleven Kinds of Loneliness eleven times in three years. Andre Dubos II, I love his stories. I was also reading all those great writers of the 80’s—hyperrealists? Try and label them and it just collapses on itself—Ann Beattie, Joy Williams, Amy Hempel and Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford. Those were the stories that I cut my teeth on.

RB: Was The Wake of Forgiveness your first attempt at writing a novel?

BM: Yes. I started it as a novella—

RB: What’s a novella?

BM: I don’t know (laughs) I clearly don’t know ‘cuz I didn’t write one.

RB: (laughs) How do you know this isn’t a novella?

BM: It might be. They told me it’s a novel. I wrote this story about two cousins and it got a little long for a short story and I still wasn’t close to feeling like I understood how it was going to reach a climax. Tension was escalating and I realized the problem was that I didn’t know where the tension was coming from. And so I decided as an exercise I would w rite the generation before and see if I could figure out where all this animosity was coming from. And I got a little further but still not there. And then I wrote the generation before and ended up writing a chapter of what became this novel. And then all the stuff had written before—suddenly I wasn’t interested in those cousins in the 1960’s at all anymore.

RB: Might you use that material for another story?

BM: I don’t think so.

RB: Your done with this family saga?

BM: I don’t know. I am interested in the surviving twin who is headed to California. It definitely won’t be what I am doing next. I am writing a first person contemplative novel right now—just getting started. I am going back to Texas to do some research. It’s related to Wake of Forgiveness but its set in the present day.

RB: I am partial to these kind of stories —ordinary people leading ordinary lives in situations not extraordinary on the face of them—but all of a sudden a guy takes his wife to a Wal-Mart at night for diapers and something terrible happens. Another character has to deal with the harrowing death of one of his workers as his own family disintegrates. Did you ever work in a lumber mill?

BM: I never worked in one but I was around a lot of these industrial companies. I put myself through school —when I was sixteen a neighbor asked me to come work for him, it was a conveyor belt, and sheet rubber distributor and I worked every summer all summer in the warehouse, just covered in carbon black at the end of the day. Houston Texas, warehouse, no air conditioning, really working my ass off. But I got to know the product line and I guess the owners of the company realized “this kid’s actually bright and understands what we are talking about” so they started letting me make deliveries and inside sales and handle some of the outside salesmen’s work. Small company, 4 million a year. And I just stayed there. When I came back from SMU and needed a job the owner of the company said, “Oh you can go to work for me and take your classes at night and when it gets to the point where you can’t get the classes you need at night you can go in the middle of the day and we’ll prorate your salary and keep you on the insurance. It was a small family company and they cared about me. And I worked hard for them.

RB: Pretty lucky

BM: It was fortuitous on many different levels. I love those guy. I still know all of them. So I was travelling around installing conveyor belting, measuring belts, measuring hose. Checking on couplings that had failed. I was going to refineries and bakeries and shingle plants and Redi-mix plants and strip mining operations and lumber mills. And that’s why this stuff appears so often in my writing. I got interested in these industrial accidents. It was this point of pride for these corporations to hand these signs, “So many days with a without a lost time accident.” Without an LTA. There was an accident at Imperial Sugar in Sugarland Texas which is very close to Houston when I was doing this job and they had shut the line down for a break and they were doing some maintenance and a guy had been cleaning out, sweeping out these railcars that were used to transport raw sugar. He fell asleep down in a boxcar on his break. And they didn’t do the head count right —I don’t know what happened and they started the line up again and they didn’t find for miles and days down the rail track. And they had dumped tons of raw sugar on top of him. The human side of you says, ”what an awful way —what could be worse than to die at work in this kind of accident?” Whether or not there is any negligence involved.

RB: How was that guy found? When the car was unloaded?

BM: I think so.

RB: What would he have looked like?

Bruce Machart by Robert Birnbaum

Bruce Machart by Robert Birnbaum

BM: I don’t know? The writer in me just thought he was suffocated by sweetness—so there becomes this fascinating almost poetic side to it that draws me in. I was just fascinated by these guys.

RB: When you are writing now, what is noise in your life and what is an intelligible flow of information?

BM: There have been times when I have picked up a little bit of inspiration from a news story. One of these stories [in the collection] takes place after that hate crime in Jasper Texas. There was this horrific gang rape in Cleveland last year that’s kind of gnawing at me a little bit. I don’t know why. I tend to just wait and wait until one kind of interest intersects or resonates with another one. Then I just go– [thinking] I probably have a story here somewhere. It’s all noise right now.

RB: You have a family, so—

BM: Yeah I have a son in Houston and two eventual step kids in Hamilton [MA], a fiancé in Hamilton. But that’s the good work.

RB: I understand. But there are also real world concerns about making a living. That’s noise too in the form of worries

BM: It does. But the worry is okay for me. I wrote the novel in the middle of an ugly divorce when I was drastically underpaid or underemployed. I couldn’t find steady work. I was adjuncting, waiting tables. Driving down to Houston, driving back to my parent’s house with my son every Tuesday and Thursday so I could see my kid. My life was a fricking mess for most of the years I was writing the book. I finally finished it when things started to calm down a little bit. I was cranking out—well, cranking out for me—I was oozing pages. Writing very slowly but steadily throughout all that mess.

RB: So, it was good for you to be writing?

BM: I think so.

RB: A kind of refuge?

BM: It’s certainly not therapy. It’s escape. I write the way people read. If I am not dreaming the story—I can ‘t write in my house. There is the kitchen to clean, the lawn to mow. I want to talk to my lady. I have to go somewhere like this [the Keltic Krust] where there is a little bit of background noise and I can just fall into the story. It’s escape—its not therapeutic. A lot of days its misery.

RB: (laughs)

BM: I don’t particularly like the act of writing except on the good days. And what are the good days— one out of ten, maybe?

RB: Its not misery while you are actually writing, is it? The emotion comes before or after?

Bruce Machart by Robert Birnbaum

Bruce Machart by Robert Birnbaum

BM: Or when you sit down and you are banging your head against it. You never do enter the story fully— for whatever reason. I just read that Nicholas Carr book. The Shallows. And I recognize a lot of what he is talking about in myself.

RB: The book is about—

BM: —the plasticity of the brain and the brain is changing because of the way we read, this shallow never-ending hyper linked text. Instead of really reading deeply the way most of us fell in love with reading.

RB: DO you consider yourself as Texan?

BM: Yeah.

RB: Do you talk like this in Texas?

BM: Yeah, sound exactly like this. My voice does change.

RB: A more pronounced drawl.

BM: Maybe.

RB: Slower?

BM: I don’t know. When I read a little bit of the Texas comes out. The novel especially. I am one of these guys for whom it’s embarrassing because I can’t turn it off. I met one of my best friends at Ohio State and he’s from the South West corner of Minnesota. And says things like [BM affects an accent*]“Ho!” and “Judas Priest!”. I could be around him for 3 minutes and I start to mimic. May be its good when I write dialogue but it embarrasses me—I am really easily influenced. I am a lousy mimic, which gives me away?

RB: What ‘s it like living here in the Northeast?

BM: I love it up here. I like the four seasons. I’m big. I hate the heat. I grew up in one of the hottest damn towns in the United States. I like everything but the service

RB: (laughs)

BM: I don’t like trying to deal with independent business people here who are supposed to be in the service industry but don’t treat you—you know, waiting two weeks for a plumber. Or an electrician to come out. In Texas, if you call somebody and they haven’t called you back in 2 hours you ‘ve hired somebody else. Customer service is very different down there.

RB: It’s infuriating to have to make more than a couple of phone calls to get something done.

RB: Apropos of nothing, I was thinking about e books and that one positive for publishers is that there may be a big reduction in remainders—more attention to the size of print runs.

BM: You think?

RB: First of all, its understandable that print runs were determined by the distribution pipeline that had to be fed. The big chains required certain numbers for coverage. And also now books can be reprinted more quickly to meet an unexpected demand. So the book publishing business may also become more streamlined. A quick glance at the remainder sections in bookstores is an exhibition of the businesses in efficiency.

BM: I’m afraid to look at remainder tables. I have nightmares.

RB: You love it up here—do you expect to settle down here? Look for a tenure track job?

BM: I have one. I was teaching at a community college in Houston for seven years. Kind of de facto tenure but Texas is what they call a “right to work” state, which means the right to fire you for any reason whenever we want to.

RB: Is education in Texas well funded?

BM: Less and less. Like most states, the percentages of state and federal funds are shrinking nationwide. But this is great. I have a great faculty

RB: And the students at Bridgewater are working class kids?

BM: Yeah.They’re great. I have friends teaching at liberal arts colleges, Catholic colleges, big universities but the one’s I don’t envy are the ones teaching at liberal arts schools where the students are smart but also think they are smart.

RB: Therefore feel entitled?

BM: Right. What’s beautiful about our students is that they are smart. They are sharp kids. But they don’t necessarily think they are.

RB: Andre Dubus teaches at UMass Lowell and he says the same things about his students. I imagine that the riches you are reaping from the publication of—

BM: (laughs) Yes, I am going to buy a cookie in a minute, watch.

RB: —of your fiction, teaching will be your way of covering certain expenses.

BM: Keep me in insurance at the very least. I like the theatrics of teaching. And I love working with stories—what I get to teach now is contemporary American literature and creative writing. And graduate classes that I want to teach, that I design so I can subject my own interests on my students. Hopefully with some benefit to them.

RB: For most of your students is creative writing a superfluous enterprise?

BM: Well, there’s a writing concentration within the English department. We have lots of English majors, mostly because they are English majors and Education majors—it’s an old teacher’s college that just became a university a couple of years ago. So we have 700 [English] majors most of whom will become teachers but they are getting a BA in English along the way. So creative writing meets a number of requirements—its probably going to be rare to run into an undergraduate who is MFA bound.

RB: What about the low residency programs—they make a lot of sense for working people?

BM: I don’t think any program in creative writing makes any sense if you have to pay for it.

RB: (laughs)

BM: And I don’t know any low residency programs where you don’t have to pay.

RB: At least you don’t have to spend more than 4 weeks a year in class.

BM: But a lot of these programs charge $20,000 a year

RB: There are a lot of great writers in New England, have you met any?

BM: Steve Almond, he was one of the first guys I met when I came to town. I know a handful of people. I met Billy Giraldi a couple times. But I am just driving back and forth to Bridgewater and trying to get a little writing done and enjoying the family life. Almost everybody I met originally was through Grub Street.

RB: Did you give me an understandable answer to my question about your long-range plans?

BM: Did you just ask me if I gave you an answer that you understood?

RB: Yes.

BM: You’re asking me a really difficult question. (laughs)

RB: If you can’t ask a good question than you try to confuse the person you’re talking with (laughs)

BM: I am under contract to HMH to write this [second] novel. And I am going to teach my classes and see what happens.

RB: And get married.

BM: Get married in October [2012]

RB: That’s a long engagement?

BM: Not considering that we got engaged 2 years ago. But I was living in Houston. We have been together for 7-8 years.

RB: Don’t rush into anything.

BM: No I don’t. 9 years to get a BA, so 9 years before the wedding, that’s about right.

RB: What are your ambitions?

BM: I want to write as long I can make some damn sense. You know? I am not real disciplined. I can see a time where I say, ”That’s about all I have to say.” But don’t think it’s looming.

RB: Are you interested in seeing your stories made into movies?

BM: I like to cash the checks. I don’t want to do screen writing and I don’t want o be involved in the process. I heard William Kennedy and Scott Spencer and Russell Banks talking once at a conference and Kennedy was brilliant. He said, ”As long as you realize that when they make your book into a movie, they are not making a movie of your book. They are making a movie of maybe a second cousin of your book. Just cash the checks and don’t worry about it.” I think it would be cool. I ‘d want it for my mom. I mom would think it was really cool.

RB: Banks should have no complaints they did a great job with Affliction and the Sweet Hereafter.

BM: I love Affliction—a brilliant movie. But a better book.

RB: I think his novel Darling is being made into a film. Kennedy has had good luck also. Ironweed was great. (49.18.6) But then you have writers like [Tom] McGuane, [Jim] Harrison and [Richard] Price who hated Hollywood. It’s a weird relationship—writer-Hollywood dream machine.
BM: Yeah, it’s pretty fascinating. I don’t want a part in the process of like turning that [my story] into something else. Because I am done with it.

RB: You know the [what probably is an apocryphal] story about Richard Wright being offered a large sum for Black Boy. All he had to do was change the protagonist into a white boy. (both laugh heartily] Although, now more than ever it seems that there are people who actually read literary fiction—

BM: It seems like it.

RB: And want to do justice to original texts that they option.

BM: Sometimes to the detriment of the movie. If you look at what was done with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

RB: I didn’t read it or see the movie—I was in a non-apocalyptic mood

BM: Oddly.

RB: I did read Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse—which was a post apocalypse story. Do you know Crace’s stuff?

BM: I don’t.

RB: He’s an interesting writer—his novel Being Dead is a riveting story that gives the dead a voice and draws you into feeling what death is like. It stirs up [for me] a weird feeling

BM: I see the books everywhere. Any way, movie wise, it seemed like there was a lot of buzz about The Road right after it came out and that went by the wayside.

RB: The All the Pretty Horses movie was not very interesting—it was kind of a mess.

BM: I am sure I saw it but I don’t remember it. With the Road they tried to be to true to the book. They mighty have turned that director loose a little bit. He might have come up with something interesting. It’s a weird glimmer and just a glimmer of hope in the end. But it’s an apocalypse, what’s the hope really? And it hard to sit through two hours of bleak visual image in a movie theater in order to get something kind of unnamable in the end.

RB: Have you seen The Book of Eli?

BM: Yeah, there’s an Eli character in The Road.

RB: I enjoyed the Book Of Eli—the visuals and Gary Oldham’s performance as a crazed preacher

BM: Um hum

RB: Are you interested in any other form of story telling?

BM: I don’t think so although that’s subject to change I suppose. Right now I am going to write this novel and hopefully write a short story or two along the way. I love reading petty. I love going to the theater. I love going to the movies

RB: Sporting events?

BM: I don’t see many of them live anymore. I don’t live near any of the ones I am interested in (laughs)

RB: Publishers say that short story collections don’t sell but they keep publishing them. And I see a resurgence of literary journals. There are a lot of places that publish short stories, writers are still writing short stories and publishers are, of course, still publishing them. So where does this bad rap about story collections not being commercially viable come from?

BM: I don’t know and I think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are almost never at the front of a list. No big print runs or announcements of big print runs. There is a kind of resignation that goes along with them. Every now and then something happens—Anthony Doerrs ‘ collection seemed to do well, they were everywhere. Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned looked like it was everywhere and was doing quite well. I don’t know—it’s inexplicable to me because it seems like the short story is perfect for the new American attention span. But they have been saying that for 20 years.

RB: You’re quite right about it being self-fulfilling. Especially with a blockbuster mentality infecting the commercial world. Word of mouth is what helps to sell books—

BM: Word of mouth works when there are a hundred thousand people talking about a book—word of mouth doesn’t spread from 2 people like us. You can watch the old Prell commercial all you want but it doesn’t happen that fast. They tell 2 friends and then they tell 2 friends. And it takes a while to read a book especially for readers who have book stacked up by their bed.

RB: There are a number of disconnects in this—

BM: There is about to be one in this interview as I go feed the [parking] meter.

RB: Go ahead I wouldn’t want you to get a ticket.

Part Two

RB: Shoot, I forgot what I was going to ask you. Oh yeah, as American daily metropolitan newspapers reduced their book coverage, apparently chasing a younger demographic, that seemed suicidal. Go ahead and disappoint the paper’s readers that actually read in the hopes of what exactly? Additionally, publishers seem to be making lots of wrong moves—mostly by buying into the notion that a book only has a 6-week window of commercial viability. And literary journalism community buys into that. Only recently have people begun to write about books that are 2 years old or 20 years old.

BM: There has to be an angle and the easiest angle is that it’s new. People like to discover things. And that’s true of booksellers too. They are wonderful when they think they have found something new. I was in Colorado reading bookstores last week and I bought a book from everyone of those booksellers because they tend to come up with some good recommendations

RB: Want to pass some on?

BM: A bookstore in San Antonio introduced me to a writer named Thomas Savage. A book called The Power of the Dog.

RB: I know a great book by Don Winslow with the same title. What’s it about?

BM: This vicious but brilliant rancher in the badlands of southern Idaho and Annie Proulx fell in love with it and admired for a long time and seeing that it was not getting attention — he was born in 1915, dies in the 90’s, 13 novels and nobody has heard of him.

RB: Anything else?

BM A book by a writer from Vermont—The Call.

RB: By Yannick Murphy.

BM: Yeah, told in call reports by this big animal veterinarian. It’s fantastic, brilliant. And I was predisposed to hate it. There were no paragraphs. What else did I pick up? Uh, (long pause)

RB: You can get back to me. Do you know Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers?

BM: Yes, it’s on my stack. It sounds delightful

RB: Hilarious. Great tone. He just won a big prize in Canada for that book

BM: I love the strange formality of the language that doesn’t fit these characters.

RB: It’s the kind of language Charles Portis uses in True Grit. Well okay, that’s great. I felt that way about your books. No previous knowledge and I felt like I discovered something really good. I think I wrote to you.

BM: I did hear from some people after the novelThat doesn’t happen that often. Thanks very much, I appreciated it.

* Think the way the characters in the Coen Brothers film Fargo speak.

** You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to came at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick: you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of al l perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living id all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you—Phillip Roth, from American Pastoral

Currently reading Schroder by Amity Gaige (Twelve)

The Best List of 2011

23 Nov

Russell Banks Copright 2011 Robert Birnbaum

As you are being besieged by the predictable onslaught of seasonal and year-end commercial and media gestures, rest assured that my list is no mere journalistic contrivance but more in the spirit of Umberto Eco’s catalogue of civilization. There is, of course, no such thing as a best list but employing such a fiction to get your attention seems reasonable to me. No?

Anyway, in no particular order:

Luminarium-Alex Shakar(Soho)
Men in the Making– Bruce Machart(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Sisters Brothers– Patrick Dewitt (Ecco)
The Barbarian Nurseries -Hector Tobar (FSG)
Doc– Mary Doria Russell (Random House)
Remembering Ben Clayton -Steve Harrigan (knopf)
Galore– Michael Crummey(Other Press)
The Lost Memory of SkinRussell Banks (Ecco)
Love and Shame and Love-Peter Ormer (Little Brown)
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self-Danielle Evans (Riverhead)
To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal (Little Brown)
21: The Story of Roberto Clemente -Wilfred Santiago (Fantagraphics)
Bin Laden’s Bald Spot-Brian Doyle (Red Hen Press)
You Think That’s Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard (Knopf)
Broken Irish-Edward Delaney (Turtle Point Press)
Once the River by Bonnie Jo Campbell (WW Norton)
Rules of Civility-Amor Towles(Viking)
Chango’s Beads and Two Toned Shoes-William Kennedy (Viking)
Conquistadora– Esmeralda Santiago (Knopf)
The CutGeorge Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur)