Redefining a Man’s Character: an Interview with Bruce Machart
Words By Bruce Machart Interviewed by D.M. Hedlund
Oftentimes, avid readers develop an aversion to short story collections, finding the brief dips in and out of characters’ lives too jarring. They miss the deep emotional impact and lasting relationships they develop with novels, accustomed to connecting with the characters through hundreds of pages of prose. These flaws, however, cannot be applied to Bruce Machart’s collection, Men in the Making. United by strong characters and fearless content, Machart has created a moving, powerful, and deeply honest collection about ten blue-collar guys struggling to be the men they believe they should be, even when their definitions of gender have become outdated.
Men in the MakingFrom the dangerous lumber mills in “The Last One Left in Arkansas” to the burn trauma ward in “The Only Good Thing I’ve Heard,” Machart transports his reader into an array of fascinating settings, showing us men at their breaking points, when their characters are challenged and the lives they’ve come to know threatened. Men lose lovers, fathers, friends. They are forced to question their choices, reflect on what they have fought to protect and what they have lost. Some are broken in spirit, while others are only broken in body, having lost everything they loved before they could even grasp what they had. Some crumble, some fail, but others muster the strength to keep going, to cling desperately onto what they love and protect it against the world.
It is without hesitation that Tethered by Letters recommends this astounding collection. Each of Machart’s stories not only resonates with incredible emotional depth, but taken together, these stories combine to form a beautiful critique on the men of today’s world, men with soft hearts and calloused hands. Told through fascinating narrative structures and differing world-views, Men in the Making revolutionizes our conception of what a short story collection could be, delivering with each tale not only the emotional connection we crave in novels, but also the themes and experiences that have us turning the last page, simultaneously hollowed out by the trials of the characters and filled again with the hope of their perseverance.
Machart on Men in the Making
One of the most striking features of Machart’s collection is that each of his stories, regardless of how short, creates a potent emotional impact. When I asked Machart how he managed to achieve this, he told me that his work condenses naturally due to the way he writes. “All through grad school,” he explained, “I envied people who could sit down and write a whole first draft. They know the sentences aren’t great but they get it all down in a short period of time. I can’t do that. If I spend three hours writing a day, two and half of those hours are used revising the sentences or things I came up with a couple days before.” Although Machart only adds 250 to 300 words to his works each time he sits down to write, he believes that the progressive revision cycle lends itself to a kind of “compression of sentence,” removing everything that is not completely necessary to the story. This process allows him to express deep emotional crises in so few words, condensing a much longer reading experience into a short sitting. “I think that’s what a short story does,” he added, “it compresses and there shouldn’t be anything there only because it happened in the draft. Every word, every phrase, every image, every impulse, in a short story, much like a poem, must be reconsidered by the writer along the way.”
Perhaps more astounding than each story’s emotional depth is the thematic overlapping that connects each of Machart’s stories. Fascinated by the way each tale questions traditional gender roles, I was eager to ask Machart where his inspiration for the collection’s themes originated. Machart began by stating that his best ideas always came from his subconscious, but the themes that surface in his stories were certainly on his waking mind. When be began writing the stories that make up Men in the Making, he was at the traditional point in life when a boy becomes a man. As he undertook these first benchmarks—first financial independence, first marriage, first child—the full realization of his responsibilities began to settle in. Ideas about how a man supports his family and how this defines him weighed heavily on Machart’s mind. As he worked himself through school, his job as a conveyor-belt salesman only added to this curiosity. During the day, he would drive around to rural towns, meeting an array of men in odd working-class jobs—many of which appear in his stories. “I was just surrounded all day long with these blue-collar guys from the generation before mine,” Machart explained, “and then I’d go to school at night and read Milton and Shakespeare. I think the fact that I started making stories featuring those kinds of guys really melded the kind of two lives I was living and it come out in my stories.”
Despite the close connection to Machart’s own concerns and those found in his stories, he told me that nothing he writes is autobiographical. Rather surprised to hear this—having interviewed countless authors who pour themselves into their characters—I asked Marchart to elaborate: “Don’t get me wrong,” he began, “I’m all over my work, but I’ve never written a character that was a slight fictionalization of someone or myself. My characters, they come to me out of the subconscious, where all the good stuff comes from.” Quoting Ron Carlson, Machart said that when he’s writing, he is like a bus driver, stopping to pick up characters for a while and, if they don’t work, he drops them back off. Placing himself in the mind of the characters that do work, he starts with an interesting experience or setting—”something I don’t know about”—and then he follows them as they try to deal with it.
As Machart and I began discussing his characters, we quickly transitioned to the portrayal of the men in his collection. Each of the protagonists in his stories has dark thoughts and actions that make them all the more real to the reader, creating honest characters that are all but impossible to resist and believe in. Although Machart agreed with author Ethan Canin that making protagonists “likable” is a top priority, he suggested that, as artists, our propensity is “to go one way or the other…Either we want them to be better than we are—who we would like to be, kinder, less fallible, less insecure, moral, compassionate—or we want them to be worse.” In constructing the characters in Men in the Making, Machart fought this tendency to fall on either side of the hero-villain dichotomy and reminded himself that his characters, like him, are simply human. “Don’t put a black or white cap on them,” he concluded, “when they’re living in a world of gray hats.”
Machart on Writing and Publishing:
While many believe that Machart began his writing career with his critically acclaimed novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, he in fact wrote and published the majority of the stories in Men in the Making before he even completed the novel. Originally, he proposed the short story collection to publishing houses, adding that he had a novel in progress. “It was frustrating at first,” he explained, “because the publishing houses knew I had about fifty pages of my novel and they wanted both [the short story collection and the novel], but they wanted the novel first.”
With the push from his publishing house, Machart began working diligently on his first novel. Coming from a strong short-story writing background, this transition was difficult for him. “I write a story and if it’s not working out in three or four or five weeks, I set it aside and move onto the next thing. And I’m okay with that. I can live with a certain amount of failure and hope that that failure just needs some gestation, but with a novel, it takes three, hour, five years to write a book, I’m a little too fragile for that amount of work to just be put away. I can’t just stick it in a drawer. That’s like saying my four year old still wets the bed, let’s stick him in a drawer.”
After discussing the evolution of stories that he had, in fact, stuck in the drawer—like “The Last One Left in Arkansas,” which he began during his undergraduate degree—we jumped around, chatting about the themes and characters in his work. Every few minutes, Machart would quote literary critics and professors from his writing MFA, seamlessly incorporating their teachings into his points. Since many of our TBL members inquire about whether or not a young writer should pursue academic venues for perfecting their craft, I was curious why Machart chose to not only acquire a BA, but also an MFA, in creative writing. “I needed my MFA program,” he eagerly explained. Although he wasn’t ready to begin publishing or even writing seriously when he made the decision to apply for the program, he reflected that, ultimately, continuing his academics was an excellent decision. “No three years have been more fruitful. We lived, breathed, ate, and talked about writing. It was in every part of my life. We were in between plays of football and would say, ‘Hey did you read that new Tobias Wolff story?’ It was really nicely saturated in every aspect of my writing life.” Machart also loved the teaching aspect of his degree, enjoying the both the theatrical features as well as being able to directly see the result of his work as students gained understanding and insight about the literature he taught. “That’s really gratifying to me as a balance to writing stories and novels. You go a long time before knowing if your writing works. You don’t necessarily get any feedback while it’s out there until years and years…and I’m not getting royalty checks big enough to live on.” After musing about what possible profession he would be doing aside from teaching to support his writing, he added with a laugh, “The only marketable skill I have is conveyor-belting. And I’m kind of done with that.”
As our interview drew to a close, I was sure to inquire if Machart had any advice for our many writers at TBL. Of course, given his background as both a student and teacher of literature, he had good deal to say. He began by recounting a lecture by Lee K. Abbott—”the best teacher of narrative craft in America”—when, on the discussion of round verse flat characters, Dr. Abbott declared that all round characters should be fat. Machart’s was caught thinking, “Wait! My dad’s overweight! Enough with the fat jokes!” But Abbott quickly explained that he was using a pneumonic device: “FAT not round: Feelings Actions Thought.” In addition, Machart declared that there should also be an “E” for Exposition, the actual telling of the story. When you add in the importance of description, FATE is essential for the creation of truly moving and three-dimensional characters. Machart also added, as we lingered over “feeling,” that sensory description is vital for creating a reality that a reader can believe in. “If you were to read a novel and there was never a single image that evoked the sense of smell, you might not know why you didn’t believe in the world of that novel, but I honestly believe that you wouldn’t.”
Excerpt from Men in the Making, “The Last One Left in Arkansas”
Usually, when I leave the sawmill for the night, I roll the trucks windows down and breath in deep through my nose. I take some of it home that way, some of the smell, some of the life that even a felled tree keeps holed up inside. It means something to me, makes clear the persistence, or maybe resistance, of the organic. Something dies—even a tree—it rarely goes willingly. It wants you to smell what it was in life, or what it could have been if you’d had the sense to let it go on living. It wants you to remember. Trees, like angry husbands and wives, always want the last word.
When I was ten, my father held me in front of him at Uncle Weldon’s processing house in Odessa. After Dad had me choose the calf, my cousin Frank loaded a bullet into a special sledgehammer, and when he sung there was a dead, dull sound—no resonance—like maybe he’d dropped a wrecking ball in quicksand. Later, with the calf hanging from a hook inside, my uncle pulled a knife up through the smooth hide of the animal’s underside and stepped back as the bulge of intestines slumped forward with a sucking sound and plopped onto the slick cement floor. What I remember most was Dad’s breathing, the way his chapped lips clamped shut below his wiry mustache, the way his nostrils flared as he inhaled, sucking the smell of the animal into his lungs, keeping it alive awhile longer inside him.
Usually, for me, it’s the same with trees, but lately it doesn’t matter. The rain is freezing in midair and the stripped logs in the mill yard are sealed with skins of ice. It’s winter in Logan County, Arkansas, and you can’t smell a damn thing.