March 2011

Teresa Burns Gunther


An Interview with Bruce Machart

The Wake of Forgiveness is an American tale of immigrant families and unrequited love, of loss and redemption in the stark landscape of rural Texas at the turn of the 20th century. This is the story of Karel, the youngest son of a Czech immigrant, whose mother's death at his birth secures his father's vengeful rage. In an effort to win his father's love, Karel uses his horseback riding talent to win acreage-staked races against his father's neighbors. But Karel is forever haunted by the mother he never knew and permanently marked by the yoke he and his three brothers must bear to plow their father's fields. In the winter of 1910, Karel is forced to risk his family's fortune, his brothers' futures and his own fate in a final horse race against a powerful Spanish immigrant and his three beautiful daughters. Fourteen years later, Karel will seek to heal the wounds of the past and reunite his family.

Published October 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Machart's novel is already receiving rave reviews. The New York Times called the book ďa mesmerizing, mythic saga," while Publishers Weekly named Machart's novel one of the ten most promising "debut novels to watch." The Wall Street Journal says Machart's prose is "so evocative that you can smell the men's cheap tobacco and corn mash, feel the bare, hard-packed earth from which they coax crops."

You earned an MFA at Ohio State University then returned to the Houston area where you were born. Is the rural setting of your novel familiar to you?

Yes. My father grew up on a cash-crop farm in south Texas, and my grandfather lived for most of his childhood in Lavaca County, where the novel is set. I am a city boy, as you say, but the family roots are still in the black soil of rural Texas.

You render the work of these men so believable, from racing horses and repairing windmills to the sounds and smells of the land. Do these sensory details come from your own direct experience of working a ranch and riding?

Thatís a kind thing to say. I have very little direct experience with farm life, and I can ride but not particularly well. That said, I have always loved the country, loved the landscape and the animals and the wide-open spaces. Writing, for me, is a vehicle for discovering what you donít know more than a tool for rehashing what you already have learned.

You discovered a map from 1896 of Lavaca County, Texas, the setting for your novel. Was the map itself the seed of inspiration for this book?

It was, indeed. On the map I noticed a large parcel of land owned by a man named Patrick Dalton. Because Dalton is a name that goes back generations in my family, a name I like enough to have given it to my only son, it seemed that something was ďmeant to be,Ē even though I donít much believe in ďdestinyĒ per se. So I thought, Thatís it. Iíll name this fictional town Dalton, and then I began to imagine it all very quickly.

Did this inspire you to research your own family's history?

Not much. My parents do a great deal of genealogical work. I resist weaving personal fact into my fiction. I write, in part, for the same reasons people read: to escape my own life, to live other lives, to become someone else for a spell.

How does the immigrant experience of the men in this story, Vaclav and VillaseŮor, mirror your own heritage?

Vaclav was a Czech immigrant to south Texas, as was my great-grandfather. It was a hard life but a rewarding one. As for me -- well, personally Iíve probably done very little other than benefit from my ancestorsí hard work.

Your narration is sure and authentic; a voice of men and a time and a place. How long did it take you to find the voice for this book? With so many compelling characters did you know from the start that the story must be told from an omniscient point of view?

The voice comes from the place as much as from the characters, I think. I wanted a sweeping narrative, and I am fascinated with point-of-view, so I thought the best way to provide the reader with the most revealing cross-section of the town and its surroundings was to employ an omniscient narrator. Thereís not a lot of omniscient work being done these days Ö not like in the age of the Russian masters, and I think thatís a shame. The voice comes from a slow assimilation of two voices: that of the hundreds of pages of turn-of-the-century small-town newspapers I read from Lavaca County, and that of my rural family on my fatherís side.

Vaclav Skala is such an intriguing character; so cruel, punishing and proud, intent on amassing land and wealth, yet his pride never extends to his children, as VillaseŮor's does. Prizing his horses, Skala chooses to yoke his own sons to do his labor, using them so badly he deforms them. Is this an indictment of men, their capacity for cruelty and the hardship they impose each other?

Iím going to leave that up to the reader. I donít believe itís the authorís place to indict his characters, and I also donít believe itís the authorís place to discuss thematics as they pertain to his own work. Weíve got fine, less biased folks to do that work. Weíve got readers.

It is women who humanize the men of this world; be they midwives, daughters, wet nurses or wives; even in cruel Vaclav we see a moment of tenderness in the opening scene when he is alone with just the memory of his wife. Can you say something about this?

Yes. I was a mamaís boy growing up. I canít imagine a world without women. Iím certainly not saying that it is the primary role of women to help men, to make them either more or less human, depending on how you look at it. What Iím saying is that the influence of women on men (and probably women on other women, too) is of great and timeless influence. In the beginning, after all, everyoneís first experience with comfort and tranquility and warmth is that of the womb, that of being ďofĒ woman.

Blame seems to be the cause of these men's cruelty. Karel recalls his father's dictum, "there is always blame, there is always one upon whom it falls." Are the owls in the story meant as a metaphor for what Karel will come to realize at the end, that blame is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things; what's done is done and time and nature will render it moot?

I like that reading of it. Iím sure there are others, but I like how youíve put that.

At the beginning, the story appears to be about Karel and Graciela, but early in the novel you jump ahead in time to let us know heíll marry Sophie. How did you decide upon this structure? Was this to keep the emphasis on the relationships of men?

Again, I donít want to go too far and beginning analyzing my own story here, but I will say that the structure and the use of tense is entirely deliberate. I felt it was the best way to reveal Karelís life, the best way to let the reader see it the way he did. I tend to pay very close attention to such matters of craft. As for theme, I would never impose a theme on a story. I let those (assuming there are any) rise to the surface subconsciously.

Fathers are the authority of this land; they always have the last say. Is Graciela taking Karel in the stable a power play on her part -- the one time she takes what her father will not allow?

I think she has a little of her mother in her. I think sheís doing what she wants to do, for her own reasons. Just because we are especially beholden to a parent doesnít mean we donít also find ways to defy them. The human heart, as Faulkner said, is in conflict with itself. It can be extrapolated, then, that our private desires are most certainly often in conflict with our allegiances to others.

What surprised you most about writing this novel?

That I finished the damned thing and actually liked the end result.

The epigraphs in the opening of your novel speak to the significance of labor, its importance to man's salvation. Given that, what affect do you think the way we work today has on the modern man?

Iím not sure. What I do these days canít really be described as labor. If you work two or three demeaning jobs just so your babies can have food to eat, thatís labor. Iím beginning to think, though, that it might be a positive change if we werenít so removed from hard, physical work. I put myself through college working in a warehouse in Houston. No air-conditioning. Baking heat. I didnít much like it at the time, but I felt good at the end of the day. I had come by my wages honestly.

There are many references to religion and faith, yet religion does not play a significant role in these menís lives; the priest is an ineffectual man who stands apart and the observant women suffer most because of their religious observance. Is the reliance upon God viewed as a weakness? In the power play of these men is there simply no room for another authority?

I might disagree with that perception of Father Carew. He is a human being, and heís trying to do what is right, but he is as susceptible as the rest of us to the temptations of the greater world. I do agree that the women are more outwardly observant in their faith, and they may suffer as a result. Human history is one of persecuted believers, but Iím not sure real believers expect any earthly reward for their beliefs.

You have been compared to Cormac McCarthy. Your work has been anthologized in Best Stories of the American West. Do you see yourself as a western writer?

Not really. To me, Texas isnít really ďThe WestĒ any more than it's ďThe South.Ē Itís its own animal. But I wouldnít want to be pigeonholed as a Texas writer either. Still, I am aware of the literary conversation and heritage of my home state, and itís one Iím proud of.

You have a collection of short stories coming out soon.

I do. Itís called Men in the Making, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish it in 2011. Most of the stories were written before I wrote the novel, but Iím working on a final story to round out the collection.

There is a beautiful trailer for The Wake of Forgiveness. How was this created and to what end?

The director of marketing at Houghton Mifflin knew that I didnít want to be a talking head in the kind of book trailers that are so often made these days. I like to talk about the craft of narrative, but Iím loath to discuss what my own work ďmeans.Ē It feels self-important and self-conscious to me, and one thing I donít need to be is even more self-conscious. She said, ďWell, Iíve got something else in mind,Ē and before I knew it, she had hired this wonderful young filmmaker. I couldnít be happier with the end result.

Your rendering of this time and place is cinematic. Do you see your novel as a movie?

When Iím writing, I do see the characters from without, but literature gives us the ability to see the characters from within, too. Thatís really the one thing literary arts can do that no other form can equal...that subjectivity, the ability to get into the charactersí minds and bodies and hearts, to put the reader there. So while I would be flattered and tickled all the brightest shades of pink if someone wanted to base a movie on the book, I canít claim to see the world of the story that way exclusively as Iím writing.

What are you working on now?

A short story, and Iím researching my next novel, which will also be set in Lavaca County, and which Iíve tentatively titled Until Daylight Delivers Me.

Is there another question you're dying to be asked?

Yes. Iíd like to be asked, ďHow did you get to be so damned handsome and smart?Ē

Teresa Burns Gunther's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary journals. Recent interviews can be found at Literary Mama, Shambhala Sun, Bookslut, and forthcoming in Glimmer Train's Writers Ask. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary's College and teaches writing at Lakeshore Writers Workshop in Oakland, California.