A Conversation with Robert Garner McBrearty
Lowestoft Chronicle interview by Nicholas Litchfield (November 2015)
In the early Eighties, while working as a dishwasher in a restaurant, Robert Garner McBrearty, an MFA graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, achieved a major literary triumph when his first published story was selected for the prestigious Pushcart Prize anthology. Since then, he’s picked up numerous writing awards, published three critically-acclaimed story collections, and seen his fiction appear in major literary publications like North American Review, Missouri Review, New England Review, Narrative Magazine, StoryQuarterly, and Mississippi Review. This October saw the long-overdue publication of his debut novel The Western Lonesome Society, which has been some fifteen years in the making.
In an exclusive, in-depth interview with Lowestoft Chronicle, Robert Garner McBrearty discusses his poignant and humorous novel, the early days of his writing career, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the origins of many of his characters and short stories.
Lowestoft Chronicle (LC): Robert, I read The Western Lonesome Society earlier this month and thought it was spectacular. It’s hilarious, touching, exhilarating, disturbing, profound, and entirely unique. You’ve drawn from your previous short stories in terms of themes (mental illness, kidnapping, etc.) and characters, but you’ve tied the diverse material together through various clever means and, to paraphrase Dave, the skillful creative writing student, jazzed it up a little. With regard concept to completion, did this novel emerge from your short story “Let The Birds Drink in Peace” or did you later decide to incorporate the story? Considering the stories within stories elements, the numerous unrelated characters and differing time periods, how challenging was it fashioning a coherent plot?
Robert Garner McBrearty (RGM): “Let the Birds Drink in Peace” actually was always in the novel and I thought that with some modifications, it would work as a short story, so I lifted that section for use as a story in the collection of that same title. But it was always very central to the novel as it introduces Jim O’Brien and his parents and siblings and their lives growing up in Texas. I would say that the novel really built from this section and from the initial kidnapping of the boys by the Comanches. Those two happenings were what I first had, sort of working side by side, the ancestors kidnapped by the Comanches and Jim’s kidnapping in 1960. I had those elements, but I didn’t know how they fit together… “Fashioning a coherent plot” is probably why it took me so long to write this book, not in its first draft, which took about six months, but almost fifteen years in the rewriting! Not working on it consistently, though. During that time, I worked on a lot of other stories and novels and I was teaching a lot, and I would set Lonesome (originally titled Notes to My Literary Agent) aside for long periods of time before coming back to it. But the central problem was fitting things together coherently – I think, now, there actually is a coherent structure, though I’m not sure everyone would agree with that!
Maybe I should explain how I got started on the book. I had just published my first collection of stories, A Night at the Y. I think after one publishes his first book, the question arises: What now? I wanted to try something different, but I didn’t know what. I decided that my approach, as an experiment, would be to just go to a coffee shop every day, or almost every day, and just write for a couple of hours and see what emerged, not worrying about how anything connected. After a while, I think the mind has an instinctive urge to start making connections and coherence, and I realized I couldn’t just babble on day after day, but needed some way of focusing. I mentioned the original title earlier, Notes to My Literary Agent, and that title indicates my original concept: It would be about a writer writing to his agent (an imaginary agent, actually) proposing various novel ideas, some of which were ridiculous. Actually, in my short story “After Zombies” we see some of this agent/writer interplay, so I find it interesting that, over the years, there are certain ideas that emerge again and again. But two of the novel ideas Jim, the protagonist and narrator, comes up with are his own kidnapping and the kidnapping of his ancestors. So those two story ideas started to travel parallel paths, at first extremely sketchy, but they began to flush out…I should back up here a bit, and come back to this later. At the time, I was also reading quite a bit of frontier history and no doubt that played into why I was drawn to writing about the brothers kidnapped by the Comanches…Originally, there was a lot more of Jim as a writer and his interactions with his agent, but it seemed too much like a writer writing about writing, and while there is still some of that in the novel, I think it’s a lot less about that now. We see Jim start to write about something perhaps, but then I want the reader to forget about that and just get into the actual story.
I would say that there’s one main theme in the book and several lesser themes, and various ways of connecting the various stories-within-stories. I kept asking myself the question: What’s this book really all about? And I started to think about how many kidnappings there are in the story – the kids in Texas in 1960, Jim’s mother’s brief abduction by Roughhound, the ancestors kidnapped by the Comanches. Dave the student is kidnapped in Mexico. People are taken from their homes, displaced, and the question arises of how to get back home, and where is home anyway, so I realized it was a novel about looking for belonging. Our central character Jim feels adrift in his own neighborhood and in his life at the university, so as he’s telling the story, he’s also looking for his own way to belong. We even see, at one point, Jim has mysteriously ended up in Paris with Ernest Hemingway, way away from his own home. Anyway, discovering that central theme of belonging and searching for home helped a great deal in connecting the various threads. It made it possible to go off in different directions because there was some core that held it all together.
You mentioned the various means of bringing things together, yes, a great question. It didn’t all come together at once, but various connecting means started coming to me. One was the reason why Jim is writing about his ancestors, and I realized it was because his mother had encouraged him to. Realizing that helped me a whole lot because it gives Jim some motivation to be writing about that. It took me, oddly enough, a long time to realize that when it should have been so obvious because my own mother had always encouraged me to write about our family history, which did include life on the Texas frontier, though my own ancestors were not kidnapped. After that, I saw the clear trajectory of the boys’ story, from their kidnapping, to their return, to their difficult readjustments. In some ways, that part was probably the easiest to write because I saw that plot thread very clearly.
Partly, it was a matter of figuring out motivation. For instance, I started writing Dave the student’s wild tale, but at first I didn’t realize the importance to Jim who is reading it. But it was when the student suggests Jim “jazz up” his own stories that I saw why it was important to Jim. He starts viewing his own writing as maybe a little dull and he needs to jazz it up. That idea of “jazzing it up” is actually being used throughout. Even the R.V. trip, which starts as a dull depiction of a trip, ends up being jazzed up.
Another element that helped me a lot was what I think of as “returning points.” We return several times to Jim in his office above the garage, talking to his imaginary therapist about his problems, and returning as well to his university office and being confronted by his foe, the mad linguist Dr. Dalton. Those “returns” are helpful in keeping things together. As a writer, I could even sort of say to myself, ah, here we are again.
One of the biggest problems was the opening. It took me a long time to write the first chapter, as it now exists. There was always something wrong with the opening, which was that I was playing it too straight at first, so that readers weren’t prepared for the type of novel it would be. I think what I needed to do was to let the reader in on what type of novel they could expect, so with the imaginary therapist and the imagined scene about winning the Nobel, I let the reader in on it, that it’s going to be a wild sort of ride, with various story threads, and by doing that, I give myself a certain freedom to tell the tale. It’s sort of like telling the reader: “This is going to be a little crazy. Hang on!” By doing that, already a kind of coherence is created since one is expecting the wild ride.
LC: By the way, I really liked the idea of the linguist, Dr. Dalton, and the way Jim is antagonized by him even when he isn’t physically there—a flashcard with letters on it being enough to set Jim off. Unlike the imaginary therapist, there are no descriptions of Dalton (and President Jammer has less of a presence). Did you have someone in mind when you came up with Dalton’s character? In your original draft, were there more scenes with either of these characters that didn’t make it to the finished version?
RGM: I had a lot of fun creating those characters. I wouldn’t say they’re drawn from specific individuals, but they’re composites of academic types, drawn to exaggerated proportions. It’s interesting that you ask whether there were originally more scenes with Dr. Dalton and President Jammer because that is the case. I mentioned earlier that the writing of the book took fifteen years, and Dr. Dalton and President Jammer kind of floated in and out of the drafts, in some drafts being given more weight, in some drafts less. I was trying to figure out how much weight they should have in the book. My thinking about them became really intensified in the last few years because by that time my relationship with the university had become estranged. I think all in all I was a good teacher – I’d like to think so anyway. But I was never really an academic type – I was a writer who happened to be making a living teaching but who didn’t really care too much about academia and didn’t have the good grace to pretend to be. But anyway, I think that sense of estrangement got distilled down into those two characters. I remember walks across campus, carrying this heavy cloth briefcase, and in the morning, especially when it was quiet, I’d imagine this pale gas creeping out from the bushes. Maybe it’s working anywhere too long, but you can have this sense of slipping into mediocrity, and in a way the gas represented that – something that would just stultify you if you weren’t stultified enough already. I think the consciousness is a little like that – we wake up a bit, perk up, look about, get excited, and then something makes us lose that wide awake feeling and we dull out. Creativity is like that, and I think that’s what was haunting me the last few years there at the university, this feeling that my creativity as a writer was being stultified by the teaching and the assortment of other tasks.
In some of the earlier drafts, Jammer was doing more, sending out harassing notes to the faculty and things like that, and there was more interplay between Jim and his students and co-workers, but it began to feel too much like I was writing about academia and that really wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in, so I distilled Jammer down essentially to the sender of the gas. That seemed to say it all, really, what I wanted to say about Jim and his relationship with the university.
I think with Dr. Dalton, also, I wasn’t thinking about one person in particular. I was thinking about people who get under your skin, who are not there to help you in life but to thwart you. Being given to comedic exaggeration, it popped into my head that there was a guy who could get to you, not just verbally, but could go after you from any direction, sneak words into your reading material that would drive you into a frenzy. As a writer, of course, Jim deals with language, so attacking him through his reading material is one of the most destructive things someone can do. I think what both Jammer and Dalton do is to create this feeling like Jim is under assault and we see at the end, finally, that he’s not going to take it anymore, he’s going to give Jammer the “fisherman’s toss” out the window.
As I said, it took a lot of drafts to figure out, but ultimately I opted to just keep them in a little so that the university becomes more backdrop than heavily focused on. At the same time, I had great fun having my say about the university. It’s almost sort of a mythical place to me, the university, and Jammer and Dalton are a bit mythical, too, kind of off-screen presences, especially Jammer. I liked their brief appearances, along the lines of the “returning points” I spoke of earlier. But I think it was the right choice to downplay them. Sometimes less makes more.
LC: Comanches appear in many of your previous short stories—sometimes the references are minor, sometimes they’re central to the story, as with the bipolar character Len in “Episodes” who’s fixated on his family’s frontier days (graphically recounting his great-great Uncle Ira’s extraordinary and brutal dealings with them). They feature heavily in this novel too—one of the main story threads concerns tribe leader White Crane and the shattering impact he has on a family when he abducts their two young boys and integrates them into his tribe, becoming a surrogate father to them. You’ve obviously done a great deal of historical research into the tribe. How atypical is Will and Tom’s story? And, as a father of two boys yourself, was it at all unsettling writing these scenes or, for that matter, a chapter like “The Stalker”?
RGM: Wonderful question. Well, my family history dates back to Texas in the 1850’s, so I think I’ve always been interested in the frontier days. My mother’s grandmother had a small ranch in Texas and my mother would tell tales that she recalled. As well, I’ve always enjoyed reading frontier history and I’ve read various captivity narratives of people who were taken by the Comanches. While I’m not trying to write a historical novel, the experience of Tom and Will was not unique. If children, especially boys, were accepted by the tribe, they often adjusted to their lives with the Indians, and if they were returned they often wanted to go back to the Indians. The younger one was, the more likely that one would view the Indians as his real family. In Will’s case, as the younger brother, he very much feels like he belongs with the Comanches. Tom, the older one, has enough memory of his real home to be torn. Though White Crane has taken the boys, I wanted to present him as a kind character and a good father, in his own way, to the boys. Will fully accepts him; Tom is always ambivalent.
I’m glad you brought up my own children because no doubt that was a big influence. Children and siblings are important in this novel. I remember around the time I started the novel, there were reports in the news about kids who’d been kidnapped and then who had been found, years later, living with some other family. So I think that was on my mind, and I was pretty protective about my kids – I don’t think fanatically so – but as I was writing about the kidnappings, I did find myself entering into the story, becoming pretty anxious and melancholy at times. Now that I think about it, parts of the novel – not all – are on the sad side, and writing about sad things probably does make me sad. It was disturbing to write those scenes! Maybe it was a relief when I would come back to the funny parts, which kind of alternate throughout the novel, sad, funny, sad, funny, both sad and funny.
LC: One of the advantages of this longer format is that it helped you to develop some of the comic elements—Jim’s hilariously wild sessions with his blunt, vulgar, perverted therapist, for example, or Jim’s student, Dave, and his captivating tale of his love affair with a deranged stripper. That “reversal” technique you’ve mentioned in reference to your story “The Dishwasher” is also present when Jim recounts his outrageous family summer vacation as allegedly “pure memoir.” The mix of zany humor and dark, touching moments seem to work very well. Did you make a conscious effort to create this funny yet poignant quality to your writing, or did it naturally come out that way?
RGM: I’m glad you found the sections with the therapist hilarious! I really had fun writing those sections. One of my own brothers is a therapist, a good one, not at all like this guy, but my brother is probably one of my reasons for being interested in mental health subjects. I’m glad you brought up my short stories because this novel is both an extension of those and something different as well. I think as a short story writer, I’ve worked the range – everything from stories that are mostly comedic, to dark ones, to ones that are both funny and serious, from the experimental to the traditional, from the realistic to the absurd. I think in this book, I pulled on all of that. The longer form provided a great opportunity to work the full gamut. I’d say rather than a conscious effort, it was more like what came to me, what felt right at the time, and you know, as I think about it, it really was like I was going into whatever mood I was writing about – if the scene was sad, I was sad. Or maybe it was the reverse – I was sad so the scene was sad? I will say this: I think I poured more of myself into that book than into anything else I’ve written, and in doing that, maybe the duality of the book – the mix of funny and sad – more fully comes out in the longer form. I had a blast writing this book, especially the funnier parts, and I hope it’s a blast for the readers too. And, at times, I was very melancholic writing it, and maybe that comes through too.
LC: What made you want to be a fiction writer, Robert? Does your passion for literature stem from childhood or was it formed later? (I believe I read somewhere that you started writing as a teenager.) And when did you first start submitting your work for publication? What was the first piece you had published?
RGM: Oh man, I like this question, but it makes me feel really old too. My mother was a huge reader and she always encouraged me to read, and I loved to read as a kid, so I think my writing life really started with that – with my mother reading to me and then encouraging me to read. Freshman year in high school, 1968, in English class, Brother Al – I went to a Catholic school – told us to write a short story. I wrote, of all things, a Western with a twist. I enjoyed the hell out of the assignment, and I was hooked. I decided right then and there – fourteen years old – I was going to be a writer. My mother thought it was great. My father, to his credit, thought it was good, but advised me to keep an eye out for a backup line of work.
I won a couple of writing contests in college, one at San Antonio Community College and one at the University of Texas. I started submitting stories and poems to literary magazines when I was nineteen, and I probably wrote a couple of hundred stories, but I didn’t get my first story accepted until I was twenty-eight (other than one that appeared in the community college newspaper). God only knows, I know something about persistence. Then that first story “The Dishwasher” was accepted by Mississippi Review in 1982, and then was taken for the Pushcart Prize. That felt huge, being included in Pushcart, especially for my first published story. At the time, I actually had a job washing dishes, so being a dishwasher with a story in Pushcart about being a dishwasher gave me a certain prestige at the restaurant. Or as the restaurant owner’s wife said to me: “You’ve got a Masters degree in English and a published story and here you are washing dishes. You must really be stupid.” But the acceptance definitely was a big boost.
Interestingly enough, “The Dishwasher” still gets some attention. It’s been reprinted here and there, an excerpt used in Janet Burroway’s popular book, Writing Fiction, and just last year a high school drama club adapted it for stage and it won the Maine Drama Festival.
LC: The literary quality present in your writing makes your stories perfect candidates for those well-regarded university journals like North American Review, Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, and New England Review, all of which you’ve been published in. To what extent did the Iowa Writers’ Workshop influence your writing?
RGM: All in all, the Writers’ Workshop was a good experience for me, though how much it influenced me, I’m not entirely sure. What it did give me, I think, was a thicker skin, which I definitely needed. Prior to the Workshop, I was under the illusion that everyone loved my writing and always would. I sort of suspect that many of the students go there with similar expectations, or at least maybe they did back then. So it was sort of a shock – ultimately a healthy one – to realize that there were lots of other good writers around and that I was going to need to work damn hard to have half a chance as a writer.
I think I got a little self-conscious about my writing when I was there. The critique sessions could be pretty tough, and I think I felt a little restrained by that – afraid of taking chances, which worked against my inclination to cut loose. In fact, I wrote “The Dishwasher” one night after working at the Hamburg Inn, a kind of iconic Iowa City diner. I figured the class would trash it for being kind of silly or something, so I never showed it in the workshop, and I’ve always been glad about that, as I probably would have screwed it up trying to rewrite it or, worse, maybe just discarded it. As it was, it lingered around on my desk in various places until one day I reread it and thought it was pretty funny and I thought, “Southerners have a sense of humor. I’ll try the Mississippi Review.”
I might sound a little negative about the Workshop, but I don’t really mean to be because I think I am a better writer as a result. I got tougher on myself, and I learned something about rewriting. And there were people there who liked my writing quite a bit and were very encouraging. Plus the degree itself has been helpful. I didn’t use it for five years after I got out. I just worked odd jobs – I’m glad I did that, but it was hard. The degree, along with my publications, helped me start getting some teaching gigs, which were a lot better than washing dishes, fond as I am of that profession. So the workshop was good in its own way, but it was also good that I kind of put it behind me and did things my own way, without worrying too much. I find the more I cut loose, follow my own lead, the better I do.
LC: Considering how highly regarded the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is and how, of the hundreds of fiction candidates who apply, only about 25 are accepted, how thrilling was it to get into the program? Part of the application process entails submitting a manuscript. What did you submit?
RGM: You know, it was strange, actually. At the time, I didn’t really know how significant it was to be accepted. I mean, I did know of the reputation, but I was twenty-five, living in Mexico at the time, teaching English, and I was pretty happy with what I was doing, though in the back of my mind I’d always thought it would be a good idea to go to graduate school. A couple of older writer friends, Leonard Robinson, who was both a good friend and a sort of mentor to me, and his wife, the poet Patricia Goedicke, encouraged me to apply to Iowa. By this time, I’d already had a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony. I was twenty-three when I went to MacDowell, I think one of the youngest ones ever, so I wasn’t all that surprised when I got accepted into Iowa. I know that sounds arrogant, but it was really more that I was somewhat oblivious. The real shock was when I got there and I gathered shortly that there were plenty of good writers there, and some pretty tough critics, not really mean ones, but it might have felt a bit like that at the time.
For my application, I submitted the first few chapters of a novel-in-progress titled The Coffee Drinker. It got me in, but the novel pretty much got trashed in the workshops. Probably if I went back and read it again, I’d agree with the reaction. I remember a depressing talk with one of my teachers who said, more or less, that it was going to be a long haul for me. My second year, I switched back to short stories and I did better with those. I actually had sort of my own following who were really into my stories. They were the ones who were printing out the stories for the workshops and they said my stories always made them laugh so they were always looking forward to them. I’d gone from overconfidence to insecurity, and that little informal group, as well as a couple of close friends, and a couple of teachers, helped counter the insecurity.
As I said earlier, though, all in all it was a good experience and I’m glad I went there.
LC: How closely do you draw on personal experience when developing characters, situations and dialogue? I’m thinking here not just of stories like “The Acting Class,” “The Pearl Diver,” or “The Dishwasher,” but of many others where the focus is on issues related to childhood or fatherhood or some sense of missed opportunity, regrets, failures, remembrances of heroic actions, etc.?
RGM: That’s a question I often ask myself. Where do characters come from? How closely do the “I” characters in my stories resemble the real true living “I”? And even if I am writing in a third person voice, how close are those characters to me? The question also arises of how closely other characters in the stories are based on real people or experiences. I think the answer is a complicated one. I am reminded of something Tennessee Williams said about his characters, I think especially in regards to A Streetcar Named Desire. He said that all his characters were essentially manifestations of different aspects of himself. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say the “self,” anyone’s self, contains many “selves.” The bad guy walks alongside the good guy, the coward walks alongside the hero. Maybe a bit of Jungian psychology applies here. Often, at least some part of myself inhabits the main characters and maybe even the other characters.
When I look at most of my stories, I can usually see something from my own experiences that sparked the stories. Sometimes there’s a very close resemblance to real life. For instance, in “The Pearl Diver” I really was washing dishes at the time I wrote it and I was in a relationship with a young woman quite a bit like the woman in the story, who actually became my wife –and still is, these thirty or so years later! It was kind of a tough time for me. I was a couple of years out of grad school, dead broke, washing dishes (soon to find out I’d won a Pushcart for my other story about washing dishes at a different restaurant a couple of years before), and the relationship was the best thing I had going. The story was very much about trying to find hope: “I’m just trying to talk ourselves some place nice,” the character says to his girlfriend. As in the story, in real life I would do some spoofs at work to amuse my fellow employees about how I was ranked the number two dishwasher in the country and needed to be number one to win the affections of my girl, but in the story I exaggerated all that quite a bit. I’d also say the character in the story was more naïve and hopeful than I really was as a young man. The story did mirror real life quite a bit – a relationship, a near break up, a reuniting, heading forth into the future together. And yet there is an exaggerated quality to the story. Even in the stories closest to the bone, there’s something at least somewhat fictitious either about the main character or the circumstances. The closest I’ve come to pure memoir is probably “The Things I Don’t Know About,” which recounts, in part, my mother’s illness and passing and my attempt during that time to write some of our family history in order to please her. Wow, you know in writing this, I just made a connection that that story probably had something to do with the later writing of The Western Lonesome Society.
I think that “The Pearl Diver” is my most hopeful story, the least unambiguous. I don’t think I’m a “dark” writer in general, that is I’m not someone who is overly cynical. At least, I see beauty and goodness in the world, the possibility of that anyway, and yet most of the stories are weighted, even the funny ones like “After Zombies” with some sense that the characters have, referring to your question, suffered from missed opportunities, regrets, failures, remembrances of heroic actions and also heroic actions not taken. Part of this probably stems out of the nature of being a writer – you know, hardly any of us hit the great glory that we maybe dreamed of when we set out to be writers, and even those that do often discover it wasn’t what they in mind – they’re even gloomier and more messed up than ever. Fame and riches don’t seem to solve much – though I wouldn’t mind having a minor go at it to see if I do any better at it. On the flip side, I have a wildly optimistic streak, which might be given voice by Jim’s imagining of winning the Nobel and wondering if it will be okay if he plays himself in the miniseries. In real life, I will actually find myself kind of chuckling and grinning to myself as I imagine things like that happening. A little fantasizing doesn’t hurt; maybe it helps stir one onward.
But as I’ve gotten older, I think that my own disappointments (don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some very rewarding things too) weigh on me some and that disappointment inhabits some of the characters. I’m sure that same sense of disappointment is true of many professions – why wasn’t I the best salesman? Why did my team lose so many games?
Failures to act in some situations haunt me. In real life, I’ve been lucky enough to pull off a couple of rescues. I don’t think I’ll go into that here, but rather than feeling good about it, I was always aware of how close I came to not doing the action. And for the rare times of taking the action, I think of all the times I haven’t – where I should have spoken up or done something different. My story “The Helmeted Man” describes an incident where a man is thought to have done a heroic deed, rescued a woman who is being robbed at an ATM machine, but eventually the man begins to doubt what happened – maybe it was more of an accident that he’d helped her rather than a heroic action.
That kind of thinking comes front and center when you’re thinking about your own family, should have done this, should have done that. I’d say Jim O’Brien, for instance, in Lonesome is haunted by those feelings of inadequacy as a father. I think that’s where the crazy part in Spain stems from, where he punches out the cop and rescues his son – sort of his way, maybe, of saying, here, damn it, at least in this part of the story I’m going to save the day! I think the sense of failure, in part anyway, isn’t even about whether one is a good or bad parent – certainly there are degrees – but the failure, the impossibility, really, of being able to protect your kids when they’re out in the world. I drew on that feeling when I created the father, Edmund, who is searching for his sons who have been taken by the Comanches. Edmund isn’t in the story all that much, but I felt very close to that character, could relate to his sadness and despair.
Tom and Will, the kidnapped kids, are sort of based on my own two sons – poor kids, I had them get kidnapped by the Comanches! I kind of felt guilty about that. The dynamic sort of matches up – the older, responsible one, and the younger, sort of wilder one. And then they show up in other forms in the trip to Spain and in the R.V. trip.
Sometimes the connection to my actual experience is much more tenuous. Let’s take the story “Houston, 1984” for example. The main character there is working as a private detective. Never happened. I did have a friend who said he’d briefly worked as a private detective and followed people around, mostly to catch adulterous affairs. He said it sickened him to do that. I put a character somewhat like myself into the main role. I’d had a boss at a completely different job who was a real sleaze and he became the model for the arrogant, sleazy head of the agency. You mentioned dialogue, and the boss in that story spoke very much in the sort of grandiose self-serving style of that real-life boss I had. Other times, I don’t know – I just kind of start hearing the dialogue in my mind. It has to come out of the character somehow to be real, not to be invented from the outside.
I think my writing of dialogue has been influenced by my acting background, which wasn’t extensive, but I was in drama in high school and in college, and I think inhabiting other characters on stage helped me to get inside the heads of my characters and hearing them talk. That is, I feel like they’re doing the talking and I’m just writing it down. I hear their voices and the voices are often mixed in with visual imagery, as if we might be on stage together and I’m simultaneously actor, writer, director, audience, but though it’s theatrical, at the same time it feels very real to me. Yet, yet – there’s always a “yet,” there’s also another part of me that has enough distance to get it all down on the page, or maybe it’s the director who takes over and says, “No, no, that’s not quite right, try it again.”
Coming back to The Western Lonesome Society for a moment. The main character Jim O’Brien feels a lot like me, and yet he isn’t exactly “me.” He teaches at a university, which I did. He views the university somewhat as an absurd place, which I did. That isn’t to say that I did a bad job or that I look down upon academia in general, just that I found some aspects of it to be absurd, or maybe I was the absurd one in a sane university. But I didn’t want to get into a big depiction of academia, so I just made up two elements – President Jammer who releases a gas every so often to keep the students and faculty in line, and Dr. Dalton, a mad linguist. They only show up a couple of times, but I think it’s enough to create Jim’s sense of the absurd.
The three young O’Briens who are kidnapped in the beginning bear a resemblance to my older brother and to my sister, and the parents bear a resemblance to my actual parents. The incident of being kidnapped never happened, and yet when I wrote it, it felt very real. It made me kind of nervous. You know what’s very real? The backyard in that story. I see that so clearly, from when we first moved into that house in the early sixties, when it was just a mud and colichi yard, to the way it looks now, full of trees, a jungly garden. The backyard shows up in “Episode” and in other stories, as well.
One thing I try to do with characters is to spread the wealth around, so to speak. That is, let’s say I have a main character. I like that main character to feed off the story to the other characters – let them speak, let a lot of the story come through them. That was one thing I liked in the writing of Western, how many characters I created.
LC: There are a lot of characters in Western, now you mention it. I like how varied they are, and how they all seem to have a purpose to the plot. In terms of some of your characters, I want to ask about a couple outside of this novel. As with “The Helmeted Man,” Ralph, the central character in “A Night at The Y,” is also reminiscing about a heroic deed. But what I love about this story is that, by the end of his frenzied night, he continues to play the hero. And then there’s the hellraiser, like the one in “Back in Town” and Scooter in “The Hellraiser,” who are either unable or unwilling to curb their disruptive behavior. How do you get into the mindset of these diverse characters? Do you identify more with someone like Ralph than Scooter? And how do you make a rough, hard drinking, womanizing, looting, bank robber so damn endearing?
RGM: I think I’ll start with “The Hellraiser” because the genesis of that one comes back very clearly to me. I was about twenty-eight. I was living in Santa Fe at the time, but I’d come back to San Antonio for Christmas, and I went to a bar with my younger brother and with two friends. I think we went to a series of bars actually, and one of them was a strip joint. I was engaged to be married and I didn’t have any big desire to stay out, but one of my friends insisted we stay out longer. That friend is the model for Scooter in the story. The story really came to me when “Scooter” in real life put his arm around a waitress and said, “This is my life. This is what I live for.” There it was, the whole hellraiser philosophy distilled into that quote. We know that Scooter is doomed in a sense, doomed to repeat the same patterns. Sometimes you know you have a story. It’s forming in your mind and you know you have it. I turned the story over to Scooter, put it in his point of view, used the more folksy, Texan-y voice of my friend. He’s making both a defense of his own behavior and an underlying admission that he knows he’s doomed, but maybe there’s a slight misplaced nobility in that he’s sticking true to himself. Of course, as I’m allowing Scooter to tell the story, there’s a part of me in there too.
You’ve noticed that theme in “Back in Town” as well, the character unable or unwilling to curb his destructive behavior, and that’s certainly a theme that interests me. Maybe because I’ve been a bit close to that edge myself, not to be overly dramatic. I think we all have some split between our earlier years and the sort of person we end up being. But let’s say it seemed like my life was headed in one direction – off to Mexico at the age of twenty-one, then some years of odd jobs mixed with school, town to town, and then somewhere along the way, passing through Santa Fe, I end up living out “The Pearl Diver” story, meeting the woman who’s been my lifelong companion and we raise kids and live kind of a quiet life in suburbia, so these days I identify more with the quiet family man Ralph in “A Night at the Y.” But we see in Ralph that he draws upon the old side of himself, too, summons it up to help out the family, so the earlier hellraising self isn’t always a bad thing.
I go back to those “turning point” stories again and again. Characters are either going to turn for the better or not make the turn. I think in “Back in Town” what we see is someone who has almost made the turn and a part of him would really like to be good, but he’s just slipping lower, one step at a time, and we know it’s probably inevitable. At the same time, he’s self-reporting in a way that is both comical and desperate, so maybe that helps readers like him, even if we know his actual behavior is all wrong. I think in fiction we can like characters even if we wouldn’t think much of that sort of person in real life. We can be a lot more forgiving and tolerant of fictional characters. To be honest, I’d bar the door now if someone like Scooter showed up.
LC: One of my favorite stories by you is “Colonel Travis’s Lament,” from your third collection Let the Birds Drink In Peace. Your wonderful depictions of fabled characters like Davy Crockett (“The most self-serving egomaniac you’ve ever met”) and James Bowie (“he had a way of eying your chest as if he were thinking of sticking his huge knife there”) suggest you had fun writing about them. In an earlier story, “My Life as a Judo Master,” the character Sean is “enamored with tales of the Alamo” and acts out battle scenes with his older brother. Like Sean, were you fascinated by stories of the Alamo as a child? Did you have any reservations about taking on big personalities like Crockett? Are there other famous historical figures you’ve considered writing about?
RGM: As you’ve noticed, I was indeed “enamored with tales of the Alamo.” I grew up in San Antonio, so the fascination came pretty readily. In my youth, I had a pretty one-sided view of it all – the good Texans, as depicted in the John Wayne movie, against the forces of the tyrant Santa Anna. As I read more history, I saw that it was more complicated than that. I also started gaining more insights into the three noted main persons associated with the Alamo – Travis, Bowie, and Crockett. The story doesn’t mean to demean at all the real men and isn’t meant to be read historically, but certain facts about them allowed me to take liberties with their psyches. A lot of people who came to Texas in those days were running from trouble of one kind or another, trying to start fresh. Travis’s marriage had fallen apart, Bowie had a violent past, Crockett had lost his bid for re-election to Congress, saying famously, “You can all go to hell; I’m going to Texas.” So from a fictional standpoint, what great material to deal with – characters trying to remake their lives, then thrusting them into the desperate circumstances of the Alamo. I found this sort of strange comical voice of Travis’s ghost to relate the tale, so I did have a lot of fun writing the story. I had some reservations – I didn’t want people, I don’t want people, to think I’m insulting those persons or not respecting the people who died there, on both sides…I don’t have any plans right now to write about other historical figures, but I don’t rule it out. One thing I’m toying around with is writing a more straightforward account of my family’s early days in Texas, fictionalized but sticking closer to the truth.
LC: “My mind tends to get impatient so that I get ready to move on to the next thing. On the other hand, a few of my stories have taken over twenty years to write.” Do you ever outline your stories? Would you say you’re a perfectionist?
RGM: Sometimes I do a very rough outline, just a few lines, sort of like: first this happens, then that, then this…It’s a lot easier to see the trajectory of a short story than the trajectory of a novel. My process is a little inconsistent. Sometimes an idea for a story comes to me and I can see the whole thing from start to finish, though maybe there are things in the middle to fill out, or maybe the story actually takes some unexpected turns as I’m writing it. Sometimes I’m writing almost half-blind, so to speak. The Western Lonesome Society is an example of that. As I mentioned before, I had to write for a long time before I started figuring it all out. I know John Irving has said he writes the endings of his novels first. I don’t do that, but I can understand it. With my short stories, I sometimes see the ending in my mind – even though I don’t actually write it. But it gives me some direction to head in, though sometimes I realize I’m not going to end up where I was first headed.
I like that there’s something mysterious about writing. I think I’d get bored if I always knew what I was doing.
I think where my perfectionism comes in, is in the sound of the writing. I can hear the lines very clearly in my mind and I hear the wrong notes. Even if readers don’t hear them, I hear them. Sometimes even much later, I realize I’ve missed something. A story gets published and I read it again and I think: Oh no! This or that word or sentence isn’t right, and I wish so much right then that I could still change it. Publishing a collection is a good opportunity to catch some of that, though even then, some lines slip past me. I think because I’ve been mostly a short story writer, I’m more attuned to that than I might have been if I’d always been a novelist. One wrong word or sentence in a short story can break the magical spell you’re trying to create. That’s kind of how I think of stories, of the effect I want – that the stories cast a sort of spell.
LC: In a long ago interview you alluded to a book you’d been working on (on-and-off) for a couple of decades. You said of that work-in-progress: “I’ve started thinking of the chapters as all being short stories in themselves. That makes each chapter sort of manageable and also gives each chapter a good crisp movement.” Am I correct in thinking you were referring to Western Lonesome? Did this method ultimately prove effective, and would you recommend it to other aspiring novelists?
RGM: Western Lonesome indeed! The short story approach really helped me with this one. I see each chapter as being fun to read in itself, especially since there are a lot of characters who get their hour upon the stage. I came up with titling the chapters along the way and that somehow helped me too, gave each chapter a sort of self-contained mission, though at the same time, they were all part of the larger whole. As a guy who took fifteen years to write a novel, I should probably be careful about giving any advice to aspiring novelists! One thing that worked for me, though, and I’ll share it in case it might work for someone else. My first drafts are very sketchy. I create some scaffolding and start flushing it out. So don’t be afraid to just get something raw down on the page. Get something down and then you’ve got something to work with.
LC: You also alluded to another completed novel that you hadn’t yet sold, one that was in the hands of an agent. Is this along the same lines as Lonesome?
RGM: Oh my, agents! My agent on my newest novel, started just a couple of years ago, suddenly informed me she was leaving the agency and moving to New Zealand. Heck of an excuse; if you want to get out of something, just tell people you’re moving to New Zealand. My first agent years ago got evicted and started driving a cab. So I may be the kiss of death to agents. Maybe that’s where “After Zombies” came from! But that novel is very different –still a mix of the comedic and the poignant, but a more straightforward novel. Again, a short one. I think I’m only capable of writing short novels. I also had two other novels, which had both been represented by agencies and came close to being published at major New York houses – one passed through several editorial readings with everyone on board to publish it and then the Senior Editor turned it down. The following week, I was working in a warehouse. Depressing. Those two novels also date back a long time, but just recently I reworked both and turned one into a very long short story, and one into a novella. I think they actually work better this way. We’ll see if anyone wants to publish them. That might be some of the perfectionist in me that we talked about – I have a hard time giving up on something until I get it right, even if it takes many years. I think now if they don’t get published I’m okay with it because I did with those books what I think I needed to do. Of course, I’d be really pleased if someone did want to publish them. I should mention that those are very different – they read sort of like suspense tales.
LC: You mentioned earlier your latest short story, “After Zombies,” published in the current issue of Lowestoft Chronicle. The publication of your debut novel last month suggested you had moved on to lengthier fiction. Why this sudden move to flash fiction? And do you intend to write more micro fiction in the future?
RGM: I guess I’d say it’s more a matter of working on things simultaneously. Flash fiction gives me a great break from the longer works. It can be a long stretch between publishing novels, and I need some more frequent positive reinforcement. Finishing a flash fiction gives me a sense of accomplishment and also gives me a chance of a publication without having to wait years. I’ll be honest, nothing quite boosts my morale like an acceptance, and then there’s the subsequent high of the actual publication. Sometimes less makes more; some of my flash fictions are rewrites of longer stories that never quite worked. I certainly wouldn’t want to work only in flash fiction, but I enjoy them as part of my overall writer’s repertoire. I think maybe it’s a little like writing a poem. Sometimes I write a poem, but I never really plan to write a poem, I just write a poem one day. The same thing with flash fiction – an idea comes to me and I write it. It’s usually pretty spontaneous. The flash fictions give one a chance to experiment, to try out different voices and styles and ideas.
About the Author
Robert Garner McBrearty’s short stories have been widely published, including in the Pushcart Prize, North American Review, Narrative, New England Review, and elsewhere, and, most recently, he is delighted to have his story included in Lowestoft Chronicle. As well, Robert has published three collections of short stories: A Night at the Y; Episode; and Let the Birds Drink in Peace. His first novel The Western Lonesome Society has just been released by Conundrum Press and is available on Amazon and through other booksellers. For more information please see: http://www.robertgarnermcbrearty.com, or http://conundrum-press.com/.
About the Interviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of Lowestoft Chronicle. You can read more about him at his website: nicholaslitchfield.com