Interview: July 24, 2014
Wayne Harrison is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop whose stories have appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares and Narrative Magazine. His debut novel, THE SPARK AND THE DRIVE, is about lonely 17-year-old Justin Bailey, who is captivated by legendary muscle car mechanic Nick Campbell and his wife, Mary Ann. But when Nick and Mary Ann’s lives are struck by tragedy, Justin’s world is upended. In this fascinating interview conducted by Bookreporter.com’s Bronwyn Miller, Harrison talks about how nostalgia for his years working as a mechanic --- “some of the most sincere of my life” --- inspired him to write this story and the surprisingly inelegant art of choosing the perfect book title. He also discusses his experience as a literary late bloomer, how teaching writing informs his own work, and the age-old question of whether or not fiction can be taught.
Bookreporter.com: Your short story “Least Resistance” was published in The Atlantic Summer Fiction Issue and was the basis for THE SPARK AND THE DRIVE, your debut novel. What inspired you to pen this story, and at what point did you decide to expand it into a novel?
Wayne Harrison: I was in a mechanic shop cycle with my fiction six or seven years ago. Every time I sat to write, my characters started reaching for wrenches or laying rubber up the street in a hotrod. After two years in my MFA program and several more years trying to make it as a writer, I felt this strange and potent nostalgia for my mechanic days. They were times that speak to me now as some of the most sincere of my life, when friends weren't character studies, when events weren't the seeds of plotlines, when I didn't think about theme or metaphor, certainly not enough to search for them in workaday life. Most of these stories were set in mundane shops with hapless characters facing the blue-collar struggles of carving out a living under the hood.
In "Least Resistance," I found myself changing gears, so to speak, and romanticizing the shops of memory with a celebrity mechanic, Nick Campbell, whose technical genius and capacity for imagination transcended those bleak, carbon-choked bays of south Waterbury. Justin, the narrator of both the story and the novel, is Nick's perfect witness, young and idealistic and so mesmerized by Nick's magic under the hood that he finds himself coveting Nick's life in the worst ways. I found both characters irresistible, and the writing came quickly as I found myself in that exhilarating, rarefied place Fitzgerald must have been whenever he had Gatsby on the page. After the story was done and sent out into the world, I found myself restlessly returning to the characters.
In both the story and novel, there were so many contrasting dynamics that I loved uncovering: Nick's fascination with the fledgling computer technology that would revolutionize cars in the coming years versus his mechanics' resistance to change; the surly grease monkey mechanics versus the customer-service-oriented technicians; the articulate, sensitive characters (Justin and Mary Ann) versus the hard-boiled ones (Tommy the Temper in the story, Ray in the novel); the wimpy, smog-laden cars versus high-compression boulevard bullies of the muscle car era. I found the stakes getting higher and higher, and once the love affair began and the betrayals started piling up, the storyline became one of those wonderful obsessions writers sometimes discover. It was thrillingly difficult not to think about the characters when I wasn't writing.
BRC: What is the origin of the title “The Spark and the Drive”? (I must say you really delivered on this title!)
WH: This unexpectedly became one of the more challenging parts of the editing process. The original title was “Hotrod Angels,” but my agent thought it might in some ways limit the readership, and I agreed. We tried “Out of the Hole,” which is the name of the shop, but it didn't really fit the drama, then “Suicide Machines,” from a Springsteen song --- at one point, my agent and his assistant read through all the Springsteen lyrics they could find looking for that right phrase.
It was starting to get desperate. They needed a title to start talking up the book. I remember one night in a hotel my five-year-old, who gets up early like me, and I were having breakfast in the bathroom, trying not to wake her mother and sister. I needed to have a title decided upon soon, and she was giving me suggestions such as “The Unsticky Gumball,” “The Karate Queen” and “The Toilet Plunger” (my favorite). The final title was my brilliant editor Yaniv Soha's idea. We'd both liked the word spark in there, but a one-word title seemed too abrupt. Yaniv was looking for a more consequential phrase, along the lines of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” “The Spark and the Drive” took a little time to grow on me, but now I see how it captures the very essence of the novel. He was so right.
BRC: Every character in THE SPARK AND THE DRIVE is richly drawn and detailed. You mentioned you worked for a while as a mechanic in Waterbury, Connecticut. Were you reflecting on people you met there as you wrote?
WH: Often I was, especially with the mechanics, though Nick, as I've said, was a romanticized version of a colleague. Bobby was based on a close friend, also an ex-con. He treated me like a kid brother and ushered me into bars and parties full of sinister-looking bikers, white supremacists, ex-cons, etc. One night, I was riding his Harley along the beach in Milford late at night, making way too much noise, and when the police came --- by then, we were drinking on the beach by a fire --- my friend had a pistol in his waistband. He spent the next two months in prison (he'd been on parole), and I brought him magazines and Twinkies twice a week. Other characters in the novel are hybrids of real and made-up people, and Mary Ann is mostly a conglomeration of old girlfriends. Her tragedy is fictional --- I've never known a parent who lost a baby to SIDS.
BRC: Each of your characters has his or her unique complications. Did you discover during the process that you had a favorite character to write? Which character proved to be the most challenging? Which did you find was the most sympathetic?
WH: Nick was the most enjoyable character to write. There were mornings when I couldn't wait to get to my computer because he was due in a scene, and I was eager to see what mechanical miracle he'd pull off, what outrageous muscle car he might beat in a race or what evocative sentence he might utter. After he lost his son and, in the fallout, his mechanical genius, I was every bit as bereaved and abiding as Justin.
Mary Ann was both the most challenging character and the one I felt most sympathy for. Her heartbreak wasn't hard to imagine --- all parents to some degree are terrified of their children falling victim to something as shocking and mysterious as SIDS --- but add to that a husband who has turned frigid, and her grief became profound. She could become consumed by it or survive, and turning to Justin for comfort and intimacy was especially difficult to dramatize. I don't believe that characters must be portrayed as sympathetic, but in the case of Mary Ann, I badly wanted her to be. In some ways I felt I owed it to her, after all she'd been through.
BRC: I was amazed to learn from your website that Holy Land USA is a real place and was listed as #20 out of 38 of the “Most Haunting Abandoned Places on Earth.” Why did you decide to include Holy Land as a setting in your novel? Did you spend any time there while you were living in Connecticut?
WH: As a teenager, I went there to feel in good company doing things I shouldn't have been doing. It was a place outside of the law where Latin King Angels in black and gold cranked their boom boxes, where the air smelled of pot or sweet cologne, occasionally sinus-searing crack smoke. It wasn't a place where you walked a dog or went for a stroll --- everyone up there was up to no good, making their transactions, staking their turf. According to the papers, bodies were discarded in the tall weeds and sometimes in the Biblical structures themselves, though I'd never stumbled upon any. Like Waterbury itself, once rich with brass during the two world wars, Holy Land USA was a broken promise, a failed dream that just hadn't completely died yet. In its state of decomposition, it was fascinating, as Justin describes, a place where it all blurred together, "the holy and the unholy, the right and the wrong."
BRC: What would you like readers to take away from THE SPARK AND THE DRIVE?
WH: It's like sending your children off to their first day of kindergarten, hoping the class will appreciate them the way you do. I'd love for readers to find the world of muscle car mechanics gripping, to enjoy the car drama --- the miracle fixes, the racing scenes, the hard-talking mechanics' almost innocent reverence for breathtaking horsepower. Perhaps most, though, I hope readers find the characters intriguing --- ideally captivating --- enough to understand what drives them to their desperate actions. The book is full of betrayal, certainly, but I hope I've done the work that allows readers to empathize. I remember a review of the story "Least Resistance" in which the reviewer kept wanting to take Justin by the shoulders, as if he were a close relative, and shout at him, "Look at what you're doing!" I hope readers of the novel might become as invested in the novel version of Justin. And, of course, I hope the ending fulfills the promises the rest of the book has made.
BRC: Were you always a “gearhead?”
WH: For as far back as I remember, I've been seduced by the idea of engines --- as Justin narrates, "the unfathomable timing of spark and valves, the constant grip of vacuum, all of it contained in a 700-pound box whose sole function was to convert fuel and air into speed." When I was 11, I took apart our lawn mower engine, rebuilt it three or four times but never got it to run again. Not having a father figure in my life was both a blessing and a curse: I wasn't influenced to mold myself into any certain kind of man, which gave me enormous freedom, but there was also no one to teach me, and so my childhood was a constant enterprise of trial and error.
In middle school, a kid down the street had four brothers and a driveway full of old Camaros, Mustangs and pickups. It took him a while to warm to me --- I was painfully aware of my ignorance of cars and dirt bikes and chainsaws and all things manly --- but eventually we became best friends. Over the summers, I slept at his place, usually on a sleeping bag in the barn, more than I slept home. The acreage behind his house was a graveyard of rusting, cannibalized wrecks. We went out there with adjustable wrenches and disassembled parts, sometimes to shoot with his rifles, sometimes for no reason other than we were bored. The grease wouldn't come out of my fingernails with ordinary soap, and it gave me a kind of mystique coming to school with all those black creases on the backs of my hands.
His brothers let us drive some of the old unregistered wrecks around the back fields, and soon we were sneaking down the road with them late at night. I imagined a straight six becoming a torquey small block, a tired 305 as an outrageous dual-quad 426 hemi. In high school, I read Hotrod and Muscle Car Magazine and excelled almost exclusively in Auto Shop. I wanted to be a mechanic in the worst way. In the novel, Justin understands "the general repair mechanic to be the perfect masculine blend of strength and intelligence," a sentiment that I would have agreed with completely.
BRC: You also worked as a corrections officer for a number of years. Can you describe that experience for us?
WH: After my years as a mechanic in the hardscrabble city of Waterbury, where I'd been drinking way too much and where I'd lost two close friends --- one to an apartment fire and one to prison --- I believed the only thing to cure me of a similar fate was to become a cop. Working as a corrections officer quickly dissuaded me of any desire to work in law enforcement. Day-to-day life was a Dantean hell showcasing the very worst of human nature. I was in my mid-20s and very young-looking. I was eating peanut butter sandwiches with every meal, drinking 1,500-calorie shakes, and working out two hours a day in a woeful attempt to seem menacing when I ordered around big guys 10 years older and 100 times meaner. Our job was to keep them in line, to withhold mail and their hour of TV if they talked back or didn't tuck the corners of their bunks just so. It was a system that degraded human dignity. I hated almost every second of it.
But there were many memorable people, particularly the other corrections officers --- the former Navy Seal who every morning swam across Lake Champlain and back where it was about a mile wide; the former Buffalo Bills linebacker who had blown out his knee and showed up to work shoe-horned in a red Corvette, his head domed over the opened T-top --- this guy would get jumped by cons about once a month. They figured if they took him down they would run the show, at least with the other inmates, but all they ever got was the wind knocked out of them by a fist the size of a cantaloupe. Actually, I did that work for less than a year, though it was plenty of time to vacuum some remarkable experience, which I'm mining for my next novel.
BRC: In addition to being a novelist, you now teach writing at Oregon State University and with the UCLA Writers’ Extension. How does being a teacher inform your writing?
WH: I love to talk about fiction writing. The hope is always to help your students not make the same mistake you've made. We have a five- and seven-year-old, and in some ways teaching creative writing is very similar to parenting --- you try your best to spare them the pain and frustration of making mistakes you've made, though in your heart you know they have to, that it's part of the learning process. What this means for a creative writing teacher is that you notice when the writing turns astray, and as empathetically as you can, you nudge it back onto the path.
Writing, for me, is like a spiritual practice in that everything you achieve --- everything that succeeds --- grows from just a few very basic rules (Commandments or moral codes or what have you). Always know what your characters want, and don't let them get it. Complicate their situations whenever possible. And revise, revise, revise. It's good to hear myself say these things. Often I leave a creative writing class --- even ones at the end of the day --- feeling enlivened, pining for my laptop and a quiet hour to write.
BRC: Do you ever see a student and know that he or she has what it takes to be a professional writer? If so, how do you nurture that?
WH: I have, absolutely. In fact, a few nights ago, after a reading in Portland, I had drinks with a former student who was just brilliant in the three writing classes he took with me, writing fresh, exciting fiction. He was taking six classes and working on his uncle's farm full time, a father of three who had served in the navy and was taking an agricultural degree. I was happy not to talk him into going for an MFA. He was doing everything right, writing on a schedule, reading like a madman --- I don't know when he slept. Recently he was admitted to Stanford Law School. He plans to be a prosecutor and later return to writing. I can't tell you how thrilled I am for him.
Most of the gifted writers I see are already doing things right. I let them borrow books that I think might be good for them to read, and I challenge them as much as I can to move out of their comfort zones. I don't often recommend that young undergrads jump into MFAs right after graduating. Think about taking a few years to live, to travel, to meet people and learn about human nature, I tell them. Then you'll have stories to tell. I remember the great writer Barry Hannah, after visiting for a year at Iowa, writing an article praising the level of writing he saw, but also regretting that so many of us had no stories to tell.
BRC: You attended the storied Iowa Writers' Workshop for your MFA. Can you tell us a little about your time there?
WH: One word about sums it up: unprepared. I'd been a criminal justice major when I took my first creative writing class with Jeff [poet Jeffrey Greene] my junior year. Unexplainably, Iowa accepted me on my first try, so by the time I got there, I'd been writing for less than two years. I remember there were people on their second and even third MFAs. ZZ Packer was there, as were Peter Orner, Adam Haslett and Kevin Brockmeier. I was entirely out of my league. Too late, I realized I should've waited a few years, gotten some writing and reading under my belt, so that I didn't feel so insecure.
Remarkably, in my second year, Scott Spencer thought enough of one of my stories to recommend it to Lorrie Moore, who was guest editing a special fiction edition for Ploughshares, and she took it. I couldn't believe it. I had my place, for a week or so, among the workshop celebrities, but no one told me it would take more than a year to publish my next story.
BRC: Recently, author Chad Harbach edited a collection of essays called MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, with writers debating the pros and cons of grad school versus going and working in publishing in NYC. Where do you fall on this issue?
WH: If the question is whether fiction can be taught, the obvious answer is no, at least not from scratch --- in the sense that you can take someone who has no mechanical abilities and teach him or her to be a successful mechanic. Writers need to have that unteachable thing first of all, that instinct or talent or whatever it is. But say you have it. How best to cultivate it? I'd say it depends on what you want most from your writing.
It would be an interesting exercise to have the same manuscript critiqued by an MFA professor and by a successful literary agent. I wouldn't be surprised if the writer gets two very different suggestions, the first pushing the artist to explore all possibilities of characterization, setting, theme, etc., and the second advising the author to make the people more relatable and the plotline more accessible. Of course, I can name some exceptions, but if your primary concern as a writer is to publish big, the NYC route seems to be the more sensible choice.
In my experience, MFA programs are chiefly interested in teaching students the art of writing short fiction. At Iowa you hardly saw anyone working on a novel. Why put up something you had a few years invested in, only to see it get creamed? A story was much easier to throw away, so that's what we turned it, and workshop discussions were geared toward naming that mysterious quality that deemed a story "working" or not. After two years, you had six or eight of these strange, 5,000-word tales --- a few published, most not --- and the idea, the universal dream of the MFA candidate, was to gather them up and find a big house to buy them (Ethan Canin did it, right?) and then take one of the offers for a 2/2 course load assistant professorship at a big writing school.
The reality: One or two of the 20 agents you send to will actually read the collection and shoot you a three-sentence email complimenting the voice and style, then asking you to get back in touch when you have a novel ready. How many brilliant writers don't see their books published simply because a house is worried about marketing? I think the schism between popular fiction and traditional literary fiction will continue to widen, and those who want to be writers will need to honestly ask themselves which kind they want to be.
BRC: How did your mentor Jeffrey Greene get you interested in writing?
WH: Jeff was and is a great friend, and the first person who believed in my work. Besides the occasional compliment for a job at the shop, I can't remember being told I was good at anything until Jeff said I was good at writing fiction. Not only did he introduce me to important books, he took me to piano concerts and readings at Yale, fiction and poetry readings, dinner parties with brilliant poets and novelists, and in return I showed him how to throw plugs for blue fish and replace parts on his car. He gave me invaluable confidence during that awkward discovery stage when I was first finding my voice, though he wasn't one to offer inflated praise. I remember coming to his office and saying I didn't want to be a cop anymore, I wanted to be a writer now, and what the hell should I do about that? He described MFA programs, and greedily I asked where to apply. He mentioned a few and then said, "And you might as well try for Iowa. You're not going to get in, but you probably ought to try." He was in Paris when I called to tell him they had taken me. I was a wise ass, of course, first mentioning the other schools that had taken me, and then, smugly, "Oh, and Iowa." "Iowa?" he said. "Iowa? Did you say Iowa took you?" God, it was great.
I've since gone to visit him in Paris --- hoping to go back next year --- and he's come out and visited me in Oregon. He's a fabulous poet and nonfiction writer whose gorgeous prose I still turn to often when my sentences are feeling strained and clunky.
BRC: The actual day-to-day work of a writer can be quite solitary and lonely. Once the book is published, the readings, talks and appearances begin. Do you enjoy this part of the process? With your busy schedule at Oregon State, when do you find time to do your own writing?
WH: I'm not much of an extrovert, so the thought of readings and talks makes me very anxious. My wife tells me how relaxed and natural I sound in front of the podium, but she's my wife; it terrifies me for weeks before the event. I sure hope the panic will fade someday.
And yes, time. Whenever the kids are asleep. During the school year, I get up at 4:30 and drive the hour into Corvallis, where I teach, so that I might have two hours to write in an empty building before my first class. I also have Dragonware --- voice recognition software --- on my laptop, and I do a good deal of my writing on the car ride. You gotta love technology.
BRC: What are you currently working on? Do you have another novel in the works?
WH: I actually have three books in the works. One is complete --- WRENCH, a collection of 12 published short stories -- including "Least Resistance," which was in BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2010. The second is a novel about a boy who is training to be the youngest person in the world to climb El Capitan (rock climbing is another hobby of mine) when he finds he has MS. The third novel is the one I mentioned, a crime novel, that involves a female corrections officer who falls in love with one of her inmates, a man with selective mutism who may or may not be a vicious killer. I'm excited to revisit those corrections officer days in my new novel --- hoping to introduce a world unique to most readers, as I attempted to do with the world of hotrod mechanics in THE SPARK AND THE DRIVE.