'Forgiveness' Hero Coldly Treated In Texan Heat

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Texas is a tough place, and Karel Skala had a tough start in life. His mother died giving birth to him. His father never forgave him, and Karel never forgot that — or her. The Wake of Forgiveness is the debut novel of Bruce Machart, a book that has been praised for its stunning prose, epochal story and piercing dialog. Host Scott Simon talks to Machart about his epic tale.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

Texas is a tough place - wild and beautiful, boundless and abundant, but tough.

Karel Skala had a tough start in life. His mother died giving birth to him. His father never forgave him and Karel never forgot that, or her. He grows up feeling his father's coolness, missing his mother's warmth, and feuding with his three older brothers. Sure can ride a horse though. And when he's a teenager, he's given the chance to ride his family's fastest horse in a high stakes race in which his family's fortunes hang in the balance.

"The Wake of Forgiveness" is the debut novel of Bruce Machart, who teaches at Lone Star College. It's a novel thats been praised for its stunning prose, epochal story, and piercing dialogue.

Burce Machart joins us from the studios of KHUF in Houston. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. BURCE MACHART (Author): Thank you, Scott. It's good to be here.

SIMON: And, boy, this novel opens with a punch, doesn't it?

Mr. MACHART: Well, I suppose it does. I guess the way to start a good story is to start where it gets interesting, and for me that was the crux of the story. From the very beginning, this is what I imagined was something very different from my own life.

I was a momma's boy. And the focal character here, Karel, loses his mother before he ever meets her.

SIMON: The date is, what, 18...

Mr. MACHART: He was born in 1895.

SIMON: To set this story - as Karel grows up, there are two rival families in town: the Skalas and the Villasenors.

Mr. MACHART: Yes.

SIMON: What pits against each other?

Mr. MACHART: Well, I think we have two strong-willed patriarchs, one who's in effect trying to build an empire. He's fleeing the unrest thats beginning in 1910 with civil unrest, civil revolution effectively, in Mexico, trying to escape with some of his wealth intact. He comes looking for - and has daughters - he comes looking to form an allegiance and to marry the strongest, wealthiest family in the particular county that he's set his eye on.

Pit against him is a relatively hard, sort of old-fashion Czech patriarch, Vaclav Skala. And he - while he's interested in increasing his land holdings, he tends to do it by betting with his neighbors and gambling horse races - or gambling on horse races, to take some of the acreage away from his neighbors and bring it under his fold of his growing sort of property holdings.

SIMON: This book, sentence by sentence, betrays a love of Texas hill country. And I guess I was surprised to finish it and turn to the publisher's information and find out that you're a city kid from Houston.

Mr. MACHART: Very much so. My father grew up on a cash-crop farm, sort of further south and east in Texas, in the hill country - actually a little bit east of Lavaca County, where this takes place. But Lavaca County is the birthplace of my grandfather, on my father's side.

And something about the country and the countryside and the animals always made me feel kind of lonely when I would go to the country. All of our family outings, the holidays and family reunions and weddings, because my father's six sisters, most of them stayed in the country, any time there was a family occasion, thats where we would go.

And here I found myself among, literally, 30-some-odd cousins who all, you know, knew how to drive a tractor and knew how to get between the strands of barb wire without cutting themselves to pieces and weren't terribly afraid of the bulls in the pasture.

And I found myself, you know, the outsider in what should feel like my homeland. And thats what has always sort of drawn it to me - or drawn me to it, rather.

SIMON: So looking back on it, was that kind of the beginning of the novel, there were characters who took root in your mind as you - almost as you grew up?

Mr. MACHART: I suppose. Im not the kind of writer who can really claim that I was always a writer and always thought in stories. Mostly what I've always done, I think, is sort of pay attention and wonder what it would like to be wonder what it would be like to be someone else.

Just the notion of growing up without a mother was inconceivable to me. And as a writer, thats what interests me, not what I know but what I might discover.

SIMON: Your dialogue has been praised in this book for having an absolutely authentic and colorful quality. So my question is, how do you know it's authentic?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACHART: Im not sure you can unless - there are no time machines, the best I know. But I think the very specific sort of combination of this Czech Bohemian dialect, which is more idiom than anything else, and sort of the rural sensibility that goes with it - I think Eudora Welty, I believe it was, said one time that what dialogue should do is effectively not bore the reader, that it should be the most entertaining lines on the page, and also reveal something about the character, yes, and move the story forward. So in a case like that, I think it does tell us something about the man who's saying it. I think most interesting dialogue does.

SIMON: What did you do on your way to becoming a novelist?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACHART: A great many things. I have to work my way through my undergraduate degree. I had a friend whose uncle was the president or vice president of a company that sold conveyor belting, and so there are probably only maybe two or three hundred people in the United States who know as much about conveyor belting as I do. But...

SIMON: Well, but while we have the opportunity, is there something we could all stand to learn about conveyor belting?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACHART: Everything thats bought or sold, everything that you put in your mouth to eat, just about everything that you touch has at one point been on a conveyor belt.

SIMON: So conveyor belt salesmen are the unsung heroes of American commerce?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MACHART: I think without a doubt, that's safe to say, yes.

SIMON: What do you learn from doing a lot of different things on your way to writing novels?

Mr. MACHART: I suppose you learn how different kinds of people speak and how different kinds of people live. You know, I actually enjoyed doing some really tough jobs. I did conveyor belting work, started off in the warehouse, did sales, I worked on an oil rig, I was a medical courier. And you get to speak with just such a wonderful cross-section of people, and maybe that helps more than anything in dialogue. But it also gives you something to really be curious about that has a human root to it, that's not some idea.

SIMON: And how do you convince someone to buy a conveyor belt? I'm guessing that that's, that there might be a lesson in there as to what you need to reach into in other persons heart and mind.

Mr. MACHART: I think writing is a lot like sales. If you're going to - what's the old line, the willing suspension of disbelief? If you are going to put something on the page that comes straight from your imagination and you have no other tools but language, and you're trying to convince someone that it's worth their time to suspend their disbelief, to believe in a story that, you know, art is at the root of artifice, that it's effectively imaginary, then you have to do a sales job. It's just the tools are different.

SIMON: Bruce Machart, his debut novel, "The Wake of Forgiveness," speaking with us from Houston.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MACHART: Thank you, Scott, very much. It's been a pleasure.

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