The Rumpus Interview with Wayne Harrison

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Wayne Harrison could be a novel character himself. A vocational student who loved cars, he also worked as a correctional officer, studied to be a cop, and then just happened to take what he thought would be a gut course in creative writing, and his world cracked open. Since then, his fiction’s been on NPR’s All Things Considered, and his short stories appear in Best American Short Stories 2010, The Atlantic, Narrative Magazine, McSweeney’s, and more.

Harrison’s debut, The Spark and the Drive, is as raw and gritty as a machine shop, and just as real. A coming of age tale, a love story with a slant, Harrison makes vivid the world of cars, betrayal, and yearning. The book is a knockout, following seventeen-year-old Justin Bailey, who finds a mentor in Nick, a muscle-car genius, and then forms a dangerous attraction to Nick’s wife.

Because Harrison’s so easy to talk with and has a whip-smart sense of humor, we talked about—well—everything.

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The Rumpus: You were kind of a bad boy in your youth (you tried to sell a kilo of cocaine you found in a police auction car) but you became an acclaimed author, husband, and father, a life you might never have expected. But were there ever inklings of this life when you were little? A love of reading, of listening to stories? And does the way your life worked out make you believe in fate at all?

Wayne Harrison: My mother is always telling me things happen for a reason, and finally I think I’m becoming a believer. For instance, without the trouble—the crimes I escaped punishment for, the near alcoholism, the car racing that forced me to register my Chevelle in another state, close friends dying and going to jail—I wouldn’t have turned to law enforcement to straighten myself out. Without that intention, I wouldn’t have started college, wouldn’t have taken a creative writing class junior year, wouldn’t have lived in Iowa for two years and realized I wanted no more snow or humidity, wouldn’t have met my beautiful wife on the west coast and been blessed by our two lovely daughters, and by teaching jobs that enabled me to support a pretty severe writing addiction. There is a safeguarding. I’m feeling pretty sure of that these days.

I wish I could credit voracious reading as my primary training—I love how it transcended an otherwise barren intellectual environment for many great writers. Embarrassingly, I have to admit that I wasn’t a reader. My family is very blue collar, no college on either side, and literature was never a luxury they had time for. Then when I was in grade school my mother married a rich man, and for a few years I went to private school. It was a rocky transition into upper class. I remember conversations in the mirror in which I tried to weed out all the double negatives and “ain’ts” from my sentences. On the weekends I was with my cousins, shoplifting and roofing (jumping between roofs of triple-decker houses), and on school days I pulled on a blazer. Part of my resistance to books came from rebelling, and after my mother got divorced, I eagerly sought out the non-academic kids in public school.

I’ve always had a strong curiosity about people, the kind that can appear to be disrespect, as I learned many times in my vocational high school and later. Real men minded their business and didn’t try to articulate feelings. (Like Justin notices in The Spark and the Drive, “all mechanics shared a mystique anchored on self control and cool reticence.”) But my wanting to know everyone’s secrets has certainly become an asset to my writing. I remember after I wrote my first short story in college—it was simplistic, naïve, cliché, all of that—but still I felt I had created people. Nothing in my life to that point had made me feel as proud—not rebuilding an engine or winning a drag race. I was hooked. When I ran out of writing classes at the University of New Haven, I took some at Southern and even drove to Rhode Island once a week. I couldn’t get enough.

Rumpus: We’ve all had that moment when a book changed our life. Mine was realizing that Richard Price had published The Wanderers at 24, and I felt time rushing by me, so I got serious about my own writing. You’ve said that the first page of Richard Ford’s Rock Springs spoke to you in a way nothing had before. How? Why? And how did it make you see the world differently?

Harrison: Wow. 24? At that age I was sitting in my first Criminal Justice class and wondering if I’d just made the worst mistake of my life.

At first, I felt a strong connection to Ford’s characters, many of whom could have walked right out of my vocational school or the shop bays. The book does many extraordinary things—so authentically capturing the isolation of the West, the restlessness and desperation—but what hooked me most was the language, so unpretentious, so intelligent, so compassionate. I was shocked by the power of the sentiments he achieved using plain, even quiet words.

In college, I was very self-conscious about my vocabulary. Professors recommended I read Updike, Roth, Barthalme, Nabokov—wizards of language—and at one point I read through an entire Webster’s and wrote down each word I didn’t know. Then I found Raymond Carver’s stories and saw that sentences of stunning emotional value and of literary merit could be assembled from what he called “commonplace but precise language.” Ford used this technique in Rock Springs, and then exploded the minimalism with heartfelt wisdom, as in this ending to “Sweethearts”:

I knew what love was about. It was about not giving trouble or inviting it. It was about not leaving a woman for the thought of another one. It was about never being a place you said you’d never be in. And it was not about being alone. Never that. Never that.

He’s such a master of repetition, and of the supernova ending.

Rumpus: I don’t know how to drive, but I still always have characters who drive recklessly or love the open road. What is it about cars that capture us so much? And why do you think your years working as a mechanic were some of the “most sincere of” your life?

Harrison: At least some of it must be the idea of freedom, right? How many movies end with a car setting off on a vast roadway to the beat of inspirational music? We load up and get away, we drive off after our dreams. Someday we’ll tour the country by car, drive till the tires fall off. It’s very American.

But the cars I’m passionate about were produced for only a brief moment in the hundred and thirty-five years since Carl Benz’s three-wheeled Motor Car. Pontiac launched the muscle car era with the 1964 GTO and finished with the Super Duty Trans Am of 1974, when EPA regulations kicked in fully, octane dropped, and the days of leaded gasoline were numbered. At the peak of the golden age, big block behemoths with flawless formulas of breathing and torque were pushing 500 horsepower off the showroom floor. Gas was cheap and octane was high, and almost every aspect of these cars was dedicated to speed. I came of age twenty years too late, which made these super cars even more legendary. The ZL1 Corvette, which takes center stage for a time in my novel, was truly an outrageous machine.

I remember being seventeen and standing in the bay door threshold of a shop where I hoped to get summer work. Mechanics were slamming toolbox drawers and spinning ratchets, shouting over engines. Cutting torches popped, air compressors snorted like charging bulls. Then came a sound as loud as all the other sounds combined: In the far bay a Super Sport Camaro was spinning its back wheels on dyno rollers. The five-spoke tire rims seemed to shrink, and the wheels gave the high-speed illusion of spinning backwards before they went out of focus. If the rollers locked, the car would’ve gone right through the back wall. When I thought no more noise was possible from an engine, it got louder, until I was sure it would end with a great red explosion of molten steel. All that kept me from running for my life was that none of the other mechanics seemed to care. I loved it.

As a mechanic, I could talk to all types of people—pretty college girls with their hand-me-down Hondas, drug dealers with their pimped Lincolns and Caddies, white guys medicating their mid-life crises with horsepower, soccer moms with their Suburbans. As Justin notes in the book, “Automobiles were like a great species among us, more vital and abiding than most people in our lives, yet only a handful of us fully understood their complicated language.” My friends and I talked the language of cars. We didn’t think politically or globally. We lived in the moment, letting one event lead to the next without a real plan, but taking real satisfaction from our workdays. Don’t get me wrong, I love my life now, but occasionally the smell of gasoline or the sound of someone lighting the tires will drop me right back into those carbon-choked bays.

Rumpus: You said you knew nothing about writing a novel (neither did I when I wrote my first one, which involved a lot of migraines and throwing up from nerves). How did you figure it out? Did your agent help? Did you map it out first before writing?

Harrison: My agent, Seth Fishman, was an enormous help. I had been writing short stories for a while, and he spotted one in Best American and contacted me. The agent I had at the time was leaving the company, and Seth was very enthusiastic about my work, so it seemed a good time to switch. Of course, he thought the best idea would be to start with a novel and sell the story collection later. I ran through some outlines of a book, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters in my story “Least Resistance,” especially Nick, the genius losing his mind, and his loving wife who is so devastated by the loss of her baby son. Seth gave me tremendous support, and extremely valuable criticism, as I explored the characters beyond their role in the short story. I think it was vital that he didn’t pressure me, as I’ve heard of some agents doing.

I’d never used an outline in my short stories and didn’t on the novel, but the characters seemed to have a good sense of direction, so I trusted them on the page. Save for a few false starts and unrelated digressions, the writing went surprisingly well. I didn’t really stress that much because drafting the book was just a matter of sitting down and hanging out with people I cared for deeply. The stress came later. You know those blood pressure machines in supermarkets? Don’t stick your arm in one during the first month of a book launch. I had to find creative ways of staying off the internet. Google Chrome has a nifty tool that boots you for the rest of the day after you use up your twenty minutes. A real life-saver.

Rumpus: You’ve said that although you love your job teaching writing, you often feel out of place teaching at college today. As someone who always feels out of place myself, I want to know, How come? And don’t you think it’s always the writer’s job to feel out of place? We’re always observing everything.

Harrison: That’s a terrific point about writer’s feeling out of place, and I love the way you phrase it. I remember the brilliant Barry Hannah telling us that our job as writers was to report back from the front lines. Some amount of detachment is absolutely necessary. Feeling out of place keeps us curious for that inside skinny, the real story.

I think my unease has something to do with all the abrupt changes. I talked about my mother’s second husband taking us from the bottom apartment of a triple-decker to two acres with a swimming pool and tennis court, and after three years leaving that to find something like middle class. We moved about every three years, just when I seemed to be getting my bearings.

College—wow, did I feel out of place. In Waterbury, some of my closest friends had been ex-cons and bikers, and it was jarring to suddenly be in an environment where you were safe to use abstract language and ask the occasional stupid question. I took overloads and graduated early, then went to Iowa a few months later. The caliber of students was remarkable—some already had books out, some had been in the New Yorker, and all of them had read much more than I had. I thought this would finally be where I belonged, where I could catch my breath and focus on friendships again, but I’d been writing for less than two years and had a lot of catching up to do. My promised land kept getting knocked into the distance.

I’ve been teaching for almost ten years now, and I feel perhaps more accessible to my students because of my varied background. But there are also those times when I still question my own legitimacy. The good thing is, I don’t think I’ll ever feel complacent—I’ll stay on my toes and keep pushing myself as a teacher.

Rumpus: Speaking of observing everything, do you ever find yourself, in the middle of an experience, thinking, oh, I could use that, I should pay attention?

Harrison: Writer friends tell me about this kind of nettling obsession, whipping out their notebooks to capture life as it happens, but that’s not me. It’s all I can do to be present. When I have those moments, though, the ones that take your breath away, I trust that they store up somewhere and will be there when I need them. I’m more someone who needs experiences to sink in before I can weigh their potential value in my writing. William Blake’s idea of “emotion recollected in tranquility”—that’s how I tend to do it. Similarly, I don’t keep a notebook by the bed for those middle of the night flashes. If they’re really worth it, they ought to keep until morning.

Rumpus: Part of the pleasure of your book is the reality of your story world. We feel the grease, smell the car exhaust, and hear the hum of the engines. Did any of those stories from your days as a mechanic find their way into the book? And in crafting fiction about it, did you start to see your past differently because you now had to shape it?

Harrison: The drag racing, the scheming to steal cars that were slated to be repoed, the gravely misguided affection and use of sexuality to gain a sense commitment—yeah, that stuff’s pretty accurate. In my life I’ve had a number of relationships with tragic women who I would have done anything for, who, like Mary Ann in the book, happened to be going through impossible times. Luckily, I didn’t have the opportunity to prove myself to them in the disastrous way Justin tries to with Mary Ann. But in writing this book, I did recognize how perilous life can be when you’re acting almost entirely with your heart. Justin does what he does out of a love so overwhelming he can’t understand or control it, and writing those scenes, I realized, in a way I perhaps never had, that yes, I’d been there. Especially when my life seemed upside-down, falling in love was the very best thing you could do. Justin says in reference to Mary Ann, “There wasn’t much I wouldn’t have done,” and I can say that I know the best and worst of that feeling. Back to your earlier question about fate: after writing this book, and spending so much time recalling how it felt to be eighteen, I should certainly make an offering to whichever gods are in charge that everything worked out in the end.

Rumpus: Your characters are so alive that I still find myself thinking about them, worrying about them, and what will happen next, creating what I like to call “the never ending story.” Do you revisit them in your mind?

Harrison: Thank you for saying so, Caroline, and speaking of characters, your complex and mysterious Isabelle, and the tragic Sam and Charlie in Pictures of You have stayed with me vividly for about two years now. Talk about upended lives—and using a car to escape—what a gorgeously honest look at well-meaning people driven to desperate acts.

So I was salmon fishing yesterday on a scenic Oregon bay, and my good friend asked, as he captained the troll, if I thought about writing a sequel. Strangely it took his asking to make me realize that I’d been envisioning future scenes of the book for some time now—everyone trying to put their lives back together after all the wreckage. I love to think about their courage and even optimism in the end. If I go anywhere with their stories, it’ll have to be after I get these next two books out of my system. But yes, I do think about them, and hope they’re okay, wherever they are.

Rumpus: Are you the kind of writer who likes to talk about your next project before it’s finished, or is that a locked-box question? (I’m deeply superstitious myself so I try to keep quiet, except to the four people who are my readers.) Would you spill the beans on what’s coming up?

Harrison: Oh, sure. In my life I’ve been superstitious about lots of things, but writing isn’t one of them. For the last year I’ve been working on two books, and if I haven’t lost interest yet, I think they’re safe to talk about. I haven’t worked out the one-sentence pitch, but here’s a go at them:

The first book is a literary thriller that mines my past job in corrections. It’s about a female corrections officer named Lynn, whose understanding of the criminal mind makes her very good at her job. Her husband is in a rock band that’s on the brink of a major record deal, until the lead guitarist is arrested for murdering his wife. Though he has confessed in writing to the crime, he hasn’t spoken a word. He’s brought into Lynn’s jail awaiting sentencing. Lynn finds herself doubting his guilt, and taking outrageous chances that threaten her job and her marriage to prove his innocence.

The second book is a young adult novel about a 14-year-old boy who has been training to be the youngest person in the world to rock climb El Capitan. (Rock climbing is another of my passions.) When he finds out he has multiple sclerosis he is driven to outrageous free-soloing climbs (climbing big walls without a rope) that threaten not only his life but the lives of those he loves most.

And by the way, Caroline, what’s the process to become your fifth reader? I’d love to apply.

Rumpus: What do you think the strangest thing about being a debut novelist is?

Harrison: The idea that there are people out there dropping $25 on something you wrote, and all you can hope is that you’re not letting them down. The coolest thing? My five-year-old finding it in a bookstore and shouting, “Look, Daddy! You’re famous!”

Rumpus: Your path to being a novelist was so different from most writers, who get their MFAs or hang out in literary centers. Do you think your very different path helped you, and if so, how?

Harrison: Though it’s easier to notice the ways delaying my education was a liability, I think it did ultimately help. First, my past careers have given me a pretty solid work ethic. We think of teaching as full time, and of course there’s a lot of work involved, but it’s not fifty and sixty hours a week bent over four-hundred degree engines. I remember in a workshop, Frank Conroy told us that we needed to work for three hours a day on our fiction. He really made a big deal about that, as if it were some unattainable goal. I thought, That’s it? Three hours in a chair making stuff up? I can do that.

I’ve been very fortunate to have friends in all walks of life, but I don’t think I would have been allowed into the crowds I was in before college, or allowed in so intimately, if I hadn’t been a career mechanic. I didn’t think like a writer or a college graduate, trying to make sense of everything. Once at the shop, my friend came in drunk and ate up a set of oscilloscope leads in a fan belt. The boss wanted to fire him, and I intervened, drove my friend home, found out he and his girl were on the rocks, had a late night drinking, talking and crying session, helped them reconcile, (they would’ve done exactly the same for me), and we all watched the sun rise through their dirty apartment window. That was visceral, high stakes living, it seems to me, and there’s not much I really regret. At least when I write those kinds of characters, I feel more confident than I would have if I hadn’t lived that life.

Rumpus: I’ve got to ask you about being a corrections officer. Were you more Orange is the New Black or Oz (the HBO prison drama)?

Harrison: I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t seen either. (When people ask if I’ve watched this or that show, my answer typically elicits something like, “You do have electricity and everything, right?”) But here’s a brief summary of what I remember, so maybe you can find similarities. The pod (a dayroom with cells along the back walls) that I worked in was medium security. We had a lot of guys in for assault, and it always amazed me how fast they went from being bad-asses on the street to being victims, constantly griping about the unfairness of day to day regulations. Homosexuality was rare, and gays were treated with extreme prejudice. Crimes had a hierarchy. The most revered inmates were the unremorseful murderers—sociopaths awaiting federal sentences—and at the bottom of the barrel were guys in for domestic or child abuse. These inmates were regularly tormented and occasionally beaten. (Some of the officers looked at it as justice served.) Committers of sex offenses were separated from the general population in their own pod, where they moped and brooded like Dante’s sinners in their murky ring of hell.

It was really miserable work. You saw acts committed that you didn’t realize human beings were capable of. While I was working there, some ideologues in the state capitol banned smoking in jails and prisons. Not only did these guys lose their freedom, but also their access to alcohol, drugs, coffee and suddenly nicotine. Just white knuckling sobriety from one addiction can turn someone into a lunatic—I mean, it was chaos. To compensate, we handed out carrot sticks and celery, which only gave everyone gas—the air in the pods grew toxic. After reading a myriad of Op Ed pieces written by corrections officers, the lawmakers came to their senses and gave them back their nicotine.

Rumpus: What’s it like for you to have to be out there now, to give talks, to be accessible to people?

Harrison: Oh, it’s stressful. I’m a pretty quiet guy, just a people-watcher mostly. I love the occasional emails, the opportunities to thank those who’ve taken a chance on me, but I’m not a big fan of readings and Q&As. My wife says I sound fine, and one day I hope to believe her. Standing in front of that microphone brings back the physical sensations of having to tell a crowd of inmates in the yard to disperse. But my seven-year-old is on the job, coaching me on how to be less introverted. She says it’s just a phase.

Thanks for the marvelous questions, Caroline! This was great fun.


Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You, as well as eight other novels. She can be reached through www.carolineleavitt.com. More from this author →