Colorado writer Robert Garner McBrearty has published two short story collections, 1999’s A Night at the Y and the new Episode. McBrearty has won many awards, including a Pushcart Prize and the 2007 Sherwood Anderson Foundation grant. Raised in San Antonio, Texas and educated at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, McBrearty lives in Louisville, Colo., and teaches at the University of Colorado. His stories are funny, sensitive, and surprising, and I recently interviewed him via email about his writing process, how he blends realism with experimentation, and the success of his former student, David Wroblewski. McBrearty will read from Episode at the Boulder Book Store on Thursday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m.
New West: How did you end up in Colorado?
Robert Garner McBrearty: My wife and I met in Santa Fe back in the early eighties (ancient times now, eh!), and we were sort of eyeing the Boulder area even back then. We liked Santa Fe but it was hard to make a living. I was a dishwasher with a Masters Degree in Creative Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. One night the restaurant owner said sympathetically, “You have a Masters Degree and you’re washing dishes. You must really be stupid.” I thought maybe a geographical change was in order. We moved around some from state to state and Mary Ellen went to acupuncture school in Maryland. Right after she graduated, I won a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, so we spent a year there, where we had our first son. We came out of the fellowship year totally broke, new baby in tow, looking for a place to live, and headed to Boulder so Mary Ellen could start up her practice here as it seemed like an accommodating place. I’m from Texas, and Mary Ellen is from Oregon, so Colorado also placed us a little closer to family, and the area suited us with the outdoors and the hiking. It seemed like a good place to raise children. The early years here were lean ones, but we’ve been happy here. We’re not big city types, but we also like enough going on in the arts and I need to have some good coffee shops nearby.
NW: How long have you been teaching at CU?
RGM: Almost right after we got here, I started teaching short story workshops at the Continuing Education Department at CU. I guess that would have been 1990 or so. It was just a part-time job, once a week at night that I did for about ten years. I learned a lot from it and taught a lot of nice people along the way. It was a really fun type of teaching because I didn’t have to worry about grades and I was teaching people who really wanted to be there and who really wanted to write.
In my very first class, I taught David Wroblewski, who recently wrote the bestselling book The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and we stayed in touch and became friends after the workshop. He was an obviously talented writer even back then, but I had no idea he was going to have such a smashing success. If I had known, I would have had him sign a contract in class giving me half his future royalties.
At the same time, I was teaching composition courses at a community college and working other odd jobs and also teaching some T’ai Chi and helping raise the kids. I got hired by the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at CU around 2002. So my total time at CU goes back almost twenty years, but I sort of think of it as in two phases: the fiction teaching years and the years with the Program for Writing and Rhetoric, where we focus more on analytical and argumentative writing. It’s probably made it hard for my own kids, teenagers now – I’m always asking them to provide evidence for their claims.
NW: Sports—from baseball, to boxing, to Tai Chi—are one subject that unites your stories. Are you an athlete? Why do you think sports make for good material?
RGM: As I writer, I guess I’m always sort of exploring various aspects of my own life, though in the telling, I never translate anything as it actually occurred, which is why I would be a terrible memoirist. I would have to admit right off to the readers that I was making stuff up. But I’ve always been drawn to sports so it’s a natural area for me to pull from. I grew up in those pre-computer days, so I played football or baseball nearly every day of my life all through high school. I was never a great athlete, but I made some wonderful broken field runs on dying autumn evenings in backyards that will forever be haunted by the spirits of smash-toothed adolescents. Ah, what glorious days packing the meat as I burst through the line.
I think that’s one thing that interests me, the way we glorify the small moments in our lives, the successes and failures. I would have no interest in writing about a Super Bowl team. What interests me is a guy playing for no one and nothing, the light fading on an autumn evening, taking the ball one last time and throwing his body into the line.
Later, I got into various martial arts, primarily Tai Chi, but a number of other things as well: karate, boxing, Kung Fu. There were a number of years where I really enjoyed sparring, the way it livens you up as you try to keep from getting kicked in the head. I’m kind of slowing down now, though. I think I’ve become more of a target. You remember the old boxer Jerry Quarry? Anyway, Jerry was basically hired as a boxer to get the hell beat out of him by the great ones: Ali, Frazier, Foreman, they all did their damage on him, but he never gave up. Maybe he’s my hero. He reminds me of my characters somehow, a little down on their luck, on the canvas, getting psychologically bloodied, but hanging in there, trying to keep their spirits up. There’s a natural kind of conflict built into a sporting event that matches up with the conflict in a story. My bloodied boxer is also an ironist at heart: what the hell am I doing here, isn’t this all sort of funny in its own way he seems to be saying.
NW: “The Bike,” in which a couple grows apart because the wife takes up cycling and the husband doesn’t, strikes me as a Boulder story. (I’ve actually heard of such cases.) Were you thinking of Boulder when you wrote it?
RGM: I’m glad you asked about that story. The final bike ride, as the wife escapes into her own life, is through our own neighborhood in Louisville, up a trail that leads to a lake, but the story itself is definitely influenced by the Boulder environment – the way people enrich their lives or sometimes maybe avoid the issues in their lives through physical adventure. I think what really made that story for me was a later discovery during rewriting. In earlier drafts, the husband was just stodgy and set in his ways while the wife was ready to move on, to live in a fuller way. But somewhere along the way, I realized that the motivation was grief. The man had narrowed his life in response to the death of their son some years back. His wife is finally ready to move on from the grief. In the end, he realizes he can only hold her back and the best thing he can do is let her ride away. So the bike, in reality a vehicle of movement, becomes also a metaphor for movement in one’s life.
NW: Another subject that comes up a few times in Episode is plumbing, especially in the hilarious “The Real World.” What are the origins of that story?
RGM: Oh my goodness. Yes, that story had some real basis in reality. I had a friend back in Santa Fe who owned a one-man sewer and drain cleaning company. He would take me out on jobs, give me the dirtiest and hardest jobs, and then try to convince me I should become his partner in the enterprise. He seemed convinced I would make a wonderful sewer and drain cleaner, even though I had absolutely no aptitude for it. He was always telling me I needed to live in the real world. I suppose there seemed something elemental and obsessive about the job, the way we and the homeowners became totally focused on the job at hand. Make the water go down.
One day we worked for a famous person whom I won’t name here, and we stood over the recalcitrant toilet, this powerful rich person and my friend and me staring down, united in our purpose, all reduced to simply willing the water to go down. The plumbing, the real world, became sort of a contrast to the way I am inclined to live in the world of imagination. When you’re staring at a clogged up toilet, the real world has come calling. I guess I’ve always been interested in the way an artist lives on various planes – in the imagination, but then in the day to day world as well, and the plumbing sort of became emblematic of the real world. Plumbing, making it work, is something appreciated by everyone. When one writes a story, he is aware that there are probably so few people who will really be interested or will care. You realize you can’t rush across the street and tell the neighbors proudly that you’ve just written a story, maybe the best story of your life. But if you were to show up with a plunger and say, “I’ll take care of that toilet,” they’d really think you were great…In “The Halfpenny Man,” the father is disappointed because his son hasn’t followed his footsteps in the plumbing profession, but has chosen to follow a more artistic path.
NW: In “The Real World” and other stories, your characters often sew disorder into orderly lives. Many of your characters are also trying to make a comeback or transform themselves. Are these conscious themes of yours?
RGM: Most definitely. In fact, at one time the collection was titled “The Comeback.” The way I see it, though, is that comebacks and transformations aren’t a one-time event, but that we move in and out of fuller and lesser lives. We find ourselves sliding, but there’s always the possibility of rising back up. I’m a hopeful person – maybe more hopeful in my writing than in my day to day life, even, if that makes sense. What I guess I mean is a story, the telling of a story, is in itself an act of hope for me. In Walker Percy’s great novel The Moviegoer he says, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
I like to write about characters who are just coming out of a metaphorical slumber. They’re looking about, a little dazed and bewildered, but energized somehow. And in a way, as they wake from their own slumbers, they also sort of disturb the lives of others around them. Everyone goes into motion, and it’s not always clear where that motion will lead. It may be uncomfortable, as in the wrecked home in “The Real World,” where Mr. Gorman says, “I’ve been living in a fool’s paradise.”
NW: What sparks a story in your imagination? Are there any similarities in the creation of your stories?
RGM: I find a lot of inconsistency in my process. Sometimes stories just pop into my head, almost complete in their movement from beginning to end. I see the whole trajectory of the story, though there are usually still some discoveries along the way. Other times I seem to only have a little glimmer of the story – sometimes the story fills out along the way. Sometimes it doesn’t. There are many stories that fall along the wayside. I’m not always sure what sparks a story, but I’ve been influenced by events in my own life, or by reading something in the newspaper, or by witnessing something, or by hearing a song, or by reading a good story or novel. I also spend a lot of time without too much going on in my head, where I feel pretty flat and dry. But something always seems to emerge from those dry, flat spells. Right when I feel like giving up, when I feel like there will never be another decent idea, something captivates me and I get going again.
NW: Some of your stories are realistic, while others take imaginative leaps, like “The Half Penny Man” and “In The Bar.” One that especially interested me was “The Comeback,” which seems realistic at first, with a retired, middle-aged ballplayer receives a call from his former coach, who invites him to try to make a comeback. But then it takes a magical realist turn, with this midnight tryout on the field, and something not quite on the plane of realism happens, and I loved the image it ended in: “I was a boy of six again, in that timeless summer of Mantle and Maris and fireflies and brothers and sisters and Momma’s slow pitching, her magical southern voice drawling, ‘Swing, honey, swing.” Do you follow a story where it takes you, or do you plan whether it will be realistic or experimental?
RGM: I’m really glad you mentioned the ending of “The Comeback.” Those were some favorites lines of mine because they were after another important notion in writing, which is that a story has a past, a present, and a future. Something often unnamed is in the background or lying ahead of the character, and those lines hinted at the idyllic past, a past which perhaps never quite existed for any of us and yet it’s the garden we seek, and growing up in the fifties and sixties, baseball was life for a boy, and what could be better for a little kid than having his mom toss him a slow pitch, and there was my own mom, showing up in the story, her beautiful Texas drawl calling out to me as if she were still here, as if I were still that boy, not the used up ball player who can no longer hit the fast one.
One thing I do in my writing, which I’m glad you called attention to, is to move rather freely from realism to magical realism, or to find this sort of cutting edge where the two types of writing merge. I’m not sure I always consciously choose which way to go ahead of time, but if I’ve been doing a certain sort of story – let’s say the more magical realistic type, I start getting inclined to do a realistic one, or vice versa. Even when I’m writing in a more experimental style, though, I want to be accessible and fun to read. I like having layers of complexity in my stories, but I never want to be obscure. A reader doesn’t always have to fully understand the stories – in fact, I like some openness to interpretation-but the story should be a pleasure to read in its own right. The magical realism ones tend to come to me in one sweeping sort of movement –I get really engaged; it’s like receiving a gift, the words are just rolling in. They tend to be shorter ones, to have a very compact quality. At the same time, I’m a traditionalist in that there should be a narrative arc, a movement, a conflict, a change that occurs.
NW: You’ve published two collections of short stories. How did you decide to specialize in this form?
RGM: Well, I’ll borrow a little from Raymond Carver here. The short story writer Raymond Carver was asked once why short stories instead of novels and he said, more or less, that short stories fit in better with the struggles and obligations he lived with, and I guess that’s in part true for me, too. I’ve seldom had peaceful long blocks of time to write so the short story fits in better somehow. My mind also 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. I don’t mean I was writing on them consistently for twenty years, but they moved from draft to draft, sat around, got neglected, before I got back to them.
NW: Among short story writers, I guess only Alice Munro is exempt from this rather rude question: have you considered writing a novel?
RGM: Well, actually I do work in the novel form; it’s just that I haven’t yet published in that form. I’ve had a couple of novels represented by literary agents and they’ve come close to selling, and I’m rewriting one now, so I think I still have some hope of eventually publishing one. I guess I do think of myself, though, as more of a short story writer who is trying to fake it for three hundred pages. I do like the momentum one can get into in a novel, and I know that I write passages in novels that are among my best writing –thus far though, I have a tough time making novels work as a whole.
Novels are a big investment. If a story doesn’t work, I can let it go and move on to the next thing. One can spend years on a novel and never really pull it off. One thing that’s been helping me on my latest novel is that 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.
NW: Your story “Teach Us” appeared in Narrative, an online magazine. Narrative is now available for digital download, and they have become probably the foremost literary magazine on the internet. Several anthologies recently decided to admit submissions from online magazines as well. Do you think the short story could make a comeback because of the Internet?
RGM: Well, Narrative has made some great contributions in that area. I believe it has over 50,000 subscribers now, and I wouldn’t be surprised, at the rate it’s growing, for it to hit over a half million eventually. That’s a tremendous potential audience, as even the very best literary magazines only print a few thousand copies. However, it’s not just the fact that it’s online – the Internet makes the delivery to so many possible, but it really starts with quality and building a reputation. The average literary magazine could go online without generating much interest. I’m no expert on media, but I do think the Internet, when combined with the quality and reputation of literary magazines, may help make short stories more popular again. Don’t get me wrong – I love hard copy as well, so I hope online will be a facet of literary publishing, but not the whole ballgame. Speaking of popularity, one would think, given our fragmented, overloaded schedules, that short stories would be a natural reading choice.
NW: What was it like to win the Sherwood Anderson Foundation grant? Did it bring you some new opportunities?
RGM: Winning the Anderson Award has been one of the real highlights of my writing life. It paid some real money for one thing. It’s nice to be paid. You feel like: wow, somebody likes my work enough to actually pay me for it. Oh, I’d earned a bit here and there before but that was the nicest chunk I’d ever gotten at once. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t enough to quit working or anything and it’s long gone now. More than anything, it was a tremendous boost to the writing morale, and it came at a time when I was starting to feel a little gloomy about my prospects in life. A writer needs a little energizing jolt now and then. The winning of the award really got me in gear to finish Episode because my entries for that contest were all contained in the work-in-progress. So, yes, it was a very meaningful award for me. I suspect that it will help bring more opportunities in the future. For instance, when I won a Pushcart Prize many years ago, that had certain ramifications that still pay off today. When I say I’ve won a Pushcart Prize it means something to most writers; on the other hand, it means absolutely nothing to my neighbors, so these things must all be put in perspective.
NW: What advice do you give your students about writing that you’ve derived from your own experience?
RGM: Get a job in sewer and drain cleaning. No, really, what can you tell anyone? Most of it is stuff we have to figure out for ourselves. I guess what I would say is: don’t let writing ruin your life. It’s very easy, after numerous rejections and disappointments – and I speak as someone who has had more than I want to recall at this time—to fall into kind of a perennial frustration and bitterness. We start blaming everyone else – the stupid editors and whatnot. I do it, too, believe me. But you’ve got to catch yourself falling into that way of thinking and try to turn it around. It’s damn hard and we’ve got to face it. Nobody’s forcing us to be writers. You there: Be a writer! No, we chose it, or as we like to say, we had no choice. All I can say is what has been true of me: Writing saved my life. It gave me a kind of focus and drive and a sheer joy in creating that carried me through some hard times. Enjoy every good moment that comes along, even if it’s just a friend telling you they liked your story. Try not to be arrogant. Maybe arrogance seems to work for a few people, but don’t use your art as an excuse to be a jerk. I’ve always wondered why so many writers on book jacket photos look like they’ve got horrible stomach aches. If they’re taking so little pleasure in it, why bother?
NW: Speaking of students, David Wroblewski” title=”David Wroblewski”>David Wroblewski wrote a great blurb for your book. What is it like to see a student have such phenomenal critical and commercial success?
RGM: Man, what a thrill it has been to see David succeed! As I mentioned David was a student of mine briefly back in my early days of teaching at CU. Later we were in an informal writing group that met for almost ten years and we became friends. Long ago, I stopped thinking of David as being a student of mine – he was more of a colleague, someone I enjoyed sharing writing thoughts with. I think maybe I was there for him in kind of a critical point of his life where he was just setting out, but as the years went by it was more like we’d just sort of check in with each other on what we were working on; we enjoyed talking about the writing process and the way writing fit into our lives. It’s actually been both gratifying and humbling for me to see a former student do so well, especially such a nice person as David. I say “humbling” in that best sort of way where one stands back a bit in awe and recognizes one never knows as a teacher, in looking out, what ways his students may succeed and the small ways one might contribute or not. They probably won’t be bestselling novelists; most of the students I teach these days aren’t even setting out to be writers, but they all have some gift of their own, and I hope I can lend a helping hand along the way, or at least as the physician’s oath goes: Do no harm. Sometimes I screw it up, no doubt, so it’s great to see an ex-student, and a friend, have such success. Now if only I can dig up that contract…
NW: What are you working on now?
RGM: Well, actually, it’s back to the novel form again. I’ve had this novel in progress off and on for about fifteen years, and I’m planning on wrapping it up this summer. Hah! We’ll see about that! But I’m getting that feeling of excitement again, that little tingle in the spine that tells me it’s time to get back to work. The character Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof delivers the line, “I’m just drinking until I hear that click in my head, that click that makes me peaceful.” So let’s try, “I’m just writing until I hear that click in my head, that click that makes me peaceful.” …Click…Click…