Interview Fiction 2009

Carburetors and Character Sketches

Wayne Harrison, author of the short story “Least Resistance” in the 2009 Fiction Issue, recalls his former life as a mechanic and his transformation into a writer.
Wayne Harrison
Wayne Harrison

What themes do you want to explore with your writing?

Recently—and I am working on a novel now that is along these thematic lines—my writing has focused on creating families from kind of broken people. And I don’t mean necessarily blood-relation families, but people who have this loneliness from whatever background they have, and have through whatever drama kind of got pieced together with other people who are also looking for fulfillment. In “Least Resistance,” the boy, a young mechanic, is kind of looking for a father figure and isn’t even really sure of his own motives. And he ends up sleeping with the guy’s wife, not in an Oedipal kind of way, but in a way that he’s trying to create a family from this really awkward situation that he’s created for himself. I find a lot of satisfaction in looking for ways to help my characters connect that often require a lot of conflict to get there—there’s a lot of pain that leads them to realize who the people are in their lives that matter, and who is going to be their new family. So my characters will be in a family situation in the beginning and realize how toxic that is to them and how it’s tearing down their personality in other ways and realize, sometimes in unexpected places, that they’ve found the people that need to be their new family. And sometimes it’s going from a blood family to people that aren’t related to them.

If you were not a writer what would you be?

If I wasn’t a writer I would probably be an auto mechanic. Which is the topic of my story. I was a mechanic after high school for four or five years in Waterbury, Connecticut, and just recently I have gone back to those times in my fiction. Going back to that world and understanding the person I was then—more than I did when I was living the experience— has been really eye opening for me. And just appreciating the sincerity of the friends I had back then and the visceral job of working on cars and feeling these hot engines and listening to them and understanding what’s going on in the cylinders and down the carburetor and all that. It just gives me some nostalgia to have that job again. So I think that’s the closest to what I would do. “Least Resistance” is loosely based on a shop I worked at.

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your writing?

When I finally went to college I thought I wanted to be a cop. I went in for a criminal justice degree and took my first creative-writing class from a teacher named Jeffrey Greene. He just had a couple big nonfiction books out—he lives in Paris now—and he liked my work, and I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t read really anything or done any writing at all, and he really encouraged me to keep at it. So that influenced me to think that I could be a creator of characters.

But then around the same time, I happened just accidently upon Richard Ford’s collection, Rock Springs, and that just changed me forever. I can’t think of a book that had any more influence on me than that did. And then I got into the gritty realists—writers like Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Ann Beattie—and I really got involved in what you could do with fairly plain language but good characterization. I think that was a huge inspiration to me in writing my early stories: I would write, and then I would get stuck, and I would pick up one of these books and I would page through it and I would feel myself revitalizing and I would be able to jump back in and find my voice again.

And then, as I got more involved in writing, I started comparing the voices of some of the more flashy authors, some of the people that, in my view, had large vocabularies and interesting ways of saying things but didn’t really have the characters. And I think that gave me an opinion of what writing should be that I still maintain and that I still teach—the ways that tricks can deflate after a while. Once you understand the writing tricks you have to ask: are there solid people here, are there interesting situations? And then I will read a book that has both, that combines phenomenal language, like some of Barry Hannah’s work, but has really fascinating three-dimensional characters. I just reread Billy Bathgate, by E.L. Doctorow, and I thought it was just a beautiful book that does both.

What are the most overrated books, in your opinion?

I hate to insult anyone. But I will pick on some authors who would never, ever be damaged by me not liking them. A lot of Updike’s books I feel fall flat for me, and he is a wizard of the language. But a lot of his books don’t have the—I guess the sincerity that I see in people who maybe don’t have his vocabulary. I just got done with Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and though there were some beautiful moments in that book, a lot of it felt like it should have been edited down, like this book could have been a lot shorter. And it was kind of Philip Roth knowing that he has a great voice and toning it down didn’t really occur to him.

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