November 2010

Bruce Machart

Healing a Texas-sized family rift
Interview by
Share this Article:

In his powerful debut novel, Bruce Machart has created characters who are as unforgiving as the blazing heat in which they toil. A father who works his sons like horses. A husband who lies and cheats on his wife while she’s giving birth to their first son. Brothers who defend each other, but not their youngest brother.

Set in the harsh landscape of south Texas in the early 1900s, Machart’s The Wake of Forgiveness has drawn critical praise (and comparisons to the work of Cormac McCarthy) for its evocative portrayal of a man coming to grips with his family’s great divide. Karel Skala’s mother dies on the novel’s first page, while giving birth to Karel, her fourth son. The boy endures life without a mother, and under the painful rule of a Czech-immigrant father who is so distraught by his wife’s death that he’s never able to show his youngest son any affection. The story skips through time, unveiling bits of Karel’s past and insight into his present with each vignette.

A compelling part of that past is the split between Karel and his brothers, which comes to a head after a high-stakes horse race, described in thrilling detail. After the race, Karel’s brothers are promised in marriage to the daughters of a wealthy Mexican, while Karel is left to fend for himself—and ultimately, to come to terms with his self-imposed isolation.

Reached at his office at Lone Star College in Houston, where he teaches writing, Machart says that while in graduate school in the late ’90s, he began work on a novella that he never could seem to finish. The story focused on young male characters with a rift between them that he simply couldn’t figure out.

“What was at the root of this animosity or this conflict between these two boys? I just started imagining going backward in time. I arrived at a moment where a father was heartbroken, and for a certain kind of man in a certain place with a certain upbringing and a certain culture, it seems to me easier to share violence or easier to share meanness or easier to basically not share than it is to share grief.”

The author, on the other hand, is a self-declared mama’s boy who grew up in a family of demonstrative, loving men. “I believe in writing what you want to know, rather than writing what you know,” Machart explains.

“Writing fiction gives us the opportunity to live somebody else’s life, to gain a new layer of empathy. That’s the writer’s first job, to find empathy for characters unlike him- or herself.”

Even so, Machart did find inspiration in his own family and the Texas country they call home. Though the author is a Houston native, Machart’s father was raised on a cash-crop farm by a stern, but loving, Czech father. Machart has always harbored a connection with the rural area where his father was raised and where the extended family remained. He traveled to an area very much like The Wake of Forgiveness’ Lavaca County for every Easter, Christmas and family reunion.


“Writing fiction gives us the opportunity to live somebody else’s life, to gain a new layer of empathy. That’s the writer’s first job, to find empathy for characters unlike him- or herself.”


“I think the place had a hold on me because that country setting and those ranching and farming endeavors and that way of speaking, the idiom and the social sensibilities, were so very different from what I experienced growing up,” he says. “We lived in the big city. I felt kind of an outsider in my own extended family. That seemed like something worthy of investigation.”

Although Machart’s grandfather ruled the farm, Machart recalls that his grandmother couldn’t get much rest at family reunions as her husband twirled her across the dance floor. “They had this beautiful, loving relationship, even though he did have a little bit of the devil in him.” 

The father of the novel, Vaclav Skala, is in some ways an imagined foil for Machart’s grandfather. “What would’ve happened to my grandpa if there hadn’t been a grandma?” he muses.

Although the female characters in the testosterone-fueled novel rarely grace the book’s pages, Machart took care to create an emotional landscape colored by the presence (or absence) of women.

“I wanted to use some of the conventions of Western or Southwestern writing,” Machart says. “But I didn’t want to write one of these novels you stumble upon every now and then where there’s just not a strong female character in the whole thing.”

Karel chooses a strong, self-possessed woman in his wife, Sophie. Even when Karel’s demons lead him away from his home life, Sophie knows how to confront her husband. “She knows she’s married a wounded man,” the author says. “But she’s seen the part of him that needs her. Even the slightest tenderness on his part is an affirmation of a kind of love.” And in Machart’s riveting first novel, Sophie’s steady patience allows Karel the freedom to come to terms with his past.


Get the Book

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Interviews