Sunday, August 20, 2023

Q&A with Robert McKean



Robert McKean is the author of the new novel Mending What Is Broken. His other books include the novel The Catalog of Crooked Thoughts


Q: What inspired you to write Mending What Is Broken, and how did you create your character Peter?


A: Mending What Is Broken, like all my novels, grew out of a short story. Although “The Teardown Party” was published and I thought myself done with it, the story was not done with me.


First off, Peter Sanguedolce. Peter really intrigued me. He was unlike any other character I’d drawn. He was a person of bristling contradictions.


He’s a big man—physically, professionally, emotionally. If you wouldn’t call him a man of the world when we meet him, he had been. He had inherited—and lost in an economic downturn—a business that had flourished for decades, employing hundreds of people. He’s a survivor of two marriages and a loving parent. Peter seemed—or should have been—the most self-confident of men, yet he isn’t.


He’s riven by doubt and remorse. He has an eating disorder, he’s way overweight; he rambles desultorily around his failed business complex, he rambles just as uselessly about a very large house that is deteriorating around him. He’s stalled, he’s a man who is monumentally stuck. Avis, his ex, rails at him, “Peter, what’re you doing with yourself? This place is falling down around your ears—it’s like some sort of time warp in here.”


And yet (yet, again), he preserves his humor, his wit, his curiosity and insight into his fellow creatures, he devours life as he devours food. “He loved life, the fecundity of it, the hilarious absurdity of it.”


Peter, in short, was too good to lose.


Along with Peter were several interrelated themes that began tolling in my imagination like a carillon of bells.


Family dynamics, particularly marriages under stress and unraveling, children caught in emotional crossfires and pressured to choose sides.


Character, the inner fortitude a man demonstrates who has lost most of what is dear to him, and is now in jeopardy of losing what he most cherishes, contact with his daughter.


Failing businesses and the people caught up in in such catastrophic collapses.


House tear-downs, how neighborhoods roll over their idiosyncratic pasts and incline toward affluent homogeneity. On my walks I pass fenced properties with gaping craters where once stood somebody’s modest home. I think of those vanished houses as scenes of displaced memory. I watched what became Jacob Wiener’s small colonial that is torn down in Mending What Is Broken being flattened and replaced by a multi-million-dollar monstrosity.


Peter confounded me, he confounds himself, and I think, for that, as I wrote and rewrote his story, I came to prize this character as much as any character I have created.

Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: All my novels have acquired a good title—sometimes half a dozen good titles—long before I reach the end of a draft. I’ve never had trouble finding titles for my novels. And this novel had a half dozen titles, too. Unfortunately, none of them was right. No title seemed to embody the book’s complex mesh of themes.


One morning I woke with the word mending in mind. What dream swamp the word surfaced from, I had no idea, but the word went on teasing me. At some point the realization took hold that mending was the key to the book.


Peter is broken, his marriage, his business, even his lawyer tells him, “Sooner or later . . . you’re going to have to put your shoulder to something you can call your own. You got the stuffing kicked out of you, okay, but you gotta get back on your feet. . . . You can’t sit around on your keister forever, Peter. Not healthy.” Peter Sanguedolce, as well as pretty much everyone else in the cast, is in need of mending—and with that, I knew I had my title.


Q: The writer Margot Livesey said of the book, “Robert McKean has a wonderful sense of place equalled only by his great gift for creating characters.” What do you think of that description?


A: Well, I like anything Margot Livesey says. For decades I have written about one small corner of the world, the mill towns of Western Pennsylvania. That’s where I grew up, and, though I no longer live there, a part of me seems to have never left.


But a region is only hills and valleys and rivers, as lovely and timeless as they are, and a town only a handful of buildings and houses in various states of disrepair. The real town is the people—the characters—who dwell there.


On my website I have a Gazetteer that lists some 500 characters I have created. Those characters turn up from story to story, from novel to novel; their children turn up, sometimes their grandchildren. Three joined families I have traced over five generations. Those characters are as alive to me as anyone sitting next to me on the subway.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: As a young writer, I made the tragic mistake many young writers make: I threw myself into a novel without any plan. Nine years and hundreds of manuscript pages later, not only did I not have a finished novel, I had lost a great deal of self-confidence. I vowed, if I ever attempted a novel again, I would not do it that way.


And so, I do plan my novels, but that planning typically is limited to staying about three steps ahead of where I am. I have a hazy notion of where all this is going to eventually end up, but I don’t sweat the thousands of intermediate steps until I get closer to each and can better distinguish them in the fog.


Mending went through 10 revisions, some minor, some major, and kept adapting to its own alterations as it went, often surprising me. For instance, I didn’t know I had written the final scene until I stumbled upon it. A writer friend said that he was never sure where the story was going next. I decided to take that as a compliment. I told him that, when I wrote it, I only vaguely knew myself what lay around the next bend.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have been collaborating with a particular character most of my life, Charley Rankin. Charley caught a lifeboat out of that first failed novel I mentioned earlier, and so Charley and I go way back.


I would from time to time be inspired to write a Charley story, Charley at this point in his life, Charley at that point, never fretting how all these Charlies might fit together. Maybe Charley was many characters, I was wont to speculate, a bit like Fernando Pessoa’s multiples?


For the past year or so I have been attempting to bring my many Charlies into harmony. That necessitated changing all of the stories in small or major ways, creating new stories to bridge gaps, and—maddeningly—trying to keep this man’s complicated life straight. Lord, I have been known to sigh, tell me again, how old is he now?


I intended to call the book A Life in Stories, but am leaning to labeling it a novel. Today’s working title, Awake Through the Night.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Mending What Is Broken will be published by Livingston Press in August. Readers can find more about the book and my other work on my website. I am actively looking for an agent.


And yes, one more thing. I have been baking whole grain sourdough bread for 15 years. Among the clichéd comparisons sometimes made between bread-making and story-making—rising action, shaping, proofing, etc.—there is a useful comparison. Sourdough bread-making requires patience and attention, or time and persistence.


Loving your characters will no more guarantee you a better story than loving your sourdough culture will guarantee you a better loaf of bread. But studying your stories and your sourdough, learning from your mistakes however humbling and however long it takes you (perhaps not nine years on a failed manuscript), taking pleasure and satisfaction in the process as much as in the finished product—all that will produce a better loaf and a better story.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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