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Tessa Goth
Author Bruce Machart

It only takes one moment for a person's interest to be piqued and a life-altering decision to be made.

For Bruce Machart, an American literature and English professor at Lone Star College in Houston, that moment came when he was about 23 and sitting in a sophomore-level literature class. His teacher read "Powerhouse" by Eudora Welty, and everything changed.

"It was like someone had pealed my scalp back," Machart said in a phone interview with the Deseret News.

"It had a strong devastating effect on me. I didn't know why it worked, but I knew that it worked, and I would say that's where the curiosity came from. I wanted to figure out what made stories work the way that they do."

After that, Machart started taking creative writing classes. He eventually went on to earn a graduate degree in the field. Since then, he's been teaching and writing and has published a collection of short stories.

A few weeks ago, Machart released his debut novel, "The Wake of Forgiveness" to rave reviews. The author will be in Salt Lake City Thursday evening to greet fans at the King's English Bookshop.

"The Wake of Forgiveness" opens in 1895 as a Czech immigrant looses his wife during the birth of their fourth son, Karel. Karel grows up haunted by thoughts of the mother he never knew, and he suffers daily from the silent blame his father carries for him. The yoke the four brothers are forced to wear plowing the family's fields leaves a permanent mark, and Karel longs for more. But the price could be costly.

The idea for "The Wake of Forgiveness" sprung out of two family stories Machart remembers from his childhood. One such tale was that of two sisters living together three generations back. One of the sisters had a husband who left the picture while she was pregnant, and she later died during childbirth. Despite the fact that the two sisters were lifelong friends and advocated for one another, the surviving sister couldn't bear to even hold her new nephew. She associated him too strongly with death of her beloved sister.

"It always sort of stuck with me," Machart said. "As a writer, I try to write what I don't know. Otherwise it doesn't hold my interest very long. … I started thinking about what it would be like to be a boy with no mother and a boy who'd never really know his mother. And a boy onto whom there fell some, not necessarily blame, but onto whom there fell some unpleasant association with that loss.

"I was just such a mamma's boy growing up. I'm a big old strapping 6-foot-4 Texas boy now, but I used to bury my head into pleats of mama's skirt and wanted her protection all the time. So for me to consider growing up motherless was about the riskiest act of imagination I could envision."

The other family story was one that Machart's father told him. His father grew up close to some boys whose father had them pull the plow instead of using horses or mules. Whether he was flat broke or really mean or there was something else going on no one knew. But all the boys had crooked necks from the constant straining in one direction or another as they pulled the plow through the earth.

"The Wake of Forgiveness" is set on the Texas frontier in the rural area of Lavaca County. Machart's father grew up just a few counties away, and his paternal grandmother and grandfather grew up and met each other at a dance there.

Family reunions, weddings and funerals were often held in the county, and Machart always felt like an outsider when visiting.

"I was the kid running into electric cattle fence and waking up 10 minutes later on my aunt's couch," Machart said. "It made me feel like an outsider and pretty lonely, even though I had an elder brother there who was in the same situation. … That's why I set it ("The Wake of Forgiveness") there in Lavaca County. It always felt like it should feel like home, but for me it had a loneliness that I wanted to investigate a little bit."

Machart says he doesn't think about his readers very often when he's writing — he just writes the kind of stories he would like to read. But he says he'd be lying if he didn't admit he wants other people to read his work.

"I don't write for therapy," he said. "It's not therapeutic; it's not even pleasant for me most of the time. Quite frankly, I really don't like writing. I really like having written.

"I like having done it. It was sort of a wonderful experience. I feel like I gained a fantastic connection to this place that had always sort of mystified and befuddled me. I feel very well connected to it now.

"I don't want to say its 'woe is me' as a writer. It's hard, but it's not. It's hard because it's exhausting mentally. But it's not digging ditches or selling conveyor belts or teaching freshman composition. These are all harder than sitting down and typing."

Who: Bruce Machart

When: Thursday, Nov. 7, 7 p.m.

Where:King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East

Phone: 801-484-9100

Web: www.kingsenglish.com

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com