Interview by Caitlin Hamilton Summie
How did this book originate?
Some years ago, between longer writing projects, I wrote a story. I hadn’t written a short story in a while, and the experience was liberating: imagining a finite scenario and drafting and revising the piece in a few weeks. Then I discovered a minor character in a novel and wrote another story, then another. Before the year was out I had ten new stories, almost all of which have been subsequently published. One of those stories was entitled “The Teardown Party” and featured a new character whom I knew little about but liked. The setting comprised a small house being torn down to be replaced by a McMansion, a teardown party with a band, beer and pop and hotdogs, and a formidable wrecker, an excavator, I learned. And of course there’s an accident involving the construction equipment and a child on a bicycle.
“The Teardown Party” became the first chapter of Mending What Is Broken. It was that principal character who intrigued me. Peter Sanguedolce was unlike any character I had drawn. He’s a big man, physically, intellectually, emotionally, a man of the world. He inherited a business that employed hundreds of people, which he lost in an economic downturn. He’s survived two failed marriages. He dominates rooms and conversations, he more than fills his space. He seems to be, he ought to be, the most self-assured person in town.
And he isn’t. He’s deeply riven by remorse, guilt, and self-doubt. Being a master salesman, he has uncanny ability to read people, his intuitions are always on the mark. Yet he cannot read himself. He’s stuck, monumentally stuck, stuck in the past, stuck like a fly in yesterday’s honey.
What happens to Peter I didn’t know. All I knew was that he was too good to lose.
What is your Ganaego project? Is all your writing tied to Ganaego?
Yes, more or less, although it did not begin that way. As a young writer, I began writing about what I knew, myself and my hometown. After a while I stopped writing about myself, but I never stopped writing about a fictional place I called Ganaego. Minor characters in one story became major characters in their own stories; people matured, married and divorced, had children and grandchildren, became policemen and jewelers, newspaper reporters and doctors. On my website (www.robmckean.com) is a Gazetteer with close to 500 names and 100 businesses. I think of my Ganaego Project as a vast repertory company providing virtually unlimited story possibilities. Ganaego is a deep well I can dip my bucket into and bring up full, again and again.
Your books about Ganaego work as stand-alones. Is it hard to create a stand-alone work when there is such a depth of background history to each work?
Every piece—story, novella, novel—has to work as a standalone, has to provide an experience of completeness. But not everything about Ganaego has to appear in every piece. And as such, Ganaego becomes merely the setting for the stories, the knobby Western Pennsylvania hills and deep hollows with their tea-hued sunsets, the commercial enterprises big and small, the sprawling steelworks, the schools and social and religious organizations. And as the residents age, so does the town. Businesses rise and fall, the roller rink falls silent, the movie theatre closes its doors, rumors begin swirling that the sprawling eighty-year-old steelworks might shutdown, the employer of thousands and thousands of Ganaegoans—and does. As a consequence, the lights in the town go off because the municipality cannot pay its bills. And through that constantly evolving setting walk the characters, their sons and daughters, their grandchildren. A friend said my short story collection became an engrossing puzzle, as he strove to identify characters or their descendants from story to story. And isn’t this how life is?
How do you decide if you are writing a short story or a novel?
I don’t know, not at first. Almost all stories might be novels in embryo. In fact, I think one of the definitions of a successful story is if reader—and writer!—are left wondering at the end what comes next? What happens to these people? Where do they go from here? I cannot pursue all these story strands (limitations of time and knowledge), but they exist as tantalizing possibilities. Perhaps a minor character will walk off the darkened set of Mending What Is Broken, come into my office some morning, and pitch me a story?
Your novel includes a significant number of references to classical music. Are you a musician? Why did you choose these particular pieces of music to include?
I wish I were a musician. I longed to take up music as a child, but the opportunity was not open to me. At age 50, deciding it was now or never, I took a deep breath and signed myself up for piano lessons. Years later I am still a beginner (“intermediate,” my wonderful teacher reassures me). But though my Carnegie Hall debut is another hundred years away, my piano studies have brought me some knowledge of music, some compass of repertoire and music theory, and so, yes, music appears in many of my fictional pieces. The works I happen to choose are things I know or love; I don’t ask the individual works to necessarily play a prominent thematic role.
Your novel is a subtle riff on The Merchant of Venice. How did the riff develop, and why?
I didn’t begin with any such mad notion in my head. Mending features two storylines that mirror each other aslant (much as Shakespeare will do): Peter and his daughter Jeanette; Jacob Weiner and his daughter Jessica. At some point in an early revision I realized that Jacob’s story had an uncanny resemblance to The Merchant of Venice. Strict, overbearing, possessive father, rebellious daughter who steals money from him and runs away, father’s remorse over an unrepaired estrangement, and attorneys, oh my lord, my book had three attorneys. My inclination was to put it down as an odd coincidence and leave it. If a reader picked up on it (as one of my smartest writer friends immediately did) or took no notice, it would not matter. But then I decided the similarity provided an intriguing under-hum to the larger narrative, and I elected to own it. I changed Jacob’s daughter’s name to Jessica and his wife’s to Leah and prefixed an epigraph from Shakespeare. As a whimsy, you might think of Jacob and Jessica’s story as an alternative Act V to the play.
A theme in this novel is aging–of people, industries, and homes. Even cars. Why does aging interest you as a theme?
Even Peter’s old Cadillac, yes, even his car. I loved his hulking 1988 Cadillac Brougham and mourned its passing. Well, we all get older, don’t we? And doesn’t the world we call our own get older, as well—family, friends, houses, towns, businesses? We are, willing or not, passengers embarked on a voyage that ends in but one ineluctable destination. We observe this process, and perhaps observe it with keener interest as we take in our lengthening histories and foreshortening futures. Additionally, as the memories of my parents and grandparents continue to ripen in my imagination, as the memories they shared with me of their lives also go on echoing in a receding sound chamber, I find myself ever and again drawn to the turning of the wheel of life and its great unbridgeable mysteries. And so, yes, for me aging is an important theme.
This novel is about families—all kinds of families. But none of them seems to work. Can you talk about that?
How many families work? There was dysfunction in my family, I have seen it in friends’ families. Not all, not even most, but many families experience dysfunction to the degree that they shatter. And even if families are fortunate and wise enough to work through their problems, the periods of stress they endure rock them, strain and stain them, turn them inside out and transform them permanently. One never exits a marriage the way one entered it. One never escapes the penumbra of one’s earliest years. It is one of life’s great themes, the families we make and the families we lose.
Much of this novel is about business, sales, and the economy. Do you believe there are enough novels today about working class towns and small businesses?
No, there aren’t. But it doesn’t matter if it is blue collar we are talking about or white. There simply are not enough stories about real people working in real businesses who are having real problems—not the contrived, clichéd psycho-dramas the characters have on Netflix or wherever. Most of us work. We spend an inordinate percentage of our lives involved in working, getting there and back, putting time in behind a desk, on a factory floor, behind the wheel of a truck. We fret about our finances, our spouses, our children, our bosses. Many people suffer job loss or obsessively worry about job loss. Many people take great pride in their work, many people loathe their work. Why don’t these quotidian details color more of our stories? A personal note: I owned a small business for many years. I was a consultant, I created a consultancy, which meant that I was—simultaneously, seven days a week—owner, manager, chief financial officer, salesman, and frequently the product being sold. We had bountiful years, drought years, big wins, big losses, abiding partnerships that turned into lifelong friendships, dustups that got ugly and left scars. I was the canary in the coalmine: When an economic downturn threatens, first to go are the consultants. And so, when I walk past a small business—drycleaner, baker, florist—my heart goes out to the owners, the husbands and wives and often the children, who work impossible hours day in and day out to scratch out a living. Likewise, the Amazon drivers who deliver boxes to my door, the baggers who pack my groceries, the barber who cuts my hair. These are valuable stories, this is the plasma and sinew of life, these stories need to be told.
As a writer, do you believe you have to care about your characters? If so, why is that important?
Advice one often hears in writing classes and conferences: “You must love your characters.” This is 180-degrees backwards. Think for a minute: How do we treat people we love? We excuse them, we overlook their faults, we turn away from anything unpleasant that threatens them and flinch when they’re hurt. And if we go about our writing that way, we write childish, silly stories. No, your characters must love you. What do people do who love us? They tell us their problems, their secrets, their fears, they reveal their vulnerabilities, their sins. And when they do shameful, stupid things, or when they get hurt, we look upon them with concern, yes, but–we–look–at–them. We see them, and, if we are writers, we frequently dramatize their checkered lives. When whoever it is in my Ganaego repertory company that I am currently working with on a project—novel or story—shows up in my office in the morning, I give them their parts. Which, all too predictively, they rip up, declaring, “I can’t say this, this isn’t me, I’d never be such a goodhearted person, I’d walk out on the bum.” So, we work on it, what they really would do, the good things, the bad things, the stupid things, the hateful things, and I write it exactly the way it would happen. No more than a director excuses slipshod or soft-headed acting will I accept anything but the truth however disturbing from my characters.
So, what can we expect of you next?
There is a character who has been with me the longest: Charles Rankin, protagonist of my first novel, a sprawling, out-of-control, six-hundred-page manuscript that flew into six hundred pieces and died on my desk. Charles was an overly sensitive youth, more reactor to life than participant. Someone who tended to adolescent melancholia. We ended up not liking each other very much. Some years later, a good many years later, a character strolled into my office and introduced himself as Charley Rankin, a sort of an engaging, semi-flaky fellow, smart but prone to mishap and minor adventure, a bit of a rolling cannon, you might say. I took to the guy immediately. We wrote a story together, something that happened to him at some point in his life; months later, we wrote another story, then a year later another, and so on, never bothering to link or synchronize these stories. This past year Charley and I have been massaging his stories into a novel, revising them in minor and major ways so that they mesh, supplementing, subtracting, bridging gaps. I am hoping to conclude the Charley project this year and introduce Charley Rankin to the world. Maybe even try to interest an agent in his fate?
Populating Robert McKean’snovels and stories are some five hundred characters, steelworkers and bankers, doctors and jewelers, teachers and librarians, lawyers and yardage clerks, salesmen and ballet instructors—all residents of Ganaego, a small mill town in Western Pennsylvania. Mending What is Broken, his latest novel, is just out from Livingtson Press. McKean’s short story collection I’ll Be Here for You: Diary of a Town was awarded first-prize in the Tartts First Fiction competition (Livingston Press). His novel The Catalog of Crooked Thoughts was awarded first-prize in the Methodist University Longleaf Press Novel Contest. The novel was also named a Finalist for the 2018 Eric Hoffer Award. Recipient of a Massachusetts Artist’s Grant for his fiction, McKean has had six stories nominated for Pushcart Prizes and one story for Best of the Net. He has published extensively in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Chicago Review, and Armchair/Shotgun. For additional information about McKean and his Ganaego Project, please see his author’s website: www.robmckean.com.
About the interviewer: Caitlin Hamilton Summie is the author of To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, an award-winning story collection, and the novel Geographies of the Heart, both published by Fomite Press. She is an independent book publicist of more than 20 years. Learn more at www.caitlinhamiltonmarketing.com