Author Spotlight: Peter Makuck
Book: Allegiance and Betrayal: Stories
Peter Makuck is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at East Carolina University. He is the author of Long Lens: New and Selected Poems and two collections of short stories, Breaking and Entering and Costly Habits. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Poetry, Sewanee Review, the Nation, and Gettysburg Review.
Tell us about Allegiance and Betrayal.
“Like writing itself, putting together a collection of stories is yet another process of discovery. You become aware of unifying themes in your work, as well as certain obsessions. I discovered that fiction not included in my two previous collections, plus more recent stories, have in common family matters and friendships, as well as themes of allegiance and betrayal. Some of these stories also have coastal settings in common.”
What made you choose to write your book in a post-World War II setting? Has this time period always interested you?
“I came of age in post-World War II America. I was about five when the war ended. I can remember my grandfather spreading the news, yelling, neighbors cheering, singing, drinking, and dancing in the street in front of our house when victory was declared.”
Do you think your theme of family is strengthened by the World War II setting?
“Well, it’s almost a cliché but nonetheless true that post-war America in the 1950s is a setting dominated by two-parent families, stay-at-home mothers, and safe neighborhoods where kids played ball in the streets, rode bikes, and climbed trees together. For me, it was also a time of parochial education reinforced by the family’s traditional Roman Catholicism.”
Do you have a personal connection to any of the stories in Allegiance and Betrayal?
“Most my stories are triggered by what I’ve experienced, witnessed, or know. Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish film director, says that everything not autobiography is plagiarism. But I doubt he means literal autobiography. An incident in your life might just be a starting point. You develop, add characters, expand, and lie (Picasso said that art is the lie that make you see the truth). If you have promising raw material in front of you, why bother to invent? The odds are that you will have a more compelling connection with what you have actually seen or experienced, an enthusiasm that might well be contagious to a reader. A friend once told me he knew where one of my stories came from and proceeded to describe the event. I told him he was right, but wasn’t my version a lot more interesting than what actually happened? On the other hand, my mother was hurt by my first published story where I hadn’t invented enough to disguise real events and people. In graduate school, hungry to get into print, I expanded on an incident in the extended family. I had already published a poem about my grandfather’s death that my parents and the rest of the family were quite happy about. But I had no intention of showing them the story. An old high school friend, however, noticed my name on the cover of a journal just shelved in the Yale bookstore, bought two copies, and dropped one at my father’s gas station. Big mistake. A learning experience, as they say. The story made a splash and got me letters of interest from a few agents, but I never reprinted it and I promised myself never to let something like that happen again.”
“Very recently I did some research about tarot cards and fortune telling—something I needed for a scene in a story still not quite finished. But normally, I write about what I know. In this new collection, there are several stories about deep-sea fishing and scuba diving. I’ve done that a lot. No research necessary. At an AWP conference some years ago, I was talking to two poets about scuba diving. A few weeks later I got a phone call from one of them who wanted to write a poem about the subject and asked me a lot of questions, especially about what you heard while underwater. The residual prankster in me was tempted to lie, say something about the plucking of harp strings and that once I heard Paul McCartney and the Wings singing “Band on the Run,” likely coming from a boat anchored nearby. But I didn’t. All to say, you risk losing an authoritative voice if you flub the details. The old workshop wisdom: Write about what you know.”
You have written significantly more poetry than stories. Do you ever wish you wrote more stories, or do you prefer poetry?
“That’s a good question. I’m really addicted to both even though I’ve written more poetry, perhaps because I edited a poetry journal for thirty years or so. I also write essays and a lot of reviews. The plus is that if you are working in a number of genres, you don’t get blocked. If you get stuck on a poem or a story, say, put it on the back burner, and turn to a review. When working on something else, I find the problem with the poem or story will often solve itself. I also like to write stories because it gives my sense of humor a chance to exercise. I like to laugh, but I don’t have the talent to write funny poems. The short story allows me to have characters interact in humorous ways.”
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
“I came to reading and writing late. I was an action junkie in high school, an average student at best, and faked my way through. I thought nothing could be more boring than quietly hunkering down to read a book. And I didn’t. In college freshman English, one of our first assignments was to read a short story by William Faulkner, “Barn Burning,” then write an essay. I loved Faulkner’s vocabulary and use of language. I said to myself, “Man, what have I been missing!” A week later, our teacher told the class he was going to read two of the best essays, examples of quality writing he expected from everyone. To my great surprise, one of the essays was mine. I’d never been praised for anything in high school, nor did I deserve to be. Now I had a new identity. My teacher urged me to join the staff of the literary magazine, and I did. I suppose you could draw a fairly straight line from that short story in freshman comp to my doctoral dissertation on Faulkner. All along the way I was writing poetry, reviews, and fiction as well.”
Has your writing career affected your style of teaching English at East Carolina University in any way? If so, how?
“I never had the benefit of a creative writing course. Few colleges and universities offered them when I was a student. So my writing career certainly had an influence on the way I taught fiction and poetry writing courses. I would talk about what I had slowly learned the hard way, through trial and error, talk about clichés, revision, narrative structure, round and flat characters, sound, rhythm, imagery, scene, dialogue etc. On the other hand, when teaching a course on Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, Welty, O’Connor, or a course on Modern or Contemporary poetry, I’d revert to my academic training as a literary critic but still try to make the lectures lively as possible in order to interest students in these great writers.”
Peter Makuck’s Allegiance and Betrayal was published this April. For more information or to purchase a copy (at our 30% SPRING SALE discount), visit the Syracuse University Press website.