Wayne Harrison lives in Eugene and teaches writing at Oregon State University. He worked as a mechanic and a corrections officer before turning to writing. His latest book, "Wrench," reflects that blue-collar upbringing.
In this conversation with The E, Harrison reflects on how working as a mechanic has informed his writing and other topics. (For a longer version of this interview, check out the online version of this story.)
The E: How did you start writing in the first place?
Wayne Harrison: It was a long, winding road to writing and teaching. I come from a family, no college on either side, a bunch of blue-collars on both, grandparents and everything. I wanted to be an auto mechanic. So I went to a vocational school, a vocational high school, and then after I graduated high school, I was a mechanic for about six or seven years.
The E: And this was in Waterbury, Connecticut?
Harrison: That’s right. ... It was a pretty bad town. I don’t know if it’s gotten much better. ... I got in a lot of trouble. I had muscle cars and I raced a lot and got into lots of trouble. I decided I needed to change my life. ... So I said, “I’m going to be a cop. That’ll straighten me out.” I went to the Police Department and they said, “You know, things are changing, you need to get a degree now." So I went to college, for criminal justice. I was liking the criminal justice stuff. But then my junior year, I took a writing workshop, just as a blow-off class, and I loved it. It just kind of changed my life.
The E: How has your work as a mechanic informed your writing career? Do you see connections between the two?
Harrison: You know, I do. It’s good for me to have cut my teeth under a hood. I say I have a propensity toward ADHD — I’ve never been tested or whatever — but I do have a difficult time concentrating, which is awful, if you’re a writer. When I was a mechanic, there were often times when it was just you and your engine, you’re taking apart an engine and you have to pay extreme care to this bolt that you can’t overtighten or you’re going to crack the intake manifold. … I think being a mechanic has helped me focus, certainly, because it’s just a small little thing that you’re doing, it’s not a big flashy thing, and it can take a long time: You’ve got to take a lot of bolts out of that thing, and you’ve got to remember how they went in and everything. Even now, when I work on our family cars, I love that zone that I get in and it does, it reminds me of writing — paying that really careful attention to detail. Certainly, my novel and this collection, a lot of the stories take place in a garage. ... I love writing about that. I love revisiting those places and the people I used to do and just the craziness of working in a garage in Waterbury. I miss that quite a bit. Not enough to go back, but enough to feel nostalgic when I’m writing about it.
The E: What's your next book?
Harrison: It’s a bit different for me. ... this is more of a literary thriller. ... So, of course, it’s a lot more plot-heavy than anything I’ve worked on before, so it really requires being careful to make everything connect.
The E: I'm guessing you don't drive the muscle cars anymore.
Harrison: We have a minivan. We have a Nissan Rogue that we got a few years ago. My dream, and my wife’s totally into this, too, so we kind of always have our eyes open, is to get another late '60s Chevy or a Camaro. There was a Corvette we almost bought, '69 Corvette, big block, that we just lost out on at the last minute. That was really a bummer. But someday. When I sell that screenplay, right? That’ll be my incentive. I’ll put up a picture of it and remember why I write.