They met as teacher and student in a graduate nonfiction workshop, Bob Shacochis, taught at Florida State University, Shacochis a National Book Award–winning author with a heralded reputation as a novelist, short story writer, and journalist; Kent Wascom, a young aspiring novelist. What evolved over the next two years, says Wascom, “was a twining of apprenticeship and love, the sort of love and care only a good master can show a rough and untutored apprentice.”
This year, both mentor and student have novels coming from Grove Atlantic. Shacochis calls The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Sept.) “a 50-year prologue to 9/11,” as it reaches back to the bandit-dominated Dubrovnik of WWII, Istanbul in the 1980s, and to Haiti in the late 1990s to chronicle the catastrophic events that led up to the war on terror. Wascom’s The Blood of Heaven (June) moves from the early 19th-century bordellos and plantations of Mississippi to New Orleans, where would-be revolutionaries plot to create a new country under the leadership of renegade founding father Aaron Burr. It earned a PW starred review, which called it “a masterly achievement.”
At the time of this interview Shacochis and Wascom were roughing it at Shacochis’s home in New Mexico. “It’s at 8,000 feet between Santa Fe and Taos, off the grids with no indoor plumbing,” reports Shacochis. “Kent is staying in the guest yurt.” Wascom was working on his second novel for Grove while Shacochis was on deadline for a magazine piece and “getting back into my next novel.”
You can meet Shacochis and Wascom today at 11 a.m. at the Grove Atlantic booth (1321), each signing copies of his new book.
What did you think of Kent’s early efforts as a writer?
Bob: I thought of him the same way my wife thinks of me, which is as an idiot savant. His work was best characterized as an overheated effort that contained splashes and globs of brilliance, like oil slicks, floating in a vast sea of incoherence. But I could see the potential if he ever got his act together... which he did without my help.
Kent: It began as a rather strained workshop relationship—Bob played the Laurence Olivier to my mewling, jabbering Dustin Hoffman à la Marathon Man, as he painfully extracted semilucid commentary and prose from me.
Is it true you finished your novels on the same day?
Bob: Kent showed up on my doorstep—with his manuscript—an hour after I finished my own novel, a book that had taken me 10 years to write, which means I began it when Kent was 14 years old. It seemed like one of those convergences that was unstoppable and meant to be.
And you actually found Kent his publisher?
Bob: When I saw Kent had knocked it out of the park, I sent the manuscript to Colin Harrison at Scribner’s. I didn’t hear from him, so I called a month later and told him, “This is a great book.” He told me he was busy, so I told him I was sending it to Morgan Entrekin and Elisabeth Schmitz at Grove Atlantic. They called in three days.
But you didn’t tell Kent that Grove wanted to buy his book. You let him think they weren’t interested.
Kent: He kept up his charade until the Grove author annual dinner, me turning more gray-faced and dour by the day... up to the moment when Elisabeth stepped out of a cab on a snowy Chicago night and offered me a contract. His trickster efforts made that moment so unbelievably special, so beautiful. Of the multitude of ways I’m in his debt, this may be chief among them.
What has having Bob as a mentor meant to you as a young writer?
Kent: I can only hope that one day I will do for an apprentice writer one-tenth of what Bob has done for me. He has been more than mentor, teacher, or friend. Before I knew Bob, I wrote. Because of Bob I am a writer.