Michael Martone’s most recent books include Racing in Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins; Unconventions: Attempting the Art of Craft And the Craft of Art; Michael Martone, a collection of fake contributor’s notes; and The Blue Guide to Indiana (read The Quarterly Conversation’s review). Quarry Press has also recently published Double-Wide: Collected Fiction of Michael Martone, which includes five of his earlier books: Alive and Dead in Indiana, Safety Patrol, Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List, Pensées: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle, and Seeing Eye.
Martone’s work is hard to classify—Racing in Place reads like a series of experimental essay-like memoirs (or memoir-like essays); Michael Martone is a collection of fake contributor’s notes, except that they were all published as real, true contributor’s notes; The Blue Guide to Indiana includes tours for landmarks and attractions that don’t exist in Indiana, but should. Taken as a whole, Martone’s work doesn’t so much explode convention as expose it and then re-arrange it, as if literature were some vast modular housing structure, so that every day, when you came home from work, someone had re-arranged not just your furniture but the layout of the rooms, the architecture of the house, everything. Today you enter through the front door, tomorrow through the chimney.
Barrett Hathcock: You write fiction that imitates nonfiction and nonfiction that at times resembles fiction. How are fiction and nonfiction different for you in terms of composition/approach? How are they different in terms of a reader’s expectations (as to what is or isn’t true)? (In Racing in Place, you write of Bob Knight: “There is a kind of slippage in the viewers’ perception that results in the registering of real horror, not its simulated aesthetic twin.” Is this slippage something to be lamented? Enjoyed? Pursued?)
Michael Martone: More and more, I think less and less of those kinds of differences. More and more I think of myself as a writer. Or as a maker of written things. Like this thing now. This interview. I think that finally we all have to sort and arrange and categorize and install what we come across in the world in order to order it. Order it to make sense of it. But I am less and less involved in that now. I will write something and allow others to make do, make due, make dew with it. That is one danger, I think, of the writer or artist in the university that is really nothing more than a massive sorting calculator of knowledge. My writing students enter a workshop to write, but their main function over the 16-week semester is to function as critics for other writers’ writing. They may produce two or three stories over that time and have the stories talked about for maybe one or two hours in all that time. More often than not they are operating as sorters, assigning quality standards, assaying value and worth, labeling genre. It is work that has to be done but it is a dangerous habit to get into if you are wanting to be a writer. To distinguish. To sort. To even make sense of what one is doing before one is done doing it. So, I am hedging your question. I want to think of what I do as writing and let the speciation to others. Many artists draw, use watercolor, paint in oils, sculpt, construct, assemble, paste. They mix their media but it is all seen as art, and issues of its fact or fiction seem beside the point to me. Well at least beside the point when the thing is in the making. I am in the fabrication business and there are different gradients on that scale of fiction and non-, I suppose, but none I worry about as I am doing them. I have a fiction in the voice of Dan Quayle who is writing an essay; a book about Michael Martone written by Michael Martone in the voice and form of his, Michael Martone’s, biographer; I have an essay in the voice of Michael Martone on the fictional creation of a character named Bobby Knight. To me the differences are in the details at a microscopic scale, not at the much larger one of genre.
BH: Related to the first question, what do you make of the semi-recent memoir craze and the more recent false-memoir craze? Do you read memoirs? Do you have any observations about why these are so popular? What do you think the value of memoir is? Is there such thing as a true memoir? (Or are they examples of another kind of slippage?) (There seemed to be a lot of memoir in Racing in Place, and combined with Michael Martone, the two books formed not a definitive memoir but a sort of jazz-like theme/variation version of a “standard” memoir.)
MM: I do think of Racing in Place as a collection of experimental memoirs. The memoir’s problem is that it needs to find, to narrate a kind of death in order to make sense of life. I think of it, the constructed death, as a parentheses, an artificial parentheses, that the writer must draw around a life, or this part of life, to be able to stand outside of it and see it for what it is and isn’t. Hard to make sense of a train wreck that is still happening. So you have “childhood” as such a closed period. “My junior year abroad” is another. “My marriage”or “my divorce”—all this works I think. Memoir for me is always about also the act of memory, the drama of remembering. So, I guess, that is why there is such anxiety about the veracity of the memoir. If it is a function of memory, and it seeks to make sense of the fluid dynamics of a life still being lived, how could we expect it to be accurate in any real sense? The memory is a flawed instrument for record, as we know. Even though other residue of event, evidence of happening such as letters, news reports, photographs, tape recordings, witness statements, etc., can be faked, we certainly trust those more than our own memories. I guess I think the memoir’s real purpose is for the enactment of remembering, the performance of that. That is, I am not so much interested in event per se but in watching the individual writer write and, in writing, remember. My role as audience for the memoir is that of priest confessor or Freudian analyst. I like to attend as the writer surprises him or herself with what gets dredged up once one decides to remember. Freud was a great fiction writer. I would love to have invented the character named the Unconscious. What an invention! This fiction makes memoir possible. It is the drama acted out between a consciousness and its unconscious. How thrilling that so much of what you thought you were is hidden from you. We sit and watch that other side, that deeply buried other you come out and play. I guess in that sense it is all fiction, a staged drama of many possible and simultaneously running lives in one, none of them the “real”life, all of them, however, real.
BH: You have concentrated on Fort Wayne, Indiana, throughout your career; it’s this constant well of ideas and information. For example, I was delighted to learn that the Charlton Heston character from Planet of the Apes is from Fort Wayne. In the book you write, “In geometry, we know that a finite plane bounded on all sides still contains infinite points.” Do you ever run out of Fort Wayne ideas or worry that you might? Also, since you’ve lived much of your life not in Fort Wayne, what is it like writing about it from a distance (specifically writing about it from the South)? (I’m a bit interested in how writers as professional academics often end up living away from the places they write about, and I’m wondering how that affects the writing.) Also, in that same passage (page 100 of Racing in Place), you say, “the more tightly bounded, the more restricted a work is, the richer we find it.” How do you “bind”/organize/structure your essays (or your fictions, for that matter), when the conventional structure—a plot—isn’t used?
MM: Short answer is no, I don’t think I will run out of Fort Wayne–centric ideas. And I certainly don’t worry about it. The distance helps and hurts. My “Fort Wayne” is Fort Wayne of course. I am interested in the possibility of many Fort Waynes, of many Michael Martones. I like the notion of parallel dimensions, many trains running. The distance allows, well, for distance between realms, a buffer buffering. The great drama of America is between place and staying put and movement. To say you are a writer of “place” also implies you are a writer of and about moving. What makes Saturn Saturn? Sure, it is the gas giant planet but it is also the rings. The rings around Saturn are more Saturn than Saturn. As for structure, when one abandons plot, one realizes that the structure of plot is simply an arbitrary collection of rules, suggestions, protocol. So you just find another set of arbitrary armature. Number. I often use numbers—the hours in the day, the weeks in a year. The number of planets. I am writing a whole book of short fiction now based on the number four. Fictions employing the four seasons, the four winds, the four corners, the four chambers of the heart, the four humors, the 4H Club, the Fab Four, the Fantastic Four, the four railroads on the Monopoly Board, Four Calling Birds. There is nothing natural or normal or elemental or essential in the structure we call plot—setting, vehicle, rising action, climax, dénouement, ending. All is artifice.
BH: How has teaching creative writing affected your own writing? In your students’ writing, do you notice trends or areas of interest that morph over time?
MM: I teach different kinds of creative writing courses. Forms courses and workshops. In both, I don’t pretend to know anything. I am not that kind of master teacher where I know something and transfer that knowledge to students who don’t know. Instead, I guess, I teach curiosity. I try to create in the classroom interesting environments and then, with the students, discover things that, perhaps, we already knew or know but didn’t know we knew. I think my other job as a teacher is really to resist the bias bred into the institution where I am housed. A university is by nature a critical institution. I want to resist having my students learn to be critics. Instead I want to inculcate the habit of writing and in doing, so I think one has to defuse the tendency to judge quality of work, to even resist asking the question, “Does this work?” Students come to me ready to think of the classroom as a place of battle. They have already been naturalized into thinking that a workshop, say, is a simulation of the way the world works. You write something and an editor or reviewer beats up on it. So students have come to think of workshops as a way to create calluses, to out-think the critics. Instead, I like to invite them to remember the intrinsic pleasures of the business, the act itself of sitting down and writing, not the ritual of self-sacrifice. My students’ writing have, for a long time, been quite timid and, as they love to say, traditional. The many classes many of them have taken have led them into an aesthetic that is by design static. The realistic narrative—once a highly experimental form—has produced a series of stylistic rules that can be taught and my students have learned—don’t use exclamation marks, underlining, or any graphic measure to intensify emotion, for example. Those kinds of rules are set in stone. What is to vary realistic story to story is the content, the local, the details. You can in that kind of aesthetic do things wrong. And the critical institution we work within loves that kind of knowledge. I have seen recently more and more students attempting fiction outside that particular drama. More interest right now in the fantastic, irreal, the magical. Also a growing interest in more things lyrical, meditative, associative, and less linear.
BH: For your nonfiction (or your fiction?), is the instigation for the writing a request from an editor or some publication, or do you think up the essay ideas first? Traditionally, “occasional writing” has been used in a pejorative sense, as in it’s not a writer’s “true” or “best”work. Do you agree with this? Any thoughts about this dichotomy?
MM: More often than fiction, nonfiction springs from a request from an editor, a prompt. The essay, “Racing in Place,” for example was the result of a request to contribute to an anthology called A Year in Place. Twelve writers were asked to pick a month and a place and write an essay about that connection. I got Indiana and the month of May. Most of the essays in the book Racing in Place were products of such requests, challenges, prompts, what have you. I do think that usually writers are self-prompting. They create first their own problems or sets of problems they then solve with their fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc. So in that sense I feel that all writing is “occasional” in that it flows out of a particular set of circumstances created to create the work. I know what you mean about “occasional” being used to in such a way to diminish a piece. I think often we like to maintain this notion of complete parthenogenesis—that everything is the work of the solitary genius when, it seems, for me it is much more collaborative an enterprise. Much of my favorite work is “occasional,” derived from suggestions, musings, dares received from friends or editors—most of them friends—readers all. To switch it around for a minute: I have often in the past edited volumes of fiction or essays where I have come up with a writerly problem I hope is interesting to a writer I am asking to contribute to my anthology. Since often I cannot pay for the original work, I like to think an interesting challenge is a kind of remuneration. Writers like to work on something interesting. I asked a group of Midwestern writers to write about the township square they grew up in—the township being a very visible part of the Midwestern landscape—and the results were stunning. Not one of the writers thought that his or her contribution was of a lesser order because he or she didn’t have the initial idea. Instead I think they were quite excited to make the idea into something special.
BH: Do you read blogs? What do you think of blogs? Does online publishing—or self-publishing—change what you do, or how would you start out differently if you were a young writer given this blogging, online self-publishing surge that is taking place?
MM: Are you kidding? This, this what is happening now, is revolutionary, profoundly revolutionary. The whole electronic apparatus is simply redefining who and what an “author” is. The categories of “book,” “editor,” “publisher,” “audience,” “reader,” are in flux at least if not collapsing, transforming before out eyes. Much was made of high literary theory’s pronouncement of the death of the author, but the paltry deconstruction that went on in a few English Departments was, is nothing to what is going on now with this machine—the one I am tapped into at this moment. Universities are, by nature, so conservative. My colleagues don’t get, don’t want to get post post-modernism. Meanwhile, their students, their children are in the midst of the real deconstruction of the entire culture and it has not, will not take place at the university but here out there. I love the way the Web has worked around anything thrown at it, especially the desire of universities, publishing, etc., to re-impose the gates for gate-keeping of quality and the maintenance of hierarchy. Just work around it. The machine easily ignores it. The author is dead all right but long live writing. This is the end of the Johnsonian Age, the end of the Romantic, Modernist Individual Genius. I think that blogs actually are retrograde—the last attempt of the old-fashioned author to hold on to old-fashioned authorship. I think very soon blogs might evolve to the point where most will be unsigned or the same blog will be written by several people together or separately and also posted without a name of a shared name. The blog lives but the idea that it is written by any one person or consciousness will be so over. It is nothing but net baby. Out of many one. Resistance is futile. Prepare to be assimilated.
BH: How did this book come together as a collection? It consists of pieces written over the past several years. Did you always envision them taking this form or is this incarnation of the book how things fell into place?
MM: I don’t think it was very conscious that way. I am a writer who, I think, likes to celebrate chance and accident and happenstance. No plan. I think of revision as not so much working drafts of the one story but that each new story is another draft of the one story I wanted to write. I liked to think that I write “trying” fiction, that my essays, “essay.” Everything I write is an attempt at getting at the something I am attempting to get at. I like collage for that reason. I can write a fiction, say. Made up of 24 sections of prose, and by cutting and pasting I can get many different permutations from the same piece of writing, gain different effects of juxtaposition in the changing composition. I don’t think I write, or read for that matter, with an idea of an ideal out there. I am not much for finding the best word, or the best order. I am more for all words in every order at once and all at once. I think this desire to plan, to have things come together in what is assumed to be the perfect way, the best way, is wrong for me. In that sense the metaphor of the workshop—asking if a piece “works”—makes no sense to me. Everything “works” in its own way. When I am finished with that one arrangement, I am on to the next one. The book is pretty much arranged in chronological order of the time of their writing. I am happy with that. I am not wedded to it. The truth is our existential reality of the media we use, language, is sequential, but I am not a slave to the linear nature I am working. I don’t really believe in progress—I don’t think I am getting better or worse. I’m just different moment to moment to moment.
BH: In Michael Martone, your book of contributor’s notes, and in the introduction to Racing in Place (not to mention The Blue Guide to Indiana), you call attention not just to the form of the writing but also its specific genre or context, and you play with the types of expectations a reader might have because of this context. Could you discuss how you came to this aesthetic point and where do you see it going next? Is there another text or context that you see is a fertile place to play and subvert in this way?
MM: When I was working in the English Department at Syracuse University, I began thinking about those things. Syracuse was the high tide of what is called “Theory” and its deconstruction of “English” and “English Departments” for that matter. It was there and then when everything, it seemed, in the world began to acquire “quotation marks.” Many of my colleagues who were creative writers at first were scared of these “scare” quoting manifestations. There were many fronts on which “Theory” was advancing, but probably the one most telling was along the lines of the “Death of the Author.” Many “authors” wanted to resist that. I found it interesting and came to think of theoretical writing as just another genre of creative writing in any case. I should have put those in quotes. Not to go on too long with this but the death of the author (and the less quoted following thought that writing lives) seemed to me to be about the making of meaning of a piece of work. Creative writing had always bestowed the making of meaning exclusively into the hands of the author. The then-current ideas questioned this and suggested that the reader too is involved in the making of meaning. To me this seemed incredibly liberating. A writer no longer needs to worry about such control. Instead, it seemed to me, the writer’s job became more that of an arranger of interesting environments that could be made available to the now very active reader. Or another way of thinking of it is that all of those categories—writer, reader, editor, critic, publisher—were now destabilized. I could be all of these things at once as the readers too could be all these things at once. You said it above. This was “play” in the sense that everything every time was to be re-invented. Nothing in this art, in this aesthetic is fixed—meaning in place or stable—or can be fixed—meaning to aspire to an ideal form. It seemed to me my job was to do just as you said above, to break open these fixed categories, expose them constantly for the constructions they are, and allow the reader to participate in the making of art, not simply its passive reception. Where is this heading? I think one line to follow is the actually disappearance of the signature. The author of a piece authoring the piece, maybe not truly anonymously, but without the audience of the piece really caring who the author is. In that way, the Internet is already deconstructing the “author” far better. So much of the Internet is “written” (you got to love those quotation marks) but who is its author?
Contributing editor Barrett Hathcock lives in Memphis, TN, where he teaches creative writing at Rhodes College. His most recent fiction appears in [sic] magazine.
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