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Lee Martin Answers Some Questions

by Megan Morrison:

Lee Martin Lee Martin is the author of the novels The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven; and Quakertown. He has also published two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones, and a short story collection, The Least You Need To Know. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, Story, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, The Southern Review, and Glimmer Train. Martin is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University.


Megan Morrison: In your 2009 interview with William H. Coles, you said that if you are writing a memoir and being ethical about it you are bound to literally what happened: you cannot create something that didn’t happen nor can you dramatize an aspect of a person’s character. With this being the case, how then do you as a writer, avoid letting the facts tie down your memoirs or affect the momentum of the tale you are sharing?

Lee Martin: It’s true that the memoirist can’t step over an ethical line and create something that didn’t happen or characterize someone in a way that isn’t accurate. That said, the memoirist must wisely choose events from the inventory of real life events that are available to be recalled from memory. The memoirist is constructing a story of experience--a narrative--and he or she must choose the telling moments, those that reveal something of situation or character that’s worthy of attention. Often these are moments where the world shifted somehow for the character the writer was at the time of the experience. The memoirist chooses such moments, dramatizes them, and arranges them in some sort of sequence, often causal, that constructs a narrative much the same way as would be the case in a novel. That narrative takes the writer and the readers on a journey through experience, and, if the memoirist is skilled, he or she isn’t tied down at all by the facts, but is, on the contrary, depending on the telling events to create a memorable story.

MM: In the same interview, you mentioned how important the cultural backdrop is to the story you are telling. In “Girlie-Girl” and several of your other pieces you seem to effortlessly convey the characters’ cultural influences. Do you think this is a skill you learn through experience and practice or more of an innate talent?

as we grow older, too many things compete for our attentionLM: I think the talent is innate since we all learn to be observers when we’re very young. Everything is new to us, then, so we’re interested. Unfortunately, as we grow older, too many things compete for our attention--television, video games, or whatever form of mindless entertainment we choose--and we’re conditioned to only look at the surface of things. That’s why we often have to teach young writers how to see, how to be that person upon whom nothing is lost, as Henry James said the writer must be. It’s not hard to get back to that point where the things of the world mattered to us. We can do it easily through sensory detail recall. Choose a moment or a place from childhood. Daydream about it. What do you smell, see, hear, taste, feel? We do this naturally at first in our lives. Then, sadly, we’re encouraged to forget how to do it. We can relearn it, and we have to if we’re to render vivid settings, characters, and moments on the page.

MM: I had the pleasure of attending the RopeWalk Reading Series this past fall semester in which you read from a novel you were working on called Break the Skin. In that novel as well as “Girlie-Girl,” your piece for the Southern Indiana Review, you utilize the first person point of view, but that of a female. Several of your other stories are told from the first person point of view, but from a male character. Was it harder for you to write from the point of view of a female character? Why or why not?

LM: I’ve never been afraid to take on the perspective of someone outside my own gender, race, culture, etc. I believe strongly that writing good fiction relies on the power of empathy and the ability to put oneself inside a character’s skin. In the works that you mention, those characters happen to be women. I try to stay true to what I know about the needs, wants, fears, hopes, etc. that we all share, no matter our gender. I try to make each character an individual, avoiding stereotypes, and I try to dramatize the particulars that have made this person who, in this case, she is. I also happen to have a number of friends who are female. We have conversations. I listen closely. I tap into the things I hear when I need to better understand one of my female characters. Again, as in the evocation of the cultural backdrop, we’re back to the importance of paying attention.

MM: In the 2009 RopeWalk reading you said that your inspiration for Break the Skin came from a news story. While news can be a good source for ideas there is the danger of being tied down by the facts of what actually occurred, how does the writer keep from letting the news story tie down or hold back the story in which it inspires?

LM: You’re absolutely right to point out the dangers of writing about true events. There’s always the risk that the writer will stay too faithful to the facts at the expense of good drama and situations that reveal memorable characters. My practice is always to take in the facts of a story and then to say to myself, “What If?” I start thinking about new characters I could create, scenes I could invent, anything that would make for a more compelling story. In Break the Skin, for example, I eliminated characters involved with the true story and created characters who weren’t, so I could find the combination that would be the most interesting. I also created a storyline that wasn’t a part of the true story, all for the sake of the dramatic irony that it provided. The writer who writes novels based in fact has to be able to let his or her imagination touch the real events in a way that creates the sort of memorable experience for the readers that the news stories often can’t.

MM: How does basing a work off of a news story differ from how you approach writing a memoir?

LM: I think I’ve begun to answer this question in my answer to the previous one. Imagination enters the picture more so than it does when writing memoir. In writing memoir, I’m trying to find, as I said, the telling scenes, to dramatize them in a way that reveals something about characters and situations, but I’m always staying faithful to the facts.

MM: I have heard that you encourage writing a little every day. What other advice would you give to beginning or developing writers?

LM: Read, read, read. Read the way a writer must read. Understand that all stories, poems, plays, novels, literary essays, memoirs, are the result of a series of artistic choices that a writer makes. Each choice creates a specific effect. Read the sorts of things you want to write. Feel what a writer does with any particular move, and then ask yourself how he or she did that. Figure it out, imitate it, practice it, keep it in your writer’s toolbox, so it’ll be there for you to use whenever you need to. Also, ask yourself if this writing thing is something that you need to do. It can be a tough business, not to mention a lifelong apprenticeship. Make sure it’s something you can dedicate yourself to, something that you can’t do without.

MM: What are some works that you have read that were the things you wanted to write and some works that you have read that were not the sorts of things you wanted to write?

LM: Well, I’ll refrain from mentioning specific authors or books since they’re generally very good at doing what they set out to do. In general, though, they’re of less interest to me because they come from an aesthetic that’s different from mine. By that, I mean such writers have different opinions on the purpose of fiction, say, and the effects they want to have on readers. I’m steeped in a realist’s aesthetic, so you can imagine that more experimental work isn’t as compelling to me. That said, I think that writers need to read widely, particularly when first learning their craft, as a way of knowing what models are available. Often we form our own aesthetic by reacting adversely to a particular book, writer, type of work, or by holding that work next to work unlike it. We need to read all sorts of things to help us think about what we want our own writing to do.

MM: If there was one thing you would want people to know about you, besides that you are a successful writer, what would it be?

LM: I’m fifty-four, but I’ve never been able to get rid of the twelve year-old boy trapped inside me. I let him out from time to time. He’s the one who has the collection of wind-up toys in my office, the one who still gets excited by good basketball, baseball, and football games, who just gets plain goofy from time to time especially when in the company of the right people.

MM: How has this quality helped you to write younger characters?

LM: I suppose still being in touch with the spontaneity and vulnerability of that 12 year-old boy not only allows me to write younger characters but also older ones caught in the midst of adult problems. We learn at an early age what it is to feel the universal emotions of love, hate, joy, fear, etc., and, if we can retain a younger part of ourselves, we can more easily tap into those raw emotional states in our work.

MM: Are there any literary works that may have sparked creative interest when you were the 12 year old boy you still describe yourself to be inside?

LM: I read all sorts of things when I was 12. Some books were literary and some weren’t. I remember reading Robinson Crusoe, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, etc. around that time in my life, even The Grapes of Wrath. I didn’t understand everything I was reading, of course, but I remember being caught up in the drama of people’s lives in turmoil at the time of great change. I also read juvenile sports novels by writers like John R. Tunis and young adult mystery series like The Bobbsey Twins books, and I enjoyed the page-turner quality to those narratives and, with the mystery books, the way the proper withholding and revealing of information could create such suspense.