University of Southern Indiana

Interview with Michael Martone

by Jordan Cory & Jon Webb & Michael Martone

Michael MartoneMichael Martone is the author of five books of short fiction including Seeing Eye published in September of 1995 by Zoland Books as well as Pensées: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle (Broad Ripple Press, 1994), Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler's List (Indiana University Press, 1990), Safety Patrol (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), and Alive and Dead in Indiana (Alfred A. Knopf, 1984). He has edited two collections of essays about the Midwest: A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest and Townships: Pieces of the Midwest (University of Iowa Press, 1988 and 1992). He edits Story County Books, and his newest book, The Flatness and Other Landscapes (University of Georgia Press, 2000), a collection of his own essays about the Midwest, won the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction in 1998. He is currently a Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Alabama.

SIR: Your Indiana roots are a fundamental component of your work, especially The Blue Guide to Indiana. How has a Midwestern childhood and adolescence affected your work and outlook on life?

Michael Martone: Plenty. A Midwesterner is inculcated from birth with this cognitive dissonance, this paradoxical world-view that one is at the center of the world—the heartland, etc.—while at the same time one is also in the middle of nowhere. Middle implies average, middling, but at the same time evokes central, essential, necessary. I like this drama that the Midwest, the place, produces. I like the Backwater-ness of the place, the belief that nothing happens. Given that nothing happens there, one wants to make "nothing" happen, or at least I do. I am working on some science fiction stories now where Indiana in the future is pretty much like Indiana now. Elsewhere is always still where is. Specifically, Fort Wayne as a place affected me and my work once I learned it was the birthplace of Edith Hamilton, the great translator of Greek Myth. Athens in the Golden Age was a town about the size of the Fort Wayne where I grew up, and here were all these stories, translated by a Hoosier, we had to study while dissing our own lives, our own stories. I began writing, I think, believing I could get at the local mythology of this place, the stories that we all tell each other but in which we believe no one else is interested. As a Midwesterner I also like to confront the "niceness" that we are famous for and the incredible eruptions of the "meanness" long suppressed. Think of the Klan in Indiana. Or Bob Knight throwing a chair. There is this backwater place in Greece called the Mani—Don DeLillo sets much of his book, The Names, there—that is famous for two things: assassins and the dirge. There is this in Indiana, home of Jim Jones and Charles Manson—and this sense of deep deep sadness and loss. The lake effect. The battles over the nature of time. The self-adulation turned into self-loathing. It is all very post-colonial for me.

SIR: As with Southern writers, do you think a separate "Midwestern writer" genre exists?

MM: Yes and no. That is to say the quality of Midwestern writing is that it is about an invisible place—where is the Midwest? —and it is invisible to the writers who write of the place. You even have to ask the question. Is there Midwestern writing. Here in the South where I've lived of course, the question never is asked. It is assumed. To ask the question—does Midwestern writing, writer, exist—is a very Midwestern question.

SIR: The majority of your work consists of short, often surreal pieces. Do you aspire to write and publish a novel, or are you satisfied focusing on shorter pieces?

MM: I call the form the nnnnnnovel. Get it? I get nervous just thinking about it. I don't know if I will ever write one. I know I write books. And I guess I think that Michael Martone is a kind of nnnnnnovel. The Blue Guide too. I think the short forms of prose are too often thought to be baby novels that haven't grown up yet. But I do think that a short story is a different genre all together, as different from a nnnnnovel as a nnnnovel is different from a poem. And, true, the short form is thought not to be as important as the longer one. Not that I agree with that, it just is the way things are. So I guess I am a "minor" artist. But minor for me is like the minor in music—a different key—minor and major—not a designation of stature.

SIR: If the length of the work is unconventional, do the other "conventions" such as inciting incident, rising action, climax, and denouement go out the window as well? How do you know when a piece is finished?

MM: Well, it becomes a question of heft, I think. A feel for the weight of it and the wait for it. Or it's the Goldilocks test. Too big. Too small. Just right. Always a problem in a collage like structure. Often in collage you will find the arbitrary use of numbers. Twenty-four hours. Twelve months. I did an essay about May in Indiana and the Indy 500 and so I used 33 sections, one for each car in the starting grid. I just figured out why William Gass uses 36 sections in his story, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country." There are 36 square-mile sections in a township grid. These artificial patterns imposed upon more lyric material begin to form, if not a true skeleton, at least some cartilage.

SIR: You seem to enjoy creating parodies of different genres. With Michael Martone, you delved into the more mundane parts of the publishing world. What about working within—and twisting—less-than-literary genres interests you?

MM: I think most of all I like doing it because it is dangerous. To invoke "literary" or "genre" is to create a frame where something can be made safe. It is a kind of ghetto. Writers in America seem to have voluntarily committed themselves to some kind of reservation—the university—and assigned their work to very controlled publishing venues—the literary journal. Now there are many very nice, tasteful, serious etc literary journals but I can't help thinking that one thing the journal is signaling the world is this—that is harmless, tamed, framed, controlled. And that it is not really a part of your life, dear reader. This is a zoo you can visit. I like art in its natural habitat, in the wild. Or is in the journals it is acting like a bug resistant to the antibiotic. Art that doesn't know its place. Art out of place. Art that disrupts convention corrupts expectations. I like the notion of defamiliarization, of attempting to open up received notions and categories to wonder or to, at least, satire.

SIR: The contributor's notes of Michael Martone function as optionography, covering almost all the possibilities of your life. Do you think there is still a clear line between non-fiction and fiction in contemporary writing?

MM: I am not really sure there was ever a "clear" line between fiction and nonfiction. Remember that the early novels in English—Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders and in America Washington Irving's History of New York—were published as nonfiction. Traveling in Greece a few years back, I learned that Homer and the myths were studied in history classes as history and not as literature. Speaking of Greek history—have you read Herodotus? And it goes both ways today. If you read the narratives in the Big Book of AA, the "real" stories read like the best of Raymond Carver or Richard Ford. I like to think of the other meaning of fiction. Fiction not as not true but fiction as a thing made up, a thing made. A fabrication. In that sense fiction or nonfiction is a made thing, an artifice. A fact is a thing done. Once it happens it is gone. It has no reality. A fact leaves behind residue—documents, news accounts, letters, physical evidence. But all of it can be faked, manufactured, constructed. No the truth is that readers for a long time have had to make judgments about what is true or false, real or not and the writers have always made up things, created things both "true" and "false." So a "clear" line? Not the world we live in perhaps never the world we lived in. That's especially true of the empirical world. If we believe we know things by what we can gather from our senses—and we do believe this—that the baby is a blank slate and learns through experiencing the world—we also know that our senses are easily fooled, our memories are notoriously inexact. That blurring is what we live with. We live and play, create and destroy unclearly.

SIR: You studied under John Barth at Johns Hopkins, and he champions your work. Has Barth's work influenced you at all, and if it has, how so?

MM: Barth is a great teacher and an amazing writer. He is a neo-regionalist too. Maryland instead of Indiana. I have never liked the labels for him and the type of writing he is famous for—post-modern, experimental, avant-garde, innovative, etc. I think of him as a profound formalist. What I learned from him was to see the construction of all forms of writing and then to understand how those forms interacted with the contexts in which they are set, also constructed by the writer. What is the form of the travel guide? What happens when it is set in a fictional context or if it is published in newspapers instead of literary journals? What Barth made clear to me is that I, as a writer and artist, make things and make the frames the audience needs to perceive those things. All is artifice. Raymond Carver famously dismissed Barth's kind of fiction—No more tricks. But what I learned was that everything is a trick including the trick of no tricks. Artifice is all I know and all I need to know.

SIR: Where do you see universities—and specifically MFA programs—in the fostering and expanding of the talents and knowledge of writers today?

MM: First, I think of the writing program as protected time and space. I think it is my job and the program's job to create an interestingly rich environment for the artist to, well, play in. My job is not to tell what he or she should be doing but ask them what they want to do and figure out ways to help them do it. Many students, many very good students, learn in school about school. That is, they have by grad school learned to game the system. That a system basically says their role is to be passive and to receive the knowledge transferred to them. Well, all kinds of conflicts arise from that model. Just see any of a thousand movies about high school. So no, my role is to facilitate what the student wants to do. My job is to help the student know what he or she already knows. No secrets to reveal. No standards to maintain. No praise no blame. If a student comes to Alabama and does nothing for four years that is certainly no skin off my nose as long as his nothingness doesn't get in the way of my work. It's his time to waste. And even his doing nothing may be valuable to him. Your question implies that education is in the metaphor of growth, that "expanding" you use. For me it is about uncovering what is already there. Or if it is growth it is like perennial gardening. One cultivates the rootstock that contains the flower. Good soil and plenty of rain and sun. It is already in there, waiting to bloom.

SIR: What do you think of the opportunities that are emerging for the engagement of art online?

MM: It is exciting isn't it? I am just thinking now about infiltrating the advertisements on the web. They already are such fakes and fictions. I love all the buttons to bush and the animation present. I am really interested in the cell phone's texting possibility. I have already been doing readings where I ask the audience to text me—love that word, text—while I am reading. Now I am not good enough yet to actually interact with the text while I am reading my text on stage, but I want to be. I want to text while I am reading text. Also I want to get good enough to actually write on line and be on line at the same time my students are writing. A kind of workshop that will be purely about process and not about product at all.

SIR: What new opportunities do you see for the created presentation and perception of your work when you change the framing to a public reading?

MM: I mentioned the cell phone texting. I would like to do more with changing the venue. Read outside, say. In a gym. A stadium. See what would happen if the reading was in the cafeteria during lunch hour. I like to read with students. I would love to go to a school and have students there read my work while I sat in the audience. Carol Bly uses her reading to "write" her stories. She tells it and records it. Transcribes what she told and memorizes it. And then at the next reading revises on the fly, in response to what the audience is giving her. I would also like to do again what I did when I was younger. I would like to write on the spot. Poetry for hire. Go up to a person on the street and say would you like a poem today. A poem about what? Anything you want. Then do it. And then ask for some money. A poem must not mean but be 25 cents.

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