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Interview – Lee Martin


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Lee Martin Interview 6/25/2009

William H. Coles

Lee MartinLEE MARTIN is the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Bright Forever. He was born in Illinois, and received his MFA from the University of Arkansas. He has published widely acclaimed stories, novels, and memoirs (From Our House is recommended). He has won numerous awards including the Mary McCarthy Prize, the Nancy Dasher Award, the Glenna Luschei Prize for Literary Distinction, the Lawrence Foundation Award, and fellowships from the NEA and the Ohio Arts Council. Currently he is Professor at Ohio State University where he is Director of Creative Writing. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.


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Today is June 25, 2009, and I am at the Kenyon Inn in Gambier, Ohio, with Lee Martin Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Ohio State University. Lee was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Bright Forever, and is at Kenyon College this week to teach a course in creative writing.

WHC

Lee, I’d like to thank you for agreeing to talk to www.stroyinliteraryfiction.com.

LM

It’s my pleasure, Bill. Thanks for asking me.

WHC

I’d like to start out with a general question about the importance of story. As a writer, you have dedicated your life to story. How important is story for human development and for human pleasure in our society today?

LM

Well, Bill, I really think that story is the way we interrogate, explore, and come to understand our lives. I think it’s a human necessity, in a certain sense of the word, that we tell stories in order to document, try to interrogate, try to understand a little bit better than we would without the stories. If you go far, far back into history, people have always told stories, not only for entertaining, but to come to understand the human being a little bit better.

WHC

What is the uniqueness of fiction in prose story telling as it differs from cinematics, drama. What are the elements that storytellers in prose need to address differently than say a screenplay?

LM

Well, it’s always seemed to me that . . . I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about screen plays and I’ve never had an interest in learning about screenplays . . . but it seems to me the thing that a novel or a short story can do that a screenplay has a harder time doing is entering into the consciousness and the interiority of a character, or characters. In other words, I think that when we write stories and novels, even though our attention might be on what happens next, we also have to pay attention to the inner lives of the characters. So I guess what is stripped away often when a book is adapted for the screen is that interiority. I know there are examples of books that never get made into movies because of that very reason. There is not an easy way to get the interiority on the screen without sacrificing some of that narrative tension of this scene coming after this scene, after this scene, after this scene.

WHC

And that’s what makes you enjoy teaching and writing story is the interiority, as you say, that is made possible by prose fiction.

LM

Yes. The thing I’m really excited about with fiction is how language operates when we start to talk about things like interiority. There’s a music to language that I really value as a fiction writer, and so much of that comes through in the entering into a consciousness. And that’s what I sometimes miss in a cinematic form. Just the nature of the medium makes is such that our attention is upon what’s happening, rather than what someone is making of what’s happening.

Now I understand that even in the cinema there is a way to create a consciousness, and there is a way to give a point of view to a particular scene, or a sequence of scenes, et cetera, but the thing that I always miss is the music of the language which is the language of musing, and thinking, and synthesizing.

WHC

That process must be there in memoir and creative nonfiction, but it is certainly is not the same, and certainly the rewards are not received the same way. And yet I sense much of what is published today is just memoir that is not true in some areas. In other words, an author is looking exactly what happened in the past and what just describes what moved them, trusting the reader will be moved too. Fiction seems to offer so many different choices to develop the story; you’ve got choices about plot and character. Would you agree with that?

LM

First of all, I’ve got to talk about nonfiction. I think it’s unfortunate that we’ve had a slew of recent memoirs that have turned out to be false. I’ve published a couple of memoirs, Turning Bones and From Our House, I write both fiction and nonfiction, and I really value the things that good memoir writing can do. So I think it’s unfortunate that the whole form has been cast with some suspicion because of some examples of malfeasance in our consciousness lately.

I think it’s an interesting question that your question suggests, and that is: where is there more freedom? Is there more freedom in writing memoir, or is there more freedom in inventing, as we do when we write fiction? And I’ve always contended that it is easier to write memorable fiction than it is to write memorable memoir. Here’s my reasoning on it . . . and some people don’t agree with this, and that’s fine . . . my reasoning is, if I’m writing a memoir and I’m ethical about it, then I am bound to literally what has happened and I cannot create something that didn’t happen . . . and I can’t have a character do something that she didn’t do. I can’t even dramatize an aspect of a person’s character if it is not true to what the person is or was.

When I’m writing fiction, I can do all of that. I can make something serve the story that I want to tell by creating another part of a character; by having that character perform a certain action, or say a certain line of dialogue; and one would think that that would mean that there is much more freedom in the fiction—and that is true, I think there is much more freedom in the fiction. With freedom comes selection . . .

WHC

And imagination?

LM

. . . and imagination, exactly. Because as soon as I start to imagine something for a character, I have a larger realm of possibility than I do if I’m working with a real person in a memoir. Because I have a larger realm of possibility, the thing that I choose becomes much more important and significant. In other words, how do I know I’m choosing the right thing? That choice is literally made for me in nonfiction. In nonfiction, I simply have to pay close attention in my memory, and in my recollection, and in my interpretation, to make sure I’m getting, in advance, characters accurately portrayed as they were or are in the real world. In fiction, I’m choosing from a wide variety of possibilities and I think that the onus for making the proper choice is greater. And that’s why I think . . . I don’t even know now what I said to start with–to tell the truth. . . but that’s why I think . . . I guess I’m starting to contradict myself now, is it easier to write fiction or nonfiction . . .what did I say first?

WHC

You said it was easier to write fiction than nonfiction . . .

LM

Right.

WHC

That memoir was harder to write. I think your point was that you don’t have the freedom in memoir.

LM

Right. So that in the nonfiction there’s not that freedom and you’re pretty bound to what the facts are.

WHC

This is delicate and I don’t know how to express it—it may be related to personal aesthetics that we’ve talked about before—but it seems to me that writers go into memoir with a different attitude than writers who write fiction. I’ll say this in a confrontational way, I’m afraid, but the memoir writer assumes that his or her life is important to the reader, important enough for a reader to enjoy and be entertained—and it can be true but often it’s not—and I sense there’s more than a little arrogance behind that. The whole idea that this is how my life made me feel and I’m sure that I can describe for you the intensity of my feeling though my memoir writing. Now, in contrast, the fiction writer says, my main goal is to entertain my reader so they have an enjoyable experience . . . and maybe come away with something new. There’s a dedication to the reader’s response. A fiction writer says I’m willing to do anything with my imagination and my freedom to make that happen. In the memoir, you always have that background attitude that it’s my life and experience that’s import to you, as a writer, and you, the reader, are going to have to enjoy it.

That seems to be a huge difference between the attitudes of memorists and fiction writers. The reason it’s important to me is that what is often published as fiction now is really created as memoir. And that worries me as someone who loves the great fiction of the past.

LM

See, Bill, I think unfortunately what you say is sometimes true, but I would consider memoir that carries that tone of arrogance with it, that assumption that here is my story to tell and everyone will be interested in hearing it, I consider that an inferior form of memoir.

WHC

I see.

LM

Because to me . . . the impulse that brings me to fiction is the impulse that brings me to nonfiction. It’s to try to explore something, to try to understand something.

WHC

With the reader.

LM

Yes. Yes. When I tell my story of my father and the loss of his hands in a farming accident in a memoir From Our House, I don’t know when I start that story what I think about that whole experience. So I can’t make the assumption that the reader is interested in my father’s or my life experience, I can only make the assumption that I would like the reader to eaves drop with me as I discover and explore.

WHC

Good point. That’s really illuminating for me.

LM

So the same impulse carries me into a novel like The Bright Forever. What can I find out about a community’s experience of the disappearance of a nine-year-old girl? And what can I find out about the lonely life of a mathematics tutor in that town who may have some culpability in the matter.

WHC

I’d like to explore timeline with you. Is a timeline important, and, if so, what attitude should we carry about timeline when we write short stories or novels?

LM

It’s particularly important, at least to my way of thinking, in the short story, a form that relies so much on time compression. We could go back to Edgar Allan Poe and his belief that a story should be capable of being read at one sitting. We could talk about unity of effect and how a specific timeline contributes to the unity of a short story. The thing I’ve always noticed is that if the circumstances of a story have a particular time limitation applied to them—for example, if some problem has to be resolved within the day, or within the month, or within whatever the time period is, then the stakes go up immediately, because we understand these characters have only a limited amount of time to deal with this problem and to come to some sort of resolution of the problem. And I also think it’s important, just structurally for a story, that there be a timeline anchor, that no matter how far out we might spiral into the past or into the future, we’re always coming back to this baseline, which is a timeline. There is something happening in the dramatic present that requires our presence in the story. I think we’re money ahead if the writer keeps coming back to that . . . no matter if the writer is layering back story or flashing ahead into the future, or whatever.

WHC

When you layer in back story, you are avoiding chunks of back story that break the continuity of the timeline . . . a timeline that is continually moving forward providing the momentum.

LM

Right. And I think momentum is an excellent word to use because you’ve got to keep the story moving ahead, you keep the narrative moving ahead; and one way to do that is pay attention to the timeline.

WHC

Let me bring in the problem of back story as it relates to the timeline, and the problems of voice. The reason I bring this up is, when a character speaks in back story, that character doesn’t have access to the story present timeline when speaking from the dramatic presence of back story. The character doesn’t have the same access to the same history, the same sensitivities, to the same social mores, within the time of the back story (outside the timeline). Is that important for credibility to be certain the voice is consistent with what knowledge is reasonable available?

LM

It’s a tough question to answer because it relies on point of view. For example, I can answer the question differently if we are talking about a third person narrative or a first person narrative. Think about a first person narrator; do we expect different things, different sounds, different voices from the first person narrator when the person enters some expository section that’s giving back story? I guess we do expect something a little different. We expect a more reflective voice, right?

WHC

Yes.

LM

And what we expect in the first person present of a story, we expect the narrator to tell us what happens in sequence, keeping that story stretched tight as it moves along the narrative line. In the third person story, we expect that type of story teller’s narration . . . once upon a time there were three little pigs, to go to an old children’s story, and then one day the big bad wolf came and started to huff and puff and blow the houses down . . .well, when we shift into back story in the third person, then do we also expect a certain alteration in the register of voice or sound at that point? I think we do.

WHC

I think so too.

LM

We signal with that a shift in the register that we’ve entered a different mode of discourse. It’s not a mode of narration at this point, it’s a mode of gathering.

WHC

I’d like to carry that a little bit farther and stay with the third person POV for the moment and think of author presence, and a narrator voice that is specific for the narrator, and characters voices. The character is really limited to the timeline and story time. So that everything you develop in dialogue and internal reflection is restricted to the story time. But the narrator has lived longer, is farther away (psychic and physical distance) from the story, and does not have the exact same responsibilities as the character who is acting out the story. Both the character and the narrator have different voices. And of course, the author has his or her world to call from with vastly more information, which should not enter most stories. In thinking about this as we write, if a writer is choosing metaphors, if he or she is making decisions about ridicule, or about society, or looking for certain ironies to develop, all these language influence on story, especially ironies, will develop differently in the narrator’s view, and in the character’s view, and in the author’s view.

In thinking about this, is it important when you’re telling a story and the narrator is telling the story at that moment that you’re always in the narrator’s world, which is different than the character. When you move to character, should you be careful not to carry the narrator’s voice?

LM

I actually think that there is a successful blending of the central consciousness of a third person story, say, the consciousness of a character named Bobby with what I like to call . . . I sometimes just call it the narrative voice, or sometimes the effaced narrator. I don’t think of that storyteller’s voice, that once upon a time voice as the author’s voice at all. I never think of it in those terms. I think of it more in just the terms of the narrator of the story, and then, through the skillful management of point of view, that voice can blend nicely with the consciousness of the central character of the story.

WHC

As long as it is credible for the timeline.

LM

Right.

WHC

All stories are told in the past, and the narrator is telling from a different time than the character in the timeline.

LM

And, yes. As long as it’s organic for all the elements of the story. For example, just on the language level. Let’s say we have a story set in the South in 1963 . . . I’m just grabbing something out of the air . . . and you have a third person narrative through the perspective of a character who lives in Jackson, Mississippi, who’s involved in a certain set of circumstances—whatever those circumstances are—if that story shifts into the storyteller’s voice, and if it starts grabbing at metaphors and any kind of figures of language, those metaphors have to come from that world of 1963. And so, this conversation we’re having about this point, Bill, is actually part and parcel of how all elements of a story contribute to an organic whole.

WHC

Yes.

In first person is it ever of value to separate the narrator from the first person, and without letting the narrator be the author, so the conceptualization of this type of voice integrity can be maintained as you develop a first person story.

LM

Well, you know, in first person in a piece of fiction–and this is something I’ve been curious about for a long, long time–I think there a difference between a first person narration in fiction and a first person narration in memoir. In memoir we say we know that there are going to be two “I’s” in a piece of memoir. There is going to be the “I” that lived the experience and there is going to be the “I” that looks back on the experience and tells us about it. Now within that, there are probably going to be a number of other “I’s” because the self is made up of so many distinct parts. I think in fiction it’s pretty much the same. Anytime someone speaks in the first person point of view, you have someone who is looking back on him or herself in a particular time in his or her life.

WHC

Yes.

LM

And that first person point of view is sometimes the participant, sometimes the spectator. A good writer distinguishes the voices of those two entities.

WHC

In essence then, the one of the two “I's” acts with a narrator function. The “I” who is looking back is like a narrator. That’s helpful.

I was interested in elements of writing in scene and in the moment. Often we tell a story with narrative discourse but it has distance from the action. So, what are the elements of getting into the scene, and into the moment?

LM

Well, this may be too simplistic, but I always advise my students who are starting to write stories, to come with an opening with a specific person in a specific place engaged in a specific action. So, for example, a story could open with a simple line (it may not be the best opening for a story) “One day at noon Bob reached into his back pocket and the handkerchief he had placed there in the morning was gone.” Specific person, specific place, specific time, specific action. A skilled storywriter will make that initial action reverberate through the entire story. In other words, there will be a sequence of events that will proceed from the fact that Bob couldn’t find his handkerchief one morning.

WHC

You mean the mystery reverberates, or the action itself?

LM

It could be both. In that case there is sort of a mystery, a trivial mystery that I outlined, although it could have great consequence if I built the story right. Yeah, the mystery of what happened to the handkerchief, that’s one thing that reverberates, but also what will Bob have to do now that he doesn’t have the handkerchief. What will his next course of action be? Will he retrace his steps? Will he try to find it someplace he’s been throughout the day? Will he decide to buy a new handkerchief. While he‘s buying a new handkerchief, will he step on a young lady’s toe? Will that young lady accuse him of being forward with her. There are a number of things that can happen from this very simple opening of person, place. and action.

WHC

There seems to be a slight trap there; as you begin to develop character or try to advance the plot, that you as an author may try to use internal reflection and bring in back story, observations of the world and life, and other opinions. That seems to slow down stories, yet it is necessary to keep the action in significant and moving in scene. Is there a way to solve that?

LM

I like to think about what a character carries with him onto the page. What has happened in that character’s life before the events of the story start to unfold, and that “grand story” of the case of the missing handkerchief that we’re spinning here; if for example, that handkerchief were the last handkerchief that Bob’s father used before he passed a way, then it has some sort of value to Bob. Right? That’s the little piece of back story that will make the sequence of events have more significance to them. It’s not that he just has to find a handkerchief; it’s that he has to find a handkerchief that has some sentimental value to him.

WHC

Yes.

LM

So there is a way to get the story started with person, place, time. space, action and then to just layer in the little piece of information that this is what the handkerchief was, and then we go back to the story.

WHC

And this is where it’s crucial for what you’ve often said is the right choice at the right moment for the story. Because if the character decides he wants to discuss polyester fibers in handkerchiefs as opposed to cotton, that this or that type doesn’t absorb snot as well, or something like that. In order to not stop the front story, the right choice has to be made, not about fiber or snot.

LM

Well, you’re right. If the writer decides at that point to talk about the difference between cotton and polyester fibers, than the writer has put our attention on something that has no consequence to the sequence of events that are unfolding.

WHC.

You have quoted Welty, something like “Place is everything.”

LM

Eudora Welty talks about how “Place is fiction.” That certain stories proceed from certain settings, and the specific setting lends itself to certain realms of possibilities for stories.

WHC

I don’t mean this to be a confrontational question, but that seems to be really limiting in a sense, because of the slighting to the emotional complexities that you teach so often. Isn’t there a trap there too in terms of thinking of setting in terms of fiction? I know the answer will be the setting will set up the emotional development, but shouldn’t that story be able to exist as well in Jackson, Mississippi as Chicago, Illinois?

LM

Short answer. No! (laugh)

WHC

Why?

LM

Here’s the way I look at it. And this is not my original observation. If a story has no specific setting, then it really seems to be not happening at all. If it’s not attached to place in some way. Now I’m going to offer up two different ways that stories are often attached to place. Stories can proceed from specific places because of the character’s sense of attachment to the customs, habits, mores, culture of the place, but they can also proceed from a character’s resistance to the mores, culture, values, et cetera. Should we be able to take a story that’s set in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and have it be the same story when it’s set in Chicago? In a sense, stories are universal. They’re about the mysteries of being human, and they’re about love, and death, and spiritual faith. In that sense, yes, things that happen to people in Yazoo City can have the same reverberations through love, et cetera, if they’re set in Chicago. But my contention is, that as soon as we change the setting of the story, we change the cultural backdrop. The cultural back drop allows different things than it does if it’s a cultural backdrop somewhere else.

WHC

In writing opinions about cultural settings, isn’t there a danger of ridicule and then moving into satire. I have the bias that too much satire in a prose fictional story begins to ruin the story itself.

LM

There’s absolutely a danger of only seeing the stereotypical in a particular culture and place, and this really connects to an issue in story writing that I think is important to story writing in general. It seems to me that that storywriter’s task is to present characters and their situations and their places as fully as they can see them. And often that means seeing the aspect that transcends the stereotypical. We do not want to read a story set in one particular locale, coming from one particular culture, that only perpetuates the stereotypes that have been unfortunately attached to said culture. So what the writer needs to do is look carefully at the human beings instead of the culture.

WHC

A specific question. What is the talent, or talents, that great writers have that cannot be learned? What are the elements of the great writer that are instinctive?

LM

Yeah . . . Well . . .I . . . This is a tough question, you know I’m in the business of teaching people how to write fiction and nonfiction and I’ve always said, I can teach craft, and I can take almost anyone, I think I can anyway, and give them a sense of what story is? So they would be able to do that [story]. But can I teach them that little extra something that makes the stories they write memorable and that will last? There you have to start thinking about imagination, freshness of vision, the ability to see that any one thing contains its opposite. And that’s what I don’t know that I can teach. I think I can teach people to look for the surprises that we wouldn’t expect, but I’m not sure I can teach the sort of flare, the sort of pizzazz that makes something really make an impression on the reader.

WHC

And you can teach the reversals, and the alternatives for the reversals, and the identification of that sort of thing.

LM

Right.

WHC

I had a question on workshops but what you’ve just said pretty much says what you do for students to help them improve.

LM

Yes. The two things I learned as I was going along–this is the order I learned them–I first learned the techniques of storytelling. But the thing I had to learn to make those techniques pay off for me was how to see fully into the mysterious aspects of human behavior.

WHC

And that’s the key of it all. Human behavior.

Last fading out questions here. As a student of creative writing, what would you recommend as the important historical development of story for students to learn? Going all the way back to ancient times. How can students get a sense of how stories developed and how they are still developing today?

LM

I think that people have to keep reading the masters, to tell you the truth. I get a little concerned that most of the reading being done today is contemporary in nature and, for example, if you want to be a really good short story writer, how can you do that if you haven’t read Chekhov? I think that we have to read the way a writer reads by trying to figure out exactly how something gets made on the page. But I don’t think you should be concerned about tracing the development of storytelling. I think what you should be concerned about is exposing yourself to the various ways to tell stories, so you can start to define your own aesthetic of storytelling.

WHC

What if you looked at Cain and Abel, or Ulysses? Those are stories that have lasted forever—and Shakespeare, who has some incomprehensible plots sometimes, yet the stories just last forever. The questions are how did they do that and how do we recreate that in a modern setting?

LM

I think that if you look at any of those examples, I think you’ll find that the lasting value resides in the complex interaction of characters. An interesting exercise is to take, say, the Cain and Abel story and try to write a story set in contemporary day that borrows from that story.

WHC

Would you give us an overview of where your work is going now, what you’ve got planned, and what you’d recommend for us to read of your work?

LM

Well, since The Bright Forever I’ve published a new novel called River of Heaven, and at present I’m in the last stages of a new novel, and already thinking ahead to the novel after that , which–I hesitate to say this because I don’t know if I’ll follow through on it–looks like it might be a historical novel. I’ve found something from the 1840s that really intrigues me. I’m in a research phase right now. We’ll see if anything comes of it.

WHC

What are the five books in the past that you would recommend to students? For example, Wuthering Heights is one of my favorites. Just for learning techniques of fiction.

LM

I think there is a lot to be learned from Henry James. The Ambassadors is a book that I resisted all through my college years, and then finally got old enough to understand why it was important. (laugh) And I think The Great Gatsby is instructive for first person point of view, I think Hemingway is instructive for the restraint of language and paring down of narrative, also demonstrating the expansiveness of character. I had one more . . Oh! Virginia Woff’s Mrs. Dalloway is a wonderful book to read to see what can be done with stream of consciousness. It’s just a matter of finding those books that illustrate various techniques for us.

WHC

Are there any study opportunities with you that students could take advantage of?

LM

I’ll be teaching at various writing conferences. Later this summer I’ll be at Vermont College. Then I’m just teaching at Ohio State. If someone is in the Columbus area and they’re interested in taking a class, they can always get in touch.

WHC

Do you have a website?

LM

No. Just through the OSU website.

WHC

Lee, I’d like to thank you very much for participating in this interview. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you.

LM

Great pleasure. Thank you very much.

 


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2 Responses to “Interview – Lee Martin”

  1. admin Says:

    Thanks for comment. I wasn't exactly sure how to respond so I reread the interview, and now I see where you're coming from. Lee Martin is one of those authors who has almost complete control of his writing. He is a joy to interview because he knows the fiction process so well, and has thought–from his teaching, I presume–of unique ways of expressing complex ideas. In reality, what interviewer could disagree with such an advanced teacher and writer? Thanks. WHC

  2. Edward Flynn Says:

    I'm intersted in what you categorically, absolutely, irrevocably disagreed about but did not include in the interview.

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