Issue Three contributor Kevin McKelvey interviews Midwestern writer Lee Martin.
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Lee Martin’s novels, short stories, memoirs, and essays are infused with local history, geography, and culture, mostly from his native rural Illinois. But it’s not just setting. He’s engaging local stories that became legends in the novels The Bright Forever (Pulitzer finalist) or River of Heaven, or it’s forgotten family history or stories that need telling in his memoirs From Our House or Turning Bones or short story collection The Least You Need to Know.
The following interview meanders amongst his books, connecting them as a body of work about specific places and time periods, and explores his process, Midwestern authors, and basketball. As you read this, you might queue up some of the songs from the song lists he compiled for the music blog largehearted boy for The Bright Forever, River of Heaven and Break the Skin.
Such a Life, a book of essays, was published in 2012 by University of Nebraska Press. Martin is currently at work on a novel about Elizabeth Reed, the first woman hanged in the United States in Lawrenceville, Illinois, in 1845 after being convicted of murdering her husband by placing arsenic in his tea.
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You’ve been blogging on your redesigned website and posting on Facebook to promote Break the Skin. How is this different from previous experiences with promoting your books? How are you approaching your time as a blogger?
I have to admit that I went into the whole blog/Facebook sort of self-promotion with some hesitancy. I was particularly resistant to the idea of a blog, which initially seemed like time spent that could be better directed toward the writing of my own stories, essays, and novels. I quickly found out, though, that the blog allowed me a forum for discussing issues of craft that came up in my classes or in my conversations with other writers. I started out doing about three blog posts a week, but I’ve slowed down a bit now that my new novel has been out for a while. When my novel, The Bright Forever, came out in 2005, I started to become aware of the blogging community. Several bloggers were very kind to that book, and I listened to my publicist as she talked about the influence that the bloggers were starting to wield. As we neared the publication of Break the Skin, I decided to jump in and start a blog of my own. As I said, I’ve grown fond of it.
You’ve become more prolific over the years while writing research-intensive books and Facebooking. It seems I’m always getting bogged down in research or Facebook or other distractions. How much time do you spend reading books, newspaper articles, or other materials or visiting sites before you feel like you have enough to write? How do you stay focused?
The time I spend doing research for a novel differs from book to book, but in general I read enough and do enough interviews for the story to come to life for me. I’m particularly trying to get a glimpse into the inner lives of the people upon whom I’ll base my characters. I need to know more than the news reports can give me. When I was doing research for The Bright Forever, for example, I visited a woman who had known the person who would provide the basis for the character of Clare in the novel. The person I based Clare on was named Cleo. As we were talking, the woman pointed out a lace tablecloth and told me that Cleo had made it. Just seeing that tablecloth, just touching it, connected me to Cleo in a way that reading news stories couldn’t. She started to become very real to me at that point. When I’m researching, I need the facts, but I also need the intimate details like that tablecloth. That’s when the research becomes something more than gathering facts; it becomes creative and generative. As soon as I saw that tablecloth, I shifted from the role of researcher to the role of writer.
In your Esquire interview, you mention that you sometimes throw darts during your writing time. What are some the big ideas you’ve had while throwing darts?
Oh, I usually only have small ideas while throwing darts or shooting Nerf basketballs. I might be struggling for a line of dialogue, or trying to figure out a move that takes me from one scene to another, and I’ll get away from my desk and throw some darts or shoot some hoops—anything to relieve me of consciously trying to figure out something. Sooner or later, an idea will come to me. I’ll hear a line of dialogue, or I’ll hear a line of narration that moves the plot along. Maybe it’s something about the repetitive motion that allows me to think without thinking.
Sherwood Anderson is always mentioned as an inspiring Midwestern writer. In your introduction to New Stories of the Midwest, you write a much longer list to answer the question on who our Faulkner is, offering Twain, Fitzgerald, or Hemingway. Who are more recent Midwestern writers you have read and admired?
Jean Thompson, Dan Chaon, Larry Watson, Patricia Henley, Stuart Dybek, to name but a few, and a special mention to the body of work produced by the late William Maxwell.
Which authors do you keep returning to? Where does reading fit into your day?
I reread Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby each year for its seamless structure, the music of Nick Carraway’s narration, and the aching story of hope and loss that it tells. I go back to the stories in Richard Ford’s Rock Springs quite often. I also revisit the work of Tobias Wolff, Kent Haruf, Bobbie Ann Mason, Bernard Malamud, in addition to others.
So the writers define the region and the literature of the region. In the past, why do you think there’s never been a strong Midwestern regional literature?
First, I always get a little uncomfortable with the term “regionalism” since it implies a literature of interest only to those inside a particular region. Good literature, of course, transcends the boundaries of its setting and subject matter and reaches a more universal audience. That said, I take great pride from writing about my homeland. I feel myself following in the tradition of William Maxwell, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, and others. To my way of thinking, there’s always been a ton of good writing that’s come from the Midwest. The more interesting question might be why we’ve always felt that we have to defend Midwestern literature, and perhaps the answer there lies with the New York City literati and how it views, or perhaps overlooks, the great books that have come from the heartland.
But your work and many others are starting to define that regionalism. We could almost fill a map of the Midwest with writers writing about certain regions. New Stories from the Midwest contains stories from 12 states. I drew a line on a map from Oxford, MS, home of Faulkner, to Milledgeville, GA, home of O’ Connor, which crossed only three states and was nearly straight east to west. That line was 400 miles. I wonder if we should start defining our literature in three-state contiguous areas or 400-mile lines. What is your vision of a Midwestern literature?
Do we define Midwestern literature by virtue of its setting, or do the novels, stories, poems and essays that come from this place contain characteristics that identify them as Midwestern? Perhaps there’s a certain respect for the landscape. Perhaps there’s a degree of reserve in the voice and an unadorned directness. Speaking for myself, I guess that when it comes to my way of defining Midwestern literature, I think of a subtle lyricism in the language, an awareness of the natural world, a dignity to the characters, an unassuming approach to their problems and dilemmas, a treatment of the complexities of seemingly ordinary lives. As I said, that’s just defining it for myself when asked to do so. Someone else’s definition might be quite different, and maybe we’d be better off resisting defining it at all because to define it is to corral it and then it’s more difficult for it to be transcendent.
New Stories from the Midwest has so many talented writers that are staying in the Midwest and writing about it. In these stories or your own students, have you seen more of a turn to place-based writing?
Isn’t all good writing place-based? To my way of thinking, one of the steps in the maturing of a writer is coming to understand what one’s places are. By that I mean, a writer embraces the places and the cultures he or she knows most intimately. It took me awhile to get to this step in my own evolution because I was at first convinced that no one would care about my rural corner of southeastern Illinois. When I finally embraced that place in my fiction, my work took on a resonance and a significance that had been lacking. For the first time, I was writing about the places and the people who mattered most to me. In a way, I suppose I was writing about myself for the first time, too, since I was finally aware of the connection between place and the person I was.
Also, in drawing that 400 mile east-west line, I started thinking about the USDA growing zones for trees, plants, and flowers, and then that connected to your own interest in gardening and the character of Little Jones in Quakertown. Can you talk a little about that character and also about how you build your personal interests into your characters?
Quakertown wouldn’t exist for me without the character of Little Washington Jones and his tremendous gardening skills. That character was based on a real person, Henry Taylor, who was a renowned gardener in the community of the novel’s title in the 1920s. When I heard his story, I was immediately drawn to it. I was fascinated with a man creating such beauty in a place that would soon be destroyed. I was drawn toward his connection to home because I was living in Texas and trying to figure out gardening in a climate that was foreign to me and in a place that had some of the worst soil in the world. I was also living the farthest away from my native Midwest that I’d ever lived, and I was struggling with issues of place and what it means to call somewhere “home.” I have to find that personal connection with a character, so I’ll know in some way what’s at stake for me as I follow him or her.
Your novels have tinges of genres like crime or historical fiction, which is sometimes looked down on by some literary writers. How do those elements help your novels?
Of course, the novel form, even the “literary novel,” can hold more, so I’m not sure that it should veer away from the deaths, gun shots, etc. After all, the novel is usually taking in the textures of a life lived over an expanse of time. All manner of small and larger turning points become fair game. I’m interested in whatever will keep a reader turning the page as long as it’s based in character. So a little suspense, usually created by a character’s own missteps, can amp up the narrative tension.
So you break all the rules of “literary” fiction by employing deaths, gun shots, explosions, etc. Your books aren’t quiet. But in some ways, the suspense is quiet. How do you get away with it?
Gee, I didn’t know those rules were in place. There’s certainly plenty of death and violence in literary novels. I understand, though, the spirit of your question. One should never impose the plot, through sensational events, onto the characters. It’s better to let the characters create the plot, no matter how quiet or how loud. That way, the larger events—the louder ones, so to speak—will always come from the characters’ choices and will always open up aspects of the characters that would, without the pressures of the plot, remain hidden.
That also has to make you a popular teacher. What do you tell your students about using those plot devices as conflict and complications?
Any writer has to earn those sorts of plot moves by letting them emerge organically from the characters and the worlds they occupy. Everything in a literary novel should be character based.
Your first collection was centered on father-son stories. Your first memoir follows that vein as well. But in reading Turning Bones, I can see more distinct parts of your life after high school–marrying young, bumming around, getting through school, working crappy jobs. It seemed to unlock a lot of your characters and settings. How does that time period influence your characters and your writing?
I worked a number of manual labor jobs, including operating a press in a tire repairs manufacturing plant for a year and a half. I came from the working class—my father was a farmer—and all of those jobs taught me that no matter how poor, uneducated, or unsophisticated people might be, their hearts and desires and fears were just as complicated and mysterious as anyone’s. Those jobs taught me not to overlook anyone, but instead to look closely at people’s lives with empathy and respect. I think that greatly influenced the way I look at my characters. My job as a writer isn’t to judge them, but to try to understand the source of their actions and their responses to the world around them.
I’m especially interested in your job after college in which you worked with various people trying to get them back to school. That seems like a rich area for characters.
I certainly did meet a number of interesting people while doing that job, many of whom were down on their luck and looking for anything that might give them a lift. I learned quite a bit about desperation and endurance and loneliness and hope. In a way, I suppose I tap into all of that each time I create characters and a chain of events.
What is your process for developing characters?
I think about the story that my characters tell themselves about who they are and how they operate in the world. Then I complicate that story through their own actions. A choice, a spoken word—each can create a sequence of events that applies pressure to the characters until another story emerges, a story that’s in opposition to the one they tell themselves. I’m looking for how to dramatize the opposing aspects of a single character. I’m trying to locate him or her in the land of push and pull. Then I stretch the narrative string as tightly as I can until it starts to come apart, and a character walks away changed forever.
One connection I see is between Lester Stipp in Break the Skin and Ike Mattoon in Quakertown. Both are dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome (even thought it wasn’t called that after World War I). How did PTSD come to be more central in Break the Skin?
I knew I wanted Lester Stipp to end up in Denton, Texas, miles away from his girlfriend Laney in Illinois and the sequence of events that had unfolded their with horrible consequences. I also knew that I wanted him to claim that he didn’t know who he was, so Miss Baby could convince him that he was her husband. To do all that, I needed to have a plausible explanation for Lester’s wandering. That’s when I encountered a story about how PTSD could create dissociative fugues for someone, causing him or her to wander far from home, to forget one’s name, identity, and history. At that point, I started building a back story for Lester as a soldier. I wanted my two narrators, Laney and Miss Baby, to tell stories that would overlap. Lester Stipp became my way of allowing that to happen.
PTSD from the Iraq War in Break the Skin, as well as small-town economies and livelihoods. Anti-government militias and smallt-town homosexuals in River of Heaven. Class and possible child molesters in The Bright Forever. Racial tensions and displacement in Quakertown. You tackle some significant aspects of politics and culture. What is your process in developing your characters and conflict around these?
You know, it’s funny because I don’t think of myself as a political person, and yet I find myself drawn toward material involving these sorts of social and cultural issues. Really, I’m just interested in how my characters try to operate in the worlds that they occupy. I try to make my novels an accurate representation of the time periods in which they’re set. I get a good deal of tension out of how my characters’ lives stand in resistance to the factors around them, whether they be related to social class, gender, ethnicity, etc.
How did the setting Mt. Gilead come about?
I created Mt. Gilead in River of Heaven and decided to make it part of the setting for Break the Skin. I created it out of the pieces of a number of towns in southeastern Illinois, but folks who read the two books will definitely recognize the town that provides the main component. I just wanted a town that would allow me to tap into all the features from the time I spent in these various towns to resonate for me, but I also wanted the freedom to play with geography, etc. I didn’t want, then, to be tied to a literal representation of a single town. I wanted what I suppose becomes a mythical town that contains the pieces of several towns.
Have you drawn a map of the town? What was your process for imagining the town?
No, I haven’t drawn a map. Like I said, I just combined a little bit from one town with a little bit from some other towns. I didn’t create much that was new. I just put a little of this and a little of that together.
How do you keep track of all the “a little of this and a little of that” in your process?
It’s all there in my imagination, but I do find that I have to go through a draft, paying attention to geography, making sure I remember where streets are in relation to one another, etc., making sure I have things located throughout the novel in the same places where I put them in the beginning.
How do you keep connected to small towns and the farming life?
I still have family and friends in southeastern Illinois, and I stay in touch. I also make a few trips back each year just to drive the country roads, to visit the small towns, to talk to people. I also stay connected by keeping up with the news via online versions of the local newspapers.
You returned to Ohio from Texas. How has that return and living in central Ohio figured into your writing?
Living in central Ohio, I’m only a little over a five-hour drive from my hometown in southeastern Illinois. I go back from time to time just to soak up that place, to feel its rhythms, listen to its people, reacquaint myself with its customs, take note of how the landscape is changing, become aware of cultural, social, and political influences that are bringing about change. It’s much easier to make those trips from Ohio than it was from Texas. Also, living in the Midwest again, I’m back in touch with the rhythm of the seasons, which is what I missed most when I lived in Texas. I’m not sure that I would have written the novels that I’ve written since moving to Ohio if I’d stayed in Texas. Being back in the Midwest has opened me to all sorts of stories that I might have missed if I’d been living farther away.
When will your books return to Mt. Gilead??
My next novel, Late One Night, takes place in the same region as River of Heaven and Break the Skin, but it isn’t set in Mt. Gilead. I’ve moved the setting into the next county, and I’ve created two new towns, Goldengate and Phillipsport. The former is very much like the small town where I spent my high school years; the latter is very much like the county seat where I spent time at the movie theater, the bowling alley, etc. Then I include the countryside where the main action of the novel takes place. Not exactly like Mt. Gilead, but not all that different either.
Growing up, you moved from a small farm to a Chicago suburb to a house in a small town. Chicago figures prominently in From our House. Will you ever write fiction about the Chicago suburbs?
The title story in my first book, The Least You Need to Know, is set in the southern suburbs of Chicago. It’s about a father who makes his living cleaning up crime scenes. At this point in my life, the suburban life is less interesting to me than the lives lived on farms and in small downstate towns, the sort of towns that still have a distinct identity, no matter how run-down or put upon they may be. That said, it’s hard to predict where my fiction might locate itself in the future.
You were a bit of a jock in high school. Are you going to write the great American novel about Midwestern high school basketball?
No. But even as I say that, I feel myself rising to your implied challenge!
Which basketball player have you used as a model for your writing life? I’m thinking Larry Bird: small town, working class, fundamentally sound, amazing court vision. Or maybe Jerry Sloan.
And work ethic. Don’t forget that. If there’s one thing we learn growing up in the working class of the Midwest it’s how to put our shoulders to the wheel and push. I’ve never thought in terms of how a particular basketball player provides a model for my writing life, but I like the exercise. Larry Bird and Jerry Sloan are choices. Both of them had a tremendous work ethic. Both capitalized on their individual talents. I try to stay true to my roots. I try to practice the techniques important to good writing. I try to see my characters and their situations as fully as I can. I try to avoid flash for the sake of flash. I try to tell a story as quickly and as gracefully as I can, but I don’t mind getting down and dirty with it when it requires that sort of grit.