I want to start by talking about your characters in your new book. They’re generally from a very specific and similar background. They’re generally white, working class, Catholic Pennsylvanians, and they’re generally in pain—they’re depressed, downtrodden, demoralized, trapped and panicked. So it kind of begs the question: what do you have against happy and rich Protestants?
I think that happy and rich Protestants have become our expectation for literature in the United States, and it bores me to tears. I find that there’s a kind of middleclass literature that has become the norm, and I can’t read it. The idea of someone having to chose between two relatively cushy options just does not make a story for me.
And it’s my own experience. At a reading that I gave at Newberry College recently that I was kind of stunned by, I was asked the question, “What do you hope to accomplish with what you write?” It was a stunner coming from the undergraduate asking the question, and what I came to quickly was that the lives of the people I write about do matter, and I think in our political discourse and in the way the supposedly liberal party in this country only talks about the middle class—it’s always the middle class—and it’s as if people who are struggling, people who always have bad credit, people who always end up paying the higher price for things because they have bad credit, people who are kept in their circumstances because of where they started in the first place, but those stories don’t get told or they sort of get relegated to this backlist of not even working class literature—I don’t know what to call it—underclass literature. Years ago, at MIT, Dorothy Allison said that she didn’t hate rich people because we’re all kind of bottom-dwellers to rich people, but she hated the middle class because the middle class are the people who looked down on her in her poorer days. It didn’t go over so well at MIT, but it certainly made me think.
There’s that old adage that writers are supposed to write what they know. Do you feel like that’s part of the project of this book? That you’re writing what you know?
Always. And not just what you know, but who you know. There are definitely characters in the book who have happier, more stable lives than others, and some of the characters are really down-and-out. I think of Emilie, in the last story in the collection—she talks about her friends, and her friends live in the same town—they live within walking distance—but her best friend, May, has this kind of Draconian father, who insists that everything be orderly and nice, and they rebel against that, but when you see Amy’s life and her mother in a point of crisis, saying What should we do? What should we do? and she’s running for the bottle of Carlo Rossi Burgundy, it’s a person I know very well. It’s an aspect of people that I think I know very well, that we have this crazy idea that in periods of desperation, you know, when people are really pushed to the wall, that they’re just going to somehow magically find a spirit that will lift them up, a fairy godmother. And that’s not…it’s not…there are no fairy godmothers….
Generally, your protagonists in this book tend to be young and old, but not a lot of middle-aged folks, except for perhaps Elsa in “The Strange Ways People Are.” Everyone else seems either pretty young or fairly old. Do you feel like there’s a reason that you’re writing about people at those times in their lives?
When I was an undergraduate, I encountered a lot of work about kids, particularly the work of Lewis Nordan, who would become my mentor. Especially while I was studying with Buddy Nordan and Chuck Kinder at U Pitt, I was also very into Chuck’s first book, which was Snakehunter. I started an MFA program when I was very young, and so what else did I have to write about, except younger characters? I enjoy stories about younger characters. Theodore Weisner’s The Car Thief is another with an adolescent narrator that I found incredibly influential, and an absorbing story, so in a way that’s very connected to “write what you know.” I knew about being an adolescent. I knew about being on the edge of discovery about things like work and sex, and a lot of the things that show up I think in my work. The urge to sort of look beyond that, the urge to write about older characters, didn’t come until later. I remember there were times I tried it when I was a much younger writer, but I’d often kind of get sidetracked into writing their story—the story of an older character—when they were younger. That’s always what drew me back. “The Strange Ways People Are” was not exactly an early breakthrough, but an early success.
It was way too depressing to be picked up by literary journals back in the day, but I was a finalist in a Glimmer Train writer’s contest with it, so I knew it had some merit. Honestly, it’s heavily fictionalized but I’m still lifting lines of dialogue and conflict out of the lives of the people around me. That story is very much informed by—very much about—the fictional worlds we create when we’re not in control of our own narrative, in this case someone who’s dying and who’s experiencing an invalid’s dementia. So the antagonist is an antagonist in the sense that he’s not doing what the protagonist wants, but what the protagonist wants is also long gone.
In terms of this story, how do I end up with this narrator? I don’t really want to say out loud that I’m cribbing from the people around me, but I’m cribbing from the people around me. The other story that features Elsa is “The Craft Lady at the Craft Show,” and while the character is definitely not my mother in some very important ways that would be embarrassing to my mother—the character is definitely not my mom—but a lot of what happens to her is taken from my mom’s anecdotes. My mom really was standing there at a candy stand when a woman started shouting the n-word gleefully because she’d found some candy that she’d talked about in her youth. And one of the things that I think I wanted to attack in that story is nostalgia. That’s something that I also notice: when you’re borrowing stories, when you’re looking for stories, when you’re trying to get those found stories from the people around you, you have to cut through the bullshit of nostalgia. I think Hemingway said that nostalgia takes its impulse from sentimentality, and sentimentality is the root of all that’s wrong with the world. And I don’t know if I entirely agree with that, but I don’t have a lot of patience for nostalgia.
I can’t help but notice in your writing that you often leave little Easter eggs for your friends and family to find, inside jokes and such. I noticed names of some of your friends show up in your stories. Maybe you could just talk a little bit about why you do that, or the impulse to do that, or how to do it well.
I think it goes back to writing what you know and who you know. I can lift aspects of the lives of the people around me and render it in my fiction, and it’s something my family is really uncomfortable with. We do not talk about my writing. We have not since I was a kid. I don’t know if my mom’s read my book. I don’t know if she will. We’re a Catholic family, so she might read it and just never say anything. And that’s fine. That is absolutely fine.
The difference between your friends and family may be that your family goes, “Oh my God, you’re not going to write about that, are you?” And your friends go, “Put me in a story! Put me in a story!” The most recent story I can refer to—it’s not in the book, it’s one that I’m actually shopping around right now—it’s called “The Walk-Through,” at least in its current iteration. My friend, Jim, had been pestering me for a while. He’s a very a anxious man, and he’s deeply afraid of dying, and so as a joke, he kept saying that I had to put him in a story so that he’d at least be figuratively immortal. So when the opportunity came, I created this character who’s an old man in his 80s, who’s trying to sell a house so that he can go into a home and not have to worry about his rental properties anymore, and so I made Jim an old man close to death. Jimmy’s an anxious, old man close to death, and it was a blast. I have a dark sense of humor, and he got a big kick out of it, I think.
I’m sure lots of people have this—for me, it’s an impulse: I always want to bring everybody along to the party. There aren’t that many people that I like that well, and when I like ‘em, I really like ‘em, and I want ‘em there. And the other thing is that you always need names, you’re always looking for names, and so, if you’re basing a character on a real person, you need a name that isn’t the real person’s name, otherwise it’s called “creative nonfiction,” and it’s a whole different thing.
It’s a kind of self-amusement. There are times when you’re dealing with really difficult things that the character is going through, a whole mishmash of emotions, and you can amuse yourself sometimes, sometimes flatter a friend, and sometimes just totally mess with them.
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Michael Gerhard Martin was raised in central Pennsylvania, and holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Pittsburgh. He teaches writing at Babson College, and for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. His first book, Easiest If I Had A Gun, was an Iowa prize finalist, and was recently named a finalist for the Lascaux Review short story collection prize. His story “Shit Weasel Is Late For Class” won the 2014 James Knudsen prize for fiction from Bayou Magazine. His work has also appeared in the museum of americana and The Ocean State Review, and has been performed as a Reading Out Loud podcast. He lives by the ocean in Massachusetts with his wife, the poet and memoirist Ellen Goldstein. Visit him on the web at www.MichaelGerhardMartin.com.