Books In Conversation
That Fine Line Between Goodness and Brutality
LEE MARTIN with John Dufresne
Lee Martin and I met in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where we were the two fiction writers accepted into the MFA program at the university that year. I had never taken a creative writing class, and Lee had taken one, I think. We shared the same TA office with five other aspiring writers, the only non-smoking office in Kimpel Hall. I took an accelerated path through the program, carrying full loads each summer, and left before Lee did, as I remember it. We caught up with each other in Athens, Ohio, where Lee was teaching when my wife and I paid him a visit a year or two later. Lee and I went out for lunch. On the way to a Mexican restaurant on a day when a new Grateful Dead album came out and every hippie in Athens was at the music store we walked past, I saw a tiny man selling newspapers, and asked Lee who he was. Lee said, “Uncle Me,” and then explained that Uncle’s father was also his grandfather. My eyes must have glazed over. Lee smiled and said, “Everyone in town is trying to write that story.” I said, “First one published gets it.” We crossed paths at many AWP conferences but usually had barely enough time for a pleasantry or two. I saw him again in Columbus when he was a finalist—the runner-up—for the Pulitzer Prize for his stunning novel The Bright Forever. I had been reading Lee’s fiction and nonfiction as each book launched, and I thought, “goddamn, I know this guy!” I was a fan and I felt famous by proxy. We ended up in Auburn, Alabama, a few years back, to honor our former teacher and inspiration Lewis Nordan at what people were calling The Buddyfest. Buddy was in failing health, but the three of us indulged in reminiscences of our time in Fayetteville. One day, a visiting writer and editor—an Arkansas alum from New Orleans, I think—came to the fiction workshop. There were seventeen of us. He looked around at one point and said, “Only three of you will be still be writing in ten years.” I looked around and thought, “who are the other two?” I figured I knew at least two: Steve Yarbrough and Lee Martin.
Late One Night
(Dzanc Books, 2016)
John Dufresne (Rail): Let’s start somewhere near the beginning. What was the genesis of Late One Night? What image, or line, or character triggered the novel? Can you remember that day when the novel presented itself to you? Maybe it was theme that called for your attention. So tell us, what was the seed of this luminous novel?
Lee Martin: John, the genesis of the novel was, as it often is with me, a news story—this one about a trailer fire in which a mother and several of her children died. The husband happened to be living outside the home at the time, and though the fire wasn’t suspicious—he therefore wasn’t suspected of any wrongdoing—I started playing the “what-if” game. What if the fire were suspicious, and what if someone opened the door to gossip and rumor to the point that the husband was suspected of setting it. As I kept mulling this all over, I kept coming back to questions of innocence and guilt and how they apply to people in a variety of ways, and I kept thinking about the surviving children of that fire and the community members around them, and their father’s fight to save them, and also his reputation.
Rail: No one writes about the Midwest with such devotion, intelligence, and precision as you do. One might almost say that this land, this region, is your muse. Can you talk about what the Midwest means to you, tell us how it inspires you, and how it is different in some fundamental way from the rest of the country—if it is.
Martin: The Midwest means everything to me. It’s the land where my family struggled and fought and loved and died. I love the landscape—which many people who’ve never lived there dismiss—but most of all I love the lives that people live there, imperfect as they often are. It has always seemed to me that there’s a quiet dignity about the folks there that mirrors the landscape. In winter, for example, when the fields are barren, there’s still beautiful contrasts in the various shades of brown. There’s the color of the sky toward dusk. There’s the startling beauty of the bare tree limbs against the lightening sky at dawn. The land is sectioned off in one-mile squares. The gravel roads run straight and intersect at right angles. In a way, the people are like that too in their regular come and go—direct, unapologetic, unassuming. Beneath that exterior, though, there are lives just as rich and complicated as lives lived anywhere else. I feel privileged to give those lives a presence and a voice on the page. When I write, I pay close attention to the place I know best and to the stories it produces.
Rail: I’ve always thought of fiction as the gossip we tell about the people we make up. Gossip and rumor play a significant role in Late One Night. And there’s plenty for the people in Goldengate and its outskirts to gossip about. The plot often turns on hearsay and speculation. Can you talk about rumor as it applies to the novel?
Martin: I’ve always been interested in the way a small thing—something said or done, or something not said or not done—can start a causal chain of events that ends up irrevocably changing lives. In the small town of Goldengate, and out in the country, people’s lives become magnified, and when something large happens, as it does in the novel, people start to talk about other people. Missy Wade, the neighbor of Della and Ronnie Black and their children, has a chance to put a stop to all the gossip, but she doesn’t. By not acting, by not speaking, she allows it to spread. Sometimes characters aren’t aware of what motivates them, and they surprise themselves with what they’re capable of doing or not doing to try to get what they want. Missy is one of those characters—a good person, made more interesting by her own self-centered concerns. She has a moment in the novel when everything could swing in quite a different way than it does, but she lets that moment pass, and, as a result, Ronnie Black finds himself suspected of arson.
Rail: Your mention of these good people touched on what I was so aware of and so taken with while reading the novel. These are, deep down, all good, decent human beings. I think your narrator wanted me to think so. Brandi takes an ad out in the local newspapers and in it quotes Anne Frank: “I still believe that people are really good at heart.” I was reminded of Miller Williams’s poem “Compassion”:
Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.
Any comments on compassion and goodness in the novel?
Martin: I love that poem of Miller’s. In a way, I suppose most of my work is about those battles people fight with themselves “down there where the spirit meets the bone.” I do believe that people are basically good at heart, but so often we’re also bumbling, misguided, errant, etc. In the novel, characters stray from goodness, but to me that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. They’ve just lost their way for a while. They can always find their way back to the lives they’re meant to have. This is what happens in Late One Night when characters start to know what it is to live someone else’s life. To me, the art of writing fiction is ultimately an act of empathy. It’s the art of living as well, but we so often fall short when it comes to considering the wounds and wars of other people’s lives.
Rail: You and I showed up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, at the same time—the two fiction writers admitted that year into the University’s MFA program. Can you talk about what your time there was like and how your writing has evolved since those first workshops with Bill Harrison, John Clellon Holmes, James Leo Herlihy, and Jim Whitehead?
Martin: I was ill-prepared for graduate study. I’d only had two creative writing classes as an undergraduate, so that time at Arkansas University was my first in-depth study of the craft of writing fiction. I always felt like I was a step behind, but I took note of everything I needed to learn, and after I graduated, I spent time reading the writers I should have already read, and reading the craft books that would be important to me, and, of course, always kept writing. Six years beyond the MFA, I decided to enter a Ph.D. program, on the advice of former Georgia Review editor, Stan Lindberg, and it felt like getting a do-over. I was finally at a place where I felt some degree of confidence in my craft—at least as much as one can ever feel confident about writing. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln was the place where things really started to happen for me. I published in good journals, won some prizes, got my first book contract. But I had to first be willing to accept that I knew very, very little about writing so I could open myself to learning what I needed to learn. I still feel like I’m learning. I tell my students that writing is a life-long apprenticeship. At least, that’s how it feels to me.
Rail: How has teaching creative writing affected your own writing?
Martin: Each time I teach something, I learn something. I talk to students about a particular element of craft—a point of view, say—and as I do I find myself thinking about my point of view in something I’m working on. The discussions in the writing workshop stimulate me and take me back to my writing room with renewed vigor and focus. It’s all part of the ongoing conversation that’s so essential to this life-long apprenticeship.
Rail: I think most of us who are writers now were readers first. Reading led us to writing. What were the formative books you read as a child and as a teenager? And what are the books you’re reading now? What are the books on your nightstand or on your desk? Are there any books you read over and over?
Martin: When I was a kid, I read those sports-for-boys novels—the kind that John R. Tunis wrote. Baseball books were my favorites. I also read mystery series like The Hardy Boys. At some point, my mother enrolled me in a children’s classics book club, and I read things like Captains Courageous, The Prince and the Pauper, At the Back of the North Wind, and Penrod and Sam. My mother gave me the gift of being able to read whatever I wanted, so in my teen years I read the bestsellers like Valley of the Dolls, Hotel, and Day of the Jackal. I remember she came home from an auction once with two large boxes of used books. One of them was Midnight Cowboy. Who knew then that one day I’d be in a workshop taught by its author, James Leo Herlihy. One book I go back to time and time again is The Great Gatsby. Another is Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, which was a very influential book for me. Also, the stories of Cheever, Carver, Chekhov, and Welty among many others.
Rail: Do you remember the first stories or first poems you wrote? Do you remember deciding one day—I want to be a writer, and I might as well start now?
Martin: I always wrote. When I was a kid, it was horrid poems. In high school, a few maudlin stories. As an undergraduate, plays. During those undergraduate days, I took a creative writing class taught by Asa Baber. He had an MFA from Iowa. He’d published a novel. That’s when I started thinking that was what I wanted to do: get an MFA, publish, and teach. After college, I worked for three years and kept writing. Then I went to Arkansas, and, like I said, that’s where I found out how much I didn’t know, and that’s when the real learning began.
Rail: Can you talk about your writing process a bit? What’s a typical writing day like? If there is such a thing. Can you write wherever you are? Do you carry a notebook? If we could peek at you in the writing room, what might we see?
Martin: When I write, I try to make myself curious, and then I write to try to satisfy that curiosity while always delaying that satisfaction. On the best writing days, you’d see me in my writing room, typing away. But you also might see me, staring out the window, trying to daydream something onto the page. I’ve never been one to keep a notebook, but I have been able to write in places other than home.
Rail: Back to Late One Night. What were the pleasures and difficulties of writing the novel?
Martin: The pleasure of writing any novel for me is living inside my characters’ lives to find out things about them they may not even know—that, and creating a strong narrative arc. It was a challenge to find the structure of Late One Night. I knew I wanted Ronnie Black to be a suspect, but I also knew that what most people thought—what he himself was saying, even—couldn’t be the whole truth of what happened that winter night at his wife’s trailer. I knew I wanted to save the whole truth for the very end of the book. It was a challenge to first figure out exactly how the elements of the novel came together to make that night at the trailer possible, and then it was a challenge to structure the narrative so the reveal would have the maximum impact. I can only hope that I succeeded.
Rail: What would you like the reader to carry away from the book?
Martin: I hope readers have the feeling of not quite knowing how to feel about these characters, especially Ronnie. I hope they see the complicated layers that make it difficult for anyone to say with any certainty, “Oh, he’s a bad one, that Ronnie Black.” Or to say, “Now that Missy Wade. She’s a good woman.” Or to call to task a character like Shooter Rowe. I hope readers leave the book with a sense of compassion for imperfect people who make mistakes as their desires and their fears bang up against each other. I hope people feel how thin the line is between the well-considered life and one that goes off the rails.
Rail: Speaking of readers, do you have a reader in mind when you write, real or imagined? And what is that reader like?
Martin: I mainly have characters in mind as I eavesdrop on them, watch them, wait to see what they’re capable of doing, but in general I think my ideal reader is one who’s comfortable with not knowing too much too soon, and who’s comfortable with the shifting nature of truth. Above all, I’m writing toward readers who aren’t quick to judge or condemn.
Rail: You’ve written a couple of memoirs—three, if we count Turning Bones. What’s it like writing about your own life as opposed to eavesdropping on your made-up characters? Is it all still a question of shaping the life or lives, real or imagined, into a story? Is memoir also writing about what you don’t understand? Is one genre easier than another?
Martin: Yes, writing a memoir is definitely a matter of finding a shape for segment of a life. The only difference is now that life is mine. I write memoir to figure something out. I think I’m money ahead if I start with something I don’t know, something that the reader and I will explore together. In a way, I think writing memoir is harder because I can’t invent what didn’t happen. The imagination has freer rein in fiction. In memoir, my focus is on my own sensibility as I encounter past versions of myself and my versions of the people from my life. I want to be fair to all involved. I want to see everyone, even myself, as fully as I can. I write memoir when I feel there’s something about my experience that’s important for me to announce as mine, and that something is, as I’ve said, usually something that I need to know more about. When I wrote my first memoir, From Our House, for example, I faced my father’s farming accident and its effect on our relationship. I wanted to know more about the life he led after the accident. I wanted to feel what it was like to be him so I could better understand the anger and violence between us.
Rail: What are you working on now?
Martin: I’m about to start revising a new novel, and I’ve also been writing various essays that may, or may not, become a new memoir. We’ll see.
Rail: You’re a writer and a teacher of creative writing, so here’s a question you may have anticipated and may be tired of answering, but: Do you have any advice for the beginning fiction writer?
Martin: Read a lot. Write a lot. Disregard your ego. The best writing advice, I think, is something Isak Dinesen said. She said she wrote a little every day, without hope, without despair. It’s hard advice to follow, especially when you’re young, but if you can manage to keep your attention on the process of writing with no thought of the result, you can’t help but get better. The journey will take you where you want to go.
Rail: Last question. I find Late One Night to be a thematically rich novel. It’s about poverty and class and family and crime and death and secrets and rumor, and small towns where people still read newspapers—and so much more. Steinbeck once said of Hemingway that Papa only had one theme. Might be true, but it was a damn good theme. Do you find yourself, as Hemingway did, coming back to the same themes—the themes that haunt you, keep you up at night? Do you set out to write about certain themes in a novel or do the themes arise out of the characters and the plot?
Martin: I don’t set out to give shape and voice to any particular theme. I try to pay close attention to the lives of my characters and to remember that those lives take place in very specific settings. I try to capture what it is to be those particular characters in those particular places. In the process, the themes that you mention arise organically. Of course, I’m writing about what haunts me. I’m writing about the places and the people I know best. I’m writing about those things that I can never quite come to peace with. Some years ago, I finally realized that because of the life I lived with my goodhearted mother and my turbulent father, I’ll always try to negotiate that fine line between goodness and brutality. Everything I write tries to come to term with that line. I fail every time. That’s why I have to keep writing.