A Conversation with Michael Martone

Author of The Flatness and Other Landscapes and Pensées: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle

Interview by Cynthia Reeser

For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 5.2, June 2011

Michael Martone is currently a Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Alabama, where he has been teaching since 1996. Before that, he taught at Syracuse University, Iowa State University, and Harvard University.

He 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.

I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Michael Martone. I asked him all the things I was most curious about in regards to his perspective as an author (there is something about theory in it). I had always been aware of his writing, and enjoyed its ability to make writing be about writing without ever explicitly stating so, to take perspective and bring it to a present level. But a story by him and one about him, both appearing in a recent Ampersand Books publication, RE: Telling (edited by William Walsh, 2011), caught my attention (“Borges in Indiana” by Michael Martone and “Distractus Refractus Ontologicus: A Dissemination of Michael Martone” by Josh Maday). Here is what I found.

CR: A lot of your writing has to do with Indiana. Can you comment on how the sense of place functions for you as a writer? How does it tie in to your creative instincts?

MM: One way Indiana functions for me is as an example of a real imaginary place, a fabricated place that is also real. Its two largest cities, Indianapolis and Gary, were fabrications, their authors, the state legislature and US Steel. Indiana itself is part of the Old Northwest territory, a place largely imagined by Thomas Jefferson and the Confederation, a dream of a country that had imagined itself into existence and was about to be the first state to constitute itself out of nothing, out of sheer imagination. The old Northwest was the map as to how the former colonies were going to colonize, and the unique physical feature of place for me is this human inscription, the township grid. That grid might be the only landmark of place in the country that is not natural. Okay, there are the skyscrapers of Manhattan and Chicago too. The township grid is imposed on the landscape, inscribed. Not river, not mountain, not forest, not seashore. In fact, the grid ignores topography. The grid is a place that erases place. It insists first on coordinates, arbitrary numbers, degree and minutes. So, how strange it is to be born and grow up in this ambitious “enlightened” conception of place. Way before Continental theory was born, I was born and grew up in a deconstructed “place.” Where nothing, by design, was natural or real. Where all was culturally constructed, contained. The swamps were trained. The always already level land was made even more level. The forests enclosed. The wild made into a zoo of the wild. It is not an accident then that Indiana and the Midwest are thought of at a Rustbelt, a ruin, of that constructed industrial grid, and also thought of as the Cornbelt where botany differs only from industry in that it does not rust. Place then for me is the drama with rational human control and order seemingly triumphant from the start pitted against a patient chaos. It is the normal, the middle, the mean mean seen one way that then effortlessly turns into the abnormal, the strange, the outlier. And don’t get me started about boredom and the challenge of making the boring interesting.

CR: I’m endlessly intrigued by metafictional writing, which I sense you know something about. Josh Maday riffed on this in his story from the RE: Telling anthology, “Distractus Refractus Ontologicus: The Dissemination of Michael Martone.” Do you see your own writing as metafictional? Does the idea of metafiction tie in with autobiography? If so, how?

MM: I tend to think that all fiction is at least a little bit about itself. Any story can be about a lot of things but it is also always about storytelling. Metafiction when used as a critical label implies that it is a special kind of fiction, and there are fictions that call attention to the fiction more than others. But metafiction is more a spectrum of self-consciousness for me. Homer begins with the invocation of the muse that acknowledges what you are reading is a story and then has his hero, after his rescue, tell the story of his adventure. The Telemakia finds Odysseus’s son searching for his father only to find stories about his father. And, meanwhile, Penelope plots a narrative tapestry that she literally unwinds each night. And even Raymond Carver who famously stakes out a position against the metafictional stating that the writer should use “no tricks,” routinely employs metafiction. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is about characters telling stories to each other. “Errand” of course is a story about the death of a storywriter. All writing for me then confronts, utilizes, manages it fiction-ness and/or its story-ness as all writing is an artifice. Stories whether they are fact (autobiography) or not must deal with the fact that they are made things, that all writing then is contructed, fabricated, and self-conscious of its construction more or less. Realistic narrative works very hard to disguise that fact. Its main trick is to have the story appear as if it has just happened to allow the reader to disappear into a sustained fictive dream. But there is always the leakage of the unreality of the construction. It can’t be helped. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” The “autobiography” of Robinson Crusoe was published originally as a nonfiction book. We read it now as a fictional one. The presence of “meta” should remind the writer that he or she is responsible for not only the story but also the context in which it is read. How self-conscious does one want to be in telling a story? How visible does one want to make the frame? And what finally are the varying emotional effects that result from the modulation ranging from complete transparency to total alienation, keeping in mind that those effects themselves are synthetic, simulations of actual emotion, whatever that might be.

CR: Reading your work is, to me, fun, like putting a puzzle together. Could you comment on style, yours in particular, and how it is driven (or not) by ideas/the plan for a story?

MM: While I do not think you are saying it here, your description of the kind of writing I do as fun or a puzzle is often used to dismiss or diminish it when compared to other styles that present more seriously and transparently. So I am sensitive to a charge that I am not sensitive. Writing that is realistic and narrative wears its hearts on its sleeves. What I often do—writing that is conceptual, self-conscious and non-narrative—can often feel cool, cold even. All brain and no heart, no gut. I often point out this difference in short fiction anthology titles from the 70’s and 80’s. Back then, when I was coming of age as a writer of short fiction, the anthologies I read had titles like SUPERFICTIONAnti-StoryInnovative Fiction. All of those were swept aside by a collection of narrative realism named Matters of Life and Death, which contains an introduction drawing a bead on the brain of its brainy predecessors. I have always tried to work on the cusp between the two impulses, be conceptual and casual, labyrinthine and straightforward. What has been fun for me, what I have puzzled over is the synthesis of these paired manners. It was the accident of time and place that I was born into a time that finds writers of literary fiction moving into the academy. That that may be good or bad for literature does not interest me as much as figuring out this reality I am given. I have witnessed many writers with tenure, of course, who work very hard to disguise that fact, and I have seen as many work diligently to out-professor their professor colleagues. It is an interesting drama this worrying of all those binaries—the common and the elite, the specialist and the generalist, the difficult and the accessible, the heart and the head.

But you were asking about my style, how it is driven. I would like to think that since you asked both about my interest in place and my interest in puzzles that the short answer is I have styles of writing. Here, I will deploy a style that is transparent, presentational, emotional and there I will construct an elaborate set of jokes, ironic double takes, artifice in extremis. So all I can really say, I guess, is that I am a formalist. And by that I mean I like to think I can find a form of composition to match an idea or subject or genre. Or that if there is a Martone style it is no permanent identifiable style. I would like to think that I have or will attempt the whole range of style, the style of styles. Unlike Raymond Carver’s tricky admonishing, “no tricks,” my trick is always to see that all we have going for us is tricks, and I want to use them all, all the tricks, from tricked-out trick to the trick whose trick it is to say there are no tricks.

I am very happy to hear that the work is fun, that it gives you a pleasure derived from puzzling over it. Thanks.

CR: Who is Michael Martone?

MM: Oh, I have no idea anymore. I started writing the sideways contributor notes that were collected into the book Michael Martone a decade ago. I thought it was interesting and funny then this impulse we have, writers and publishers to include those snippets of biography usually at the back of the book and how without any instruction they took on a certain sameness—name, place, work published, ending anecdote—compulsory moves like in competitive diving or figure skating. Here too was the gesture of individuality dramatically pitched against the desire to pass. The contributors’ notes section of literary magazines became fascinating. The stories it told alphabetically and through juxtapositions. And then as I grew older, I knew more and more of the other writers who appeared with me in the magazines. And I would ask myself who were these people really. It seemed the form was reducing us to, well, the author function. When I would negotiate with the editors to have my contributor’s notes fictions printed in the contributors’ notes section of the magazine and not in the front of the book, I argued that this is what I read first in journals, this is what I suspect other contributors read first. A ritual. A mass. But you were asking who is Michael Martone. At Syracuse University and here at Alabama, I have taught several different versions of a class I call “Construction of Authorship.” Sounds impressive doesn’t it? I tell the students they are only in workshop once a week for a couple of hours. The creation of a couple of stories or poems is not their largest creative act. It is the time and attention they give to creating themselves outside of class, taking cues from each other, from interacting with editors and publishers, from working on the internet, from being themselves editors and publishers, readers, teachers. They are trying on costumes, camouflage, personae, identities. And they are discovering the flexibility, the artifice of the wardrobe and the context of the costume. I wear eyeglasses. I think it is interesting that most people who wear eyeglasses wear one pair regularly, maybe getting a new pair each year but mainly sticking to one way of seeing and being seen and allowing Paul Schaffer and David Letterman to change up daily on the eyewear. But I am, Michael Martone is, in the Letterman school of optometry. I like to wear a different pair of glasses each day, sometime many different frames in one day. So Michael Martone is the kind of person who wears a different pair of glasses daily. Does that answer the question?

CR: Could you talk about the ownership of writing? How much of his writing does an author relinquish to a reader on publication?

MM: I just finished teaching a class called Plagiarism 101. Here are a few of the books we used:

Kathy Acker / BODIES OF WORK
Robert Fitterman / ROB THE PLAGIARIST
Thomas Mallon / STOLEN WORDS
Paul Maliszewski / FAKERS

Hyde’s book is very interesting, the completion of his trilogy begun with The Gift that imagines art as property that stays in motion, as common property. That makes sense to me now. I am in my teaching, my writing, my life long past thinking I can control things, that is “roll against” things. I try to roll with. I do think of my writing now as more and more collaborative and less persuasive, certainly not unique. I think of myself more and more as an arranger of interesting playgrounds as you suggest, of puzzles the reader either participates in or ignores. Perhaps it is connected to the dissolving boundaries of self, the disappearing categorical distinctions between writer, reader, editor, publisher. I am all those things. You are all those things. I have little energy or interest in trying to keep those categories stable or intact. Not my job to patrol those borders. I find myself playing too, playing as a kind of work. I know it is this machine I am, at this moment, sitting before that is doing a lot of this deconstruction for me, to me, of me. I feel myself and my work becoming more and more netted up in the anonymous network, a leveling of identity, an evaporation of private space. It is a juicy irony that the property rights of authorship legally have never been so strong at the same time the means of production, this machine I am typing “this machine” upon, has never been so powerful, so efficient at circumvent those strictures. Irony too in that the powerful property rights of authors were legislated for the “author” known as the Disney Corporation. There are, what?, six extant signatures of William Shakespeare, all of them markedly different? And Shakespeare marks the transition from a collaborative and anonymous business model of authorship to the individual one with us now but now in transition again. Maybe this new technology is returning us to a new anonymity? Do you know the new magazine The New Anonymous? Perhaps we will not return as artisans to building the cathedrals of the future without signing our names but maybe there will be so many names in that future as to make the name beside the point and not the point at all. As I finish up this interview, I know of at least a couple of other interviews out there of “Michael Martone” in which I, Michael Martone, did not participate. I am looking at you Meridian and Devil’s Lake. Something’s up. My response is to roll with, I guess. To enjoy what a reader does with the work, the play of the play, as I delight in my own reading.

CR: What are you currently working on; what can we expect next from Michael Martone?

MM: I have just finished correcting proofs of the new book, Four for a Quarter, that will be published this fall. It is a book of 44 fictions I started when I was 44 that have as their subjects various 4s—the four chambers of the heart, the four seasons, the four winds, the four corners, 4H, 4F, four elements, four humors, four-square houses, four calling birds, etc. I continue to work on my Indiana science fiction book called Amish in Space. A longer book on the inventor of electronic television, Philo in Fort Wayne. A book about Art Smith a pioneer aviator from Fort Wayne and essays that rewrite various Civil War battlefields. A hybrid anthology called Winesburg, Indiana, and a book of interviews called You Can Say that Again.