Michael Martone’s most recent books are Winesburg, Indiana, Four for a Quarter, Not Normal, Illinois: Peculiar Fiction from the Flyover, Racing in Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins, a collection of essays, and Double-wide, his collected early stories. Michael Martone, a memoir in contributor’s notes, Unconventions: Writing on Writing, and Rules of Thumb, edited with Susan Neville, were all published recently. He is also the author of The Blue Guide to Indiana, published by FC2. The University of Georgia Press published his book of essays, The Flatness and Other Landscapes, winner of the AWP Award for Nonfiction, in 2000. With Robin Hemley, he edited Extreme Fiction. With Lex Williford, he edited The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction and The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. Martone is the author of five other books of short fiction including Seeing Eye, Pensées: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle, Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List, Safety Patrol, and Alive and Dead in Indiana. 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. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, Story, Antaeus, North American Review, Benzene, Epoch, Denver Quarterly, Iowa Review, Third Coast, Shenandoah, Bomb, and other magazines.
Martone was born and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He attended Butler University and graduated from Indiana University. He holds the MA from The Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University.
Martone has won two Fellowships from the NEA and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. His stories have won awards in the Italian Americana fiction contest, the Florida Review Short Story Contest, the Story magazine Short, Short Story Contest, the Margaret Jones Fiction Prize of Black Ice Magazine, and the first World’s Best Short, Short Story Contest. His stories and essays have appeared and been cited in the Pushcart Prize, The Best American Stories and The Best American Essays anthologies. In 2013 he received the national Indiana Authors Award, and in 2016, the Mark Twain Award for Distinguished Contribution to Midwestern Literature.
Michael Martone is currently a Professor at the University of Alabama where he has been teaching since 1996. He has been a faculty member of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College since 1988. He has taught at Iowa State University, Harvard University, and Syracuse University.
September 21, 2017
Samantha Nelson: Do the books like Four for a Quarter or The Blue Guide to Indiana start organically? Do you start with an idea for a book, or do you start writing and then the idea is shaped? For instance: The Blue Guide is kind of like an actual guide, but in reality it is a collection of short stories that are packaged as a guide, and in Four for a Quarter you have a bunch of quartets—all of these short stories that are connected, but in fours.
Michael Martone: Well, a chicken or the egg thing. I’m not so sure, chicken or egg, where any one of the books comes from, but I’ll give you an example. The contributor author’s note at the end of The Blue Guide is—I got to the end of it, I had written other books, and I noticed that now that the press was asking for contributor’s notes, all of a sudden I realize I’ve been doing—and everyone had been expecting—contributor’s notes to be like this: you switch to the third person. “Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He went to Indiana University and John Hopkin’s University. He’s taught at this place, this place, and this place. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, etc. And he has a dog.” You know, something like that. And I thought, “Well, I had already done a fake travel guide, so why not do a fake biography?” So, the first one I did was for Blue Guide, and then I liked it so I said, “Let’s do a whole book of them.” So, one of the books that follows Blue Guide is called Michael Martone, and it’s filled with forty-something contributor’s notes of Michael Martone. A lot of times I sort of know my obsessions. And one of those obsessions, of course, is Indiana. And I always say that I write about Indiana because somebody has to. Nobody—Kurt Vonnegut—but really, not a whole lot of people write about Indiana. So, I know that, and that leads me to certain places. The obsessions really come ahead of time, and then I find ways of satisfy those obsessions. So the contributor’s notes all begin with, “Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana.” Then, they go off different ways, but that’s where they start.
I’ll give you a different example: Four for a Quarter really came out from something that happened in the classroom. I was teaching at Harvard University, and I noticed that my students were not including any sort of things outside of the apartments in which their characters lived. I asked them about that, “Well, have you travelled around here in Boston?” And they said, “No, we don’t really leave Harvard Square.” And I said, “You’re young, and it’s time to get out.” I lived on the next train stop down on the subway on the Red Line, which is Central Square. Which is sort of seedy, but not. It had a Woolworths. Do you know what a Woolworths is?
MM: It’s a five and dime store, like a dollar store, but a quarter was a dollar. They had a photo booth that cost, then, four for seventy-five cents. Now, you still have those today, but they cost like four dollars and they’re digital. These were mechanical. They would take the pictures and actually develop the thing and when they came out of the machine they were still wet. They used to be at arcades and in Woolworths. So I had an idea: “Okay, you’re going—since this is a story writing class—you’re going to tell a story by means of photo booth.” So, my whole purpose was to get them out of Harvard Square and just get them down there. But by accident it became something more. It became a way of telling a story. Plus, now I have all of my students do this so that I can have a record of every student that I’ve had on a four for a quarter photo strip. And so that obsession with that little machine became another obsession that lead to my interests in fours.
This is another way it works: When Four for a Quarter came out, I had a four-for-a-quarter photo booth. I also had a barbershop quartet sing, and I ordered a candy bar. A really rare candy bar called Sky Bar. Sky Bar was a chocolate bar that had four little pockets, and in each of the four little pockets is a different flavor. So that’s why I got it; it was a candy treat with four sections for the Four for a Quarter. Then, for my next project, I was really interested in very short stories. How short can a story be? That was kind of the inspiration. Well, I couldn’t solve it. Can you write a story in two words? Can you write a story in one word? What would that look like? I was thinking about that, trying different things—and then I asked myself (eating a Sky Bar probably), “Why is it called Sky Bar?” I had to find out. And I found out that when it came out originally in 1948, they launched it with a skywriting campaign. And that reminded me that the inventor of skywriting is from my hometown. His name is Art Smith, and he was the “Bird Boy” of Fort Wayne—and he invented skywriting. And if you think about skywriting, they’re little stories in the skies of one or two words. I thought, “Yes!” And you know, he’s from Fort Wayne. So, I finished that book, and now it’s off looking for a publisher. It’s called The Complete Writings of Art Smith: The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne Edited by Michael Martone. It’s interesting to me because earlier today I was in Gabe’s class and someone asked about inspiration and ideas and I think it is just about keeping yourself open to your possibilities—to really trust the time of not writing, just letting it bubble and brew.
SN: I have a question about the warning on the front of Blue Guide. Was this prompted post-production or was it part of the idea that went with it?
MM: Well, it worked out, but you have not lived in publishing until you’ve received a cease and desist order. I have gotten two, and the trifecta would be—I’ve gotten one for invading privacy, and I’ve gotten another for trademark violation. The one to get now is copyright violation. I think I’ve done that. I know I’ve copyright violated, but I haven’t gotten a warning yet. But this book came out, and there are really The Blue Guides, and it really was an experiment about publishing outside of the frame. I’m really interested in that. Like with the contributor’s note, those were published in magazines, but they were not actually published in the front part of the book where the stories should go, but in the contributor’s note section. So, I’m in magazines where I don’t appear in the table of contents except in those contributor’s notes. The Blue Guide was another experiment where I wanted to publish stories not in literary magazines, even though I thought of it as literary fiction, but in newspapers as actual things to do. So these came out in various newspapers: “This weekend, you want something to do—go to this place.” So that was interesting. So when we collected them in this book, I really wanted this book not to be put in the fiction part of the bookstore, but in the travel guide part of the bookstore—partially because travel guides don’t turn over as fast as fiction does. So I made it look like a travel guide. Well, the real Blue Guides took offense. And they sent a cease and desist order. We talked to their lawyer, and their lawyer said, “We know it’s funny, and a parody, but we cannot not contest it. That’s trademark statute. Because if we don’t, the next person who really rips us off can say, ‘Well, you didn’t go after them.’ So you give that up.” We said, “Well, we’d win it in court.” They said, “Yeah, you’d win it in court, but you would be ruined, this little press.” We asked if there was anything we could do. And they said, “Yes, you can put a warning sticker on the cover and you can put a thing on Amazon and in catalogs saying that this isn’t a real Blue Guide.” So, I said, “I’ll do that, if I get to write it.” And they said, “Yeah, you can write it.” I wrote that and stuck it on the book. You have a third or fourth printing, because it’s actually printed on the cover. But originally, I had to put a hundred and fifty stickers on books. So, it’s really something if you find a copy that doesn’t have a sticker at all. It was sold before we put stickers on it. It worked out really well, but it was really sticky there for a while, that maybe we weren’t going publish that book.
SN: There’s a lot of stuff in The Blue Guide that made me want to stop while I was reading it and look up and see whether or not it was true. Because it’s so believable, but I don’t know if it’s real or not.
MM: That’s where I want it to be, so that’s good. There’s actually only one thing that is true. And that’s one that people usually think is not true at all. It’s the first observable female orgasm. That actually took place in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Everything else is slightly made up. It is true that Orville Redenbacher is from Valparaiso, but he isn’t buried there in a grand temple.
SN: It was a fun little exercise in not running to Google every time I see something I have to question.
MM: The great thing about running to Google, the great thing is what I want to happen with my fiction, is that in fact it will become true. If you think about it. When I was at Syracuse, they have a geography department there, and I was on one student’s dissertation committee, and she was writing about fictional places that then become real. One thing she talked about was Hannibal, Missouri. This summer, if you’re out in Hannibal, Missouri, you can go there and see Tom Sawyer paint the fence. Now, that didn’t exist until Mark Twain wrote about it. But, the fact that it became written about and in everybody’s conscious they now feel that that fence should be there. Another example is The Field of Dreams. Did you ever see that movie? It’s about a guy in Iowa who hears a voice that says, “Build it, and they will come.” What he is instructed to build is a baseball diamond. The story goes on from there. When they turned the book into a movie, they actually built a baseball diamond in a cornfield near the factory where they build little farm tractors, the Ertle Company. Anyway, they built this thing there, and they filmed the movie, and after the movie was done they plowed it under and put corn there. Then the movie showed, and the movie was so important to a lot of people that the farmer that had the cornfield where the baseball diamond was, people began showing up. So what did they do? They rebuilt the ball field in the cornfield.
SN: That’s kind of like the town near here, close to Destin where they filmed The Truman Show.
MM: Right! Seaside. Exactly. There is a fictional place. And even before The Truman Show it was already a kind of fictional town that was supposed to be real, but because it was manufactured and fake—it was more real than reality. I was just talking to my students about this. We like to think—and because I like to be in between fiction and nonfiction—we like to think that we understand that. But the real trick about fiction and nonfiction is that nonfiction is a thing done. Once we are done with this interview and we walk out, that’s it. There is no way to prove this happened. Now, there will be residue: the voices on the tape, the thing that is in print, but that’s all. Now, fiction is a thing made. So fiction, in a lot of ways, once you write something it has a reality that the fact that it’s based on doesn’t. So there’s that kind of mixing.
Another great place is Colonial Williamsburg. Which is a place in Virginia where it’s a living history of 1752. You go there and you’re actually talking to people like, “What do you think about hamburgers,” and they go, “What are hamburgers?” And yet, those people actually still live there twenty-four hours a day. So, there is a town there, but it’s a town whose main industry is to fake history. I love those places.
SN: Charlotte Temple by Susanna Rowson built its own nonfiction out of this fiction because people were convinced that it was something so real. She has a gravesite just because people thought it was real.
MM: Or the movie The Blaire Witch Project. I read something that makes sense, and this goes back to—this was from the critic Hugh Kenner, and he suggested that once, as a culture, we switched over to the idea of empiricism, that is all we know is based upon our senses—Tabula Rasa, we’re a blank slate, we just learn through our experiences—that may be true, evidence based reality. But all of that evidence can be faked. In the history of literature, all of these fake things begin to emerge around the 1600’s when empiricism begins to take off. Though, you’ve heard of Robinson Crusoe right? Is it a novel? It’s made up, there was no guy named Robinson Crusoe, but it was published as a nonfiction book. And as the blurb on my book there by Jonathan Lethem says, “He takes it back to Washington Irving’s History of New York,” which was published as a history of New York, but in fact it was all made up stories.
SN: Your writing varies: you have poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—at least from what I can see from your list of published work. Though I do feel that a lot of stuff in The Blue Guide and Four for a Quarter, is almost poetic, even though it’s short stories. It feels poetic in cadence and structure. What’s your favorite for publishing, and what’s your favorite for personal writing?
MM: I like to think of myself as a formalist, meaning that I like to be able to do anything I want. I was talking to the class earlier today about thinking in terms of artists in either a way that that you want to be a writer that really has genre lines that are very solid and specific. The University loves genre lines. At the University of Iowa you’re either going be a poet, or a fiction writer, or a nonfiction writer. But there’s this other kind of writer, which is all about confusing genres and opening up new genres. And that’s what I’m like. So, when you say, “What’s my favorite,” it doesn’t matter—they’re all good to me. Whatever port in the storm, you know? That’s what happens, and its weird. I’m old enough that I was there at the beginning when writers were coming into the University. The University, especially graduate school, is all about specializing you. My opinion, and what I do with my graduate students, is to make them specialist generalists. They should be able to write in all these different fashions, and to also know which of those forms is the best to use to deploy something.
SN: Since a lot of your work, specifically what I have read, is majority shorter fictions do you keep a lot of written things around to pull from later? Do you sit and write in one fell swoop? Do you journal? What’s your, not process so much?
MM: Well, it is all about process to me. I do all of those things. I always try—I don’t have a favorite chair where I always have to sit, I don’t have rules for myself. I teach a—I did an anthology, I’ll say that first, and I called it Rules of Thumb, and I asked seventy-seven writers this very question. A lot of people came back and said, “I have to do this and this is the way to do it, and this is the way it should be done, this is a rule you should never break,” and of course, they were all contradictory. It’s very funny. Hemmingway said, “You should never talk about your work because that will kill it. You should just do it.” Yet he talked about it all the time—about sharpening his pencils and having six pencils there. And a lot are psychological tricks that will help that individual person. But the one thing that you brought up before, that maybe we should go back to is: I am a prose writer, and again—usually in categories we think there is poetry, and there’s fiction. And “fiction” usually means “short story.” Now, I think there is a real difference between fiction and short story. So, I’m a fiction writer, I think, if I’m anything. But that means what I don’t do, or what I don’t usually do—though I can do it—is I’m not a narrative writer. I don’t tell stories. So that’s why it feels like I am closer to poetry. I’m a lyrical writer. I’m more interested in creating an atmospheric sensation and emotion as opposed to developing actual characters who go through a struggle and change and become better or worse characters. So I’m not a narrative writer mostly, though I have stories that are in fact narratives.
SN: I had a question about that, actually. It feels like some of your places are your characters. Instead of having characters, that’s what your places are.
MM: That’s good, I like hearing that.
SN: Even in The Blue Guide, it’s not a character story for some of these things. It’s a place story. You’re telling a story about this place.
MM: No characters. No plot.
SN: It’s a bunch of stories. They make sense. They’re actual stories, but they’re about these places you’ve created.
MM: In recent history, in creative writing classes, we’ve been much more interested in characters, and having characters change—have an epiphany or whatever—but, if you go back, and what we look down upon on writers, say like O’Henry, who had character—but just plot. They don’t change. They’re just more captured by the things that happen, instead of actually being the thing that happened. But if you go back further to somebody like Odysseus, Odysseus starts out as a very wily, tricky guy and at the end of the story he has gone through all of this. He’s gone to hell, literally, the Cyclops and Circe. All of that, that’s writing about place. That’s not writing about character. He has adventures but the adventures don’t change him. And we usually call that melodrama, as opposed to drama. So in that sense, too, I am a melodramatic writer in that I don’t have characters be the focus of dramatic transformation. And, again, in the hierarchy of the moment—that’s thought not to be as interesting. And yet almost every television show is episodic melodrama. You know, Hawkeye from M.A.S.H. will go through a lot of stuff, but at the end of the show he’s still Hawkeye. You could even say Madmen—there’s not transformation of that character, we just liked Don Draper in all of these different situations. And that was okay. It got awarded. People thought it was very literate and profound. But we like to think that these transformational dramas, and that goes all the way back to Aristotle, I suppose, as higher than melodrama.
SN: Do you find it difficult to juggle—because you teach, and you have a family, and you also write, so it’s like having three jobs, and I’m sure you have a social life. What gets backburnered. What gets put on the backburner?
MM: That’s the nice thing about writing, is that it is a job that involves paying attention to the world. And so, yes, I have a family. Both of my sons are writers. My wife is a writer. So it isn’t like: this is my life, and my writing is something separate. I think it goes back to even my life as a child. I now know that this is pretty rare, but some of the earliest memories of my mother, who was a high school English teacher, were her sitting at the kitchen table, before I went to bed, saying goodnight to her—she was sitting at the table writing. She wrote poems for the PTA. She was writing comments on papers for her students. All of that was writing, and none of it was not writing. That is the way that I think about the writing that I do. The writing that I write on Facebook is as important to me as the writing that I do for my books, for magazines. It’s all writing. As I was saying to the class earlier today, it’s all practice. Whereas, most times we don’t—we compartmentalize our lives into: now I’m a father, now I’m a teacher. To me, it’s all one thing. What I was saying earlier, one comes to school to practice writing to get to an endpoint: “Now I’m a writer.” But, I don’t think you really do that. You are always becoming a writer or being a writer. Which is what you would say with tooth brushing. It’s not that you finally learned how to brush your teeth, so you stop brushing your teeth. You must do that every day. I must write every day. I must take care of my kids every day. I must teach every day. It’s all integrated, even though sometimes it’s difficult. The toughest one is not the teaching. The teaching is really integrated. The toughest one is doing committee work. Or doing the administrative work. And that is what I really seek to avoid, because I really don’t want to do that. And I’m really good at avoiding it.
SN: It’s the service part.
MM: Yeah, the service part of the three things I have to do in my job, and I’m fortunate that in my job I can do the things that I would do anyway. Now that I’m thinking about retiring, it’s hard for me to imagine retiring from teaching. That’s the great thing about writing, too: it’s low overhead. Give me a piece of paper and a pencil, and I’m ready. I’m good to go. But I will not miss some of the administrative stuff. But even saying that, even that’s interesting, because you do meet other people. I’m interested in systems of things, and how things are put together. So you make the best of it.
SN: What’s your favorite thing to read? Just for you. What do you like to read? Is it all of the things? Is it specific things?
MM: Again, I’m pretty much a generalist. A book I just finished and I’m using it, actually, in a class, is a book called The Longitude, and it is about the history of how humans decided to measure the earth. You have latitude and longitude. If you’re on a ship in the middle of the ocean how do you know how far east or west you are? Now, of course we have satellites and GPS. But in the past, what they had to do was either look at the stars and figure out how they could get that coordinated or take a clock with them. So you have a line, in England, and as you move west from that, by degree—so right now there’s a ship in the middle of the ocean, the Queen Mary II, actually, and it’s at 40 degrees longitude. That means it’s 40 degrees away from zero degrees. And the book trace the history of you they did that. Whereas the latitude is how far you are away from the equator, north or south. You can do that just by looking at the sun and seeing the angle. It was a huge problem in the 1600s, and to invent a clock that wouldn’t be wrecked by being on a ship—so this book is about that. What technically would be called my guilty pleasure are books that are literary journalism or nonfiction that is historically based research. I read a book called Money, and it’s about the history of money and the various banking and financial instruments. That’s just interesting to me. It’s probably because I will probably never write something like that. But, all of the stuff in the room here does have stories. Design stories here: the history of that machine, the coffee machine has a bigger computer capability than what they had going to the moon. There’s more computing power in that coffee machine than what they had on Apollo 11. And they still made it to the moon. Or the history of my shoes. I just love reading that kind of stuff. And trivia. Trivia itself comes from three roads, all of these things are merging, and that’s where trivia resides.