Interview with Michael Martone

For this issue, the staff of Pendulum Journal conducted an interview with Michael Martone. Here is the full transcript: (For Martone’s submission, click here.)

Pendulum: What would you recommend young writers do when they’re having trouble finding time to write?  What methods have you found helpful and use when you have to make time to write?

Martone: Well, um . . . Second point first: Having kids focuses the problem more. I’ve abandoned the idea that you need to find time–Anytime is time.  Write when the kids nap, when you have twenty minutes.  I gave up trying to schedule. My advice to young writers: Get comfortable with writing as a habit; it will help in the long run.  Instead of it being a scheduled task, it’s an essential task like breathing.  You can do it anytime, anywhere, spur of the moment.

Pendulum: In your book, Michael Martone, you write individual contributor’s notes, some of which are talked about in fiction classes and some in non-fiction classes.  Where is the line for you between fiction and non-fiction?

Martone: I think there’s definitely a line, but the way I think about it is I’m a prose writer, not a poet.  Poets never talk about that line.  If I were a poet, I don’t think you’d ask me that?  Poets don’t worry about it like prose writers do.  I don’t worry about it. Or think about it.  It’s not a hard and fast line.  Fiction indicates a made thing.  When you study a foreign language, you learn the verbs for “do” and “make.”  “To do” is fact, “to make” is fiction, but both are fiction in that they’re made things.  Every element of that fact is a fiction in a way.  We associate fiction with lies and untruths.  A fact is a thing done, and therefore more close to irreality.  All we have to prove facts is the notes we took; memory is the great fiction writer. Think of Thanksgiving dinner: People say, “Remember when Grandma dropped the bowl of peas?” And someone will say, “It wasn’t peas; it was corn.”

Pendulum: How does teaching affect your own writing?

Martone: Yeah, I think it has changed.  It has more to do with where I’m teaching.  It’s weird that in the United States of America, writers go to universities.  Universities were originally set up as scientific institutions. You go to university to learn specific things, things you don’t know, so the knowledge is transferred.  You don’t go to university to learn how to put a sentence together in a certain way. [The sound of low-flying planes is heard.]  You know what that is?  Blue Angels are flying low over my house.  It’s great living in Alabama.  At university, there’s the insistence on grading.  Grading makes sense if I, as a teacher, know something you don’t know, but as a teacher of writing, I help you find what you already have.  In college, you learn how to do two kinds of writing: critical writing and creative writing.  Say you’re in my fiction writing workshop.  It would be broken into groups, and you’d spend most of your time acting as critics, which is critical perception opposed to creative perception.  I have tried to change that ratio.  More creative writing and thinking in the creative writing classroom.

Pendulum: Do you ever feel that you receive inspiration from things your students write or say in class, and how do you feel they affect the topics you write about or your own writing style?

Martone: Oh, sure!  I taught myself not to enter the creative writing class as a teacher (who acts as the critic, the editor going to fix “broken” work), but to enter as a student coming look at the work with curiosity.  The Gift by Lewis Hyde says that art is a gift that comes to us, but it stays in motion, constantly moving through the groove.  I get a contact high. It inspires me to go home and write my own thing. Do you have gifts that stay in motion in your own families? You probably have stories like this in your own family: Every year my sons give me the same album by Matisyahu. Then I give it back to them.  It’s the giving you see?  The gift we share. It really binds up the family.  The classroom is like that; is it a community?  It’s an inspirational circuit, going around and around.  You should take a look at The Gift. It concerns the two economies we live in, gift and market. In the market, you buy a lightbulb, and it’s a exchange (money for lightbulb), but if a stranger on a plane offers you a stick of gum, the gift is probably worthless except as a conduit connecting the two of you.  In some ways, the art, the thing itself, is then beside the point. It is the inspiration that connects, forms a community.  Like-minded, close, almost family-like.  Look at studies of poor people who win the lottery (which is a gift): Neighbors start asking for some money, so the winners are faced with a tough choice.  Give the money away and keep your friends and neighbors or move. Either you keep the money and lose your friends, or lose the money and keep your friends.  People [who submit to Pendulum] are not going to be paid, but it’s the gift that keeps on giving.  At school, some people have scholarships, others have parents who pay the full tuition, but Colin doesn’t come in and say, “Before we do anything, you have to pay me.”  It would be weird and change your relationship.  “Can I buy an A?”  Culturally we sense that teaching is a gift community,  so we want to suppress, as much as we can, anything that smacks of the market, so we can focus on the important transaction, the transaction of knowledge, affection, community.

Pendulum: On eBay, there’s a first edition of your book, Alive and Dead in Indiana, for sale with a starting price of $100.  What are your thoughts about this and how does it make you feel knowing this?

Martone: Go to eBay and type in “martone water.”  [We do and discover a plastic water bottle he’d had at a reading at a college going for three dollars, because some one at BYU had taken it and put it up for sale.]  There again, back to your inspiration question.  I give a reading-there’s a piece in Michael Martone about water-and guy takes that and runs with it.  Who knows? Maybe I’ll do something inspirational because of that stunt.  I should tell you, though, when it comes to looking back at your old books, my mentor, John Barth, said he thought of it like a stock market, that it shows what your value is, your market worth, at any single moment.  He was joking of course.  Still, it amused him to follow the rise and fall.  And then one specific edition of one of his books went up through the roof, and he went to a book dealer and asked why.  The book dealer told him the cover was by Edward Gorey, so people were buying it for Gorey, not him.

Pendulum: As an online journal, we were wondering if you even considered publishing your work in an alternative way, such as an online journal or blog.  We love your work and were wondering if you would honor us with a submission.

Martone: I’ve actually already published several things online: with Hot Metal Press, and in an online mag in Missoula, Montana.  There’s also Born Magazine, which combines writing with software.  I’ve never really done blogs, but Michael Martone was the chosen book for the literary blog co-op networks.  I do think about alternative ways of publishing.  For The Blue Guide to Indiana, I originally found newspaper editors in Indiana and asked them to publish, saying, “All I ask is you don’t indicate it as fiction, just as suggest that the following articles are possible things to do on the weekend in the area.” We have to think in in terms of categories, and universities are all about categories.  Departments, schools, colleges, programs etc. I think that’s the way some think about creative writing, as though we have categories, that what it is is fixed, set in stone, like gravity.  Your job as a writer, as artists,  is to confuse those categories, juxtapose them.  The world is pretty boring because of its categories.  We know what raining is, we know what cats and dogs are, but ‘raining cats and dogs’ transforms the world.  People don’t really see the world because it becomes accustomed, “natural,” normal.  For instance, a one-year-old in high chair will take hours eating Cheerios, so you can give them your keys to play with and they’ll drop them, you pick them up, they drop them, and so on, until you want to shout, “Look! Gravity works, okay?” That’s why you don’t hire a magician for a two-year-old’s birthday.  He’ll be doing levitate or set himself on fire and the two-year-old will say, “What else do you have? I expect to catch on fire at all times.”  To them, the categories of gravity, of fire, are more cartilage than bone.  As adults, we live in a rigid, skeletal world.  Even when a writer is asked to submit a contributor’s note, they automatically do them in a certain way: written in third person, with the same facts about where they went to school and what they have published.  Why do we have to do it this way?  It’s time to put a little pressure on the category and see what happens.  When I lived in Syracuse, my son wasn’t talking when it began to snow, but was when it stopped, because there it snows nine, ten months.  It starts snowing in September and doesn’t melt until May.  In the front yard after the snow melted, the ground was muddy ground and on the muddy ground was a paper plate, and my son pointed at it and said, “Look. Moon fall down.”  I was stymied by the world I live in, blinded by it over time, out of habit, but my son was not so much.  Now I will never look at the moon the same way. Or junk on the ground. That’s art. I’m currently working on a book called Four for a Quarter, a collection of stories, all based on fours: four chambers of the heart, the four winds, etc.  Maybe if I finish something for it in time, I can submit it to you if that’s okay.