Michael Martone2013 Writers @ Work Interview with Michael Martone

What inspired you to write your first book?

 Many different inspirations but one that might be interesting is a little book by Edith Hamilton called Mythology.  My mother was a high school English teacher and used the book in her classes. Each fall she would prepare and read to me the great Greek adventures.  I loved the stories.  Later, I discovered that Hamilton, the person who had popularized the great myths in America, was from Fort Wayne, my hometown.  I wanted, I think, with my first book to create a kind of mythology for my town and my state, so I told stories using “famous” Hoosiers—James Dean, John Dillinger, Col. Sanders, Ezra Pound, Alfred Kinsey.

 How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?

 See above. I still write about Indiana and Fort Wayne though I have not lived there in years.  The Indiana I write about is a museum Indiana.

 What did you find most useful in learning how to write?

Advice that I got from the poet, William Stafford, to lower my standards.  Wanting only to write what is good or great or perfect leads to not writing.  I am all for quantity not quality. And the act of writing, the practice of writing is the end in itself not the means to an end.

 What are a few pitfalls a new writer would do well to avoid?

The big pitfall is that one looks for advice in places like this interview. Making art is yours to make up.  So much of education assumes that the student knows nothing and that knowledge must be transferred to the student.  The empty vessel must be filled. I think it is important for the new writer to realize that he or she already knows all he or she needs to know in order to write.  The trick is not to seek to pick up tricks but to remember and channel what one already knows.

 What are some day jobs you have held? How did any of them influence your writing?

I worked as a night auditor at a hotel. I worked in a bookstore. Both helped me be comfortable working alone and writing in between the tasks that needed to be performed. Being a parent helps that way too.  I always write when I can write. I have no set time or place.  The child went down for a nap and I had fifteen minutes to write. Writing for me is not (as perhaps these “day jobs” are) something special or separate. I seek a seamlessness with writing and other work and play and life. Writing for me is like breathing or eating.  It is done constantly without thinking about it.

What inspires you? What motivates you to write?

Do you know the book by Lewis Hyde called The Gift?  He argues that art exists in a gift economy, that it is shared property that must be kept in motion.  I go to a movie, read a book, take a walk, ride a train and am surprised. I am given something and I need to give it away.  Inspiration always comes with exhalation.  As I said above, this business is as natural as breathing.

Are there any occupational hazards to being a writer?

I can think of not a one.

What is it that makes a collection (poems, essays, or stories) hang together?

Whoa! That was a big leap from the other questions.  For many people it is narrative that makes things hang together.  For me, I am more a lyricist, so I go with juxtaposition and pattern and association and accident.

How do you know when a book or individual piece is complete?

I never think they are. If one is a narrativist one wants a beginning-middle-end structure but I like the open ending, the melodramatic (remember the myths from above), the flaw, and the stall.

What books are you reading now?

Reading Portnoy’s Complaint for my reading group.  Reading two new books so I can blurb them. I am reading five books by graduate students who are finishing up here at the University of Alabama. I am reading a short story by my son who, beyond explanation, wants to write!

What is a book by another that you wish you had written?

I don’t really covet others work—remember I see them as gifts that inspire mine. If the question is really some work I go back to over and over again I would admit to reading William H. Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country over and over. And Donald Barthelme. 

 Which of your own books is your favorite?

Again, not the way I usually think. My first book was called At a Loss and it was published by a small press in Fort Wayne called Windless Orchard.  I did all the typesetting and staple binding. It was a collection of prose poems I wrote for hire on the streets of Fort Wayne (I kept copies). My slogan was: A poem must not mean but be—25 cents. I would just write for people, anything they wanted.  I like that work a lot and I would republish it in other books later.  And every year I still go out on the streets and write poems for hire.

What did you enjoy most about writing your most recent book?

The most recent book is Four for a Quarter. What I enjoyed most was going through my collection of four for a quarter photo booth pictures and obsessing on the number 4.

What do you think is the future of writing? How will technology change literature?

Of course.  Twain was the first American writer to use a typewriter. There is a difference, I think, between Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (written before the internet) and his Mason Dixon. Key for me is that literature will “change” as writers confront the new technology.  We are living in a remarkable age.  The means of production of work have never been so democratic. I am looking forward to seeing some of the changes resulting from that.

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