Michael Martone is the author of Four for a Quarter (2011), Michael Martone (2005), and The Blue Guide to Indiana (2001) from FC2. The following is an interview from the Indiana Review, June 28th, 2004.
I found Michael Martone in the basement of my Bloomington, Indiana home on a Monday afternoon. With an empty carton of cat litter under each arm, I had descended the stairs, intent upon adding to the model of Fort Wayne built entirely of such cartons that I’d discovered after moving in. I’d been wondering if this fort building was indeed a Hoosier custom — that, perhaps, the size of one’s cat litter carton fort bears some significance as to one’s standing in the local economy or saloon hierarchy. Luckily, Michael had taken a break from his reading and teaching at the IU Writer’s Conference to have this conversation.
I can think of no one else who has done more to shape the literary landscape of Indiana, from both the inside and the outside. He is the author of quite a few collections of short fiction including Alive and Dead in Indiana (Knopf, 1984), Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List (Indiana Univ. Press, 1990 and 1993), Seeing Eye (Zoland Books, 1995), The Blue Guide to Indiana (FC2, 2001), and the forthcoming collection of Contributor’s Notes titled Michael Martone (FC2, 2005). His book of essays titled The Flatness and Other Landscapes (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2000) won the AWP prize for Creative Nonfiction. He’s also the co-editor of two highly teachable anthologies, Scribner’s Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction (Simon and Schuster, 2000) and Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and Formalists (Pearson, 2003). Currently, he teaches in the MFA. Program at the University of Alabama.
I’d found his book The Blue Guide to Indiana indispensable during my first two years in the great state of the second rate (for example, Indiana has a wealth of former and failed vice-presidents). In fact, his fictions, often called lyric fictions or (mis)labeled as non-fiction, have focused almost entirely on Indiana, previously perceived as just another flat Midwestern wasteland, but now, thanks to Michael, it is a wonderland of great historical import repopulated with the famous of unclaimed Hoosier heritage.
Michael met me with a basket of those famous eyeless fish for my cat and two ham sandwiches fully dressed in his native mayonnaise. We settled down on the cat litter cartons for a conversation which covers: the historical and psychosomatic value of forts; the very real presence of the imaginary on the literal landscape; Greek mythology’s Indiana roots; the static conventions of prose workshops; the construction of authorship; what fiction can learn from painting’s response to photography; the history of chairs; and Michael’s evolution from undergraduate poet-for-hire to full blown formalist.
It’s funny about Fort Wayne, why it’s a fort; do you know why it was so strategic? It was on a continental divide, but it’s only a matter of like, ten feet, not like the Rocky Mountains. Before there were roads, before there were cars, people traveled around in canoes. It is a strange quirk in the geology of glaciers. Two rivers meet in Fort Wayne but the resulting river, the Maumee, flows back in the direction of its tributaries. What that means is that it goes back this way to Lake Erie, so if you’re in Lake Erie, you can go up the Maumee River to where Fort Wayne is, take your canoe out of the water, and walk like ten miles, get back into the Wabash River and eventually make your way to the Gulf of Mexico. That little bit of ground became incredibly strategic. The Fort called Wayne, an American one, was only the last of a dozen forts that the French built and the British built.
I grew up in Fort Collins, and I don’t know that there ever was a Fort.
Could have just been a base.
We always pretended that we had the Fort. Somewhere, we knew where it was but no one else did.
Forts are really interesting. Or fortified positions. For a while, I was really interested in “Star Forts.” Have you ever seen a Star Fort? These are Renaissance creatures, constructions.
You mean, like the Pentagon?
Well, no. Actually, you can see a star fort or a model of a star fort on the base of the Statue of Liberty, and Fort McHenry is a star fort. Forts before gun powder were huge with high walls, and because armies only had spears and arrows and stuff you had to sort of climb over them or smash them down mechanically with boulders hurled by catapults or battering rams. Defenders had the high ground, could hurl things down on the attackers. Once gun powder came and cannons, forts that had high masonry walls like that were easily blown apart. So designers flattened the walls down and made them thicker. The walls were angled to deflect the cannon balls, and instead of having right angles they were things like this (steeples his hands together) that allowed the forts own fields of fire to overlap.
Yes. And they are beautiful from above, these stars that were made. And all the Renaissance thinkers like DaVinci and all the artists were also very much interested in military theory of forts. And then with the advent of tanks and airplanes even those became useless.
Then we fell back on holes in the ground.
Yeah. I mean I just love how, (chuckle), not that I’m a gun collector or anything like that, but how an advance of technology creates a certain response, and that response then creates another advance in technology, and you can really see that in military history. It’s fascinating. Why is it that all children will use boxes to hide in? I mean, like my son who is here at the conference, right? We go into the room and the first thing he does is go into the armoire. He’s ten years old.
He can fit into the armoire?
It’s one of the big ones, because they don’t have closets there. It’s a closet sort of thing. So Nick says, this is really cool. What is so cool about forts and that kind of protection, that womb like surround? I used to build forts out of cushions.
I liked to use blankets and chairs. Let’s talk about The Blue Guide. I arrived in Indiana at about the same time that you gave your reading at the 2002 IU Writer’s Conference. With not a small dose of naïve exuberance I read your book, and my first response, given that the form of the guidebook and even its brand asserted a kind of “truth” for its content was a breathtaking depression at the idea of some intern out there desperately fact-checking. Given that you chose a guidebook as a form, and the fact its brand name asserted a kind of “truth” for its content, I was fascinated by how it was my instinct to force the obligation for “truth” on the book. Much of the fictional world is granted that kind of assumed “truth,” but you seem to call attention to that assumption.
Well, when I first became interested in making the book, I knew a lot of people who were in Geography. As a department, Geography seems to be like the most boring, right? Geography classes are so boring. But these geographers were doing these interesting things about our notion of place. I’d been interested in place before, especially the sort of invisible nature of the Midwest. Midwesterners really don’t know where the Midwest is. No one agrees on where it ends, where it begins, which states are in it. Whereas, other parts of the country, the south, say, or the east, people are relatively sure of where those are. Like the South especially since they seceded from the Union. There are maps that show the South. But the Midwest, even though you’re in the middle of it and you’re sure you’re in it; you don’t really know where it is. So these geographers were studying these places that were fictional places that then became real, such as “Anne of Green Gables.” So now people will vacation, and go look at places that they first read about in a book. Recently I went to Hannibal, Missouri, and there in Hannibal, Missouri, is the fence that Tom Sawyer supposedly painted. But of course it wasn’t, it was a fence that was built after the book entered our consciousness. And now you can go there and see Tom Sawyer paint the fence. And Sunnybrook Farm, you can visit there. One of the bestselling books of the 19th century in America was Charlotte Temple. It’s sort of a rousing melodrama. Anyway, Charlotte dies and is buried in a cemetery in New York City, and into the 1920s, people where still visiting the grave of Charlotte Temple.
The “grave,” right. And also, when I was first teaching at Iowa State, I wrote an essay about Riverside, Iowa, and Riverside, Iowa, is the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk. Again, that meant somebody brought it out of the fictional world into a kind of reality.
And in that case, too, it was so much about their attempts to revive the economy of the town by casting its hopes into the fictional future.
Right. So that’s slightly different from the whole idea of writing a book that uses places that preexisted it. Nathanial Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, you know, you can go see that. And so there are those intersections. But also in Iowa is the American Gothic house, so that the painting, the famous painting — you can go there. When I went there, they had a little two-dimensional image of the guy in the overalls, the pitchfork, and the woman and you could stick your head on top of it and have your picture taken. But people were still living in the house, I mean it was still a real place, and it was their house, but yet it was also this artistic place. And all of those intersections between these two worlds seemed really interesting to me. And I think that led to my thinking about books like Invisible Cities, an imaginary travel guide.
My second response to The Blue Guide was to reconceive my notion of the Midwest as a literary and economic entity, and how, even though the Indiana in the book doesn’t exist, the book does and it begins to create that Indiana the more people read it, or say, hear about Gas City and might think about the desirability of “taking the airs” there.
Yeah, I was telling my class here yesterday about the weird irony of “fact” and “fiction.” That a fact is a thing done and so once it happens, it, in fact, has no reality. Whereas, a fiction that we associate with lies and untruths and the “not real,” once it is a made thing, fiction is a made thing. It exists. It goes back to that verb, that really weird verb in all those languages, the verb that translates, that can mean “to do or to make” …
Right, like “faire.”
Yeah. One part, the fictional part, which is the made part, and the fact part is the thing that was done. So once it’s done, it has no existence. It’s completely gone. Once you make something, it has a reality. Fiction as in fabrication, as in made things, is a thing that maybe I’m more sensitive to since I did The Blue Guide. But everybody is sensitive to that. In fact, the Midwest is a completely made thing, a made-up thing. I mean it’s a completely cultural idea of something, and ideal of something. So when I did that anthology called Townships, what I used as the identifying characteristic of the Midwest is its township grid, which is a completely human-made thing. You know, it’s not like the dripping moss of Florida, or the mountains of the West, it has nothing to with the natural world. It’s this imposition of humans.
So because I have access to the Michael Martone archives in the Lilly Library, I got to look at all of your chapbooks.
The little early stuff … it’s all derived from Bloomington. There were four of us who founded the group. The whole bit of RKO Radio poems actually had to with a kind of aesthetic argument I was having with Dean Young. Dean also was an undergraduate here at the time, and he continues to write poetry to this day. One of his arguments was that poetry was this tortured process that takes a long time. It was strenuous, tortured. RKO Radio Poems started as a kind of satire to this notion of poetry and composition. RKO was going up to people and saying, “Do you want a poem today?” and then we’d write a poem right on the spot. It was important too that the customers had to pay. Our slogan was, “A poem must not mean, but be 25 cents.” We would made money, and we made a lot of money during the filming of Breaking Away. Now that I think about it, I can’t really tell the difference in my memory between the day they filmed Breaking Away or the day of the actual Little 500. We stood outside the stadium and wrote poems. But one thing we learned was the very ancient technique of having certain templates in our minds, kinds of working conceits. Because people tended to ask for the same subject matter, such as, “Oh, it’s a beautiful day.” So I had a template about Fort Wayne. In Fort Wayne and Midwestern cities, the factories are always built on the eastern side of the city because the prevailing wind is from the west and it would keep the pollution downwind. I used a bit saying, “Oh, it’s a beautiful day, the factories on the east side are making the day …”
And making the sky! That’s in The Blue Guide.
Right. Still using the same template. So those little chapbooks are a way of taking some of those templates and elaborating on them. After I graduated from IU, I worked at a hotel in Fort Wayne as a night auditor, so my days I went down to the park in Fort Wayne and wrote poems for hire.
Do you remember your best day, like, how many poems you’d write in a day?
Oh, jeez, I think I could do, in a lunch hour, I could usually do twenty or thirty.
So I made Coke money.
How did Dean Young respond to your project?
It was funny. Poetry wars between these rival groups. He had like-mind a group of his own, I believe, his posse. But Dean wasn’t associated with Collins, my dorm, and RKO Radio poets tended to hang out there and Dean was in another part of campus. Eventually, though, I stopped writing poems really. I began to do prose poems, and then more and more, simply prose. I was talking at dinner the other night, about typewriters, and how kids today don’t know what typewriters are. And I remember arguing with Dean about line breaks, of course. That’s a lot of what you argue about with poetry. And I went home, wrote my next poem, and anytime the bell dinged on the typewriter I would end the line. I brought that into workshop and Dean said, “Why did you end the line there?” and I said, “Well, that’s where the bell dinged.” He said, “That’s not a reason.” And I said, “Well, it’s just as good as any.” But then, writing prose was what I was doing. I thank Dean Young for my prose conversion, basically, even though I started out as a poet.
I’m interested in how your focus on historical events, or events that exist in the public imagination took you from these sorts narrative based interviews, like say, about James Dean, to The Blue Guide.
Yeah, no, I think there is a connection. My mom was an English teacher, and growing up I got taken to her class. Every year she’d prepare her Greek Mythology section. And do The Odyssey and stuff like that. I love that stuff. I still love that stuff. So another part of it, I guess, is the whole desire to create mythology, and how mythology is both factual and fictional. When I was in Greece I was on the island of Skyros. Have you ever been to Greece?
Oh you gotta go.
Yeah it’s great. I mean, Greece is great. Because, you’ve got all those islands and each island is different, it’s a whole different world. And there’s the whole idea of city states. That’s why The Blue Guide to Greece is so great — all these different histories, cultures, geologies in little tiny packages. I was on the island of Skyros, and Skyros is where Theseus died. And it was also the place where Achilles hid out dressed as a woman.
Before he came of age?
Well, to draft dodge, to get out of the Trojan War. I mean, it’s such a funny story, right? This huge man, and he’s dressed up like a woman, and no one recognizes him! I wrote something about this, a monologue with him showing up and telling his men what he’s been doing among the women. It’s called “Achilles Speaks of His Deception in the Court of Lycomedes.” It’s all about menstruation, how he had to fake his own menstruation. Of course, Achilles never saw his own blood because his skin was invulnerable. I was thinking about blood and Achilles. Skyros, it’s not a very touristed island. I was talking to some kids there who could speak a little English and I was speaking a little Greek with them, and they were showing me a map of Skyros and they pointed to a little bay in the island, and they said, “This is the place where Achilles left to go to Troy.” They didn’t say this is where the story says it is. They said, “This is the place.” And in Greece, mythology is not taught in literature courses. It’s taught in History. That’s fascinating to me. And then add this to the mix — do you know the book by Edith Hamiliton called Mythology? Well, if you flip that book over, you look at her picture on the back, it says in the caption, “Edith Hamilton grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana.”
I know. And I used to play in Hamilton Park. There was an Edith Street nearby. And a Franklin Street, named for her brother. And Alice Street for her sisiter. And her sister was also a very interesting and important person, Alice Hamilton, she’s been on a stamp. She was one of the first American female doctors and one of the founders of industrial medicine. She discovered that lead was toxic and it was killing these people. But the whole idea that this woman from my hometown, from my neighborhood, had created, translated Greek mythology for the English-speaking world, it’s just — I said, I want to do this. So a lot of those stories, you know, here’s the Achilles story, but what is the comparable story in my mythology? So the title of the book, Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List, is all about mythology. It’s about the mythology we don’t even recognize as mythology. So, Edith Hamilton. Blame it all on Edith Hamilton.
She’s a part of the Indiana that seems to be following you around.
And you can’t leave it behind. Have you tried ever?
No. Well, part of that was going to graduate school. You came to Indiana, but the first time I ever left Indiana was to go to graduate school. And, you know, I was writing my polite imitation stories. And then we’d go to a place like this, someone’s basement or a coffee shop or to the grad lounge. And most of the people in my class were from the East and they knew Europe better than they knew most of America. And I would just tell them, you know, well in Fort Wayne, this happened. And they were fascinated. Riveted. Much more taken. And in class, they’d been politely encouraging about my stories. So I just stopped, and said, I’m going to write about Indiana, because an audience is interested in this.
Indiana has a mystique, I’ve discovered.
It’s the nice weirdness of it.
Since you’ve identified yourself as a formalist, I’m interested in how you define formalism in relation to your own stuff. Just because, reading the textbook definition of “formalism” there seems to be a real resistance to even being conscious of the extrinsic, in terms of the historical, etc. You don’t seem to operate that way.
No. When it comes to prose writing. There seem to be a lot of ways prose writing organizes itself, structures itself, gets itself into forms. And there are certain critics, say Bakhtin, who would say that there is no prose form called the “Novel.” Instead, it’s really made up of a kind of pastiche of all these other forms. You look at the early novels and they’re made up of letters, or a diary of man whose trapped on an island, or they’re autobiographies, or they’re memoirs, or they’re histories, or they’re travel guides, or they’re travel narratives. There’s no thing, that is the novel, that is unlike every other kind of prose writing. That the novel itself is made up of all these different kinds of prose writing. So to me to be a formalist is to recognize these various modes of the human organization of language into prose styles. And be able to switch back and forth from one to the other depending upon the context of what you want to do.
So does your work typically evolve from content to a revelation of form? Or do you usually find yourself more fascinated with a particular form?
That’s a good question. A chicken-or-egg question. You know, right now a lot of what I’m working on is this book of fours. I was always interested in the four for a quarter pictures, the photo-booth pictures. I had my students do the photo-booth pictures and try to use the four shots to make some kind of narrative. And I began thinking about various fours. So I guess the form itself, or the arbitrary form, sort of leads for me and I’ll find ways to connect it. One form, of course, is the narrative form and it has its own structure of ground, situation, vehicle, rising action, etc. etc. If you make the decision that you’re not going to tell a story, or be narrative, how you organize becomes more prevalent. And it also becomes incredible arbitrary.I wrote something about May in Indiana. I wanted to write about Memorial Day, the Indianapolis 500, you know, the sort of repetition of going around and around. And I was going to do it in a collage form as opposed to a story and it was going to be vaguely memoiristic. So I arbitrarily chose 33 sections. Why? Because it was close to the number of days in a month, but it’s also the number of cars in the race. So it was the arbitrary thing to give it enough heft and body so it would feel like a complete thing, since I wasn’t using the form of a narrative. I guess certain forms interest me, or certain structures, organizational patterns, numbers. When I was studying with Barth, my thesis was actually called “Cardinal Numbers.” I was going to do ten stories that each would have a number related to it. But I think the impulse in both of our stuff is the same, this impulse to impose these arbitrary structures on something, and to also realize that all structures are arbitrary. Some structures want to appear less arbitrary, want to appear natural, but even that’s highly artifical. The “realistic” narrative for example.
Do you find yourself, as a formalist, responding to or resisting certain contemporary work?
Well, I think in the 60s or 70s formalists positioned their work as kinds of anti-story stories. I think the enemy of realistic prose, actually, is the movies, not these various styles of writing. For realist writers, the huge crisis is what movies or the visual arts have done with narrative. That and actual meoirs done realistically. If you’re a writer of stories, you have had to in some way respond to those inventions, movies and television as narrative delivery devices. Barthelme, I think, talks about this. What he’s traces is the invention of photography and the painters’ responses to it. I mean, we were talking about forts here.
The invention of photography and what painters had to do in response to that. There are two impulses: one is, you can be as exact and as representational as photography is. Of course, photographers have their own problems, they start out taking representations, then they’re discovering more about their medium …
…and becoming more abstract.
Right. But for painters, you can try to match up with photography, and try to keep it going. Or you can say, we’ll give the photo its representational advantage and find out what painting and painting alone can do.
Like the modernist idea of being loyal to the medium.
It’s what painting discovered about itself. In the same ways, writers, twentieth-century writers, were confronted with this new art form of movies and television. They didn’t have the same great response however. Instead of finding out what writing alone could do, they more often went head to head with these new forms telling stories. Look at this in your workshops. You are meant to read a story and think, “Wow, this would make a great movie. This is just like a movie.” It’s a story that’s just built with dialogue and visual images of scene setting. It’s supposed to be a movie written down on paper. And often, when one reads that, one says, well, I’d much rather be seeing the movie. This as opposed to writers who sit down and say I’m going to write something that could not possibly be made into a movie.
I’m sure you have a lot of friends or associates whose whole idea is to write a book that will be made into movie.
That’s where the cash is.
Yeah that’s right.
Come on. Writing is all about making the money.
If there’s any sort of response, or argument, it has to do with what’s my response to this other story telling art. And, as a storyteller or narrativist, how am I going to do something that it can’t be done by those other forms. I think a lot of people don’t try for that other thing. They just say I’m going to surrender myself to this kind of storytelling. One thing you can really do with movies is tell a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, and they’re always talking about this in film classes. Movies could also be incredibly abstract and non-narrative, but their own history has led them to this, to what they are. And it isn’t that they can’t be “irreal” in Barth’s sense. You would think movies would actually do that — through its tricks — but I think maybe because film could, they didn’t want to go abstract and weird, they want to create that illusion of reality and that’s their highest goal. Storytelling is where the cash is. It’s funny.
So, to go back to workshop because I know you brought it up just a minute ago, I’m interested in how poetry workshops often take the “irreal” as a matter of course in poetry. Whereas, in the discussion of prose works, people often require labeling texts as either traditional, meaning it’s written in a natural realistic mode, versus experimental.
Poets are also always being conscious of their poem being made things. You know, if I change this word, this effect will come about. It’s much more concrete, even though what it is might be abstract, there’s a kind of hands-on discussion in a poetry workshop that rarely happens in a fiction workshop. Because there’s more writing. So there’s less time spent on, why did you do this in this particular sentence, this word? You begin thinking in terms of paragraphs, chapters, pages, and blocks. Then I think the downside of the prose workshop is all of sudden you’re really talking about the ideas or themes of the story. Or worse you’re talking about the characters, these artifices, as these actual people. Whether or not Jim Bob would do this. You know, he’s twelve years old, I don’t think he really would be thinking these thoughts. It becomes a kind of analysis of these characters as living humans as opposed to about the writing itself. Because again, the strategy of that writing, of realistic narrative writing, is to completely disappear as writing. So you can’t talk about it. It becomes, if it is done well at all, an invisible thing.
So then you’d agree that there’s a relationship between the imperative to write realist prose and the prescriptive rather than descriptive nature of fiction workshops.
Sure, I think workshops in writing programs, especially in prose, have always been fraught, too, with an aspect of the commercial, and that leads to prescription. It puts the readers in the workshop in the position of editors. The whole idea is that the ideal story will be, should be published. And it will be published, then, for money. I think that’s another advantage of poetry: that kind of connection with publication has been completely thrown out the window. There’s less market analysis. You still have ideas about what the perfect poem is But that narrowing happens because prose still worries about whether it’s an art or a craft, whether it’s for a mass market or an elite market. And poetry, I think, has made some decisions about itself when it comes to that. I think in prose, that’s always the case. What is true literary writing and is literary writing commercial or in what way can we make literary writing commercial?
Or is “literariness” the means to obscure the meaning rather than the means to create an artistic statement?
Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think if you ask a lot of prose writers in creative writing programs they don’t like to think of themselves as artists … I don’t know. It’s funny because writing programs are in the university, which have a weird history too, but there are these two floating concepts. On one side you have the department of art and on the other you have the department of journalism. And art and journalism create this strange tension that then gets focused in on the English department with its creative writing wing. So, that’s why you hear a lot of talk about craft. People aren’t really talking about craft …
…they’re talking about how they can make prose disappear through its own functionality.
Yeah, it’s pretty strange. At Baltimore I gave a paper at the AWP there about this. I was thinking in terms of chairs. I taught in Syracuse, that’s where the Arts and Crafts movement was. If you look at a Stickley chair, it really looks like “a chair,” you know. You can see the handwork with the tools, and you can see that you have to learn a special skill in order to produce a chair like that. But the chairs I’m now interested in are mid-century, Modernist chairs — Eames and Saarinen, Herman Miller and Knoll. They’re made out of plastic and metal and they’re machine-built. They don’t look crafty, but they look more arty — and in fact, often they don’t even look chairs, it doesn’t even look like you can sit in some of them.
They look like abstractions of a certain form, an egg or a lily …
Right. And that’s the difference. What is it that you’re building? You’re building a story, you’re building a chair, okay. I’m going to build a chair that looks like a chair and it’s so well made that it sort of disappears as a chair, it just looks, it becomes untinkingly comfortable — and it becomes the perfect chair. But if you’re an artist, you’re going to call attention to the new materials, to the fact that it doesn’t look like a chair, but it still is a chair. You will question chairness.
My theory about fiction is that it needs to become more self-conscious about its forms, otherwise it sort of runs the risk of becoming an annex of non-fiction.
Right, I agree with that. I taught a class before covering the fiction of the 70s and 80s, talking about this switch that happened in 1980. So I used that binary of the “experimental” as opposed to the “realistic.” But, it’s a false dichotomy, because these two impulses have really existed in literary prose since the beginning. If you’re a realist, your real problem, your real competitor, is non-fiction, the non-fiction memoir. If you look at the form of realistic writing, it is already in the form of the memoir, a fake one, a fiction of one. Usually, first-person autobiographical memoir. So once you bump heads the person who really slept with her father always can often trump the fictional person who slept with her fictional father, especially if the fiction being written has as its highest goal being merely seen as “real.” One’s musings on that in a fictional context can’t compete. So I think that’s more of a danger. It goes back to the photography problem …
… versus painting.
Right. And so as a fiction writer you are creating a narrator who’s inarticulate, an amateur, but here in nonfiction there is a real inarticulate amateur narrator. Same thing happens in fine art, too. In Tuscaloosa, they have this huge “outsider” art festival. And you know, there are guys in the South who routinely talk to God, and they’re creating these wonderful things, these incredible art objects. And the kids in the art schools there can completely cop the technique. You know create the same naïve, bright-colored, hand-printed things, but they don’t talk to God. They’re not crazy in the way these true “outsiders” are, so that’s an interesting problem. So, you’re right. But I also think that the workshop is more forgiving to the realistic story, because it is like that chair. Certain moves have to be made, and if those moves aren’t made, in a workshop you can say, “You have to make this move.” It’s like in film writing class, you know, by page three this has to happen or the movie’s not working. And I think a realistic story, even though it says it doesn’t have a form, has highly formal things that have to happen. Workshop, in a prescriptive mode, can easily say this. “This story is not working,” and that’s the preferred verb, “not working.” Whereas, you bring in a story like any of Donald Barthelme’s fiction, the response in the workshop is often, “Well, this is interesting.” It puts the reader in the workshop back into the position of the reader as opposed to a critic, an editor. You can’t ask the usual things of it. “What makes this a well-wrought sentence?” They don’t because the idea or concept becomes so overwhelming. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. The story turns truly invisible. It can’t be seen. There is no discussion of it.
I wonder if eventually fiction workshops will end up like those horrible mass screenplay lectures where there are hundreds of people in an auditorium being told how to get from a prescribed point A to a prescribed point B?
Well, you could argue that in some ways it is already like that. One of the things to look at in workshop is one of the most widely-held-to-the-point-of-invisibility beliefs. The writer should sit quietly. I think workshop teachers and participants should ask, “Why do we make that assumption?” That the writer of the piece under discussion should sit silently. It goes back to a kind of New Critical idea that the author doesn’t exist in a way. That all that exists is the work itself and that’s what should be judged. But of course in art classes and in architecture classes the creator often leads the discussion of the work. Why do we think that the author really doesn’t know what he or she is doing, or why we think their thinking out loud about it isn’t an interesting thing for workshop. But we don’t.
Or it isn’t going to bring them, ultimately, to a better understanding of their own story.
Or it isn’t helpful to me, as instructor, either. And I’m not so sure about that. More and more, I routinely have the author talk in my workshops about their work.
And has that worked to good effect?
Yeah, I think so. I think you can go two ways. If you do a descriptive workshop, then it makes sense to ask the author to be quiet, because you’re not attacking the story, all you’re doing is responding to the story. And the author gets to overhear the way people were reading his or her story. But if you’re going to be talking about choices that author could or should have made or would have made, then I think it is valuable to include the author in trying to retrace why he or she made certain decisions at certain times. I think the whole prohibition on the author talking has to do with not getting into confrontation or hurting feelings, when I think in fact it’s far more hurtful to sit there quietly and have someone pick over you without getting to respond or retort.
So I’ve been thinking about ways to subvert this question which shows up a lot in that book of interviews by Joe David Bellamy from the 70s, every time he asks the writer, “Are you addicted to something?” or “What do use to stimulate yourself?” or “Do you write in a certain position?” All of them are bizarrely body oriented, these questions. So I’m just going to ask you to characterize yourself as a writer? When you’re alone writing, how do you think of yourself?
I’ve been thinking about that because we’re doing this class on Constructions of Authorship. So I have been thinking about author photos, and the way writers are represented in various writing. How do I think of myself? I was just thinking about the Bellamy thing, why is that, though? Barth points out that there was that twentieth century desire to be abstract and asks how in writing one be abstract? Well, you can’t be abstract in writing in the same way as painters can be abstract because writing — letters, words, printing — is already abstract. The media itself is already abstract. C-A-T is not a cat. It’s scratches of ink on a paper. So, if you write C-A-T on the board, and you ask people, “What is that?” They will always say, well, it’s a four-footed furry animal, or it’s a tractor, you know, bulldozer, or it’s a reference to a woman who’s a prostitute, or it’s a scan — they’ll say anything, but they won’t say it’s chalk on a chalkboard. But painters could do that. Painters could put paint on a canvas and their viewers could say, “Wow, look at the texture of that paint,” or “See how the light is sort of shimmering.” So it was very very difficult to be abstract as a writer. That desire to be physical or concrete with this abstract art, the whole idea of Jackson Pollock throwing paint on the canvas. In what way, can this relatively passive activity, this act of writing, be made active, made, well, visual. A movie. It’s all taking place in the mind. In what way can writing itself be made physical? This is guy stuff. Bellamy is interested in making this manly, I suppose. A certain kind of manliness. I ’m a he-man with all this art? These huge steel sculptures. I make these books, huge books. Because writing is so abstract already, that I think there’s a kind of overcompensation results in an attempt to make it concrete …
… to link the text to this laboring person …
Yeah, that I was moving all of this great material around. And this material has real physical presence. It’s so taxing that I have to keep drugging myself … I think it’s part of that time. But back to your question. I think of myself in terms of miniatures, instead of massiveness. I make little tiny things. I like the miniatureness of it that then can be put together in larger structures. So I love models like organic chemistry models, all those balls and rods. You put these carbons there, and you can connect into long polymer chains of various things. And I loved building models of various sorts When I was a kid, I built military miniatures. These were 54 millimeters tall, and they came unpainted. And part of it was researching the various arcane nature of the various uniforms. And it was so weird too, because here you have this manly man thing, the soldiers. But I was interested in stuff like darting, pleating, and piping, and all the curious clothing. Headgear and blouses, jackets worn on one shoulder by the hussars. I was also sewing and making these uniforms, and I knew the difference between Prussian blue and French blue and Russian blue, and shading. So there was all this concentration on these minute details that always interested me. Do you know the movie, Three Days of the Condor?
No, I don’t.
It’s with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. And the assasin, the really bad guy is Max von Sydow, who’s this professional killer. And in between his assassinations, he’s building military miniatures. The faces of the toy soldiers are the size of a pea, so as you paint you wear these magnifying goggles. So there’s this grat shot of Max von Sydow with thirty lenses in front of his eyes, painting this little tiny face.
Thanks. I like it.
I’m interested in how you came to the fictionalization of the identity of Michael Martone in your new book of Contributor’s Notes. [This book, now titled Michael Martone, is forhtcoming in October 2005.] I noticed that Michael Martone’s mom really arrives at the end of The Blue Guide to Indiana, and she seems to be at the center of the new book.
That was the change. For a long time, I’ve been collecting references to Fort Wayne. There’s a reference to Fort Wayne in the first Planet of the Apes, the character played by Charlton Heston is from Fort Wayne. There’s another reference in the M.A.S.H. television show. Frank Burns is from Fort Wayne. So, I always wanted to do something with that, and do in the author’s note at the end of The Blue Guide. I just put that together for the end of The Blue Guide. It was interesting that there were a couple of reviews that mentioned the Author’s Note, and mentioned it only because it was kind of long and different. And also, the reviewers did not know whether or not to take it for a fact. And they never questioned the veracity of the claim that this fictional character was actually my doctor. This is very interesting. That, again, Frank Burns becomes real, that I’ve drawn him out of one place and put him into another. I began thinking about that. And also, since a lot of the stuff from The Blue Guide wasn’t published in the usual literary magazine venue, I was thinking a lot about context. And this goes back to the discussion of workshops. In workshops you’re constantly focused on the thing itself, and not the context of the reading. The workshop never talks about itself either. And so The Blue Guide attempts to switched contexts and took my writing outside the literary magazine. Well, I thought, maybe this time I can still be talking about such context switching but I’ll be going deep within the literary magazine not outside it. So what else in the context of the literary magazine is there that never gets talked about? And one of the things is the contributors’ notes. Another thing would be the front matter of the work. The convention of the contributor’s note.
That makes me think of how “creative” letters to the editor are becoming, operating less outwardly as critical missives and instead employing narratives and conventions of poetry.
Again, it’s not anything new. It’s gone away and now it’s coming back. What is an author, and how does the creation of an author work? So, again, at creative writing programs, we focus so much on the thing on the table, but, in fact, a lot of the work that goes on with my students has to do with trying to figure out who they are as authors. And the way they do that is by looking at each other, by going to readings, seeing how readings go — all these conventions that are there and get broken down and brought back up. Conventions are really interesting to me. Like at the reading last night. I was very upset with Amy (Locklin) because she’d forgotten about the water. This is a huge convention at readings. You must have water.
I couldn’t believe that Amy, after having so many readings, had forgotten the water. And how one drinks water, pours water. A bottle? A glass? And if you are reading with someone else will he or she drink from the right glass? Will the water drinking be confused? So, it’s always interesting to go to a reading when certain things like that break up, brak down, or are questioned.
So did she run get you a glass?
No, I got some water myself. But those conventions sometimes go on and on as if they’ve been this way forever and will always be like this. And contributors’ notes seemed to me ripe for the picking in that way.
What’s your pedagogical approach to teaching the Construction of Authorship class? And to what extent do you use your own experience as an author?>
Not so much. I teach this with a colleague named John Crowley, who’s a 19th century scholar and one of the world’s authorities on William Dean Howells, he’s a really interesting guy. One thing we do is have them read books that use characters that are also authors. So, we start with Martin Eden by Jack London, and then Moveable Feast, by Hemingway, and Alice B. Toklas, which is really great, because you have them happening at the same time. And On the Road, and Minor Characters, which is by one of Jack Kerouac’s lovers. And so you have these authors in either fictional settings or non-fictional settings, or mixed fictional settings. Interesting things appear to the students who are reading this. One thing we point out is how difficult it is to actually dramatize the act of writing. It is very difficult because it is so passive, so undramatic. There’s nothing to it, as we were talking about earlier. So Hemingway moves the action out to a café and a beautiful woman is walking by, and he gets stimulated and he’s writing, and he talks a great deal about how he sharpens his pencils. All of that. In what way can you dramatize this relatively passive act? When we do Kerouac, often what happens is notions of gender come up. The opening scene has the writers talking in the living room, and their wives are in the kitchen. We point this out. And, once, a woman in the class, gasped, and said, “Oh my God!” She said. “The reason I’m a writer is because of this book. I read this book, and I said, ‘I want to be a writer.’” And I said, “Yeah, but you’re a woman. They’re not here.” And she said, “I know, I was in that living room.” And I said, “No, you’re not. You’re in the kitchen.” So just pointing out the notions of gender in writing and how it appears in writing, as well as other conventions and traditions. One thing we do is look at author’s photos, and how they’re staged and put together. How they have changed over the years.
I’m always interested when you discover that an author’s lover has taken the photo.
Yeah, who the photographer is, and the context of that. And again, that desire of New Criticism to completely eliminate that biographical criticism that’s associated with the writing, just isn’t real-world. That’s what’s so funny about the workshop. You’re not supposed to talk about the writer. This story isn’t related to biography at all. But it’s been my experience, and probably your experience, that a lot of stories that come into workshop are really writing in response to another person in class. Or you’re making little subtle digs (laughing) — like me and Dean Young — it has nothing to do with the World and Art, it has to do with very personal biographical things. So, it seems like a good class for a creative writing program. Other issues come up, too. Like the notion of art as opposed to the notion of craft and journalism. And also what’s been the dominant ideal of the writer — that Romantic/Modernist creation of the individual, solitary, genius.
Because we’re still stuck with the Romantics.
Definitely. And the whole idea of the individual genius, too. So part of what we point out too is the collaborative natureof the solitary writing act. And one of the invisible people is the editor. Publishing houses have really helped that invisibility in that they keep very poor records of the writer/editor relationship. Like with Theodor Drieser, the books that we think are the classics, that we read and admire, he didn’t write. They were censored by his editor, and they were censored by his wife. So what is the real text of Theodore Dreiser? Those are some of the issues we cover.
Well, if you ever want to start a consulting company to bring this class to other MFA programs, please call me up and I’d be happy to offer my services.