In Conversation: Andrew Martin

An interview by Tom Storch


In his 2018 debut novel, Early Work, and in the stories from his collection, Cool for America, which was released last summer, Andrew Martin nails a certain type of character. They are self-styled intellectuals and artists. They define their identities in large part through cultural touchstones and aesthetic tastes. Characters in Cool for America go to concerts, movie theaters, readings and book clubs. They work in book stores, produce radio shows and edit “august, maybe dying small magazine[s]”. Many of them are writers, or want to be.

It makes me wonder about Martin’s creative process. What shapes his aesthetic tastes? And, more importantly, how does he manage to draw out so many unique variations within such a specific set of people? I’ve had the pleasure of taking a class with Martin and he was also my thesis reader when I got my MFA, but I was excited for the chance to find out what makes his own fiction tick. The following is an excerpt of a discussion we had over email.

Interviewer: A common quality in both your novel, Early Work, and the stories from your collection, Cool for America, is a strong sense of place, whether it’s Virginia, Missoula, Brooklyn or New Jersey, among other locations. Can you give us some insight into how you decide where your stories will take place? What was it about Charlottesville, for example, that inspired you to set Early Work there? On the flip side, did you ever consider setting stories like “No Cops” or “Short Swoop, Long Line” anywhere other than Missoula? Or is the setting too wrapped up with the initial conception of a story to separate it?

Andrew Martin: I’d never really thought of it this way before, but I do think the specific locations of my stories, and the novel, are inextricable from my overall conceptions of them. Even though Charlottesville and Missoula are both college towns, for example, they’re so different geographically and culturally that it wouldn’t make sense to me to substitute one for the other and keep the rest of the story and characters intact. It makes more sense to me to move the characters around, across different works, and see how they respond to the different environments. Most of my characters, explicitly or implicitly, are from the East Coast. If they’re not from Jersey, like I am, they’re from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania. And so Early Work is really about the experience of being a certain kind of northeasterner trying to make sense of this rich, Southern town where he doesn’t really fit in. And the Missoula stories are often about the idea of expectations– what happens when you find yourself in a place that kind of cocks an eyebrow at you if you come in trying to run the place like you’re running gunning for an editorial job at The New Yorker? To me a lot of the energy of these narratives comes from those sociological tensions, even though they usually aren’t up front. 

I also tend, even when I’m not writing autobiographically, to write about real places that I’ve known. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination. But even if the reader doesn’t know where Higgins Ave in Missoula is, for example, I think the story derives a certain amount of authority from naming it, and from me knowing where it is and what it represents. I think references to music and movies in my writing operates the same way. You don’t have to get every reference, but I think it’s enough just to know that the characters are engaging with these things at a high level. 

As mentioned in many reviews of Cool for America and in other interviews you’ve done, there are characters in this collection who also appear in Early Work, particularly Leslie, but also Peter, who shows up in “The Boy Vet” along with his girlfriend and dog. As a reader, it’s great to get to experience the consciousness of these characters I’m familiar with while they live out new events. For you as a writer, how do you decide when you want to reuse a character? What is it about Leslie, for instance, that made you want to bring her back and explore her in different scenarios (she even makes a cameo as a supporting player in “Childhood, Boyhood, Youth”)? And how do these characters change when you transfer them from one narrative to another? Or do they?

It wasn’t an overtly conscious decision to revisit characters when I first started doing it. It was driven by an organic sense of surprise. I had written a couple of stories about Leslie in Missoula before I started Early Work, and I very much thought of her as an autobiographical stand-in for myself and my own sense of both community and angst when I lived in the west. And then when I began the novel, it felt like an exciting epiphany– oh, the woman the narrator meets is Leslie! She’s in Virginia for some reason, and I wonder what would happen if a fictional female version of my Montana self met this flippant dude? And knowing her backstory brought an immediate sense of geographical tension. She’s out of place in Virginia, and she’s been all over the place, like Peter has. Her cameo in “Childhood, Boyhood,” which was written after the other stories and the novel, was the only revisiting that felt a little bit like a “callback” in a superhero movie or something. I thought it would be fun to have that glimpse of her New York years. 

Two of my favorite writers, Philip Roth and Roberto Bolaño, made a habit of having characters reappear in different works over the course of their bodies of work, often with somewhat contradictory or incompatible backstories, and I think of what I’m doing as being in that tradition. The idea is to simultaneously make it feel more like real life, where you run into the same people again and again, often in different contexts, but also draw attention to the literary nature of these characters. The author can contradict him or herself– there’s nothing requiring you to be consistent. If you tried to make a timeline of Peter and Leslie’s movements around the country across the two books, I think you’d find yourself pretty tangled up. Not to mention the other characters whose backstories echo theirs. It’s a chance to introduce some gamesmanship into the whole thing, to play.

I’m always impressed by how crisp, clean and clear your prose reads. It almost stands in contrast to how emotionally confused the majority of your characters are. As best as you can, can you take us into your compositional process? Do you write first drafts quickly and then go back and clean up the sentences? Or do you edit as you go? And do you have any tips for writers who are trying to achieve a similarly economic style while still retaining the flair and personality your fiction has?

I do believe in writing first drafts quickly and then going back to clean up afterwards, and I do that to some extent. But the truth is more like: I write my first drafts more slowly than I’d like, editing as I go, while trying to tell myself to just be fast and messy. And then I go back and work on the sentences a lot in edits as well. I’ve been a professional writer of some kind for most of my adult life, so writing clearly isn’t usually the problem. But getting life into the sentences, finding interesting turns of phrase, honing dialogue so that it sounds both real and heightened, that stuff takes a lot of work. 

I tend to overwrite in my first drafts, over explaining things, having conversations go on too long, having a character notice three versions of something when one will do. It seems to me that there’s a better result when I start with too much and try to cut down, rather than trying to get it just right. When I was first starting to write stories, I would try to achieve that abrupt, Carver-ish ending on the first try. Just sort of pick a portentous, poetic-seeming final sentence and be done. But I’ve learned over time to write past the ending, see where the story might go, and then go back and find the place with the most power to end. Same with dialogue– it’s better for me to have too much and then pare away. I’ll often have twice as many “ums” and “likes” and “you knows” in my early drafts, because I’m trying to replicate real speech, but then I try to keep just enough of that in the final version to sound real without being annoying or transcript-like. I often write long sentences with too many clauses jammed into them on the first go, so I have to untangle them and simplify them in later drafts. 

Reading out loud is also important. If you can’t say it, or it sounds awkward, there’s probably a problem. 

Who are some of the seminal writers who inspired you to become a writer yourself? Which novels or stories most directly influence your own work and how? Have you consciously borrowed certain themes, story-structures, character-types or milieus from other authors and then updated them in your own way? Or were there particular writers whose styles you emulated when you were initially developing your own voice? And do you have any recommendations for authors who you believe new writers should read?

F. Scott Fitzgerald was really important to me as a young writer, Gatsby, of course, but also his messy but vital and entertaining earlier novels This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned. In more recent years I’ve been more drawn to his stories, especially “Babylon Revisited” and others of that era, as well as his consistently flawed but fascinating commercial stories from throughout his career. I think it’s really instructive to see a great writer struggling with a form that was fundamentally beneath his talent. The Pat Hobby stories, about a hack alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter, are very self-aware and very funny. 

Malcolm Lowry was also really important to me when I started writing, though he is not someone you would want to emulate, in life or fiction. His novel Under the Volcano blew my mind. It’s kind of an unholy marriage of Joycean stream of consciousness and Graham Greene alcoholic English colonial fatalism. I still dream of writing something like that, but it seems very unlikely. 

I’ve certainly found myself borrowing, or paying tribute to, the story structures and tropes of a number of short story writers. I go back to Grace Paley, John Cheever, Deborah Eisenberg, Donald Barthelme, Leonard Michaels, and Joy Williams over and over again, and every now and then I realize I’ve cribbed something rather directly from their work. It’s (almost) never intentional. Lee Johnson calls it “blues magic.” When you’re writing realistic short stories about families and relationships and alcohol and death, etc, you’re inevitably going to run into some of the same tropes. The key is to approach these things sincerely, with an open mind, and to not be cynical about how everything’s “already been done.” You can accept the fact that nothing is truly “original” and still find new ways to tell stories or illuminate old ones. Certain patterns repeat across lives and eras! It happens. 

My main advice for younger writers is to read widely and to read constantly. I’ve had students tell me they don’t have time to “read for pleasure.” But the fact is, if you’re not reading, you’re not going to write well. A lot of younger writers I know read almost exclusively contemporary fiction; I think it’s really important to engage with books and writers who might not be particularly in fashion. I recently read and loved The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, an Anglo-Irish novel written in 1938. It’s a subtle, Jamesian novel about family and social class and I wouldn’t have guessed it would be something I’d take to heart. But I did! 

Finally, I’m really intrigued by Cameron, the titular “Boy Vet”, a pathological liar and veterinarian whoconvinces the protagonist of that story to pay for the surgery of a possibly fake dog. He’s such an unusual character with such a specific set of circumstances, I’ve never encountered anyone similar in fiction or otherwise. I have to ask: is there a real-life inspiration for Cameron? Or can you tell us: what was the starting point for you when writing this story?

I love this question. That story, like some others I’ve written, came out of combining a couple of different things. For one, our dog was going to a vet for a while in Charlottesville who was almost preposterously young and sweet-looking. As far as I know, he was a good vet! (Though maybe our dog knows better.) But his innocent facade set off a train of thought: what if he was… evil? Around the same time, a friend of mine told me a story about a guy we’d both known in college who turned out to be kind of a serial liar and a really manipulative person. I didn’t know him well, but I’d always thought he was nice enough. It was interesting to learn that what you thought about someone was completely wrong, and over time, those two stories sort of merged together to form the basis of “The Boy Vet”. With most stories, I start with a sentence or a moment in time, or even an image, like the ants in the laptop in “No Cops”. This was a rare one that was a little bit more premise-based. It’s funny– I couldn’t sell this story to a magazine for the life of me, but since it’s been published in the book, it seems to be a lot of people’s favorite. Go figure! 

 

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