Michael Martone is currently a Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Alabama where he has been teaching since 1996. Michael Martone’s most recent books include Four for a Quarter, Not Normal, Illinois: Peculiar Fiction from the Flyover, and Racing in Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins. 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 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. I sat down with Michael Martone to discuss everything from publishing to anthrax.
Ian John Pisarcik: First-year students in Iowa State University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment recently visited two publishing houses in Minneapolis to talk with editors about the publishing process. Some of the students came away from these discussions feeling discouraged. Before getting into what the publishing world looks like today, can you tell us a little about your experiences getting published?
Michael Martone: I always thought of writing as a kind of publishing. When I was in grade school, I was publishing a paper. It was a hand written newspaper for the neighborhood and I was publishing another newspaper in high school. So, I never divided these things into two different categories – here’s publishing and here’s a writer. I think that’s one thing that is really exciting today, the fact that those categories are completely collapsed. As a writer today, you expand into these other fields of being a writer, publisher, graphic designer and distributor. So it interests me that you say it’s discouraging. I don’t think it’s discouraging. I think it’s an amazing time if you are a writer.
IJP: Are you referring mainly to self-publishing, using tools such as Amazon’s Kindle Bookstore?
MM: Oh, yes. I always say to my students, do you want to be published? And they say yes. And I say, well I have a Macintosh and I have the software and I can publish you right now. And they say, well that’s not what we mean. And we spend part of the class trying to examine what it is we mean when we say we want to be “well published.” But your question was about me personally. I’ve been working now as a publishing writer for 30 years and in those 30 years [I’ve published] everywhere. I resisted what most people do, which is, in some very personal way, to have a hierarchy of what counts and what doesn’t. For me, Mudstump Review is as good as The New Yorker. Back in the old days, when these categories were more stable, you wouldn’t have said self-publishing; you would have said vanity publishing. Because it was thought to be a vain thing that all you wanted to do was be published but you weren’t going through the kind of rigors of this competition that was set up.
IJP: The gatekeepers?
IJP: Do you see any disadvantage to there being no gatekeepers? For example, some people would argue that there needs to be quality control and they might point to the Internet and say there’s a lot of crap that you have to sift through. If book publishing houses disappeared and it was all self-publishing, would that be problematic or ideal?
MM: In my case, fine with me. But, I have a lot of colleagues who will whisper to me that there are too many writers – too much stuff. A long while ago, I threw away the notion as a teacher that my job is to get you to write well. My job is to make you write. So a quick answer to your question is no, I think it’s great. Usually when people ask that question they ask ‘are there too many writers?’ I don’t think there are enough. I think it’s great that people want to write, and as a teacher I want to help them write what they want. I’m no longer in the role of a gatekeeper which is, oh, I have to get you to write literary fiction or literary essays. If you want to write fan fiction, I’m here for that. I once had a colleague who said there are too many writers – there needs to be quality control. And I said to him, he was a marathon runner, I said, when you run the marathon do you get right up in front with the Kenyans? He said, well no. And I said, well then why do you run if you’re not going to win? And he said, there are all these other things— it makes me feel good, it’s good exercise, it’s good to be with all those people – to feel a sense of community. I said, okay, why not extend that to writing? Why do we have to think that the only people who get to write are the Kenyans?
IJP: That reminds me of something you said with respect to your teaching. You said that you’re not really interested in what’s good or bad, but rather in teaching the habit of curiosity and exploration. There’s a lot of debate among MFA students about what they are supposed to get out of an MFA program. There are people who say MFA students simply get time to write, but there are others who argue that MFA students need a job once they graduate and thus more time should be spent preparing them for the real world. You have already touched on this, but what do you see as your obligation, if any, to the MFA student?
MM: What I promise them is protected time and space. Nobody is going to go in debt at the University of Alabama. I view it as a gift. I’m giving you four years, do with it what you want. It’s been my experience that my students break up into several tracks. One thing we have is a magazine, the Black Warrior Review, and a significant amount of people go in that direction and end up being employed as editors. Other people, because we offer teaching opportunities, will take the teaching track. But also, we have people who graduate, get the job they had before entering the MFA program, but continue to write. Writing programs can train you in a general way so that you’re not the Kenyan winning, but you are someone who can run. The definition of what a writer is has to expand. The university is all about making the writer as a job – a specialist. But, what I try to teach is writing as a general pursuit that will adapt.
IJP: In talking about the traditional workshop format, you noted that there is a danger in distinguishing or making sense of what one is doing before one is done doing it. This idea of pigeon-holing the writer. Is there an alternative to the traditional workshop?
MM: What you’re getting at is the notion that, we thought the workshop would generate writing, but what it actually does is generate criticism. So in the traditional workshop, you have 12 people and the 12 people are usually broken up into 4 groups of 3. So over a 16 week term, you are up 3 times, maybe, if you’re lucky, and maybe 2 of those times you write a new story and 1 of those times is a revision. What are you doing the rest of the time? You’re reading everybody else’s work and in the classroom you’re actually critiquing. Years ago, I gave that up. My students now write a story a week and the critique section of that story takes only 8 minutes. Again, I think writers were naïve when they came into the university. Because this place is not a creative place by nature. Its DNA is all about criticism and what criticism is, as you were just saying, is pigeon-holing. And when that pigeon-holing is also connected to, this is good, this is bad, one of the things that happens is a person doesn’t write. Because if you’re sitting there writing this new story – you’re saying if I write this, Bobby is going to say that, if I write this, Jimmy is going to say that, if I write this, I’m going to say that. And all the sudden, nobody is writing because the criticism is so dominating. That’s not my job. Our job should be creating things, to be failing magnificently. To try things, because again, the way I view creative writing school is protected time and space. Other people say they give you protected time and space but then they criticize you and say they are running a simulation of the world out there – well why run a simulation of the world out there? This is a different world. This is a time when you can try things.
Also, in my workshop, I will have a ½ hour conference with each person. But in that conference, first I’ll have the person talk about their work. That is another flaw of the traditional workshop, the gag rule. Again you are just training critics. You are not allowing the writer to think out loud about what he or she is doing. In an 8 minute workshop, you don’t have what you have in a 45 minute workshop, which is that for the first 20 minutes people guess what it is the writing is trying to do and then we tell them it’s wrong. So what I say is, what is it you want to do? What was your intention and what are some of the problems you’ve already identified? Then we can talk about that. We can help you figure that out.
IJP: You play a lot with the line between fiction and non-fiction. This is something discussed in my non-fiction workshop. Does the writer have an obligation to the reader to identify whether something is fiction or non-fiction, or should the writing just be called art?
MM: Well, even that should be explored. One thing that happens with the workshop is that it talks about the thing on the table, but it doesn’t talk about the context. For example, most workshops won’t have a discussion about the workshop.
IJP: It is an important discussion because there are people who feel a violation when these lines are blurred. Just look at the James Fry case. People had a visceral reaction to that case.
MM: For the last 25 years, the dominant style of writing fiction and non-fiction was realism. Realism has these interesting and unexamined conventions, a sort of contract between the writer and reader. So it’s interesting that you said “violation.” The reader will only feel violated if the reader is set in a default position. If those things: what’s real and what’s not, when you get to use first person and not use first person, are agreed on by everybody. But there are other kinds of writing that don’t call into question the content of the truth or fiction, but the fact that you are actually reading an artifice – so that all things, fiction and non-fiction, are still artifice – and so those techniques of revealing the artifice or making the audience deal with the structure, the fabrication of a non-fiction, have an alienating effect.
The classic example of that is the Threepenny opera. Where, even though it’s a fiction, it’s realistic fiction up to a point. At one point Mack the Knife is about to be hanged and a guy runs in and says you’ve been reprieved and Mack throws off the noose and sings, “I’m reprieved.” But then he says to the audience, this always happens doesn’t it? In stories? While outside the theater, people are dying over loafs of bread.
So that violation of the audiences complacency and comfort is actually done for political purposes – for purposes that are meant to change a reader. Again, it goes back to patrolling. Isn’t it interesting that the writers themselves turn out to be policeman? There is this desire for a lot of people to come to school in order to get the credential to be the cop. And from my point of view, I’m an artist, and part of my job is to mess up the cops. Or at least to show that those boundaries that are natural and legal are just as artificial. What’s real 2 years ago might be completely unreal today.
This has been going on a long time as you know. Robinson Crusoe was originally published as non-fiction and thus the much more interesting question is why? What was happening that he wanted to do it that way? Or maybe another interesting question is, why don’t poets talk about this? Poets are poets – they are not non-fiction poets and fiction poets. So what is it about poetry that allows them to get away with that? I think part of it is that they have not done the transparent prose style that fictionally says this is real. People look at poetry and say, well this is a construction, this has an artifice, it has its own kind of truth.
IJP: There is a desire for people to know the artist behind the art. And some of this relates to that line between non-fiction and fiction. For example with James Fry or with Tim O’Brien, the reader wants to know what happened and what did not. The reader is unable to look at the art independent of the artist.
I think you’re right. A lot of my writer friends really resist this idea, but I was ready for it. We have to be careful because the university actually acts as sort of a buffer system. It doesn’t allow us to confront these interesting questions. I always tell this story about the anthrax outbreak. It was actually called the Ames strain because it was kept at the university here in Ames, Iowa. Why? Because the larger culture doesn’t want to mess around with anthrax, but it doesn’t want to get rid of it completely. So where do you store stuff like that? In a university. And what happens is people study it, write papers about it, and train others to take care of it. Why? In case there’s an outbreak. So there was an outbreak and they came to these guys and said tell us about it. So the university’s main function is cold storage. And what we forget is that that’s the way it deals with poetry and fiction. The poetry and fiction is mainly in cold storage and we have people who reproduce it and teach people how to do it this particular way. Anyway, there was a poetry outbreak in 2001 in Alabama and I got a phone call – a reporter from the Birmingham news –and he said we are getting a ton of poems. I said, you’re experiencing a poetry outbreak. I asked him what the content of those poems was and he said the content was the death of Dale Earnhardt. So I said, “In a time of trying emotional things, we turn to this ancient way of expressing emotions in this compact, blah, blah, blah . . .” And they quoted it in the newspaper. Just like the anthrax outbreak. A lot of our colleagues and students are being trained as curators rather than creators. We have to prevent ourselves from doing that. We have to create and we have to pay attention to what is being created.