It is with great pleasure that I welcome an amazing writer, Lee Martin, to the site this month. Martin teaches in the MFA program at The Ohio State University, where he is a College of Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor. He also was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching. His novel The Bright Forever was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. His newest novel, Yours, Jean, to be released this year, is a fictional account of a true crime and the lingering effects of the event on all those who came in contact with the killer and the victim. Lee is as gracious with his talent as he is with his time, serving as muse and mentor to many aspiring writers.
Janet Irvin: Lee, it’s so good to have you as my guest this month. As a career educator, I love talking about teaching, so let’s start with your role in the MFA program at The Ohio State University. What is the biggest plus in teaching for you personally and professionally?
Lee Martin: Personally, it’s exciting to be even a small part of a young writer’s development. It’s rewarding to see them succeed, whether through publication, or even more exciting, via a breakthrough in their approach to the pieces only they can write or with a deeper understanding of some element of craft. I’ve always thought my teaching co-exists with my writing. I carry my writing process into my workshops to help me better articulate something I want my students to understand. Likewise, engaging with their work brings me to a fuller understanding of my own.
J.I.: You write both fiction and non-fiction. Is there any tension between the forms, any difficulty in moving from one to the other?
L.M.: It’s all storytelling as far as I’m concerned. Sometimes I tell stories that are pure invention and sometimes I tell stories about things that really happened. Each form brings with it its own challenges, particularly when it comes to constructing narrative. In nonfiction, you’re bound to events as they really happened, which can sometimes be restrictive. Fiction gives you the freedom of imagination, and sometimes that can be intimidating. Each form is a way of thinking on the page about something that won’t leave me alone. Story is the way I think more deeply about the things that haunt or mystify me.
J.I.: As writers, we all fight that inner censor. You advocate forgiving oneself. Can you address that in practical terms? How do we do that?
L.M.: We just do it. It’s as simple as that. We make a conscious decision to forgive our shortcomings. In practical terms, we often end up with a first draft that doesn’t come close to the piece we envisioned when we began. Maybe the piece seems flat, or maybe the prose doesn’t sparkle, or maybe the characters don’t seem nearly as interesting as they did when we first conceived them. Our inner censors tell us we’ve failed. This is when we have to put that censor away from us. We might give that censor a face—maybe it’s your father’s, or maybe it’s the high school gym teacher you could never please. We can shrink that person down to a tiny figure, and then we can put it in a glass jar. He or she might be shouting at us, but we can’t hear a word. Visually imagining this can render that inner censor completely ineffective. At that point, we can go on. We can admit that the draft may not be perfect, but as long as we pay attention to specific elements of craft in revision, we can invite it to more fully realize itself. In writing, nothing is set in stone. Everything can be changed. A first draft is cause for celebration because once we’ve written one, we’ve earned ourselves a job. If we forgive ourselves for at first falling short, we open ourselves to the possibilities of the piece. That’s where the real work begins.
J.I.: In another of your interviews, you speak about the willingness to fail. Have you employed this philosophy in any of your novels or memoirs?
L.M.: I’ve been willing to fail in nearly everything I’ve written. I’ve taken on challenging subject matter, such as the abduction of a child in The Bright Forever, or racism in Quakertown. I’ve experimented with point of view and structure. I wrote 200 pages of The Bright Forever in a close third-person point of view before realizing it wasn’t accessing the aspect of the material that most interested me. I wasn’t so much interested in the crime at the heart of the book as I was the way that crime radiated throughout the various populations of the community. That’s when I created the character of Henry Dees, who ends up being a crucial and complex character, and that’s when I added points of view of other important characters as well as the town itself. I had to write those 200 pages—I had to be willing to fail with them—in order to find the heart of the book.
J.I.: Your new novel – Yours, Jean – is based on a true crime and will release this year. How much fun was it to take this real event and fictionalize the story?
L.M.: The true crime that forms the heart of Yours, Jean happened in Lawrenceville, Illinois, which was the county seat where I grew up. Not every true crime story calls to me, but this one did because I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who must have come in contact with the killer on the day of the murder. I knew the killer had come on a bus the night before and stayed in a hotel. Okay, I wondered who the desk clerk was and what was going on in his life that would be affected by the fact of the murder. Likewise for the cab driver who took the killer to the scene of the crime, which happened to be Lawrenceville High School. And what about the English teacher who rented a room to the victim, a young woman just starting out as the school librarian. And the daughter of the English teacher, and her boyfriend, and, and, and. . . .This is the way it works for me. I enter the world of the novel by first borrowing some of the facts of the true crime, and then my imagination takes over as I immerse myself in a story that’s partially true and partially an invention until I find myself following the characters to see what they might do.
J.I.: You have such compassion for your characters, even the villains. You also have a gift for drilling down to the core of the contemporary as you examine the past. In Yours, Jean, the following passage is particularly telling: “One thing Grinny knew for certain: there were people who had and people who didn’t, and the ones who had always left those who didn’t to shoulder most of life’s burdens. The rich ones relied on their money, their reputations, their influence to help everyone forget whatever misstep or scandal threatened to unhinge them.” (p. 83) Although the story is set in 1952, Grinny seems to speak to the current societal climate. As you wrote the novel, did these echoes of today occur organically or did you plan them intentionally?
L.M.: Organically. Grinny finds himself in a personal dilemma that shakes everything he’s believed about himself and others. It challenges his religious faith. It challenges his love for his daughter. It challenges his sense of himself as a good person. When I was writing his character, I was just trying to pay really close attention to how he would feel at any particular moment. The quote from your question is very much centered in his small-town world of 1952 and the facts of his life, but it seems to me, if I’ve done my job—if I’ve touched something universally human—this moment transcends time and sweeps into the here-and-now.
J.I.: With which of the characters in this novel did you most identify? Which was the most difficult to create?
L.M.: There’s a part of me in every character I create, but you never get to know which part, and that’s the pleasure of writing fiction. How does one create characters with all the complexities and contradictions that make them human without first knowing one’s own desires and fears and mysteries and inconsistencies? The famous acting teacher, Constantin Stanislavski, said this: “Never allow yourself externally to portray anything that you have not inwardly experienced and which is not even interesting to you.” This is equally true for the writer. We have to mine our own emotions in order to create characters who resonate. That said, there are always some characters who challenge us more than others. In Yours, Jean, that character was Jean’s former fiancé, Charlie Camplain. With any character who does something heinous, I have to challenge myself to find the sources of his or her behavior. It seems to me that we’re all carrying our wounds with us, so when it came to Charlie, I had to think about what and who had hurt him in his life. When I did that—when I knew he had nerve damage in one ear from serving in the artillery in the Army, for instance, or when I imagined him in college on the GI bill and being made fun of by the younger, more traditionally-aged students in his rooming house because of his age and his hearing disability—I couldn’t help but empathize with him. Finding a character’s vulnerable spots always leads to a more complicated, and, I hope, compelling portrait. To quote Stanislavski again: “When you’re playing a character who’s cruel, look for the places where he’s kind. When you’re playing a character who is unhappy, look for the places where he has a glint of merriment.” Again, it’s the same in writing. Characters should be made up of contradictory impulses in order to be interesting.
J.I.: Your prose envelopes the reader in beauty even when you describe tragic events. How much revising do you do to craft such beautiful passages?
L.M.: Thank you for that compliment. I’m usually trying to listen very closely to the voices of the worlds of my novels and stories and memoirs, and that world is often my native rural Midwest, so usually I’m tapping into what I’d call a plain dignity that has its own sort of music. Here’s one example from Yours, Jean:
So autumn deepened into the short days, and all through the Wabash Valley—in Vincennes and across the river into Westport and out along the prairie to Lawrenceville—the talk was about Jean DeBelle and Charlie Camplain and the folks who had crossed paths with them on September 3: the desk clerk at the Grand Hotel in Vincennes, where Camplain had stayed; the cab driver who’d carried him to Lawrenceville; the English teacher who rented a room to Miss De Belle; the daughter who dated the boy who drove the getaway car after the deed was done. And there were others, unknown to most, whose lives were about to change because they knew, in one way or the another, the people who had to testify about what they saw, what they heard, on that day in early September.
In that passage, I’m trying to state simply and directly the facts while at the same time paying attention to the language of the place: “the short days”; “who’d carried him to Lawrenceville”; “after the deed was done.” This is the music of that place and that time. I revise to tighten the prose, to get it as spare as possible while still making room for the lyric.
J.I.: In all your work, place is essential. I find your honoring of the Midwestern landscape one of the most important aspects of your stories. Obviously, this comes out of your own background. How can new writers tap into similar veins to mine their own stories?
L.M.: I see so many young writers who aren’t able, for whatever reasons, to embrace their own worlds. I was like that when I was first starting to write. I thought no one would be interested in stories set in the place I knew best, the rural Midwest, so I tried to turn away from it, but it wouldn’t let me go. Eventually I came to appreciate it and its place in my life. I had to turn away from it to return with renewed purpose. Maybe that’s what has to happen. We have to leave in order to return. Young writers can hasten the process by trusting in the places and the people they know. They can write about their places, which may or may not be where they grew up, from an impulse of nostalgia, or they can write in resistance to the landscape, the culture, the values. The important thing is they understand, as Flannery O’Connor called them, the manners of a particular place.
J.I.: Although most writing instructors in the past have commanded us to write what we know, your instinct is to write what you don’t know. In what way has this influenced your writing?
L.M.: I’m always writing what I know inside me from my own living, but it’s true I often find less familiar avenues from which to express what I know. I’ve always thought the writer’s task is one of empathy, of trying to figure out what it is to move about in someone’s skin. Writing about people and places who are somewhat removed from me increases my empathy, not only for those people and places, but also for the worlds I know the best.
J.I.: Now, we diverge for a few fun questions. What is your favorite place to visit when you’re not teaching or writing?
L.M.: I like driving the gravel roads in the Illinois township where I grew up. In the summers, my wife Cathy and I will drive near sunset when the deer are coming out to feed just to see how many we can count. These drives put me back in touch with my ancestry. They put me back in touch with the natural world which was the world of my family—all those farmers and farm wives.
J.I.: What is your favorite meal?
L.M.: Favorite meal? I remember so much good country cooking that I haven’t experienced in the forty years I’ve been a vegetarian and mostly a vegan, but I choose to keep those meals in my day dreams. In the real world, I love all sorts of ethnic cuisine with a good Indian meal perhaps being my favorite.
Lee Martin has authored River of Heaven; Quakertown; Break the Skin; and Late One Night. A new memoir, Gone the Hard Road, will follow in 2021. His other memoirs are From Our House, Turning Bones, and Such a Life. His first book was the short story collection, The Least You Need To Know, and his most recent book is another story collection, The Mutual UFO Network. He is the co-editor of Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors and the author of a craft book. Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Glimmer Train, The Best American Essays, and The Best American Mystery Stories. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council.