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Discovering What Lies Beneath: An Interview with Lee Martin

In the following Q&A, contributor Dawn Haines and author Lee Martin explore the essential elements of writing: claiming place, identifying definitive moments, telling stories that resist easy resolutions, and writing that springs from “a need to know.”

leeLee Martin is the author of the novels The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, River of Heaven, and Quakertown. His forthcoming novel, Break the Skin, will be published by Crown books in 2011. He has also published two memoirs, From Our House, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection in 2000, and Turning Bones (American Lives Series), and a short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in publications including Harper’s, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner and Glimmer Train. 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. Lee Martin lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at The Ohio State University.

DH: In your new novel, Break the Skin, you return to the small towns of Illinois, the place of your childhood also depicted in River of Heaven. How did you come to write about this place again?

LM: Like many writers when they’re first starting out, I had to learn to claim my material. I had to trust that I could stake off my piece of the universe – in my case the farms and small towns of southern Illinois and Indiana – and write about it with authority. Beginning with many of the stories in my first book, The Least You Need to Know, and continuing through my most recent novels, The Bright Forever, River of Heaven, and the new book, I’ve stayed with what I know most intimately: the landscape of the Midwest and what lies beneath the seemingly ordinary surface of its small towns. I find the lives lived there extremely compelling, and I’m interested in how the best of intentions – actions often sprung from a desire for affection, love, belonging, acknowledgment – can lead to dire consequences that change people forever.

DH: So, place is significant to your work.

LM: I believe that most people live their lives in concert with, or in resistance to, the culture of their place and time. Place, then, is crucial to the stories we can tell. We are who we are, in part, because of the landscapes we occupy or have occupied in the past. We need to create settings that have authority so we can persuade the readers that what we dramatize actually happened in this real and significant place. We do that, in part, by knowing the details of the landscape, the nature of the light in autumn when the sun starts to set, the names of the trees that grow in the woodlands, the way the air smells of coal smoke and snow, the call of geese flying overhead at dusk. If the writer can convince the readers that she knows the place where the tale occurs, then she can more likely convince them that the characters’ interactions and choices do indeed lead to what the writer says they do. We need to feel that landscape and culture and character are part of the same organic system.

DH: As your students write their way toward claiming their material, what do you tell them? How do you talk about it?

LM: I start by inviting students to discover what really matters to them. We spend so many hours laboring over a craft that is a challenging one to learn, shouldn’t we be devoting all that time to material that’s significant to us? We might begin to think about the question of our material in a seemingly mundane way. I might ask students to do a sensory detail recall exercise where they daydream about, and then make a list of, details from their childhood home. Those details – the sights, sounds, smells, etc. – may seem trivial, but they’re not. They’re everything because they’re the doorways into the stories connected to those details, stories that are rich and unresolved, stories that matter to the writer. I do other exercises in my classes that invite students to get cozy with the material that’s important to them. Anything that allows a little catch in the heart to take place, that moment when we touch the essence of our experience and it calls us to give it artistic shape, either in fiction, or nonfiction, or poetry.

DH: It would seem the definitive moment/event in your life was the moment your father lost his hands in a thresher accident. How has this defined you and your work as writer?

LM: I was barely a year old when my father got his hands mangled by the rollers of a corn picker’s shucking box. A key on one of the rollers had sheared off and, as a result, the rollers weren’t able to work the corn through as well as they ordinarily would have. The box was filling up with corn, and my father was trying to clear it. He should have shut off the tractor’s power take-off, which would have stopped the rollers of the shucking box from turning, but he didn’t. He got his hand too close to the rollers, and they pulled it in between them. When he reached in with his other hand to try to free the one that was caught, the rollers pulled that hand in, too. The surgeon had to amputate both hands, and my father wore prostheses the rest of his life. He also became a volatile man, and I was often in the way of his temper. Living with his anger and the threat of his violence, I became very good at observing and watching for the signs that he was about to erupt. I suppose, then, that his accident and what it brought into our home made me especially sensitive to people and their behaviors. Such sensitivity and close observation are, of course, important for the writer. My father’s accident also placed me in a position of between-ness. I lived my youth caught between his anger and my mother’s compassion. She was a Christian woman who believed in forgiveness and the power of love. I don’t believe my work would be what it is without the tension between these two influences: the sharp edges of a volatile world in conflict with the human need for grace and love.

DH: Do you think everyone has such a moment and should write from there?

LM: I happen to believe that we all have moments that are defining moments for us, and certainly one way to create our art is to write from the emotional complexity that these moments instill in us. In a way, we can’t help but write from them because they’ve left something for us to try to resolve or change or redeem in our writing even if we’re not aware of that fact. Becoming aware of it can expedite our development as writers. That’s why I often ask my students to do a free-writing exercise where they recall a pair of shoes that they wore when they were children. The free-write begins with the words, “I was wearing them the day. . . .” I invite them to fill in the blank and then keep writing as they tell a story of something that they still turn over and over in their minds because the moment is so complex they probably won’t ever be able to clearly define it. Moments where good and evil intersected, where the right thing wasn’t so clear, where love and hate intermingled. Moments where opposites co-existed. Just recalling such a moment and feeling the emotions connected with it again, takes you a step further in the sort of vision a writer must have, the vision that takes in all the layers of human experience.

DH: Do you think we are ever done with our critical stories?

LM: I won’t speak for everyone, but I know that I write in response to my world and the moments in it that resist a neat resolution. I encourage young writers to tap into the emotional complexity that lingers from certain critical events in their lives. The personal stories that matter – and the ones that create novels, stories, poems, essays and plays that matter – are the ones that we can never easily pigeonhole. We can’t bring the story to rest because it resists an easy definition. It reverberates with layer upon layer of experience that we can’t quite make cohere into a solid mass of which we can then say, “Oh, that’s what this is; it’s the story of x, or y, or z.” We know that people and their lives create stories of x, y, and z, each of them is a part of the same complicated whole. Because it’s complicated, we have to keep telling the story, knowing we’ll never fully put it to rest. We’re lucky once we know what won’t leave us alone, and often whatever that material is comes from the critical events of our own lives.

DH: Does writing always start with a question?

LM: I’m not sure that it always starts with a question, but I do think, at least in my case, it often begins with a curiosity or what I’ve called a need to know. This is what keeps me writing, this curiosity about characters, situations, or, in the case of memoir, the self. With the latter, it’s amazing to see how a piece takes on vibrancy if the writer poses a question early on, if he or she writes from a place of not knowing. When that happens, the reader feels more connected to the writer. The readers feel that they’re on a journey with someone and no one really knows where they’ll end up. They don’t even know whether they’ll answer the question, but the question is there as a way of framing the investigation of the piece. I like to call it the line of inquiry into the material. It lets the reader know what’s at stake in the piece, and it carries us down vertically through the various layers of the material. The question lets us know why it’s important to pay attention.

DH: As a memoirist, what question did you have to answer when writing about your father?

LM: My first memoir, From Our House, began as an essay. I’d just accepted a teaching position at the University of North Texas, and they’d assigned me a graduate-level creative nonfiction workshop. I wrote along with my students, and together we set out to examine the emotional complexity of our lives by writing personal essays and pieces of memoir. I wrote an essay called “From Our House,” and for the first time I confronted directly the difficult relationship I’d had with my father in the aftermath of his accident. I’d written indirectly about this in most of the stories in my collection, The Least You Need to Know, but claiming that experience and announcing it to readers was a different ballgame. I needed to explore several questions. I needed to look at my father’s character as I investigated his contradictions. How could he be such an angry, tempestuous man and at the same time capable of great generosity and friendliness? Another thing that drove the writing was a need to take a hard look at my own character to see how my traits and flaws entered into the dynamic that made up my difficult relationship with my father. Finally, I needed to visit my father’s accident – to know all the details of that day and what followed as far as the amputations, the prostheses, etc., in hopes of coming to a better understanding of what he went through and how it affected the life we had together.

DH: In Turning Bones you reach farther back in your family history.

LM: Turning Bones is a book that traces my father’s side of the family back through the generations. I guess you’d say I needed to know our family better, and in that book, I extended that need to know backwards through the generations and forward to my life in the present. In that book, though, I also had a need to know something more about the intersections of fiction and nonfiction, and how invention could be a way of thinking about the factual. I wanted to see how storytelling of the invented kind could cohere with storytelling of the true kind. How could the lie of fiction, if faithful to what solid fact suggested, be a way of enhancing the exploration of, and thinking about, personal experience?

DH: So you fictionalized stories as a way to know your family’s story.

LM: When I began writing Turning Bones, I wanted to let the facts I’d discovered suggest narratives that, though invented, seemed possible. It was the only way I had of filling in the gaps in my family history. The book, then, is a blend of fiction and nonfiction, as my imagination works from the facts discovered through my research. At one point in the writing, I realized that as I constructed these stories of my ancestors, I was actually constructing myself. I was coming to know more about myself and my relationship with my parents, particularly with my father, through what I chose to invent in the stories imagined from fact.

DH: The theme of love seems to hold all of your books together.

LM: In light of my father’s accident that dictated so much of my family history, it should be no surprise that much of my work revolves around loss and the striving of the human spirit to hold faith in love. My father’s accident disrupted our family and turned him into an angry man until the later years of his life. My mother taught me love and forgiveness, and for that reason I’ve always been able to see the noble and loving parts of my father’s character. I suppose I’ve also always wanted to redeem him from all he suffered and all the pain he brought into our home. I also learned from my mother, who was a Christian woman, that redemption is always available. It may seem out of reach for years and years, but the possibility of it is always tantalizingly there. All we have to do is ask for it even if we don’t believe we deserve it.

Sam Brady in River of Heaven doesn’t believe he deserves it, but his living and the people in his life finally persuade him that he does. That’s also the story of my family. My mother’s patience, endurance, and good heart finally convinced my father that beyond the horrible thing that had happened, the accident he’d helped bring about because of his haste and disregard for safety, there was a kinder way of living. There was a way to forgive himself and the world. There was love. To me, it’s the most important and yet elusive thing for us all to have and to maintain, and for that reason it makes up the center of most of my work.


Dawn Haines is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she met Lee Martin. Her essay on not writing was published in the May/June 2010 issue of Poets & Writers. She is co-author of Writing Together: How to Transform Your Writing in a Writers Group, and has been a finalist in the New Letters Dorothy Churchill Cappon essay contest and for the Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship. She teaches writing and literature at the University of New Hampshire.