Tommy Dean Interviews Michael Martone on his fiction in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018)
(This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) interview series, created by New Flash Fiction Review’s Founding Editor, Meg Pokrass.)
TD: In your story, “Dan Quayle Thinking: On Snipe Hunting” is Dan Quayle a stand-in for a certain type of American or the prototype Hoosier? How has Indiana inspired your writing? Is it much different than people from the coasts would expect?
MM: Dan Quayle is meant to be Dan Quayle. The fiction is from a book called Pensees: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle. There are 12 thoughts. The book was designed to look like Mao’s book of thoughts, The Little Red Book. But Dan Quayle’s is gray. The Little Gray Book. Indiana is the state of vice presidents. Seven, including the current one, Mike Pence. Many more were on losing tickets. I do think that the role of the Veep is particularly suited to Hoosiers. The waiting. The just being a heartbeat away from power and never having that power. There is a Highway of Vice Presidents in Indiana. And Dan Quayle is the only Vice President that has his vice presidential library. In Huntington, Indiana. It holds two copies of the book. One of my books—they all are about or set in Indiana in some way—is called Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List. It was true that when I was growing up I was told often that Hitler had my city on a bombing list, 7th. Now the interesting, telling thing is that 7. Not too boastful. Possible. Fort Wayne was and is a big manufacturer of copper wire—not a sexy product but an essential one. Even more telling is that we were very proud of being important enough to be destroyed. I don’t know if my writing is much different from what people expect. But I do know the content of that writing is. Most people outside of Indiana know more about India than Indiana. That can be said of people in Indiana as well, as another of my books, The Blue Guide to Indiana, demonstrated. No one tours Indiana not even people in Indiana tour Indiana.
TD: This story uses a repetition of the word wait. How much of the essence of humanity is waiting? What power do words gain by or through repetition? Is repetition one-way to convey time in stories that are so short?
MM: Waiting is the essence of being a vice president. Being second. Being an afterthought. One Hoosier vice president, John Marshall, said of the job that it wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit. Waiting is the essence of Indiana and the Midwest where you believe, at the same time, that you are in the heart of the heart of the country and that you are in the middle of nowhere. Repetition for me is underused by all kinds of writers. I think the greatest line in Shakespeare is: Never, never, never, never, never. I am not a storyteller but a fiction writer. I resist the existential nature of the language to go in a line. I want language to blot and spread, to circle back, and to worry. To meditate and associate. Repetition is a vital part of the mix.
TD: When drafting do you have a feeling or inkling about the true length of a story?
MM: Not a storywriter. A fiction writer. Often in short fiction the length is dictated by a word count the editor or contest has set. So not a feeling but more a hobble or restriction or a challenge that I work with. I have done pieces of 25 words, 100 words, 150 words, 250 words, etc. Often that is the only definition we have for what flash, micro, hint, short short fiction is.
TD: Do you approach writing with a sense of play? Your stories often seem to center around using words as a form of joyful puzzle.
MM: Thank you for that. Is there any other way to approach making art? Adult play.
TD: How important is it to establish setting, mood, tone, and character in the first sentence of a micro?
MM: Too important to leave it to the first sentence. I often think that that is the title’s job. I have a book called Memoranda that is made up of hint fictions, 25 words or fewer. The titles are all 25 words or more. Who says that the title must be shorter than the thing it titles especially in micro fictions?
TD: What are your writerly obsessions? What theme, idea, or image can you not let go of?
MM: Indiana. The number 4. Trains and by extension all machines that move—airplanes, ships, cars. Collages of all sorts. Postcards. Fakes, hoaxes, cabinets of wonder. Mythologies. Confusing genre whenever I can. Camouflage. Flowers and gardens. Hermes, the Thief. Corn-based agriculture. Thermoses and thermostats. Syracuse china. Ruins of all kinds. Architectural follies and star forts. Shoes. Hats. Bowties. Quonset huts. The history of printing. The construction of authorship. Donald Barthelme said somewhere that he wanted to be “on the leading edge of the junk phenomenon,” I get that.
TD: How important is mystery to micro length stories? How much can you rely on the reader to put together the pieces?
MM: You know the author is dead, right? The act of writing and reading is an act of collaboration between the writer and the reader. I think of myself more as an arranger than a composer.
TD: What topic or idea haven’t you written about yet? Is it because you have no interest in it or are you afraid to write about it now?
MM: Surely there are some, but it’s not that I am afraid to write about them or even want to. Your earlier question about obsessions makes more sense to me. And repetition. I am a dog that worries the same old bones.
TD: A novel, a micro, and a poem go to a bar together. What happens?
MM: The Poem asks for a match. The Novel starts a forest fire. The Micro sits in the corner and patinas. They all split a deep-fried breaded pork tenderloin sandwich, the breaded meat of which is greater in circumference than the plate the sandwich is served on.
TD: What gives micros their power? Language? Silence? Structure?
MM: Turgenev said, “We all come from beneath the ‘Overcoat’.” Yes and Poe’s idea of the unity of effect. Everything contributes to create not a meaning but a feeling. We create atmospheres, solar systems, clouds, clockworks. These fictions are the filters that baffle sunlight, slow light down so it falls out of the nothing as tiny pearls, as crazed concoctions new matter.
TD: What are you working on now?
MM: I have two books finished but looking for publishers. The Complete Writings of Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, Edited by Michael Martone and Winesburg, Indiana. Working on a set of novellas –Fort Fort Wayne, Philo in Fort Wayne, and City of Conductors.
Michael Martone’s most recent books are Brooding, Winesburg, Indiana, Four for a Quarter, Not Normal, Illinois: Peculiar Fiction from the Flyover, Racing in Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins, a collection of essays, and Double-wide, his collected early stories. Michael Martone, a memoir in contributor’s notes, Unconventions: Writing on Writing, and Rules of Thumb, edited with Susan Neville, were all published recently. He is also the author of The Blue Guide to Indiana, published by FC2. The University of Georgia Press published his book of essays, The Flatness and Other Landscapes, winner of the AWP Award for Nonfiction, in 2000. With Robin Hemley, he edited Extreme Fiction. With Lex Williford, he edited The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction and The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. Martone is the author of five other books of short fiction including Seeing Eye, Pensées: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle, Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List, Safety Patrol, and Alive and Dead in Indiana. He has edited two collections of essays about the Midwest: A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest and Townships: Pieces of the Midwest. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, Story, Antaeus, North American Review, Benzene, Epoch, Denver Quarterly, Iowa Review, Third Coast, Shenandoah, Bomb, and other magazines.
Martone was born and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He attended Butler University and graduated from Indiana University. He holds the MA from The Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University.
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 Story magazine Short, 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. In 2013 he received the national Indiana Authors Award, and in 2016, the Mark Twain Award for Distinguished Contribution to Midwestern Literature.
Michael Martone is currently a Professor at the University of Alabama where he has been teaching since 1996. He has been a faculty member of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College since 1988. He has taught at Iowa State University, Harvard University, and Syracuse University.