Michael Martone: Making the ordinary strange 

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He has imagined the secret thoughts of Dan Quayle, conjured James Dean's high school drama coach, and written a guidebook to an Indiana (The Blue Guide) that truly is the stuff that dreams are made of.

Michael Martone's writing defies ready categorization. One of his works of fiction is called Michael Martone. In a career going back to 1984, and the publication of his first story collection, Alive and Dead in Indiana, Martone has produced an array of stories and essays that not only challenge our preconceptions about what literature is meant to do, but about the nature of experience itself.

"I was born in 1955," he says. That was the year McDonald's started, that Disneyland opened, and that the Interstate Highway system began. I think that is the chord of my childhood. I was born at the inception of this incredible, mobile, artificial culture. These things were going to destroy what, before me, was the notion of home and substitute these synthetic versions of home-cooking, of Main Street, and all of that."

Martone is the winner of the 2013 national author prize presented by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards. He will accept his award ($2,500 of which he will donate to his hometown public library in Fort Wayne) on Oct. 26 at the Central Library. He recently spoke to NUVO from his home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he teaches in the English Department at the University of Alabama.

NUVO: You've played with Indiana as a construct and a place in your writing. Now you're being honored here with a literary award. Is this really happening?

Michael Martone: It's true that ever since I started writing, back in the '70s, one of the first things I discovered was Indiana as subject matter. In some ways it was a surprise. I was trained to become an international writer. But then, when I was in graduate school, and could tell stories about Indiana to people there, they thought this was such a weird and strange place. I wasn't even making things up; I was just telling the truth.

NUVO: How does a sense of place inform your writing?

Martone: Right now, in my classes teaching beginning writers and artists, I'm very much interested in the idea of defamiliarization. When I say I write about Indiana, the question is: "Well, why?" Whereas, if you write about the South, people will say: "What kept you?" For whatever reason, it is more easy to defamiliarize the South. The weirdness is so apparent there.

The challenge for defamiliarizing the Midwest is taking what seems to be normal and ordinary and making that unfamiliar. And the fact of being outside, and forcing yourself to be a stranger to something you grew up with and got used to does, I think, help me.

My main interest is in making the ordinary strange and wonderful. Right now, a lot of people are into making the strange ordinary — think of zombie movies and vampires. What interests me — and Indiana is particularly good at this — is the deepset feeling that all is normal here. Just to point out its normality is a kind of weird, bizarre, strangeness.


From Amish in Space, a work-in-progress by Martone

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Crewman Yoder, J.: They disappear into the dark outside the ark. It is as if their plain suits absorb what little light there is. I see them as black shadows sliding through space. They blot out the spackle of stars in the background. The toolboxes they carry do flash and sparkle with light from several nearby suns. I can follow the glint whipping along the tether lines to the emptiness at the other ends. There are hundreds catching up light in a web in the dark darkness. They are raising the barn on the starboard nacelle. The framing is finished. I am to help in the making of the coffee. The shadows will be cold and thirsty when they come back inside after working so hard all through the night.

Crewman Yoder, M.: Most of us had never been in a car let alone an airplane when they loaded us on the jet that creates the weightlessness. The cattle were lowing in the corners of the cabin as we climbed. The chickens compressed in their nests. I looked at the children, puddles on the floor, clutching the little paper bags the English had given them to use if they got sick. I could not move as if the thumb of God pinned me there on the matted floor. Until. Until the moment we began to float. Lifted, drifting through the air. The English flying around us held us steady, shouted instructions in all the loud whooshing noise. The chickens were squawking clouds. The cows ballooned, bellowed, shat, and the shit spread lazily in long streaks in all directions. The children made sick, missing the bags that tumbled freely through space. I bounced off the padded walls. The air in my lungs all left. My skin slacked. My hair came undone. I couldn't close my eyes. My arms and legs went their own ways. And then, like that, we all fell back down, collapsed to the floor in piles and heaps. Us and the English and the animals and the shit and the sick like rain and the straw all on the floor, now everything and all of us twice as heavy as before we fell.

Crewman Yoder, Z.: The rockets were larger than the largest silos we had ever seen. They were like silos on top of silos. And they were supported in the cages, the scaffolding of cantilevered gantries that we used to paint the rockets' skin. The bishops argued with the English that the white and black design would not do, was not plain. The English said the scheme was best for the pictures they would take. And the bishops told them there would be no pictures anyway. So there I was in a breeches buoy suspended from an I-beam up near the top, brushing on the blackest paint you would ever never see on my part of the rocket. The smell of it made me miss the smell of the fermenting grain put-up back at the Goshen silo. The baking wood, the rust on the staves, the barn swallows and the purple martins circling overhead. I was weightless, floating in front of the curving metal plates as black now as the black of space.

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