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
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.
NUVO: Indiana has a great historical literary tradition. But for the last 100 years or so, most Indiana writers, like Midwestern writers in general, have written as exiles. Why?
Martone: The imaginary quality of the Midwest and the rapidity with which the frontier swept through that, I think. It is very much a place, but it is very much a placelessness. In Indiana, the biggest cities are both imaginary cities. There's no reason Indianapolis should exist, except it's in the middle in the state. Gary was somebody's dream.
Even the motto of Indiana, the Crossroads of America — you've got that weird paradox of the road itself being a place. I-69 doesn't move, but it is all about movement.
So in some ways I think of the Midwest, and also of Indiana, in the way one is supposed to regard a Zen garden. Unlike a western garden, where you walk through it and participate with the plants, in the Zen garden you are on the outskirts, but you face inward, toward the garden and, no matter where you sit, there is always one of those big rocks hidden. You can never see it all.
NUVO: It reminds me of having once served on a committee that was charged with asking people to describe Indianapolis. What we found was that there was no shared vocabulary for talking about the place.
Martone: I began thinking of the Midwest not so much as the flyover as the leftover. When I taught in Iowa and asked my students what the Midwest was, they'd say Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri. And I'd say, "What about Ohio?" And they'd say, "Oh, no, that's the East."
I'd tell them my Midwest was Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and part of Iowa. It came to me that what I was describing was a football conference. The students were describing their football conference.
Another paradoxical feeling is that Midwesterners secretly believe that they are, in fact, the heart of the heart of the country, and that they are morally or ethically or spiritually the typical American center. Of course they do that secretly. You don't want to brag about that. But we believe we are holding the country together — that the east and west coasts would fall off into the sea without us.
At the same time, there is also this feeling that we're in the center of nowhere. So we're in the heart of the heart of the country. But that's also the middle of nowhere. From my point of view as a storywriter, that makes for an interesting conflict. The place feels, at once, incredibly important — Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler's List — but incredibly out of touch.
NUVO: Vonnegut might have called this being unstuck.
Martone: Right. In the first flowering of Midwestern literature, Hamlin Garland called it "the middle border" and I like that idea. We're between things. But the border, too, is like a road. It's a place and it's also the way through a place.
The way to see that is by being outside and looking back in. When you're in the middle of things, you cannot sense a beginning, a middle and an end. You need to be outside.
"The Musée de Bob Ross, Muncie" from The Blue Guide to Indiana (2001)
Housed in the converted and renovated Ball Brothers Department Store in downtown Muncie, The Musée de Bob Ross is home to the world's largest collection of works by the late master, Bob Ross. Over eight thousand paintings are in inventory while several hundred are displayed at any one time in the museum's twelve galleries. The characteristic landscapes and seascapes, most of them painted live while being the taped during his widely syndicated television show produced by Muncie Public TV, are displayed chronologically to give the visitor a sense of Ross's progression of technique and his many chromatic periods which culminate in the final umber phase predominant at the time of his untimely death. With a palette more extensive than every major artist save Delacroix, Mr. Ross's repetitive rendering of his special motif, a placid lake in an ancient fir forest, is made new with each painting. The artist's actual palettes are, themselves, displayed on the mezzanine where the visitor can appreciate Bob Ross's meticulous craft in the mixing of his paints preserved in a kind of fossil record which, in its energy and élan, rivals the most enthusiastic abstract expressionist works. Also of interest is the faithful recreation of the artist's studio in what was once women's lingerie where Mr. Ross's easels, his primed and stretched canvases, and his tubes of paint are arrayed in the manner they were found upon his passing. Here too are the myriad variety of brushes and palette knives as well as his extensive collection of combs and hair picks and a selection of his favored models such as a potted Norfolk Island Pine, a boulder from Jasper Beach, Maine, and a sky chart from the National Aeronautic and Space Administration showing the different categories of clouds. In the museum's entry vestibule, a bank of television monitors constantly features tapes of the master at work. Those tapes along with poster, postcard, and refrigerator magnet reproductions of the work may be purchased in the tastefully appointed gift shop where the visitor will also discover the complete library of Mr. Ross's instructional media. There is also The Happy Little Tree Cafe which specializes in nouvelle cuisine.
NUVO: When you published Alive and Dead in Indiana in 1984, America was experiencing a kind of short story renaissance. How would you describe the country's literary trajectory since then?
Martone: In the 1970's, when I went to graduate school, literary storytelling was in a crisis. You could see the writers of that time — people like John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William Gass — responding to the various media and other types of storytelling. They came up with weird books, like Lost In the Funhouse. These were things that could not be made into movies. These were things that were only about writing.
In 1980, things switched over from these wild experimenters to Raymond Carver and Richard Ford and Alice Munro, who were doing, essentially, Chekov's short story. And they could get away with that because they weren't confronting television. They were ignoring television. Instead of confronting other ways of telling stories, people hunkered down in the bunkers of campuses and wrote realistic narrative stories.
When I applied to a graduate writing program, there were 15 places to apply to. By 1984, there were over 200. All through the '80s, '90s and '00s, my students were writing realistic narrative stories and they were loving people like Alice Munro. The realistic narrative story was easy to workshop. A workshop is much more interested in technique and craft. Realistic storytelling is full of technique and craft.
But if I brought in something like The Blue Guide to Indiana — how do you workshop that? How do you make it better? It's a conceptual piece.
Then, all of a sudden, two things happened. Kelly Link started writing fairy tales and, on the other side, a magazine called McSweeney's and Dave Eggers started doing satires, like a story in the form of a menu from a McDonald's restaurant. The significance of those things is that they started to bloom outside the university.
NUVO: What does that move toward more conceptual stories have to tell us about how people are experiencing the world?
Martone: There's one thing that can explain it, and that's the invention of the personal computer. A computer is not just a typewriter. It's something different. I tell a story about the combine. You know how the combine got its name? When we harvested grain by hand, we did it in three steps. We cut it, we then bound it together, and then we brought it in the yard and threshed it. It took humans about 40 or 50 years to realize, hey, we can put that all in one machine. That's why it's called a combine.
When people started writing, they wrote by hand. Then in the 19th century, they used a machine. But they still wrote one letter at a time. Then they added a printer and a copier. It's taken about 40 or 50 years to understand that now it's not all these different machines that go into writing and creating this art, it's one machine and it's a computer hooked to the Internet. It's the combine of writing.
Writer, editor, publisher, reader are all collapsing. What we're discovering is they're all the same thing.
I am a writer. In the old days I would produce a text that I would give to an editor and a publisher would print it in a book to give that to a reader. Now I have my own press. I publish myself. These roles aren't separate. The key thing is that when we were younger and we published ourselves, that was what used to be called "vanity publishing." But that is now being called "self publishing." Pretty soon, the "self" will drop off and it will just be "publishing." It is already.
"On Anesthesia" from Pensees: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle (1994)
The naval officer with the football clutches it like, well, a football, tucked under one arm and the other arm wrapped over the top. We call it the football, but it's not a football. It's a silver briefcase stuffed with all the secret codes for launching the missiles and the bombers. He slumps in his chair at the far end of the Oval Office. Secret Service agents, packed into the couches, read old People magazines. The lenses of their dark glasses lighten automatically the longer they're inside. They've let me sit at the President's desk in the big leather swivel chair. Now my back is to them. I'm looking out at the Rose Garden where the white buckets weighted down with bricks protect the plants. On the bureau beneath the window, the President has a ton of pictures. His kids and grandkids. His brothers and sisters. Shots of Christmases. The house in Maine. His wife. The dog. I don't see me. Little elephants are scattered among the frames. Carved in stone or wood or cast in polished metal, they all head the same direction, their trunks raised and trumpeting.
Every few minutes I like to turn dramatically around to face the room. Nothing happens. The agents flip through the magazines licking their thumbs to turn the pages. Other aides huddle by the door fingering each other's label pins. The naval officer with the football has a rag out now. He breathes on the briefcase then rubs the fog off the shiny surface.
I get to be President for about twenty minutes more. The real President is under anesthesia at Bethesda. In the big cabinet room the chiefs of staff are watching the operation on a closed circuit hook-up. A stenographer is taking down everything that's being said. They asked me if I wanted to watch with them, but I get squeamish at the sight of blood. I'd wait in the Oval Office I told them. An amendment to the Constitution lets me be Acting President in such situations, but there is nothing for me to do. We've been ignoring the press. No sense mentioning it.
I've been doodling on White House stationery I found in the desk drawer. I always draw parallel zig-zagging lines, connecting them up to form steps. When I am finished I can look at the steps the regular way and then I can make myself see them upside down, flipping back and forth in my head from one way to the other. I arrange the pens on the desk blotter after I've used them as if I am going to give them out as souvenirs.
They let me make a few phone calls. I called a supporter in Phoenix but I forgot about the time difference and I woke him up. What could I say? I'm sorry. I left a message for the Governor of Indiana, a Democrat I play golf with some times. His father, when he was a senator, wrote the amendment that let me be President for a few hours. "Just tell him the President called," I said. I wanted to rub it in. I called Janine, my high school girl friend, who is an actuary in Chicago. I don't know her politics. "Guess where I am," I said. She couldn't guess. When I traveled commercial I used to call her at her home from O'Hare on a stopover. I let her know I was a Congressman, a Senator. I wanted her to know I was on my way someplace.
"Try," I said. "From where I sit I can see the Washington Memorial." That wasn't true. I was looking at the Commander with the football. She told me she was running late, that her eggs were getting cold. Janine had a view of the lake, I imagined, her building near a beach on the North Shore.
"I've got to go," I said, "this is on the taxpayer's nickel." I wanted everyone to hear me. The men in the room, I could see, were trying hard not to look like they were listening.
NUVO: What was Indiana like when you were growing up?
Martone: I kid my students today about what it was like to actually stand up and cross a room to turn the station on a television.
With my growing up in Fort Wayne, it isn't so much that I'm nostalgic for that, but I do see that my obsessions have to do with a certain system of civilization. I think I was born into a kind of ruin. I was born into a postwar America that was incredibly rich and because it was rich, it could rebuild itself with these notions of the past that were being destroyed by the automobile.
NUVO: It's interesting how we link our notions of progress to destruction.
Martone: Look at Henry Ford. What he does is put together this town based on his youth up in Greenfield Village, where he doesn't allow any automobiles except for a Model T and Model A. He gets nostalgic for the very thing that he destroyed.
There's this false belief that the technical things we do don't really change us. That we can handle it. That's why when I was writing essays about Iowa and farming and the Midwest, I was looking at the Amish.
Any time you bring up the Amish, people will say, "Oh, I've seen them watch television. I know they ride in cars." But the point is that the Amish are very good at understanding that a technological choice has consequences. When Velcro was invented, the Amish wouldn't use it because if you use Velcro on your shoes, then a child doesn't need to sit down with his grandfather and grandmother and learn how to tie a shoe. The Amish put that in a hierarchy of what is important, higher than the convenience of not sitting down with your kid and spending hours teaching a complicated knot.
But we think this is great. It won't affect us. It'll make life easier. But you take that and multiply it by all the other things we thought were benign and you see there are consequences.
For me, in my growing up, normalness, the desire to be average, in the middle, that it's all a shared experience — and the anxiety of trying to hold that together at the same time that other forces were tearing that apart — made me really interested in this place.
NUVO: You've imagined a post-human world, where technologies blur the line between people and machines. What's the role of art in such a society?
Martone: I have people turn on their cell phones when I give readings and I give them my cell phone number to text me, or anybody else, during my reading. That's been an interesting experiment because the assumption is that in order for people to pay attention to me I have to tell them to turn off this distraction, the cell phone. What I tend to do is say, "No, let's use that distraction and distract it toward me as the reader. It will further enhance your experience of what I read."
In my class, the students write poems on their phones. If the technology is here, it isn't so much what art can do, it's making my students or myself aware of how to make art out of this stuff. There's a huge nostalgia and a huge grieving going on. I guess I've chosen the other way. I'm not going to grieve; it's just change, I've got to adapt to it. In what way can I meet it as a difference?
NUVO: Is the source of that grieving the end of the analog experience?
Martone: In publishing, the model was very long-lived. The book itself still has legs. There are still things only a book can do. The nostalgia isn't for the loss of the book, but for the loss of stability and those roles — who the reader is, who the writer is, and the lack of authority and hierarchy. What the Internet and computers do to writing is to completely level it. Anybody can write. Anybody can publish. Anybody can have an opinion. That's an exciting revolution, but for some people, no, they want to know who the best writer is, what the good stuff is. It's the fear of a kind of true democracy.
What's happening here? Are we returning, as writers, to the point where sculptors and artists were when they were building the cathedrals in the middle ages? Maybe we're not sure what this new cathedral-like construction is dedicated to. Maybe it's information itself.
"Contributor's Note (Mom Writes)" from Michael Martone, a fictional memoir made up of such notes originally published in the backs of mags in their bio sections
Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and was educated in the public schools there. His first published work, a poem titled "Recharging Time," and a character sketch, "Tim, the Experience" about his brother, appeared in The Forum, an annual literary magazine produced by the school system featuring contributions of its students. His mother, a high school freshman English teacher at the time, in fact, wrote the poem and the character sketch signing her son's name to the work and sending it into the editor, another English teacher at a south side junior high school who had been a sorority sister, Kappa Alpha Theta, in college. Indeed, most of his papers written for school were written by his mother. Examples included: English research papers, history term papers, translations from the Latin, speeches, and lab reports. It began innocently enough with his mother writing his essays, the prose supposedly dictated by the son to his mother whose penmanship was far and away more legible. This arrangement, her son sitting across the kitchen table in a sense thinking out loud as she transcribed his thoughts with the same pen she used to grade her own students' papers, engendered in her a very active editorial intervention which began to shape the spontaneous utterances emanating from her son. Soon this situation evolved to the point where her son sat silently while she wrote an original response to his initial prompt. Once she finished the first draft, she read it back to her son who made a few minor suggestions as to form, style, and content. It was at this time and under these conditions that Martone began thinking of himself as a writer. His mother promoted that view in other ways, announcing to her friends at the local chapter of the educational honorary that her son had an aptitude for writing. The collaboration continued through college where assignments were mailed home and returned or, in some extreme cases, the prose response was communicated via the telephone and copied out in a rather cramped and illegible long hand in the dormitory phone booth. Most of Martone's first book of stories and his occasional essays on the subject of writing and published under his own name were written by his mother who learned, finally, to type in 1979, the year she wrote his graduate thesis. Today Martone receives microcassette recordings his mother has made of his future work with the hard copy arriving by fax or courier with little or no interaction between the collaborators prior to the work's appearance. Martone is hard-pressed to tell you what exactly of his published work could truly be said to be his original contribution, if any, including this contributor's note and the contribution published somewhere else in this magazine.
All excerpts copyright Michael Martone and reprinted with permission.