We are proud to have long-time IR contributor Michael Martone judge the inaugural 2016 IR/IU Press Blue Light Books Prize. While readying your short story collections, read his generous interview where he discusses his favorite short story collections, Saturn’s rings, a story’s pulse, and what he might be looking for in the winning short-story collection.
Michael Martone’s most recent books are 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.
Martone’s stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, Story, North American Review, Epoch, Denver Quarterly, Iowa Review, Third Coast, Shenandoah, Bomb, and have appeared and been cited in the Pushcart Prize as well as The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essays anthologies. He has won two Fellowships from the NEA and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation.
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.
1. What are your favorite short story collections and why?
A few favorites—Turgenev’s A Hunter’s Sketchbook, Red Cavalry by Babel, Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Kawabata, Tender Buttons by Stein, Everything that Rises Must Converge by O’Connor, Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. I think I am attracted to “concept” books of stories, the pieces written individually but all contributing to the overall design of the book.
2. We hear a lot about how story collections are “greater than the sum of their parts,” meaning that the collection is bigger or important in ways that individual pieces simply can’t be. Do you think this is true, and how exactly might this be?
“Collections” does imply “collections.” Right, a catchall, a repository of unique, individual pieces. There are books—Donald Barthelme’s Sixty-Stories say—that are truly collections of short stories or fictions while Amateurs or City Life seem to be designed to work not as collections but collectively. Many “collections” composed of short pieces can be thought as being compiled in a strategic concept, working together to form a book. I think the stories of In Our Time were written and published independently but then compiled and added to when the context changed into a book. Perhaps Hemingway didn’t know when he was writing the individual pieces that there was this theme, this multiplying effect until he did see all the stories together. That is to say the stories, in a way, can instruct their author in subliminal obsessions, in strategic long-term interests. Then there is The Nick Adams Stories—a book Hemingway wrote but did not collect or edit—that seems to reveal much more than Hemingway could ever fathom. Sometimes, we need to write all the pieces in order to actually see the whole. Maybe at other times one can work through accretion to create the effect the way finishing furniture in layers of varnish and sanding creates a depth that defies and confounds the flat surface. The creative writing workshop in America, with its interest in short prose that fits its format, add to the thinking of short fiction as both an individual work of art to be published separately and a mere part of a whole. And the genius of the form is that it can and does both. It is a planet or the planet’s moons or the rings of a planet that in their spectacular and collective nature are more planet than the planet they circle. Saturn’s rings are more Saturn than Saturn don’t you think?
3. It seems that utilizing form in various ways is an important feature in your work. What anchors you throughout this diversity in form or style? How do you know a story has a pulse?
Yes, I am very interested in form. I would go so far as to say that I am more comfortable thinking of myself as a formalist instead of an experimentalist. I never thought the binary description of experiment/traditional was that helpful. There are many forms, many ways of shaping prose and those various shapes can become attached to further modifiers, genres, of “fiction” and “nonfiction.” I think we tend to use “short story” and “short fiction” interchangeably, but I do, in my formalist manner, see each as worlds apart. I am just going on about this to address the other part of your prompt. I think the act of creating literary art begins with the writer posing for him— or herself interesting questions or imposing problems of content and style. The pulse for me then is appreciating the working out through the written performance the solution to the complex challenges that initiate the effort. “How short can a short short story be?” “How long—in number of words, pages—can a story go when its action in real time is a fraction of a second?” “What is a footnote and what would a story told in footnotes feel like?” I realize that one form of fiction, narrative realism, works very hard to be transparent, to not call attention to its artifice, to its making, but even the realistic narrative is in part about “story,” I think. The pulse for me then is in the paradox of the geometry of story telling—the self-imposed limitation of the bounded space and the infinite possibilities contained within such limits.
4. In your most recent work, Winesburg, Indiana, there is a “Book Club Guide prepared by Amanda Patch with the aid of the Ladies of the Ladies Book Clubs of Our Lady of the Circumcision, Roman Catholic Church, and the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Dymphna located in Winesburg, Indiana.” This Guide feels like a continuation or an epilogue of sorts. Could you talk about that decision and how you see that fitting in with the collection?
In Hugh Kenner’s book, The Counterfeiters, he wonders why so many writers who are playfully self-conscious about form are Irish. Stern, Defoe, Swift, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett. He answers his question by suggesting that of all the English speaking groups, the Irish had a well-developed oral tradition of story telling, so well developed that when they sat down to tell a story in a book it was a wholly different thing. One of the conventions of realistic narrative is make the written story appear as if the written part of it, the material nature, is not there. At most it is to be a transcription of an oral tale and not call attention to itself. Not that I am Irish but it always seemed to me that something could be done with parts of the book that are usually ignored in service to the convention of transparency. Blurbs, dedications, table of contents, indexes, margins, author’s notes. When the publisher of the Blue Guide travel books sued FC2 for publishing The Blue Guide to Indiana (trademark infringement) part of the settlement was to attach a warning label on the books front cover. I really wanted to write that label—the genre of the warning label! Don’t you love the language of side effects? The small print of small print writ large! So here is this new parasitic text appearing in books—the Book Club Reader’s Guide! The marketing people at the press wanted to do this. So you bet I wanted to incorporate this seemingly peripheral writing as part of the overall concept of the book.
5. In a short-story collection, what catches your eye? What might you be looking for when reading for the 2016 Blue Light Books Prize?
Fair warning, I think, is given above. My eye is caught by a little wink, a little self-consciousness of formal play. I assume everyone will be, at least in part, running his or her words through an incredibly powerful typesetting machine, and I am very interested in seeing just what artists imagine doing with this new technology, this new narrative delivery device. That being said I certainly am still stirred by the transparent trickery of narrative realism. I can be drawn into a well-constructed sustained dream. It is unfortunate that I am here a “judge” and I have to perform the tasks of sorting and norming. I don’t think of myself when I read anything as judgmental. I enter a text, I believe, I hope, with great curiosity. What kind of animal is this? I don’t start reading asking every creature I come upon to be a lion. I always dread making the decisions I am charged to make because I know the making of a book, a collection of stories or fictions, is difficult and yet rewarding in itself. The truth is, I guess, that I don’t really know what will catch my eye at this particular moment in time and space. As we all know, workers in an existentially linear medium, we never step into the same river twice.