A Conversation with Andrew Martin
By Jason Bacaj
Andrew Martin visited Missoula this fall and was gracious enough to let me pull him aside for a short Q&A despite the fact that I hadn’t read his book [author’s note: now I have]. Andrew earned an MFA from the University of Montana and made the pilgrimage back to town to read from his debut novel, Early Work, at the Montana Book Festival. To help quell my anxiety over conducting an interview for which I felt wildly unprepared, Andrew and I conducted the interview over Bloody Marys at the Tamarack Brewing Company.
Jason Bacaj: Let’s start with your professional bio. I saw that you were an editorial assistant at the outset?
Andrew Martin: I went to Columbia in New York as an undergrad and got a job as an intern at the New York Review of Books in my last semester. An assistant there had to leave the country very abruptly, and they desperately needed someone to fill her place. So very suddenly I was spending all my time in the New York Review office as an editorial assistant to Bob Silvers, the legendary, extremely old editor of the New York Review. He’s famous, and accurately so, for being a difficult man.
JB: Sounds like a good place to start. What all does being an editorial assistant entail?
AM: The office was tiny. There’s basically Silvers running it as a sort of dictatorship, and a couple senior editors who do more fact checking and copy editing and broad, bigger picture stuff. Then there are four editorial assistants who do a lot of the grunt work of the magazine. He would dictate emails, so you’d have to type up his emails
JB: Would you sign off ‘Dictated but not read by, Bob Silvers’?
AM: (laughs) He would read them and then line edit the emails by hand. Sometimes there’d be these long editorial memos that he’d go into every detail and you’d rewrite it like ten times over the course of the day.
The really great educational part of it was that if he thought a piece wasn’t working, he’d be like, ‘This piece doesn’t make any sense, it needs more background,’ or whatever. He’d throw the manuscript at you and you’d be charged with trying to ventriloquize what his editorial acumen would be on the piece. You’d do your edit of the piece, your marginal notes, and write a memo about it for him. Then he would heavily edit your edit and completely re-write the memo. But you’d start to see the process of putting a piece together.
JB: It sounds like a graduate degree in itself.
AM: It really was. You just learned about so many writers. The history of the Review is so caught up in mid-century American literary history, so you’re learning about Elizabeth Hardwick and James Baldwin and Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Some of them called the office. I talked to John Updike. I did edits over the phone on the last poem he ever published; it was crazy. It was very romantic and very old fashioned. And also really hard and stressful when you’re 23 and don’t know who most of these people are.
JB: And you’re having to figure it out on the fly while you have some guy yelling and dictating things.
AM: Right, exactly. Do this, do this—also did you make plans for me to go to the opera tonight?—also edit this piece, also how do you not know who Gore Vidal is, you idiot?
I was there for three years, which was about all I could do. Three and a half years. It was exhausting. Silvers also famously worked seven days a week. You’d work a lot of weekends. People would come in in shifts. There was a night shift.
JB: Damn. How’d he have so much energy?
AM: He was amazing. I mean, Silvers really was amazing. He was in his 80s. I worked there when he was 79 to 82 and he’d work like twelve-hour days. He’d go to the theatre and come back at 10 o’clock at night and work until 3 in the morning. He had a bed in the office.
JB: You went from there to the University of Montana MFA program?
AM: Yeah. It was a fairly abrupt transition.
JB: I bet grad school unfolded at a leisurely pace after that.
AM: It was like I had all the time in the world. Time just slowed to a crawl. But I had applied to programs the year before I got into any. I applied to about ten programs, didn’t get in anywhere. And then the next year, in a weird mood, I looked up some seemingly random places. Montana’s program had an interesting reputation and history and I figured why not.
“We’re all sinners before God; I hope I’m no worse than anyone else.”
JB: Yeah, I didn’t know much about it either when I applied. Funding was the main decider for me.
AM: I determined I wasn’t going to do it if I couldn’t get funding. But I’ve had friends who’ve done it who’ve paid for it. I imagine that’s still the case here at UM—some people are funded, some aren’t. And like a bunch of my friends who were really good writers didn’t get funded and, you know, a few jackasses who weren’t very diligent did get funded.
JB: Ah, yes. The start to learning how arbitrary it all is.
AM: Right? Welcome to the literary community… I’d never really been to the Mountain West before. I’d been to California like twice and I’d been to New Mexico, but I’d never been out here at all. It was something of a culture shock for me. I’d been living in New York for almost a decade, and I grew up in Jersey, so I wasn’t exactly hugely acquainted with the byways of Montana life.
I think, maybe because it was such an extreme contrast, I found it so liberating for my work and thinking about what I wanted to write about and what was interesting to me. It was instant subject matter because it was stuff I had never encountered before.
JB: What’d you do right after the program?
AM: I got really lucky and published my first story right out of the program in the Paris Review.
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AM: Could I get a side of bacon? It looks too good to not get.
JB: That’s hitting the ground running.
AM: It was extremely lucky and great. I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia because my girlfriend was in medical school there. We had done some long distance and it was, you know, hard to do. It was just time to go there. I taught community college there in Charlottesville and at a nonprofit writing workshop. I freelanced a lot and wrote a lot of fiction. Charlottesville’s pretty cheap.
JB: I had my first newspaper internship over at the Charlottesville Daily Progress, actually. Interesting city.
AM: Charlottesville has its unpleasant things, and there’s a moneyed Southern attitude there. But we lived in a tiny little house for a thousand bucks a month with a tiny little yard. I didn’t have to work full time, though. I was teaching off and on, freelancing. I basically wrote most of a story collection and most of the novel there in Charlottesville. The book is very much about Charlottesville and that whole world.
JB: I was glad for that first question at the Q&A after the reading yesterday, about how much of Early Work reflects on familiar life experiences rather than whether the main character was actually you, thinly disguised.
AM: I think it’s an interesting way to think about things because that question assumes that your character is not you, which people often do assume. Turns out not everybody has gone to an MFA program or gotten an English degree. Which, honestly, in my world I can forget sometimes. I surround myself with academics and writers and people in PhD programs and shit. And then you’re out at a bookstore and someone’s just like ‘This seems like you did all these bad things,’ like, ‘Did you do the things? Are you bad?’
And you say, ‘No? We’re all sinners before God; I hope I’m no worse than anyone else.’ The risk of the book [Early Work] is it very much has the appearance of being autobiographical and very deliberately courts that because it’s about…
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AM: She just pulled this off the Bloody Mary stand didn’t she? ... No, it’s a little warmer.
JB: Maybe she pulled it off the bottom of the stack.
AM: My bio is similar to the guy in the book, and the guy in the book’s a total asshole. He treats his partner really badly and he treats his friends really badly. It’s sort of a self indictment, but also not an accurate portrayal, I hope, of my life.
JB: One of the things I’m curious about with the nuts and bolts of fiction, because I’m still wrapping my mind around that…
AM: Did you work with David Gates at all?
JB: Yeah, he helped a lot with crystallizing in my mind what my thesis was about. Mostly I was trying to be super journalistic and then turned in the first couple pieces and he was like, ‘You know, this is a coming-of-age story’ … one of those cutting and incisive comments where it’s like, ‘Ah, dammit. You’re right.’
AM: The very first story I turned in at Montana was in Gates’ workshop. The story was called “the Dream Room.” The first thing he said was *breaks into a surprisingly good Gates impression* ‘Who here thinks “the Dream Room” has to go?’
Something like that. I was like, ‘What do you mean?’
He said, ‘Well, it’s a shitty title and the scene where it takes place doesn’t really make sense.’
‘Oh. Alright David, tell me what you really think.’
JB: I read a couple old interviews where you talked about how some characters in the novel flow between that and the short stories you’ve written. I was curious about how you imagine the world in which all this takes place, where characters are almost, I don’t know, for lack of a better word, interchangeable?
AM: I think because for me fiction is so much about creating a consciousness—creating particular voices or ways of thinking—that it feels natural to me to continue to use those consciousnesses that I’ve created. Because at least so far in my work I’ve explored a pretty narrow range of people and feelings, which is people in their 20s, for the most part, who are writers or artists of some kind who are like overeducated and struggling to figure out what their life is supposed to mean.
And interchangeable feels like a dirty word or a pejorative word, but, honestly, I do feel like some of my characters are almost interchangeable. They’re from the same milieu. They’re not interchangeable because they’re all individuals. But I like the idea of following a particular consciousness across different experiences of their life and different periods of their life and seeing the way different experiences affect this particular kind of consciousness.
I realize that’s kind of an autobiographical impulse on some level because I’m an overeducated neurotic writer who’s like ended up in all kinds of interesting corners of the country, and I’ve been interested to see the way this particular way of seeing the world has filtered these places. So, I think on some level I’m always kind of writing about myself but putting different names on.
JB: My mind immediately jumps to Kilgore Trout, the sort of constant presence and all that.
AM: I love writers who do that. I know I’ve said it before, but Bolano I know was a big influence for a lot of people. Seeing the way he reuses characters and ideas across stories and novels was really exciting to me. The feeling that there’s this interconnected web of people.
JB: And it gives characters a whole life arc, which is super interesting to get into. Seeing them change and then when they’re their own beings and you put them into a situation and they react differently. That’s the whole magic bit of fiction that I don’t understand.
I’ve gotten into arguments—just fun teasing arguments, for the most part as long as we’re not too drunk—
AM: Yeah, you think it’s fun
JB: —just about writing characters and letting them guide the story versus outlining. Coming from a journalist background I tend to fall on the more structured side. Seems like most of the fiction people kind of chuckle knowingly when I make my case.
AM: It’s funny, it swings back and forth. I’m teaching these classes at a place called Grubstreet in Boston. The students are a lot of people who aren’t looking at it from an MFA point of view, but from where they want to write a novel, some want to write more commercial kinds of novels—
JB: Oh nice, I respect that.
AM: —I respect it too, but I feel like they get frustrated because I’m of the MFA school and say ‘Follow your instincts’ and ‘Create organic character out of voice,’ and they’re like ‘Tell us how to outline a plot.’ So I go through a spiel where if you were to outline a plot it would look like this or that. But really I’m winging it because I’ve never outlined a plot in my life. I make notes and go back and look at them, but it’s not really a true conflict chart or anything.
Not to say that outlining isn’t legitimate if you’ve got a piece that relies on intricate narrative. I hope to get better at story, at driving with plot, because I think at the moment it hasn’t been a priority for me as a writer. I don’t think I’m ever going to be someone who writes purely plot-based pieces, but it’d be good to harness some of those energies.
JB: So, to be fully honest, I haven’t read your book.
AM: That occurred to me. You don’t have to read it.
JB: No, I will. I read The Marriage Plot over the summer and it reminded me in the very broad sense of yours in that it’s a love triangle… drank too much of my Bloody Mary too fast.
AM: My book is way better than that. *laughs*
JB: *laughs* Oh, I remember. Rather than having a plot forced upon the characters where they have to navigate like a rat in a maze, their reactions guide the twists.
AM: That’s true. I don’t know. Even though I like it as a romantic idea, I’m skeptical of the ‘Oh, the characters tell me what to do’ school. At the end of the day you’re making the decision. You’re creating a range of options and the character does what seems the most natural based on what you’ve done. But I can’t help but feel the instrumentality of writer-ness where, ‘Ah, I had the option not to kill that character.’ Let’s not pretend that there’s a force beyond us guiding this process.
“My writing is really serious. The stories and the book, I mean it all with deathly seriousness. This is my life, this is everything I’ve got.”
JB: I have some process questions: Where do you work and when? Is it in the morning at a coffee shop or afternoons at home at a desk or something else entirely?
AM: I’ve tried to become someone who can be adaptive and I think part of that is like having been a professional writer for my entire adult life, like you have.
Gosh, when I lived here [in Missoula] - I’ve kind of gone off the NFL - but when I lived here the 11 am start times were dangerous. Be in Red’s at 11 pounding beers. For some reason I wanted to be with the real grubby old timers, the real morning alcoholics.
JB: The career ones.
AM: I wrote a short story about it, but I couldn’t quite make it go. It was gonna be in my collection.
JB: Those types of bars in Montana, probably just for any rural place in general, are fun because people don’t necessarily choose to be there, to live there. They just get stuck there in their own lives be it professional or personal, and they just do weird shit all the time. It’s so interesting.
AM: I certainly did weird shit all the time. Even as part of an MFA program I felt very isolated in some ways here. My routine was to get drunk Sunday mornings at this dive bar.
JB: It feels very natural to slip into. But you were saying you were trying to be adaptive?
AM: Yes, when I’m actually in the middle of a project like a novel or deep into a short story I try to write as much as possible. I try to write every day and write for a few hours a day. I’ve had this desk that’s traveled between numerous houses where it’s like, ‘If I keep this nice desk I’m going to be someone who sits at a desk all the time.’ But instead I end up at the kitchen table or on the couch or in a cafe or something and my partner Laura works at the desk. I don’t know why, I can’t be a stare-at-the-wall, sit-in-a-chair kind of person. I’m restless and move around.
JB: Yeah, I tend to do the same when working at home. Move around to get the blood flowing, maybe play with the dog.
AM: I feel like I paradoxically have gotten a lot more work done since I got a dog, who you have to take for a walk numerous times per day.
JB: It imposes structure on your life.
AM: It really does. It forces you to be home more. I do like working in coffee shops and bars and stuff. But if I’m being honest it’s often a procrastinating technique. It’s like you can be working but also drinking coffee or beer and listening in on conversations and checking the internet. I love Bernice’s [Bakery, in Missoula] because they don’t have WiFi, that’s where I’d go a lot.
JB: I’m intrigued by this desk now. Did you haul it all the way here to Montana for the program, or acquire it down in Charlottesville?
AM: We got it down in Charlottesville and now we’ve trucked it up to Boston. I think it’ll probably come wherever we go next. It’s a nice desk. It’s got really big drawers, deep drawers. I’ve got a year’s worth of papers stashed in there. I don’t have to deal with it because there’s so much room.
JB: How do you like to conduct research? Is there much research in your rhythm of writing?
AM: I guess not that much for fiction. I’m trying to figure out how to do it better though because the story collection that’s coming out next year or early 2020 and the novel are very much like everything I already knew, stuff about places I’ve lived, people I’ve known.
Though there’s this point in the novel where they get very stoned and watch a Michael Jackson movie, so I got stoned and watched a Michael Jackson movie. A little bit of method writing, some pharmacological research.
I want my next book to be about, at least in part about, family history. A novelistic fictional accounting of it. My mother’s side of the family is Armenian. So, I know stories my grandmother told me and I know about Armenian history a little bit, but if I was to write about that I would need to do some serious research.
JB: Just from listening to the excerpt you read and in reading a few reviews and whatnot, it’s abundantly clear that you use humor really well. How much of the comedy in your writing is deliberate and how much tends to be incidental?
AM: It’s intentional. I really love stand-up and people who are really funny. A hard thing about fiction is you don’t get to test your material in the same way a stand-up does. So it’s fun to read it and see which lines actually kill and which lines don’t, and it’s sometimes really surprising. Yesterday there was a line that I thought was really funny that didn’t get a peep. Then another one I didn’t think was all that funny, maybe the way I delivered it, got a big reaction.
When we talk about writing first person or incorporating your voice into a piece, for me, the way in was humor. I seem to sort of freeze up as a first-person narrator. For me, the humor is somehow a way to cut the self-seriousness that seems inherent in first person writing. I tend to descend into melodrama if I write in first person sometimes. I think self-deprecation is necessary for me in both fiction and nonfiction, so it’s kind of a deliberate attempt to create a voice I could live with on the page.
JB: Now I’m citing an interview I read rather than reading your book… you were asked about how the characters qualify what they’re saying before going ahead and saying it regardless. Your answer was just that that was the way your friends talk. It sounds like you use humor to similar ends, offering a bit of levity to strike the right tone.
AM: Yeah, my writing is really serious. The stories and the book, I mean it all with deathly seriousness. This is my life, this is everything I’ve got. Somehow it seems important to me to ironize it, to distance it, to feel true to my sensibility, the way I think about the world. Which is serious but also inherently skeptical and satirical because it feels like it’s not serious.
I remember I interviewed George Saunders when I was in college, when he published his first couple collections. He said to me, ‘I’d like to figure out how to unlock the sincerity cheat code’—I don’t think he used that metaphor—but he said he’d really love to develop that part of his repertoire, and he was like, ‘I really feel myself, as I get older, more in touch with that sincerity.’ Lo and behold, he writes Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo, which are the most achingly sincere books of the decade.
I like the idea of developing one’s emotional palette, but I’m definitely still early George Saunders mode, where everything needs to be cut with three degrees of irony in order for it to feel not embarrassing to me.
JB: It seems like one of those things that only makes sense with time. I’m so intrigued by how much time and living in a thing -- it’s not quite one of those hockey stick graphs, exponential sort of things. But the way once a lesson sinks in over the course of so many years, so many other moving parts lock into place that it almost feels like an exponential leap in your understanding.
AM: I met with some of the MFA kids yesterday morning and talked to a few of them at the readings and stuff, and had these great conversations. Still everyone looks really unhappy when I say, ‘You know, it’s going to take a while. It sucks, but it is.’ A couple people are able to break through early and publish groundbreaking novels in their 20s, and I feel very jealous of them. But like five years passed between leaving the MFA and publishing my first novel. I don’t think I could’ve done it any faster. It just took that long.
JB: Is the sincerity thing something you’re focusing on with future work? Aside from the short story project you already have in the hopper, of course.
AM: I’m trying to explore that in a couple of the newer stories in the collection. Stuff that’s a little bit less reflexively, I wouldn’t say cynical, but reflexively harsh or something. I really think it’d be cool as a writer to have a wider range of emotions and experience that could be covered.
I’m trying to start thinking about a new novel and trying to figure out how to do it. I think part of it for me is going to be opening it up to take on a longer time period. Most of the main action of this novel takes place over the course of a couple months with sections of flashback, but it’s a tight window of time. It’s informed by short story writing in a number of ways. I think having a wider canvas of characters and emotion and maybe just time would be a really interesting thing to do. So that’s my very vague goal.
JB: An appropriately vague answer for a vague question. Have you dived down any bizarre rabbit holes lately?
AM: I’ve been into Proust lately. I’ve been both listening to an audiobook of Proust and reading it.
JB: How’s the audiobook? I feel like it’d be really hard to follow.
AM: It is really hard to follow but also delightful. At a certain point, I realized I’m not going to get through this thing unless I also listen to it. I walk the dog, walk into town, drive, what better way to pass the time.
JB: Picking up the spare minutes where they come.
AM: But what’s weird is I’m listening to the original English translation, then there’s this revised translation in book form, and there’s further revised translations. I’m going down a rabbit hole of reading about all the different translations and what’s different about them. And then I’ll notice weird differences between when I’m listening and reading and try to figure out why it changed. It’s a pretty silly thing to be intrigued by.
ANDREW MARTIN's stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Zyzzyva, and Tin House's Flash Fridays series, and his non-fiction has been published by The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, and others. Early Work is his first novel.
Jason Bacaj is a writer from West Virginia and was the Truman Capote Fellow at the University of Montana, where he is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction. He worked as a reporter for The Seattle Times, Anniston Star, and Bozeman Daily Chronicle and is a nonfiction editor of CutBank. His writing has appeared in publications such as Outside and Powder.