portrait Lee Martin

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 190 ~ March, 2013

Lee Martin is the author of the novel, The Bright Forever (Broadway; Reprint edition, April 4, 2006), a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, and three other novels, including Break the Skin (Broadway; Reprint edition, April 7, 2009). His other novels are River of Heaven (Broadway; Reprint edition, April 7, 2008) and Quakertown.(Plume, 2001).

Lee Martin

Lee Martin

He is also the author of the memoirs, Such a Life (University of Nebraska Press, March 1, 2012), From Our House (Bison, Books, April 1, 2009), and Turning Bones (University of Nebraska Press, September 1, 2003), and the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know (Sarabande Books, January 1, 1996).

Martin is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in short Fiction, as well as the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals over the years, such as Harper’s, the Georgia Review, the Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train, to name some.


DA: You were an inquisitive observer from an early age.

LM: I was an only child who was often alone with adults, and, because I was in some ways a timid sort, I became practiced at the art of watching and listening. My father was a farmer who lost both of his hands in an accident when I was barely a year old. I knew him as a man with a volatile temper, and, as I grew older, I was always on guard for the slightest changes in the climate of our home, always watching and listening for a sign that he was about to erupt. I became the sort, as Henry James said of the writer, upon whom nothing was lost.

DA: You always felt you were caught between two cultures.

LM: When I was entering the third grade, my parents and I moved from our farm in downstate Illinois to Oak Forest, a southern suburb of Chicago. My mother had lost her teaching position downstate and had taken another one in Oak Forest. For six years, we spent the school years there and the summers and holidays on our farm. As a result of that moving back and forth, I never felt that I truly belonged in either place. In Oak Forest, my downstate “hickish” ways were suspect. For example, I spoke with what my friends in Oak Forest considered a twang, and I called the noon time meal “dinner” instead of  “lunch,” and the evening meal, “supper” instead of “dinner.” When I was downstate, my friends there called me a “city slicker.” So I was always moving between these two cultures, never feeling fully comfortable in either, again watching and listening, trying to learn the ways of the places where I wanted to feel at home.

DA: You say in your memoir, Such a Life, “I was never meant to come along.”

LM: Somewhere in my teen years, it hit me that my conception had been unplanned. My mother was 45 when I was born; my father was 42. They married late in life, the only marriage for both of them, and they had four years alone before I came along. My father died when I was twenty-six, and sometime after his death my mother told me that his first question to the doctor about my mother’s pregnancy was, “Can you get rid of it?” My mother went on to explain that my father had been concerned about her being pregnant at her age, and even though I had no doubt that my father was ultimately thankful for my birth, his question, when added to the complicated relationship that he and I had, was the sort that surely sent me back in memory to every give and take between us. Without that question, I may never have started writing memoir. That question is in many ways the one at the heart of all memoir because it’s so closely connected to the question, “Who am I, and what’s my place in this world, group, family, etc.?”

DA: You discovered reading and a love of books at an early age.

LM: My mother picked up a love of books from her father, who used to read Zane Grey novels to her and her siblings in the evenings after supper. I never knew my grandfather, but I knew the shelves of books he left behind when he died. Those books were in the front bedroom of my grandmother’s house. Before I started school, she kept me during the weekdays when my mother was teaching. In the winter, she closed off the front part of the house so she wouldn’t have to heat it. She had a bedroom off her kitchen, and that’s where she and I lay down for our naps after our noon meal. She told me I wasn’t to go into the unheated part of the house, so, of course, after she was asleep, I slipped from bed and opened the door between the kitchen and the living room. I went into the front bedroom where I liked to sit on the floor with one of my grandfather’s books open on my lap. I couldn’t read, but I loved the way the pages felt, the way the book smelled, the arrangement of the type. It was an instant love affair between me and books, and how could it have been otherwise. My mother’s maiden name was Read.

DA: It was quite a shock when your family moved to a suburb of Chicago.

LM: I remember the day my mother went for her interview, received the offer, and accepted it. We drove the five hours from our farm to Oak Forest, and my father and I were in our car at the school while my mother was interviewing, and I went to sleep in the back seat, and I dreamed that I was back at the farm only to wake up to the news that we were moving to Oak Forest before the summer’s end. Goodbye farm, goodbye friends, goodbye aunts and uncles, goodbye grandmothers, goodbye my trusty beagle dog, goodbye my two room country schoolhouse. Life in Chicagoland was going to be very, very different. I often wonder what would have happened to me if my family had stayed downstate. Those six years in Oak Forest certainly expanded my cultural awareness and gave me opportunities to develop my talents in ways that may not have been possible otherwise. I’m grateful, as a writer and a person, to have a foot in both an urban and a rural world. I have to believe that the move to Oak Forest was part of a journey taking me to where I was meant to go.

DA: And then off to college.

LM: My mother retired from teaching and we moved back downstate when I started high school. I went to a school of around 140 students; my graduating class had twenty-eight students in it. When it came time for college, I didn’t look far. I drove twelve miles along Route 50 to Olney, Illinois, where I attended Olney Central College for two years. From there, I transferred to Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. That’s where my mother had gone to college. My original plan was to major in journalism, but I quickly found out that if I were a reporter I’d have to talk to people. At that time, I was pretty shy, and the thought of asking strangers questions wasn’t a happy one for me. I became an English major instead, preferring to spend my time talking to characters in books.

DA: Tell us about your decision to earn an MFA in writing.

LM: When I was at Eastern Illinois, I took the two creative writing classes that the English Department offered. The instructor was a man named Asa Baber, who had his MFA from Iowa. Once I knew that I wanted to spend my days writing and teaching — and once I knew there was this thing called a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing — I started to dream of entering a writing program. The only one I applied to was at the University of Arkansas, which was about a ten-hour drive from where my parents were still living in Illinois. By this time, they were aged and both suffering their own health issues (in fact, my father would die two weeks before I was to leave for Fayetteville), and I chose Arkansas because it was a good program and it was within a day’s drive of home. Back then (1982), there were far fewer choices when it came to MFA programs. I remember writing AWP for a list, and when it came it was on a single sheet of paper, front and two-thirds of the back. I was much less savvy than folks are these days. My first instinct was to choose a program based on geography. When my father died, I almost backed out on Arkansas. I came very close to staying with the job I’d had for three years so I could be at hand for my mother. She told me my father would have wanted me to follow my dreams, so I did.

DA: You gained a variety of experience with people through different jobs.

LM: When I applied to the Arkansas program, I was working for a federally funded program called Educational Talent Search through Vincennes University. My job was to identify people with potential for postsecondary education but who were disadvantaged culturally, economically, or physically and then to assist them with college admission. My territory was Evansville, Indiana, and the outlying counties. Again, I found myself moving between cultures. One day, I might be at an inner city community center; the next day, I might be at a 4-H group out in the country.  Before that job, I worked for a year and a half in a tire repairs manufacturing plant. I also worked in a shoe factory. I gathered addresses for the Census Bureau, umpired slow-pitch softball games, delivered pizzas, worked on a Christmas tree farm. Thanks to all those jobs, I met a wide variety of people, and I truly learned the work ethic my father had always preached to me. I also learned this valuable lesson: don’t complain about your cushy job of pushing words around the page or the privilege you have of teaching writing workshops; you could be back in the press room of that tire repairs manufacturing plant, burning your arms on the press, inhaling silicone fumes, repeating the same motions over and over.

Such a Life

Such a Life

DA: You also did time in Nebraska.

LM: “Did time?” Ah, Derek, it was hardly an incarceration. I loved the five years I spent in Lincoln, NE, where I received my Ph.D. in English. That city remains one of my favorite places, and I still have a number of friends there. My area of concentration was creative writing with secondary areas in Composition Theory and Modern British and American Literature. Stan Lindberg, former editor of The Georgia Review was actually the one who got me started thinking about doctoral studies. I was teaching as a non-tenure-track instructor at what was then Memphis State University (now, the University of Memphis), and Stan came up for an editors’ symposium. We hit it off, and he told me a Ph.D. would diversify my teaching areas while also giving me time to complete my first book. My Ph.D. dissertation indeed ended up being my first published book, the story collection, The Least You Need to Know. To this day, I’m tickled by the fact that I received a Ph.D. with a dissertation by that name. Those years in Nebraska were years during which I started to define myself as a writer and a teacher.

DA: You became a nomad in academia for quite a while, but never stopped writing.

LM: I was very much a nomad before Nebraska, traveling to teaching gigs in Athens, Ohio, and Memphis. After Nebraska, I was a visiting writer for a year at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. During that year, my story collection, which had won the first Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, came out from Sarabande Books, and I was lucky enough to land my first tenure-track teaching position at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. I returned to my native Midwest twelve years ago when The Ohio State University asked me to join the faculty of its MFA program. All along the journey, even when I was teaching five sections of composition each term, I made the time to write. We all have our resolve tested at some point, and we find out how important writing is to us. Is it important enough that you have to do it, no matter the other demands on your time? For me, the answer was yes.

DA: Your collection of stories, The Least You Need to Know, was greeted with high praise.

LM: The Least You Need to Know got some attention simply because here was this new literary press, Sarabande Books, and this new award, the Mary McCarthy Prize, and I just happened to get lucky and be their first winner. What that book represents for me is a major development along my writer’s journey. Those stories were the first genuine stories I wrote, the first time I found the voice I needed to access the material I knew best, the first time I understood that thanks to my father’s and my mother’s opposing influences, I was interested in people caught on the fine line between cruelty and compassion. That book was in many ways a coming home for me. Those stories set me on the course I’ve followed ever since. They made me understand in a way I hadn’t quite before that the art of writing fiction is very much an art of empathy.

DA: The idea for your first novel, Quakertown, came out of your time teaching in north Texas.

LM: One day, a student said to me, “Do you know the story of Quakertown?” He went on to tell me that in the 1920s, there was a thriving black community in Denton that was forcibly relocated. Because I was new to Texas and dealing with questions of what it meant to call someplace home, I was immediately drawn to this story.

DA: You’re primarily a fiction writer, did you consciously decide to write essays and memoirs?

LM: I never planned to write creative nonfiction. When I started teaching at the University of North Texas, I had to teach a graduate workshop in cnf. I decided I should try to write what I was going to teach, so I wrote an essay called “From Our House.” It was the first time I’d written directly about my father’s accident and its effect on our family. That one essay opened the floodgates and before I knew it I’d written three more. At that point, I saw the narrative arc, and I surrendered. I became a memoirist. I enjoy moving back and forth between cnf and fiction. I write the former when it seems important to announce a life experience as my own or when I want the associative power of a lyric essay.

DA: Now you’ve found a home as a teacher.

LM: This is my twelfth year at Ohio State, and I’m thrilled with our MFA students. Since I’ve been here (and in no way am I suggesting a cause and effect), I’ve seen a number of our writers publish their first books. I keep them on a conference table in my office between book holders in the shape of stars. All of our students are stars to me because it’s no small thing to go after your dream, leave family and a life you’ve known behind, and throw yourself into the study of your craft. All of our students have committed themselves to that endeavor, and I’m so proud of every one of them. I always share with them this quote from Isak Dinesen: “I write a little every day, without too much hope, without too much despair.”  That’s the best writing advice I’ve ever heard. It keeps us focused on what brought us together, the love of the written word. It keeps us anchored in what sustains us, the daily work that brings us joy. If we can pay attention to that, our journey will take us to where we’re meant to go.

DA: You were also honored by being the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

LM: Derek, I’m very proud of that 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching, which came from my students’ nomination. It’s an award you can only win once at OSU.

DA: Is it true stories aren’t that only thing you’re known for collecting?

LM: Ah, what can I say? There’s a kid inside me that refuses to go away no matter how old I get. That kid loves windup toys, and, of course, the adult I am insists each of these toys has a pedagogical purpose. I use them in the classroom as a way of reminding us all not to take ourselves too seriously and also to form metaphors that help us think about particular issues of craft. What can the Leaping Lederhosen teach us about the personal essay, for example? Or how does Nunzilla illustrate narrative? It’s all about making people feel more at ease by reminding them it’s all right to play.

DA: How have you balanced teaching and writing over the years?

LM: I guess I’ve always been pretty good at compartmentalizing my days. I write a little, I teach a little. If I can maintain a good balance, then the days pass pretty darned pleasantly.

DA: What are you working on now?

LM: I just finished a new novel, and I’ve started working with an idea for another one.