In Conversation with Michael Martone

Interviews, Writing Tips

Thoughts on the creative process and the shifting publishing landscape

by Tara Smith

Martone hat

We’re delighted that Michael Martone, award-winning author, teacher, and judge of this year’s Philadelphia Stories’ Marguerite McGlinn National Prize for Fiction, will be our keynote speaker at Push to Publish. In anticipation of his visit with us here in Philadelphia, Martone shares a few thoughts on publishing, writing for contests, and a writing technique called “collage.”

 

TS: Writers generally come to a conference called “Push to Publish” carrying a jumble of hopes, expectations, and questions about being published. What did it mean for you to first be published? And how would you suggest that unpublished writers allocate their time and energies between writing and working at being published?

MM: I always ask my students if they want to be published. I will ask the participants at the conference that as well. And all will say, I imagine, yes. And then I will say, “I have an incredibly powerful typesetting machine, the same layout software used by Knopf, and electronic connections to printers in Iceland, China, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. I can publish you right now.” And what I expect to hear is, no, that’s not what we mean by “publishing.” What is it we mean when we want to publish? So a conference about publishing, I think, should not be so much about the “How to” material that has snap and pat solutions, but should address that “jumble” you mention and how specialized and individualized the notions of successful publishing are for each of us. I consider my contribution of a story to a workshop of 12 people to be an act of publishing. I have published a story in a magazine that probably had fewer than a dozen subscribers. I have written and sold poems on the spot on subject matter suggested by the reader on the streets of Philadelphia. I have published in journals subsidized by universities or by Karastan carpets. I have published myself in books. As an editor, I have published others in magazines and books. For me, more and more, it is harder to compartmentalize the me who is the writer and the me who is the contributor of his writing. I find myself living in a horizontal world of publishing. I don’t spent much time at all thinking in the vertical.

TS: I ask my writer friend, whose only experience of collage was an unfortunate incident in second grade involving scissors, paste, and her parents’ wedding photos, to come along to your Push to Publish master class, “The Four C’s: Context, Cutting, Compression, and Collage” (http://www.philadelphiastories.org/master-class-michael-martone). How would you suggest I word the invitation?

MM: Well, I think you could actually cut and paste. That is to say Google the word “collage” (let me just point out that when we “Google” we are making, with our computers, collages) and then, going to the various result pages, cut out interesting snippets of text and/or graphics and paste them into your invitation. The hardest part of collage for prose writers, I think, is giving up the feeling of control of the text. In collage one creates interesting environments, arranges things, invites the reader to make something from these disparate pieces but does not invite them to specific results, specific conclusions, meanings. It is not about the point but the spread. The technique would not be the best for the form of writing we call an “invitation” as specific information needs to be transmitted. But it is great at creating a sensation, a mood, a tone. It is the sublime in plain sight. There is no way to take notes as the thing itself looks as if it is nothing but notes. Ah, “nothing but notes!”

TS: You read the top stories for Philadelphia Stories’ Marguerite McGlinn National Prize for Fiction (http://www.philadelphiastories.org/marguerite-mcglinn-prize-fiction-0) this year and selected our winner, Che Yeun’s “One in Ten Fish Are Afraid of Water.” You’ve been both winner and reader for many writing contests (though presumably not both for the same contest!). What advice would you give to writers submitting a story for next year’s Marguerite McGlinn contest?

MM: Tough to give advice as that implies that such judgment remains static and unchanging. Remember, I selected from a pool of ten finalists. I am not even sure who made the initial cut through all of the submissions. What were the stories I did not even see? I might have really admired many of the stories in the first round but did not see them as the first readers’ taste just differs from mine. Remember, too, that it is sheer luck when and how a submission is read. If you are read first of the day or last after the judge has read 25 stories before yours, that placement could deflect the reading. We make a mistake in contests if we proceed in the belief that there are objective standards that everyone understands, agrees upon, and can attain. My advice? Think of contests as a lottery with much better odds though a lower payout. It is always nice to have someone read your work either in the setting of a contest or in an attempt to have that work published, but the writer cannot surrender his or her feeling about that work to the judge or editor. Not being selected or published is and should be considered very low stakes. Writing success, for me, is not tactical but strategic. It is about the long game, the lifetime of writing. Contests and publishing are dangerous, then, if the writer grants these immediate snap judgments the power to divert his or her individual work from the long-term life’s project.

TS: What one truth, idea, or inspiration would you hope that Push to Publish participants take back to their writing desks after the conference is over?

MM: Quantity has a quality all its own.

TS: You’ve travelled widely and taught in many different contexts, including Philadelphia and Rosemont College. What particular opportunities and challenges do you see for us as a community of writers here, in 2013?

MM: I am not sure I would locate the challenge in Philadelphia. The challenge has to do with the construction of authorship and audience. The models of both are in rapid flux in this time and place. The categories of author, editor, publisher, agent, reader seem to be collapsing. When I started writing, if I published myself it was considered “vanity” publishing, but that word has now been replaced by “self” and we suspect (we fear?) that “self” itself will disappear altogether. I am writing this on an incredibly powerful typesetting and publishing machine that is connected to a seemingly infinite network of other machines. So maybe the challenge is to figure out what is “network” which is to say what is community itself? Maybe the community here isn’t negotiating challenges and opportunities but the notion of community itself is the challenge, is the opportunity.

TS: Do you have a “most embarrassing publishing moment” (real or imagined) that you could share with us?

MM: In the late seventies, I went to a reading given by George Plimpton, the founding editor of The Paris Review, a magazine I had been submitting stories to unsuccessfully. Mr. Plimpton as a writer was famous for his books of participatory journalism. He trained and played football with the Detroit Lions. He played professional baseball, hockey, golf. Played in a professional symphony. He wrote about being an amateur in with the professionals. After his reading during the Q&A that followed, I asked if he would allow me, an amateur, to edit The Paris Review for an issue. He was not amused.

 

Michael Martone is the award-winning author of Four for a Quarter, Not Normal, Illinois: Peculiar Fiction from the Flyover, and many other titles. Martone has won two Fellowships from the NEA and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. His stories and essays have appeared in The Best American Stories and The Best American Essays anthologies. He is currently a professor at the University of Alabama, where he has been teaching since 1996.

When and where can you meet Michael Martone?

In addition to the keynote address at Push to Publish on Saturday morning, Martone will be giving a reading at Rosemont on Thursday evening, October 10th (https://www.facebook.com/events/415947778505960), (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Rosemont-College-MFA-in-Creative-Writing-Program/174366745967785) and a master class on Friday the 11th (http://www.philadelphiastories.org/master-class-michael-martone).

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