Monday, May 15, 2006

Interview: Lee Martin

The Pulitzer winners were announced recently, and among the nominees for fiction was Lee Martin for his book The Bright Forever. I’ve known Lee a long time, and cannot think of a better person to receive this recognition. He writes both fiction and nonfiction, teaches at Ohio State University, and is an all-around great guy. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for the blog via e-mail.

The Bright Forever has received much well-deserved praise. What's life like post-Pulitzer nomination?

Life after the being named a Pulitzer finalist hasn't been all that different. I'm still teaching, still eyeball-deep in reading MFA theses, still mowing my yard, still feeding the cats every morning (they couldn't care less about this Pulitzer business). The day the news hit, my wife, Deb, was in a grocery store and she heard two men talking about the Pulitzer winners. She couldn't resist. She said, "You know, my husband was a finalist in fiction." One of the men said, "Not good enough to win, heh?" And I don't even care that this guy said that. I'm too thrilled with the news. I tell you, I've never been so happy to be a runner-up.

What was your first publication?

My first real publication was a story called "Duet," in The Sonora Review in 1987. I'd published fake stories in other places, but we won't talk about them.

Could you talk a little bit about how your first book got published?

My first book was a collection of stories called The Least You Need to Know, and it was also my doctoral dissertation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It give me great pleasure to know I got a Ph.D. with a dissertation called The Least You Need to Know. But that's neither here nor there. In the early summer of 1995, just before I was getting ready to leave Nebraska to be a visiting writer at James Madison University in Virginia, The Least You Need to Know was accepted for publication at a reputable university press that published quite a bit of good literary fiction. I was thrilled. Then, before the press could send me a contract, I got a call from Sarah Gorham at Sarabande Books, telling me that Amy Bloom had chosen The Least You Need to Know as the winner of the first Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. "I'm sorry," I told Sarah, "but it's been taken at such and such press." I'd sent Sarabande a letter to that effect, withdrawing my manuscript from the contest, but they hadn't received it yet. I fully expected Sarah to say, "Oh, that's too bad," and that would be that. Instead, she said, "Let me tell you why you should go with us." Later that day, I had a phone message from Amy, trying to persuade me to go with Sarabande, which I ended up doing, and they published the book in 1996. A side note: a week or so after I closed the deal with Sarabande, I got a call from another major contest, telling me The Least You Need to Know was its winner. Again, they'd received my letter telling them I was withdrawing too late. By this time, I'd already signed with Sarabande, and I've never regretted the way things worked out because they did a beautiful job with the book.

Some people have negative associations with the term "literary fiction." Do you think there are misconceptions about it?

I like literary fiction that's accessible. I have no misconceptions about that. To me, good literary fiction gets readers caught up in a story while also peeling back some layers into the mystery of what it is to be human on this earth.

What are the last fiction and nonfiction books you read that you really loved, and what did you love about them?

I just finished reading an advance copy of The Horizontal World, a memoir by Debra Marquart. Here's the blurb I wrote for it: "The Horizontal World is as full of grit and grace as the North Dakota farmland it portrays. Debra Marquart writes of home and how we carry it with us no matter the miles and years we travel. If you dare think that nothing really happens out there in the middle of nowhere, read this gorgeous book about a family and their land, about the girl who strained against both and finally left. From the first words, you’ll feel a taproot set down in your heart, one that won’t let go because the story is as old as the land itself. You know the one ­that story of mothers and fathers and daughters and sons, that rough and tender story of the ties that bind."

I believe the last novel I read and liked was fellow Pulitzer finalist E. L. Doctorow's The March. I love the authenticity of the book and the way it captures the texture of a country at war. And, of course, sentence by sentence the writing is full of heart and sinew. I have Geraldine Brooks's Pulitzer winning novel, March, in line next. Gotta read everyone in the club, right? Hey, maybe if I'd titled my book, The Bright March Forever, I would've won.

What are you working on now?

I'm happy to say that just last week my agent closed the deal for my next novel. My editor had made a nice offer. . .hmm. . .maybe that's one of the perks of being a Pulitzer finalist. . .and my agent did her agent thing, and now I have a book to finish. My editor hasn't seen a word of it, so her offer came completely on good faith,and I hope I can deliver the goods. I'm almost at the end of a first draft. Then the real work, and I hope fun, will start. For some reason, I haven't been able to make myself talk about this new one with anyone yet. Superstitious, I guess. Or maybe there's just nothing there to talk about. We'll see.

I happen to know you're a baseball fan, and specifically a Yankees fan. Who's your favorite current Yankee? And your favorite non-Yankee?

Ah, the Yankees. Well, folks will really like me now or really hate me. With the Yankees and their fans, there doesn't seem to be much in between. My favorite current Yankee? How about Bernie Williams, the old horse at the end of a good run. He's full of grace and dignity, even now as his skills have diminished. He does his job and keeps his yap shut, and I admire him for that. My favorite non-Yankee? Alfonso Soriano. Hey, you didn't say anything about ex-Yankees, and, besides, how can you not love that name.

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