Books: Creating the playground

Monday, March 29, 2010 at 12:05am
By Maria Browning,

Michael Martone has been aptly described as a writer with "a deep affection for the ordinary," though things have a way of becoming distinctly less ordinary in the playful realm of his imagination.

He turned his home state into surreal version of itself in his fantasy travel book, The Blue Guide to Indiana (2001), and transformed the lowly contributor’s note into art with Michael Martone (2005). He has a gift for re-conceiving the utterly familiar.

His 2008 collection of not-quite-nonfiction essays, Racing in Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins (University of Georgia Press; $17.95), finds the wonder in — among other things — eyeglasses, a golf course and the Iowa State team mascot.

Martone, who is a professor of English and director of the creative writing program at the University of Alabama, will give a reading at Austin Peay State University at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Morgan University Center. He answered questions via email in anticipation of his visit to Tennessee.

Q: You have a fascination with physical places both real and fictional. Is the importance of place diminishing as people spend more of their lives in virtual spaces?

: I think, to be fair, I have a fascination with Place — with the capital P — real or not. For me, even a "real" place is constructed and therefore virtually interesting. I think our ability to represent reality has become so good that we are on the edge of replacing reality with representations of reality.

I also believe that some of us, those of us who are older, may mourn that passing. But it needs to be seen, the passing "reality,” for what it was — a synthetic construction composed by a less complex media. My concern is that the media is evolving so fast that it is impossible to absorb it, to naturalize it. I don’t have a hand-held device yet. Can I muster the energy for its assimilation? So far, the greater culture seems to be doing it, seems to be rewiring itself in ever-shrinking intervals of time, keeping up with the keeping up.

Is there a biological limit? I don’t know. And then again the step after this, and it isn’t that far off, of course, is to rewire the biology itself. In this interview, I am not speaking to you. You are in Tennessee, miles away. I am communing with a machine. Both of us are already cybernetic. The place we have met is this place.

Q: Your stories don’t utilize realistic narratives with plots, fleshed-out characters, etc., but those conventions are still very dominant in our books and films. Do you find yourself slipping into them in spite of yourself?

A: I think I am pretty realistic most of the time. I don’t write fairy tales or magical realism or surrealism. I just don’t tell stories often. It is true that most books, movies, etc., seem to be narrative, but I would contend that maybe half of those stories are being told in a realistic manner. Vampires, anyone? In fact, I think it is pretty easy to be a realistic fiction maker like me who is a non-narrativist. I do a lot of what is done in lyric poetry, but I do it in prose.

Q: Much of your writing features slippery identities and a blurred line between fiction and fact. Do you think of yourself as engaged in a game with readers?

A: Game, no, not so much as “play.” I like to think that I am creating play, a very adult kind of play. Or maybe more precisely a playground. I like to create interesting (I hope) entertaining, amusing, instructive playgrounds that the audience, the reader helps to construct. Often I use collage, and collage, with all its white space, invites the reader, I think, to make his or her own meaning.

Q: The publishing industry likes to divvy up writing into clearly labeled genres, and your work pretty much defies any such labeling. Do you concern yourself with the marketplace when you are writing? What do you tell your students about the commercial question?

I tell them that the commercial is a category, a genre, too, and either you get to know the rules of such categories and prosper by that or take pleasure in, as you say, “defying” them — not so much defy but again play with them, have fun with them.

A work of art is valuable because it opens up a space for wonder, allows for a moment, a fresh way of seeing, feeling, thinking, that the reader can take back into the fixed categories of reality he or she returns to after he or she has experienced the art. I believe this is valuable work. It just is often not commercial.

Q: What do you think about the growth in MFA programs in creative writing? Have they reached a point of diminishing returns?

Wow! Diminishing returns. Now that sounds commercial. To answer the first part of the question — I think programs haven’t grown enough. No, that’s not right. I am ambivalent about programs. What I mean is there are never too many writers. It is a good thing when everyone is writing. The “return” on that investment is always increasing. There is profit in it.

What do you think about the number of people running marathons? Has marathon running reached a point of diminishing returns? Your question implies that too many people might be writing, yes? And that the return that is diminishing is that only writers who write good things should be writing, right? So what you are saying is that only the sub five-minute mile Africans should be running the marathons?

Writing is a good thing. My feelings about MFA programs are that they often feel that writing should only be something “good” writers can do. My feeling is that everyone should have a chance to come to writing school and write whatever. I wish I could make that happen.

Martone will read from his latest collection, Racing in Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, and Ruins, on March 31 in Morgan University Center, Room 303, at 8 p.m. on the Austin Peay State University campus.


To read an uncut version of this interview — and other local book coverage — please visit Humanities Tennessee's online journal,