An interview by Tom Storch
In his 2018 debut novel, Early Work, and in the stories from his collection, Cool for America, which was released last summer, Andrew Martin nails a certain type of character. They are self-styled intellectuals and artists. They define their identities in large part through cultural touchstones and aesthetic tastes. Characters in Cool for America go to concerts, movie theaters, readings and book clubs. They work in book stores, produce radio shows and edit “august, maybe dying small magazine[s]”. Many of them are writers, or want to be.
It makes me wonder about Martin’s creative process. What shapes his aesthetic tastes? And, more importantly, how does he manage to draw out so many unique variations within such a specific set of people? I’ve had the pleasure of taking a class with Martin and he was also my thesis reader when I got my MFA, but I was excited for the chance to find out what makes his own fiction tick. The following is an excerpt of a discussion we had over email. To read the full interview, buy The Canopy Review Issue 2, available now at the store.
Interviewer: A common quality in both your novel, Early Work, and the stories from your collection, Cool for America, is a strong sense of place, whether it’s Virginia, Missoula, Brooklyn or New Jersey, among other locations. Can you give us some insight into how you decide where your stories will take place? What was it about Charlottesville, for example, that inspired you to set Early Work there? On the flip side, did you ever consider setting stories like “No Cops” or “Short Swoop, Long Line” anywhere other than Missoula? Or is the setting too wrapped up with the initial conception of a story to separate it?
Andrew Martin: I’d never really thought of it this way before, but I do think the specific locations of my stories, and the novel, are inextricable from my overall conceptions of them. Even though Charlottesville and Missoula are both college towns, for example, they’re so different geographically and culturally that it wouldn’t make sense to me to substitute one for the other and keep the rest of the story and characters intact. It makes more sense to me to move the characters around, across different works, and see how they respond to the different environments. Most of my characters, explicitly or implicitly, are from the East Coast. If they’re not from Jersey, like I am, they’re from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania. And so Early Work is really about the experience of being a certain kind of northeasterner trying to make sense of this rich, Southern town where he doesn’t really fit in. And the Missoula stories are often about the idea of expectations– what happens when you find yourself in a place that kind of cocks an eyebrow at you if you come in trying to run the place like you’re running gunning for an editorial job at The New Yorker? To me a lot of the energy of these narratives comes from those sociological tensions, even though they usually aren’t up front.
I also tend, even when I’m not writing autobiographically, to write about real places that I’ve known. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination. But even if the reader doesn’t know where Higgins Ave in Missoula is, for example, I think the story derives a certain amount of authority from naming it, and from me knowing where it is and what it represents. I think references to music and movies in my writing operates the same way. You don’t have to get every reference, but I think it’s enough just to know that the characters are engaging with these things at a high level.
As mentioned in many reviews of Cool for America and in other interviews you’ve done, there are characters in this collection who also appear in Early Work, particularly Leslie, but also Peter, who shows up in “The Boy Vet” along with his girlfriend and dog. As a reader, it’s great to get to experience the consciousness of these characters I’m familiar with while they live out new events. For you as a writer, how do you decide when you want to reuse a character? What is it about Leslie, for instance, that made you want to bring her back and explore her in different scenarios (she even makes a cameo as a supporting player in “Childhood, Boyhood, Youth”)? And how do these characters change when you transfer them from one narrative to another? Or do they?
It wasn’t an overtly conscious decision to revisit characters when I first started doing it. It was driven by an organic sense of surprise. I had written a couple of stories about Leslie in Missoula before I started Early Work, and I very much thought of her as an autobiographical stand-in for myself and my own sense of both community and angst when I lived in the west. And then when I began the novel, it felt like an exciting epiphany– oh, the woman the narrator meets is Leslie! She’s in Virginia for some reason, and I wonder what would happen if a fictional female version of my Montana self met this flippant dude? And knowing her backstory brought an immediate sense of geographical tension. She’s out of place in Virginia, and she’s been all over the place, like Peter has. Her cameo in “Childhood, Boyhood,” which was written after the other stories and the novel, was the only revisiting that felt a little bit like a “callback” in a superhero movie or something. I thought it would be fun to have that glimpse of her New York years.
Two of my favorite writers, Philip Roth and Roberto Bolaño, made a habit of having characters reappear in different works over the course of their bodies of work, often with somewhat contradictory or incompatible backstories, and I think of what I’m doing as being in that tradition. The idea is to simultaneously make it feel more like real life, where you run into the same people again and again, often in different contexts, but also draw attention to the literary nature of these characters. The author can contradict him or herself– there’s nothing requiring you to be consistent. If you tried to make a timeline of Peter and Leslie’s movements around the country across the two books, I think you’d find yourself pretty tangled up. Not to mention the other characters whose backstories echo theirs. It’s a chance to introduce some gamesmanship into the whole thing, to play.
To read the full interview, buy The Canopy Review Issue 2, available now in the store.