Late One Night by Lee Martin

Late One Night Draws on Martin’s Rural Roots
An Authorlink interview By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

May 2016


Late One Night
by Lee Martin

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 In his latest book, Late One Night, Lee Martin explores the aftermath of a trailer fire, which kills a mother and three children, on a small community. Ronnie Black, estranged husband and father of the children, is the prime suspect. The small town gossip and the competing agendas that follow make for a suspenseful story that explores the boundaries of neighborliness and love. This emotional and physical terrain was familiar ground for Martin, who grew up on a farm.

“Small town life magnifies everything . . .”

“Small town life magnifies everything,” observed Martin. “I live in Columbus now, where horrible crimes happen every day that I don’t know about. In a small town, everyone talks. It is the gossip and rumor which threatens the existence of Ronnie and his kids as a family.”

Martin said he was an unlikely candidate to become a writer.

“I wasn’t supposed to be a writer. I grew up in a rural area where most people didn’t have an appreciation of the arts. My father read farm machinery manuals, the Bible and newspapers. It was my mom (a grade school teacher) that had books.”

He went to the local community college and enrolled in Eastern Illinois University with plans of becoming a journalist. After taking a writing class with Professor Asa Barber, a graduate of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a columnist for Playboy, Martin decided to continue writing and pursue an MFA. He applied twice before getting into University of Arkansas.

His break through moment as a writer came when he was at a book festival in Memphis and got an opportunity to spend time with Richard Ford, whose book Rock Springs had just been released.

“I heard, in his narrative voice, the voice I needed to access my knowledge of the world. Ford gave me permission to write about my own little area of the world, to tap into the integrity, directness and dignity of the voice which mirrored that of the people I know,” said Martin.

Despite his five novels, one of which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, three memoirs and two short story collections, Martin describes himself as a lifelong apprentice in the craft of writing.

“I started playing the ‘what if’ game.”

Like much of Martin’s fiction, Late One Night began with a true story of a trailer fire.

“I started playing the ‘what if’ game. What if the husband lived outside the home with another woman? What if suspicion started falling on him? I let my imagination wander and created all of these characters with an eye toward how to complicate the dramatic situation in a way that makes it difficult for readers to pass judgment on the characters,” said Martin.

“The way the novel gets texture and resonance is when main characters have story lines that run at cross purposes.”

He knew that the fire was the center of the story. “That’s not enough to build a story. The way the novel gets texture and resonance is when main characters have story lines that run at cross purposes. That way everyone is crashing into each other and you increase the pressure on people until the truth comes out,” said Martin.

The story includes several characters with deep desires and competing motivations. Shooter, father of a son named Captain with learning disabilities, strives to protect his son, while Missy, a childless woman, wants to mother the surviving children.

When building characters, Martin challenges himself to think in terms of opposites. The protagonist Ronnie Black is quick to anger and cheats on his wife, but looks out for  Captain with a tenderness that belies his temper.

“The challenge is to write honestly about people who don’t always make the right choices . . .”

“The challenge is to write honestly about people who don’t always make the right choices, to write about them in a way that makes readers empathize with them. Rule number one is don’t judge the character. Leave yourself open to the whole character,” said Martin.

The greatest challenge of this book was a structural one, how to construct the collision of circumstances that led to the truth that emerges at the end of the novel.

“It was lots of work and took lots of revision,” said Martin.

He advises writers to embrace the work.

“We need to keep our attention on the process of writing, not the outcome. Stay true to the process and it will always take us where we need to go,” said Martin. “I take the advice of  Isak Dinesen. I try to write a little every day, without hope, without despair. The thing that gives me the most joy is the writing.”

Martin is currently working on essays about his childhood, while allowing a first draft of a new novel to “cool off” before he begins revisions.  

About the Author

Lee Martin is the author of the novels The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven; Quakertown; and Break the Skin. He has also published three memoirs: From Our House, Turning Bones, and Such a Life. His first book was the short story collection, The Least You Need To Know. A new novel, Late One Night, and a story collection, The Mutual UFO Network, are forthcoming from Dzanc Books. He is the co-editor of Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching from Ohio State.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.