An exclusive Authorlink interview
In his latest short story collection, The Mutual UFO Network, Lee Martin focuses his lens on seemingly regular people in small towns and peels away the layers until we see even the most difficult characters in their full humanity.
As a young writer, Martin was trying to discover which stories were his to tell.
. . . stories I assumed no one was interested in the stories of small communities and farming towns . . .
“When I first wrote short stories I assumed no one was interested in the stories of small communities and farming towns of the Midwest. Then I read Rock Springs by Richard Ford. I heard a voice in those narrators that was closely connected to the farmers, factory workers and oil field workers I grew up with. It gave me permission to tell the stories of people like that,” said Martin.
His first story collection, The Least You Need to Know, won the 1995 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, selected by Amy Bloom. Martin has gone on to write five novels including The Bright Forever, for which he was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist.
I want my stories to entertain the reader by making them wonder what will happen next.
“I want my stories to entertain the reader by making them wonder what will happen next. I look for a telling moment that reveals something about human relationships in a way that surprises the reader,” said Martin.
. . . character precedes incident. Incident reveals character . . .
Character is at the heart of his work. Martin mentioned Henry James’ notion that “character precedes incident. Incident reveals character.” As James said, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” Martin noted that this relationship between character and plot ensures that the story depicts more than just surface events, that there is a rising story that emerges that is based on character. He also employs misdirection and the use of opposites to add surprise and complexity to his stories.
The trick to a good short story is making the reader think things are headed in one direction and heading in another . . .
“The trick to a good short story is making the reader think things are headed in one direction and heading in another,” said Martin.
In the story Belly Talk readers follow Jackie and his father as they go to collect a debt from Mr. Marks, a cruel man who is the father of Jackie’s classmate Eugene. Jackie learns that Eugene’s father beats him. When Marks calls Jackie a cripple, Jackie and his father drive to the farm to confront him and find Marks removing the seeds from orange slices and feeding Eugene like he was a baby bird. In spite of this moment of grace the story ends tragically.
“When you see something like that it is hard for you to think of the character in the same way. Moments like these shock us by the artful reversal of expectations,” said Martin. He noted that Flannery O’Connor discussed the importance of adding different layers of meaning in one situation, a concept called anagogical vision, and that presenting the contradictory qualities of a character is one way to deepen the story.
The goal, Martin said, is to find moments in the story when characters are alive to each other and connected in a way that shows our common humanity.
Working in both novels and short stories Martin has to decide what form will serve him best as he determines the scope and impact of the story he is telling.
All fiction strives to uncover what Faulkner called ‘the old verities and truths of the heart.
“All fiction strives to uncover what Faulkner called ‘the old verities and truths of the heart.’ Short stories are more elastic than people might think. You can do a lot of different things with the form. Alice Munro’s short stories are like novels. The ultimate question is do you see the world as made up of small limited moments or broader stretches of time and place. Work with a form that best fits how you see the world,” said Martin.
When ordering a collection, Martin advises writers to start with strong stories, bury your weak ones in the middle and end strong. This collection begins with the title story, The Mutual UFO Network, which tells a story of family estrangement between a man who falsifies UFO evidence and his wife and son.
“This story introduces the theme of the book, being alien to one another, even to our loved ones and ourselves. Yet, the collection contains moments when these characters are alive to each other,” said Martin.
The book ends with the story Dummies, Shakers, Barkers, Wanderers. As that story ends a mother is watching her drug addicted son tend to a sick foal. She thinks of the future with hope and fear.
Endings can be a place from which the reader can view the past and see the future . . .
“Endings can be a place from which the reader can view the past and see the future,” said Martin. The story ends with these sentences:
The world was so lovely, and yet so frightening. It lay against her,
weighty and splendid, a promise alive and trembling at the heart of ruin,
waiting for her to claim it.
“We see what she’s suffered and what is to come for her. The reader feels a little hopeful and a little worried, just like her,” said Martin.
We write from what obsesses us, what haunts us, and what makes us curious . . .
He wrote the earliest story in the collection 17 years ago and the others since. Martin knew he had a collection when he noticed that the stories he had written were “in conversation with each other around the theme of alienation.” “I think writers can’t help but write stories that cohere in some ways. We write from what obsesses us, what haunts us, and what makes us curious,” said Martin.
When revising he allows himself time to let the draft “cool off” so that he can read it more objectively. Martin said the challenge is trying to make sure the stories “talk to each other” by seeing that the ending of one story fits with the beginning of the next. On a story by story basis, he looks at how the scenes in the story work together to contribute to the final move of the story. “I ask myself, what has to happen for me to earn this final move,” said Martin.
With this collection on the shelves, Martin is currently at work on his next novel.
About the Author: Lee Martin is the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of The Bright Forever, and four other novels: Quakertown, River of Heaven, Break the Skin, and Late One Night. His other books are the memoirs, Such a Life, From Our House, and Turning Bones; and the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. 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 teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.