Writing Something Irresponsible: The Millions Interviews Andrew Martin

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I first met Andrew Martin about a year ago through a friend (whom I had also, basically, met through a friend) at bar in a Brooklyn. I had some questions about my literary future—meaning I had some questions about how to get out of my stagnant present. (Graduate school? A job not in the media? New friends?) He had recently sold his debut novel and short story collection to FSG, and our mutual friend assured me we shared the same sensibility, which I figured meant cracking jokes at the first rumbling of anything serious.

I wasn’t wrong. Andrew was there before I arrived, and he was the only one reading a book while drinking a beer. I liked him immediately. Over the course of a few hours (far more than he needed to spend with me), he was a sincere advice-giver, in that he often freely admitted he had no fucking idea what he was talking about. But he did, of course—he owned the struggle, often self-imposed, on the years you waste, or at least think you waste, trying to become a writer. That novel of his, Early Work, came out on July 10, and it’s very much about this time in a young writer’s life: that “early work,” all that effort that may, or may not, pay off in the end.

Much of the story is narrated by Peter, a cynical and somewhat jaded millennial who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his longtime partner, Julia, who’s on the verge of becoming a doctor (she’s also a poet). Peter says things like: “I spent so much time on the daily logistics of just staying alive that I often went weeks without remembering that I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I knew, because I’d been told, that passivity was not a quality to aspire to.” He’s comically lost, it seems—or at least has no clue what direction to go in—until he meets Leslie, another aspiring writer who’s staying with her aunt in the city while her boyfriend resides across the country. Peter and Leslie, each in their own fits of complacency and familiarity, fall in love, and their affair leads both of them to question, exactly, how best to lead the life of an artist. It sounds grandiose, but it’s not—it’s a hilarious look, really, about how we evolve into the adults we one day become, creative or not.

Below is a conversation Andrew and I first had over the phone but, because of the perils of advanced technology, failed to record when I hit the button. It was had, a second (hopefully better) time, over email a few days later.

The Millions: You seem particularly interested in codependent relationships. Take your two stories in The Paris Review, “Cool for America” and “With the Christopher Kids”—especially the latter. Without getting too much into the plot, that one’s basically about a guy on Christmas Eve who, after breaking up with his girlfriend, does a bunch of cocaine at his mom’s house, in the company of his rehabilitated—though constantly relapsing—sister. It’s implied they often exist like this—one of them is on drugs, the other isn’t, and then they swap roles—and they move through each other’s lives, simultaneously helping and destroying the other.

Peter and Leslie, you could argue, have a similar companionship—they provide each other almost with a stable instability. What I’m getting at is if you think that’s what you need to create art: not a muse, necessarily, but not a steady partner, a routine life, and so on.

Andrew Martin: I hadn’t made this connection before, but I think your question touches on a few things that I’ve tried to think through in the novel and in my stories. It does seem that I tend to write about characters who are deeply reliant on other people for their sense of self, in ways that (obviously) aren’t always to their mutual benefit. As a reader, I’m drawn to these kinds of stories—one of my favorite novels, Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, is about a woman hell-bent on ruining her sister’s wedding because she’s too in love with their relationship to let her go, and the Christopher kids are kind of less precious, more drug-addled members of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family. In Early Work, I think that Peter, who narrates most of the novel, is in search of the person who might best reflect back the version of himself he most wants to see. That’s especially true of Leslie, the woman he falls in love with, but it’s also true of his partner, Julia, and his friends, all of whom seem, at least to him, to have a clearer idea than he does of how to function in the world. I think, in Peter’s case, his codependence (or desire for it) might be a yearning to fully understand other people, or at least be understood.

As for the question of whether one might need that kind of relationship to make art, it doesn’t seem to be the worst option, as long as both parties have a good idea of what they’re getting into. But I think it’s harder to achieve “productive instability” than the characters in the novel would like to admit. Peter—maybe a bit like the book’s author in his younger days—has set up a dichotomy in his head between a Kerouac by way of Jesus’ Son existence, where you drink and drug yourself toward some kind of enlightenment, and a more prosaic, stable life with a reliable partner and dog and decent craft beer. He does seem to realize every now and then, almost despite himself, that there can be more weirdness and intensity in a serious relationship than there is in blacking out in a dive bar, but it doesn’t really stick. In real life, you—I—probably need some balance between hedonism and comfort, but I clearly haven’t figured out how to write about that yet.

TM: Do you think your novel, then, is somewhat about a person rejecting, consciously or not, “the regular current of American life”? Isn’t that, really, a “classic American story”?

AM: Yeah, I think that both Peter and Leslie are trying to swim against the regular current of American life, though I think they’re pretty hapless at it. Their rebellion is basically romantic—they like to imagine themselves in the Partisan Review scene of the New York of the 1950s or something. I don’t think their affiliation with these olds books and ways of thinking is an affectation, or not entirely one. They’re trying to figure out, like Sheila Heti, how a person should be, and not finding very useful models.

One obvious way to reject the status quo that they don’t spend much time contemplating (though many of my friends have, especially recently) is through radical politics. The characters in the novel are basically passive “good liberals,” as a friend of mine refers to anyone to the right of Che Guevara. Since the book was drafted almost entirely before Trump was elected, but then sold and edited in the immediate aftermath of his coming to power, I thought a lot about whether or not I needed the story to reflect the nightmare political situation that we’ve spent the better part of the last two years thinking about and trying to mitigate. The novel takes place mostly in the summer of 2015, and though there are a few references to the coming storm, in the end I decided to leave it mostly as a snapshot of a tiny strata of the country before the deluge. They—we—should have known better, but some of us didn’t, or at least certainly didn’t do enough. I’d like to think the characters in the book have been to a lot of protests since they were last seen on the page.

TM: At the risk of being too broad, I want to chat a bit about your comedic influences, and how you manage to be so funny on the page—it’s no easy feat, and you make it look natural. I’m a huge fan of Sam Lipsyte—and I remember that you are, too—because of his constant deconstruction of the language we use every day.

AM: First, Sam Lipsyte was definitely a direct influence on my work, both in his writing—especially the stories in Venus Drive and his novel Home Land—and as one of my first writing teachers when I was an undergraduate at Columbia. He was the first person who explicitly taught me that one could build a piece of fiction from voice rather than plot or theme or whatever else. (It seems hard now to remember what I thought I was trying to do before that.) Maybe even more significantly, he introduced me to the work of a number of writers who became really important to me, especially Padgett Powell, Gary Lutz, and David Gates, the latter of whom became a mentor and friend many years later. I love how all of them, in very different ways, bring “gusto from the get-go,” as Lutz said in an interview.

In recent years, my biggest influences, comedic and otherwise (though they set an impossibly high bar) have probably been the stories of Deborah Eisenberg, Lorrie Moore, and Amy Hempel, especially the longer ones. In super-recent years, the mutant story collections, or whatever they are, of Jen George and Claire-Louise Bennett have been the books that most make me want to keep writing fiction. I laugh every time I think about the art school whose curriculum consists entirely of burying dead horses at the Aqueduct racetrack in George’s story “Instruction.”

For my own writing, even though my default day-to-day instinct is to be funny in the face of routine misery, it seems like I have to have an epiphany every few months that I can use my sense of humor to get me out of all kinds of jams in my writing. It’ll be days and weeks of trying to address something I want to write about in an appropriately serious fashion before I “give up” and revert to caustic jokes. It still feels like a last resort, maybe because it comes more naturally to me than sustained serious contemplation. I worry about seeming glib, but I try to make sure the glibness is coming from the characters rather the work itself. Which I think is possible?

TM: What was the genesis of this novel? I don’t really want to ask you if it’s autobiographical, but some of my favorite authors—particularly Roberto Bolaño—write constantly about writing. Maybe I’m just a sucker for that kind of shit? Are you?

AM: The novel initially arose, to some extent, out of a sense of frustration, both with my own nascent career as a writer and, I think more fruitfully, with the sense that no one had quite written the book I wanted to read. I wanted to write something irresponsible, or at least not worry about whether or not I was following the rules of proper conduct and proper novel writing. And I think part of that was writing a book with a character and life situation that looked a lot like mine, in which the main point-of-view character behaves abominably.

The basic state of Peter’s life at the beginning of the novel bears more than a passing resemblance to mine when I started the book—I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, with my partner, Laura, who is a doctor, teaching classes at whatever local institutions would have me, and generally not producing work at the level I wanted to produce it. I wanted to write about artistic ambition and sex and drugs and the somewhat fucked-up and unresolved gender dynamics that exist (or so I’ve heard) in friendships and relationships between writers. I felt an urgency to write about these things honestly. Very little that happens in the book is literally true (though I did waste two hours watching Only Lovers Left Alive), but I freely adapted the story from the questions that preoccupied me during those lean years in Virginia. The two protagonists of the novel, who fall in love, are basically mirrors of each other, and they both have different parts of my biography, so… make of that what you will.

But also, yes, all I really want to read about is writers. Bolaño, Philip Roth, Jenny Offill, Sarah Manguso… I’m always very surprised when other people don’t feel this way.

TM: To quote Peter: “My sisters and I had turned out artistic and useless despite (because of?) our parents’ emphasis on the value of hard work.” Would you say Early Work is about these types of people? How would you classify who they are?

AM: The book is definitely about people who at least imagine themselves to be artists, and a few of them justify that self-conception by actually producing art. I’m pretty much an unreconstructed romantic about the value of making, or even attempting to make, art—the sentence from the novel you quote is obviously kind of a flip, punkish thing to say, not least because actually carrying yourself through the world as an artist, in the face of other people’s skepticism and your own constant self-doubt, is really hard work. I had every educational advantage possible and a decent amount of encouragement, financial and otherwise, when I needed it, and it was still excruciating. I have a lot of friends who didn’t have those things and have still found a way to be poets and musicians, etc., even as people have told them they’re wasting their time. The novel is probably irresponsibly bereft of “real jobs” being done, but I can assure you that Molly and Kenny and the other peripheral characters in the book have worked a lot of shitty jobs in order to earn their right to drink heavily and make pronouncements about things.

TM: And then of course: What’s next?

AM: I’ve got a short story collection under contract, consisting of some stories that have been published and a bunch that haven’t. There are some characters that move freely between the novel and the story collection, and pretty much everybody in both books would probably get along if they found themselves at the same bar in, say, Missoula, Montana. I like the idea of creating a landscape with characters who can move across different books and stories—you mentioned Bolaño, who is the master of that, and Junot Díaz and Alice Munro and many other writers do it remarkably well. I think the collection will pretty well close out this phase of my writing, the hopes and dreams of the young and reckless years. After that it’ll be mostly post-apocalyptic, by which I mean we’ll probably all be rooting around in the wreckage of abandoned houses trying to survive. And I’ll be writing a book about it.

Nicknames I Have Known (Or: An Elegy for the Mooch)

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Last summer, right before my grandfather died, my mother and her boyfriend, Jim, rode their bikes to his house. My grandparents live four miles away from my mom, and it’s a straight shot down a semi-wooded New Jersey street where cars can only go 35 miles per hour but usually go 50. Jim’s in okay shape, for a 50-something-year-old man, but my mom is one of those people who has time in the morning—who wakes up at 6 a.m., doesn’t snooze, runs five miles, eats breakfast, reads the news, and then gets ready for work. Jim, like the rest of us, tends to lag a bit behind. That day, he professed exhaustion about the return trip and declared that my grandmother should give them a ride back in her car. She consented.

“One-Way Jim,” my grandfather said to him, according to the story that’s been passed on to my brother, my cousins, my uncles, and me. “I’m calling you that from now on.”

He wasn’t kidding.

My grandpa—“Pop,” as we called him—was born in the Ironbound, in Newark, the only son of an Italian immigrant. He was a person of contradictions. I never saw him overeat, but he weighed more than 300 pounds. I never witnessed him get violent, but he had a safe filled with dozens of automatic weapons. I never came across him not wearing leather sandals, all black, and a red bandana over his forehead, but he had closets stuffed with dress shoes and gaudy suits. And I never caught him reading a book. But he reveled in words, and he had a propensity for nicknames.

Being nicknamed by Pop was like being knighted by the king. There was Joe Bugs, an exterminator and small-town mayor, whose one daughter married my uncle. There was Ernie the Attorney, who grew up with Pop and became the family lawyer. There was Satellite Bob, who installed and fixed his televisions for decades. There was Video Bob, too (before my time), and there was Ralphie Boy (a hefty man, so large and so old, it’s nearly impossible to imagine him as a child). There were so many more I wish I could remember.

There was a subtle irony to Pop’s reliance on the obvious, though only if you were “in” on the joke. Only few were. I don’t doubt, for instance, that the “Bugs” of “Joe Bugs” works in two ways: one as a nod to his profession, and the other at his uncanny ability to keep running his mouth, even when you don’t want him to. One-Way Jim, the same way: he was both incapable of completing a round-trip on his bicycle, and he is a relatively simple man (he eats the same things every day, he only gets The Star-Ledger on Sundays, he goes to bed—punctually—at 8 p.m. each night). Ernie the Attorney, beyond the rhyme and the reference to his job: he was Pop’s counsel, the only adult I can really recall giving him advice he’d actually accept. Satellite Bob: he repairs televisions (he became known in Pop’s town for installing the largest satellite around), and he’s seemingly everywhere, a simple phone call away, as if he’s floating in the night sky and can descend somewhere in a second’s notice. (He once appeared at Pop’s beach house, two hours from where he resided, in a matter of 30 minutes with no explanation.)

I’ve been thinking about Pop—and nicknames—because I’ve been thinking much about Donald Trump’s extremely short-lived communications director, Anthony Scaramucci—or to his friends, his buddies on Wall Street, the “Mooch.” After his (apparently not uncommon) on-the-record, profanity-laced rant to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, I joked that Scaramucci would be the worst thing for Italian Americans since The Jersey Shore. Thankfully, he lasted 10 days and never officially started his role. (Days before his ousting, Matt Taibbi wrote in Rolling Stone, “I already miss Anthony Scaramucci.”) But still, in the span of basically a week, we had an entire USA Today article dedicated to the Mooch blowing a kiss at the end of a press briefing, Mario Cantone impersonating him on Comedy Central’s The President Show, and this New York Times headline—“You Talkin’ to Me? Trump’s White House Gets Some New York Attitude.” Seattle’s The Stranger even had a quiz that asked you to identify if Scaramucci said a quote or Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) from Goodfellas. This, of course, is the type of nuanced reaction we’ve come to expect: caricaturing a caricature, parodying a parody.

No one brought up, that is, the moment Martin Scorsese, in his signature tracking shot, meanders the camera through a restaurant as Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) introduces all the characters in a voiceover: Fat Andy. Frankie the Wop. Freddie No Nose. Pete the Killer. Nicky Eyes. Jimmy Two Times. Hill offers little explanation for these Mafia monikers, beyond the occasional terse clarification. Jimmy Two Times, for example, “got [his] nickname because he said everything twice.” It’s hard, though, not to consider a less literal interpretation, one from Pop’s practiced tradition: that Jimmy could have been a deceiver, too, maybe an unfaithful lover. The point is, however, that I don’t know. I know as much about Jimmy Two Times’s sexual encounters as you do about Joe Bugs and his blabbering.

That Goodfellas scene is a flash, a 45-second onslaught of connections and relationships, and these mobsters vanish back into a place of which we’re unfamiliar. We’re uncertain. This happens, too, on The Sopranos. We don’t see Paulie Walnuts hijack a truck he thinks holds television sets but really just contains a bunch of walnuts. We don’t see Big Pussy start out as a cat burglar. (“Pussy,” naturally, could also be a double entendre.) We’re left to wonder, always on the outside no matter how close we believe we get. The reason the nicknames on The Jersey Shore are so laughable is because they’re so utterly devoid of meaning. They’re not ambiguous. The nicknames, like the fictional space they exist in that’s purported to be “reality,” seem fake. Snooki, JWoww, Mike the Situation: these titles elicit no lore, no mystery, no legend. So nobody cares. We recognize they’re self-anointed. We move on.

But now we arrive at the Mooch, the brief reality-television star and the second-most powerful man in America for almost a fortnight. His nickname lends itself to analysis: it’s a truncated version of his last name, sure, but it’s also a likely summation of his personality and business strategy. The “Mooch” sounds like something you should be screaming from the sidelines as he reaches the 50-yard line. He’s a mooch. He takes things, enriching himself off others. Here, in Slate’s Felix Salmon’s words:
The Mooch, it’s important to understand, comes as close as humanly possible to being a man without a soul. His entire career has been based on finding people who are richer, more powerful, or otherwise more successful than himself and trying to be more like them.
It’s his “affectionate nickname on Wall Street,” according to William D. Cohan’s op-ed in The New York Times. In other words, it’s a term of endearment, a word that can only be fully understood by those closest to him. I do not know the Mooch, and barring his wealthy pals and a few journalists he treats as therapists, nor do most Americans. The name was nothing more than a glimpse into a world that’s not our own, a camera sliding through a crowded bar, an old man I loved and you didn’t, sitting in a chair and convincing an exterminator to laugh at how annoying he is.

So long, Mooch. We hardly knew ye.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Path to Destruction: On Sarah Gerard’s ‘Binary Star’

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When I was in college, I took a course titled “Alien Worlds.” The class was popular — at least the first few sessions were popular, when people still believed we’d be investigating extraterrestrial life — and it focused, mainly, on the techniques used to identify planets outside our solar system. I don’t remember much in the realm of practical information (I enrolled to fulfill a lab requirement), but I do remember the young professor, usually once a week, performing a hands-on presentation. In one instance, he selected several volunteers and, with a bed sheet and some balls, he showed us how planets and stars curve spacetime and cause gravity.

The unnamed, female narrator in Sarah Gerard’s remarkable debut novel, Binary Star, employs similar exercises. She attends Adelphi University on Long Island, and in addition to studying astronomy and secondary education, she interns at a local school, helping to teach about space. Tasked with “lead[ing] a lesson on common envelopes,” she tells her students to clear away the desks, cross hands with one another, and “start to spin.” Her students, as did my former classmates and I, become substitutes for cosmic forces and entities, and as they rotate, the narrator’s instructions transition into an internal monologue:

Make a list of every way you’re imperfect, I say.
Tell yourself that each item is correct.
Make a list of fears.
Tell yourself they’re present.

Partly novelistic, partly poetical, partly meditative, Binary Star is a beautiful inversion of these rudimentary, astronomical demonstrations, where bodies stand not as replacements for planets or asteroids or gravitational pulls, but where stars and black holes and galaxies stand, instead, for bodies.

Gerard’s narrator suffers from an eating disorder, and her mind operates with physics-like precision. She thinks always in numbers — “Everything must be quantified” — and her days are regimented in order to achieve a single digit: zero. She swallows. She vomits. She takes diet pills. She digests little other than coffee and Red Bull and dry lettuce from McDonald’s. She seeks perfection, and her purpose is “making [herself] a star.” She yearns to be a dying, big ball of gas — a glimmer in the sky — and as pretty and skinny as the celebrities whose alleged weight loss tips and pictures she studies on the pages of tabloids. She hopes to “shed matter.” Mass, gravity, light, revolutions, burning: The words of the body are the words of the stars, but Gerard takes no steps to separate them. Rather, she creates a terse ambiguity. Her writing has a lyrical duality, always hanging between the literal and the metaphorical, always in the present, “in personal time and universal time.” The protagonist is forever shifting between a human being and a “cosmic being.” She has no name. She exists in a “binary” system with another “star,” her equally troubled lover, orbiting a “common center of mass:” “John and I follow our paths into the center but we never reach the center. We are objects drawn to each other in space. We are space.” Co-dependent, they both revolve around one thing: a constant longing for purity.

Gerard finished Binary Star in about a month, residing in a trailer in Florida, and at less than 200 pages, it moves at a steady and quick velocity. Divided into three “dredge-ups,” the novel centers on the narrator and her self-medicating, drunk, and long-distance boyfriend, John, as they set-off on a cross-country road trip to find themselves. And though the road trip premise and star metaphors may seem like clichés, they succeed for that reason. Even on a structural level, the novel is a cliché, and the framework emphasizes its primary strength. Binary Star bluntly confronts topics, especially for women, not often discussed: “I want to have an affair that keeps me up at night;” “I want my vagina to get wet;” “I want to have my period.”

This is a bold work about taboos, but that isn’t to say Gerard limits herself to poetically subverting tropes. There’s very much a narrative. Before embarking on the drive, the narrator and John make a deal — neither seemingly with any intention of keeping it — to forgo their respective addictions: John won’t drink, and she won’t throw-up. When they arrive in Portland, and “visit a small zine distributor,” the owner rants for an hour about “animal liberation” and convinces John to buy a few items. Among the purchases, a book about “veganarchism” becomes a new focus for the couple, although it’s never enough to abate John’s alcoholism and her need to purge. John is the type of guy whose presence needs to be rationalized to others — he downs Seroquel and Dewar’s as much as he does strangers with his fists — and like the narrator, he is as hypocritical as he is idealistic.

Gerard, though, never attempts to justify her characters’ contradictions. John wears a leather belt, but he spends most of his time pompously declaring his veganism, as does the narrator, who begins working at Starbucks for the extra money. Looking at pictures taken in a vegan donut store in Seattle, she notices a Dunkin Donuts cup on one of the tables, nearly out of sight. America is riddled with these inconsistencies, and Gerard doesn’t try, either, to qualify her own. “From Hunger,” her non-fiction account of her bulimia and anorexia published in The New York Times, includes a similar incongruity. After returning to Florida and entering rehab, Gerard meets her cousin’s friend, and he proposes they hop freight trains heading north. “The stories sounded exciting, liberating, exactly what we needed,” Gerard writes, and soon, they board “an Amtrak train to Savannah,” the closest “hub for freight traffic.” They ride a major rail line to arrive at a train yard, where they can pretend to be existential hobos.

For Gerard, however, this subtle hypocrisy — people, including those most ethical, succumbing to corporations — isn’t wholly self-inflicted: While Binary Star’s narrator may appear to place the dying star metaphor on her disassociated self, Gerard brilliantly reveals how much the metaphor is actually imposed on her protagonist by capitalism. The body and the stars share a language, too, with corporate consumption, but Gerard hides the similarity within her luminous text, like a Dunkin Donuts coffee cup inside a vegan shop, waiting — on second glance — to be found. The main character stays in the “orbit of” her hunger’s “atmosphere,” and she also chews Orbit gum. She invokes multiple meanings of “lightness” — “Soon I will be light as gas,” and “I grow dimmer every day” — and she also smokes Ultra Light cigarettes. She wants to be a “star,” and she also reads Star Magazine. “Stop & Shop glows like a galaxy;” a stripper “in a silver thong and tassels turns in circles around a pole in the shape of a star;” the Walgreens bathroom with its “stainless steel walls” looks “like the inside of a spacecraft.” All “the lights of the cities looking like land-bound stars as [she and John] approach from a distance” shine fluorescently from The Cheesecake Factory, Fantastic Sams, and Chipotle. The times the products and buildings and objects of corporate America are equated to the cosmos are, really, times when the metaphorical language itself is in the process of collapsing. The moment the narrator explicitly sees herself as a commodity — “I [will] do away with all of my possessions, including myself” — is another hint to just how much she is “confusing terms.” A star consumes, she consumes, corporations consume: The prose becomes wonderfully cyclic, like the plot, and it’s unclear whether the universe, she, or society is the thing that’s sick.

It’s unclear which — the star, the person, or the economic system — is furthest along the path to destruction.