Cassandra at the Wedding (New York Review Books Classics)

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Writing Something Irresponsible: The Millions Interviews Andrew Martin

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.

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