Douglas A. Martin is the author of books of poetry and prose, including: Once You Go Back, Your Body Figured, In The Time of Assignments, Branwell, and They Change the Subject. Martin’s first novel, Outline of My Lover, was selected by Colm Tóibín as an International Book of the Year in The Times Literary Supplement and adapted in part by the Forsythe Company for their multimedia ballet/live film, Kammer/Kammer. Martin lives in Brooklyn and Callicoon, New York.
A unique and mesmerizing journey unlike anything I have read, Wolf is a story of family, trauma, sexuality, and murder. The novel is based on a true crime, but the recreation of evidence into an easily digestible narrative is resisted. Instead, the writer pushes poetic prose to new heights while producing an attuned sense of empathy for characters in unthinkable circumstances. Author Tiphanie Yanique says of the novel, “Wolf is a horror story, a love story, story of survival, of parenting and of coming of age. It manages to be so many contradictory things by a-newly creating the English language—by making a brand new English that is both alienating and intimate. It is a marvel.” I had the privilege to study with Douglas A. Martin at Wesleyan University, where he currently teaches, and to conduct this interview with him over email.
Zachary Ginsburg: Your work spans many forms, including novels, short stories, poetry, and criticism. Your novels, Outline of My Lover and Once You Go Back, pull heavily from your own life, while Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother leans more toward historical fiction. I’m curious about the genesis of Wolf. What drew you to write about this crime, and did you always envision this as a book-length project? How did you decide to work in the form of a novel?
Douglas A. Martin: It was a long time ago that it began. I used to go to the library to work because of my living situation: lots of roommates, television, shared space phone calls. My favorite was Bobst, NYU, which felt very transporting to just enter. I must have started taking notes for the writing around the same year Branwell was coming to be. It is possible I finished a draft of that before, there. I had finally gotten an agent, which I’d tried to do for some years before going to graduate school, and she had the earlier books of mine but wanted to know when, in her words, I was going “to leave my world behind.” I was looking for a way to not abandon what I thought mattered in writing, and there was this idea of what it meant that I had never heard of Branwell Brontë before—and also, here was this article I was reading one day in passing in The New York Times, basically because of the picture of the two kids used this way on the front page. I always knew that the material—if it ever found its way out of the notes I began taking, pulled back to try to make sense of it—would be something like a novel, but when I thought that way, it was not necessarily thinking “fiction” per se, just that this was not a poem. But there’s the possibility of anonymity in a novel that I like.
ZG: Is your process of writing autobiographical fiction much different than writing about others, such as in Branwell and Wolf? How did research play a role in Wolf, and how important were the real-life events in the crafting of your narrative?
DAM: In both modes I have tended to begin in a way that I hope will allow me to somehow understand or uncover what I might not normally let myself see. For writing to make appear what I come to realize I already know, even if I’m not so conscious of it in my day-to-day proceedings, to unmute what we might do to continue coping, I proceed slowly, understanding what I might actually feel or have felt, day-by-day, picking it back up again, working into the rooms I might not be ready yet to go into.
The material for my first book was overwhelming, to put it mildly, and the initial way I gathered those pages was through studying alongside the drafting facets of what was happening in the [Marguerite] Duras book I allowed myself to read, the most famous one, The Lover. I would look for what parallels might be, rather than composing from whatever I might happen to think was the most important point of address, a kind of hand-holding. Then I tried to make a shape with what I had that held more than just what I wanted to tell myself most clearly, easily. How intensely this material was refashioned after the first drafting would have more in common with Wolf than with Branwell, because with the Brontë book, I would stay at the desk until I felt like I had addressed something to a degree in which I could move forward somehow, in a historical line.
Wolf had a previous version that was abandoned, a much looser composition that did not work, the forest and all the weeds. Really just compiling all the research. But a novel voice demands more than that. Also, why am I really writing this? I went from the newspaper accounts to the major media outlet websites, where the court testimony was available, and felt guilty that I could click and hear those voices. Pictures of documents, the scrawl. But I didn’t want to recreate evidence. I wanted whatever feeling this was actually blocking. And I was surprised very early on in my composing that two mass market accounts of the crime had already been published. I had those, and the simplification of the dynamics was something I was impassioned by. I started thinking about what Gehard Ricther has done with newspaper pictures, duration and abstraction, Warhol in his famous Death and Disasters. It got to the point that I decided I should be willing to think about it as long as the sentence was still being served out. Other real life events for me were like what Capote did to make In Cold Blood, which is romantic to my mind, and versions of the case Jean Genet’s play The Maids comes out of, how variously it could look in different people’s hands, though also not leaving behind Duras’s mark on me. I had begun writing what would be Wolf, and then I found this book of hers, L’Amante Anglaise, a true crime adaptation really, and it signaled another possible channel.
But if you are asking about fidelity to truth, like in my autobiographically based work, I do not seem to be able to just wholesale fabricate. And I am compelled by endurance.
ZG: It seems that research and drafting helped you discover what you didn’t want the project to become, an oversimplified recreation of evidence, but through gleaning inspiration from other artists, you were able to find the voice the novel demanded.
The voice of Wolf is not a one-way channel. I had a very interactive experience of reading this novel. There is an elusive quality to the prose that approaches evidence but pulls back before forming a clear picture, and I felt encouraged to fill in those gaps. Was obscuring or complicating criminality a project of the book?
DAM: The voice was definitely a major struggle for this piece: what could carry all I wanted to accomplish, the space I wanted to allow for engaging nuances of perception. In a book like this, and like Branwell, I think I am looking for a more active reader, and the way you describe yourself feeling positioned here is the desired effect. I worked years to get that, all the balances right. Here I might be more after what punishment is meant to do, what is one ever being trained into? And a deep distrust of defining for someone else what they must feel, always. A passive audience is a problem for me. Even when I go to the movies, I like to try to think from the beginning to the end.
ZG: I want to pause on “a deep distrust of defining for someone else what they must feel.” My feelings were given a lot of leeway in this book, which took me to challenging places. I felt conflicted about the character called “the father.” One side of me wanted to condemn him, to point a finger, while another side felt a slippery sense of pity. His character name, “the father,” amplified this feeling of pity, and hearing it over and over again made him seem somewhat helpless under the weight of that title. Many times, I had to lower the book and ask myself if I was really feeling this or that, and it made for a powerful reading experience. I’m curious about your thought process behind the naming of the characters. You give them titles instead of traditional names: the father, the younger brother, the older brother, the friend, or some variation of those.
DAM: When I was growing up, I was given one story about my father, one I adopted and one that was much easier to just accept and move on from, before thinking there might be more to him than the more damaging parts. But even in starting this response to you, why would I never say “Dad”? I think about that, naming and how it can hold things back—or provide some abstraction of supposed perspective or relation for other feelings to focus around. Like, even “he” for me, or that last name I do not want weighted anymore as a shortened signature of me. In this narrative, it is about fitting a role, or not. Especially for me, with the older brother. What does it mean to be sibling? To feel some onerous of care, I guess. It’s like a summoning. To be there. To share care. When I think about literature as an art, I think of these confrontations with what we supposedly know. When one looks out from what one is reading, I think that’s a confirmation of life.
ZG: I was moved by the scenes of the brothers at school, with a lot of attention paid to their clothing, visible signs of poverty that set them apart from the other students. The older brother protects them when they are teased, while the younger brother stays quiet and observes. The voice of Wolf follows the younger brother the most, and this puts the reader in a vulnerable position, seeing life and its dangers as it appears to such a young boy. You’ve written young characters in the past, but it must have been difficult to go on this journey with the younger brother. How did he become the anchor of the book?
DAM: This is the most emotionally difficult thing I have ever written. Sometimes I would try to fake my way through a scene, by which I mean not being fully present for all I was asserting, all there was in and potentially underneath every word spoken or narrated in the surround. I could find myself flinching, as it were. For the whole book, it was like having to do what it took for me to be able to find some satisfaction with the breakup scene in Outline of My Lover, just a couple of pages that I worked on for three or four months. The younger brother in this narrative is who compels those actions around him, including my taking up of his story. But I wanted to resist just being easy with the older, too. I was thinking a lot about when one isn’t acknowledged as just as important, what does that motivate? There was a practical level, as well, in that I wanted to build up an early bond I imagined the older without.
ZG: With a project that demanded so much, over the many years and drafts, I can only assume there were moments of doubt. How did you stay committed to finishing the novel?
DAM: It does not get easier, though being told that it did was one of the ways I continued when my first novel was rejected in that state. I try to trick myself. I will tell myself I never have to do it again this way, if I just do it good enough this one time, that this or that book will get me to a place where I will not have to fight for the writing in quite the same way. But they have gotten harder for me to finish, and it also seems that now they come to completion when I am at some place in my life feeling that I need to go beyond what has become myself. It was not being hired at CalArts that finally allowed me to finish Acker, ironically. Around this was Wolf, too, because I started it before I went back to school, and in the summers off from working on my doctorate, I would pick the notes back up again, all this material that was there and unresolved. When I sat down to writing I could only think of making some sort of peace with it as a step forward. In the early years of drafting, I felt so lucky that the agent I had believed in it and would listen to me talk in his office for hour stretches. And for the colleague who would drive me home sometimes from Connecticut, where we both were teaching in visiting roles, and how he would listen to me, too. I’m still there. It’s ridiculous to think that when I first started it. I ran into two writer friends who were catching up, and this was like the day notes began, and I said I was going to write it in two weeks.
ZG: It’s interesting that by creating “unrealistic” expectations, you end up producing real books, in the long run. Another key seems to be having trusted people you discuss your writing with.
Wolf is to be published alongside the 20th anniversary edition of Outline of My Lover. What does this anniversary edition mean to you?
DAM: Thank you for saying that about my books. The man I started writing for died a few years ago, and what I mean is I wanted him in my life, and part of the way to get him to meet me was to tell him I had some new piece of writing to show him. So this discussion, trust, it’s foundation. And I’m fortunate that even though that first book of prose ended a relationship or two, it also brought people into my life who recognized where it was coming from and saw the necessity for me to write about what I did, how I did. It helped me get up in the morning.
My orientation to the work twenty-years later is of two minds. There’s a sadness, to look back at those family relations—readying the book for publication, I typed the manuscript myself, so it’s all fresh—pulled from mine, living how in recent years all that was there to be preyed upon has been, the choices and portrayals, the racism, desires for conformity, how I lived through that place once and not being able to imagine how I might ever willingly step a foot there again… This sits alongside the fact of having created something that is being saved in a way, that gets this home, seen to be resonant with the house’s larger publishing aim or that at least there’s room within it for it.