A Conversation with Andrew Martin
BY SPENCER RUCHTI
Andrew Martin‘s first novel Early Work was published in summer 2018 by FSG, and was chosen as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Zyzzyva, and The Los Angeles Review of Books Print Quarterly, and his essays and criticism in The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, The New York Times Book Review, VICE, and elsewhere. His story collection, tentatively titled Cool for America, will be published by FSG in 2020. He lives in Boston with his partner Laura and their dog Bonnie.
“Always wanting to change everything has been a constant craving with me,” Thomas Bernhard writes in Gargoyles, “an outrageous desire which leads to the most painful disputes.” I thought about Bernhard’s “constant craving”—the agony of change, the misery of choice—as I read Andrew Martin’s debut novel, Early Work, a brilliant book that names the unnameable gloom of being unsure and writing in the 21st century. Martin’s star characters are certainly funnier and more congenial than Bernhard’s (Peter, Julia, Leslie, and friends are prone to banter and are all somehow freakishly clever) but the impetus to undermine all good things, the instinct to self-destruct in the name of some supposedly greener pasture, is disturbingly universal. It’s one of the things that drives Martin’s characters to drink, to stare holes into their computer screens, to cheat and sleep with one another. Another Bernhard line comes to mind: “Youth is a terrible condition.”
Peter Cunningham is a writer with a definitive misanthropic charm (“I do tend to like people in practice,” he says right away, “even though I’ve built an airtight case against them in principle.”). He’s “ambitious but without any real sense of the content of that ambition,” Martin says. Peter and his long-time girlfriend Julia—a poet and nurse—spend their days writing, making plans for drinks, and meeting friends for dinner and structured activities. Enter Leslie, a talented writer fleeing the trappings of her own life and fiancé and having a “regular-ass shitty time” doing it. Peter and Leslie begin a complicated sexual and cerebral relationship, and Martin gives the affair a nuanced treatment. “There’s pretty inevitably a moral judgment attached to a discussion about infidelity in a story,” Martin says, “but in writing it, I tried really hard to be non-judgmental about the relationship between Peter and Leslie.”
Martin isn’t really “from” somewhere, but he says New Jersey comes close. “I moved around a lot as a kid. I feel like everywhere I go I’m observing because I’m not fully of the place.” He’s lived most recently in Montana and Virginia, where the bulk of Early Work takes place. Today he writes out of Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood south of Boston. We spoke at a café on Centre Street about the writers we admire, the romance of location, what it’s like to talk about your novel with strangers, the “heroic work” of small presses, and the trouble with writing programs. The following has been condensed and rearranged.
Spencer Ruchti, interviewer: What writers are dear to you? Who’s part of your personal canon?
Andrew Martin, author: It’s a long list, and I feel like it rotates constantly. A lot of short story writers have been significant in the way I think about scenes and dialogue. Deborah Eisenberg is up there, as are Lorrie Moore and Amy Hempel, and Rebecca Lee and, more recently, Lucia Berlin. Edward St. Aubyn was really important for me, especially in the way I think about crafting repartee in a kind of heightened, theatrical way. Sam Lipsyte was one of the people who told me about those books, way back in the day. My friends and I were cultists about St. Aubyn when there was just the trilogy of the first three very short novels in that series available. It took a while to assimilate into the broader reading public, maybe because those first books—the very first especially— were so radical, especially in the direct way he wrote about childhood trauma and its aftermath. Now the times have caught up to it and it feels more of a piece with Ferrante and Knausgaard—but Aubyn’s books are much more polished and fiction-y than the autofiction of right now. He’s more indebted to Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, a very English tradition.
SR: You mentioned Sam Lipsyte, who you studied with as an undergraduate. What other teachers have influenced you?
AM: My first teacher at Columbia was the poet Brenda Shaughnessy, and her encouragement and her poetry have both played major roles in my writing life. Deirdre McNamer and Debra Earling were both tough on me in extremely beneficial ways at the University of Montana. David Gates has had an immense influence on my work, as a teacher, friend, and as a writer. He had a huge influence on the story collection coming out in 2020, Cool For America. Hopefully that’s what it’s called. The first story I published—I was re-reading it for the collection—is so heavily indebted to Gates, to his style and his way of doing one-liners and narration that’s so cynical it’s curling up into itself. David and I bonded over writers like Cheever, who’s one of my all-time favorites, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I love those major sentence writers, like James Baldwin and Penelope Fitzgerald, who write in clear, beautiful prose. Penelope Fitzgerald is hugely important to me and I can’t write anything like her. She writes subtle, wry sentences and perfect, short novels.
SR: There’s no anxiety to imitate her, style-wise? You can enjoy her work without it cannibalizing your own?
AM: No, I wish I could write like her! [Laughs] I just don’t have the store of subtlety or experience.
SR: You’re now finishing up the last of your reading “tour” for Early Work. What’s most surprising about how readers have received the novel? What questions have they been asking?
AM: I think… There are often questions at readings, but they tend to be the same questions. There’s a lot of concern about how much of the book is true, and it gets asked in all kinds of ways, but that’s basically the question.
The reviews of the book have been interesting. They focus on things I didn’t think about as much when I was writing the book. It’s seen very much as a book about “millennials”—that word comes up in every single review. It’s taken as a book about the “late millennial condition.” I feel like the book is notably unrepresentative, as far as I can tell, since the people in the book barely use the internet and spend most of their time arguing about books that came out fifty years ago. People are also writing about the book’s self-consciousness and self-referentiality, which was on my mind, but I was surprised by the degree to which it was a focal point.
SR: It seems like bookstore events and festivals have gravitated toward the infidelity plot when trying to classify your novel. Would you disagree with that characterization?
AM: I’m not surprised because I’ve seen the way that books get discussed in terms of their story, in a way that doesn’t usually match up with my way of reading, which tends to be more about style and structure. But I realize it’s a lot easier to talk about what happens in a book both in reviews and conversation than to talk about, you know, voice and POV shifts. It’s way more interesting to me that the book moves between first and third person, or that the book is narrated by this insufferable person with kind of a jaunty run-on way of speaking than that it’s about infidelity. But it’s a valid observation, obviously. There’s pretty inevitably a moral judgment attached to a discussion about infidelity in a story, but in writing it, I tried really hard to be non-judgmental about the relationship between Peter and Leslie. It’s shitty, what they do, by objective standards: Leslie breaks her engagement with another guy and continues to have sex with Peter, who’s partnered with someone else. It’s not nice. They’re not being nice people. But no one ever thinks that they’re the bad guy, though the guy in the book suspects he might be because he’s very self-conscious about everything. I wanted to present it from their perspective as in: What if this is true love? We can guess that these people aren’t going to be together forever in fictional utopia, though they can’t know that.
SR: It certainly didn’t seem like it by the end of the novel.
AM: But when people do that, when people cheat, when people throw over their partners for someone else, they do it because they think it’s worth it. It’s because they think, I’m going to find something here that I can’t find anywhere else. I’m only going to get this one life, and what if this is my only chance at happiness? Which is a real thing. Even if they’re often delusional.
SR: When n+1 published the collection MFA vs. NYC, you wrote an essay in response that was generally supportive of writing programs, though maybe apprehensive about the whole MFA/NYC taxonomy. You’ve since told me you’re “less sanguine” about what you wrote. Where were you when you wrote that essay, and what’s happened since to change your mind?
AM: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I’ll preface this by saying I don’t have any regrets about my own MFA experience. When I wrote that essay I was still in the post-MFA glow—I really loved Montana. I learned a lot from my peers there, and from the particularities of the experience, especially as an East Coast person. I met people from all over the country, I got to live in a place that was totally foreign to me, our teachers were almost troublingly available to hang out. It does feel to me that in the broader literary culture, homogeneity and professionalization are the big problems, and I think MFA programs must be contributing to that in some way. But I still think Wallace [in his essay “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young”] was wrong to point at the problem being MFA professors, in that they’re forcing their will or a certain style on their students.
SR: Or that by compromising their creative energies, they somehow grow to resent their students?
AM: I don’t really buy that, though most professors probably resent their students at some point. Or so I’ve heard. I think the bigger problem is everyone trying to sell something. And it’s understandable; we all want to get our work out. But there’s a sense sometimes when you read new fiction—maybe this has always been true—that there are formulas in play, as much as with “literary” fiction as with “commercial.” It kind of feels to me like that moment in the mid-2000s when “indie” was just another music genre that big record companies used to sell albums.
Part of my point in that piece was that MFA and NYC aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re serving each other, and both of them produce a lot of really mediocre work. I think in both cases it’s because it’s work that’s trying to serve a broader inchoate idea of what some market wants, whether that’s an “MFA” market or an “NYC” market, neither of which has much interest in or patience for experimentation and ugliness. I’ve become much more disillusioned with the marketplace and what it seems to do to writers. You hustle and you try to sell yourself and you end up seeing an assembly line of promotional work that comes out. And obviously I worked really hard on the pieces that I wrote for various places to promote my book, and I’m always happy to be on a list of books somewhere, and here I am doing interviews, which are fun! But I think the apparatus around fiction right now is too removed from artistic production. There’s a lot of empty boosterism. We might be kind of stuck with the forms that have developed, but I’d love to read a listicle about, like, “novels that tried to fuck with the form and mostly failed but are still really interesting and worth reading.” I don’t know. Without having any hard date, it feels to me like the MFA world is getting more complicit in feeding into the publishing world. Not that I haven’t been a part of that myself.
SR: What does it take to surpass this machine?
AM: Publishers that seem to have essentially non-profit, or, uh, low-profit models are doing a lot of the heroic work. Dorothy, Dalkey, NYRB, the Feminist Press, Archipelago. And the “prestige” imprints at the big houses publish great things too, but they rely on something else selling enough copies that they can afford to publish, for example, something obscure in French translation.
I guess I’m realizing slowly how conservative my own view of what fiction could be was a few years ago. I think you get a little bit hypnotized in student life to the idea of the well-crafted thing. Because it’s what you can control, and it’s real, and it’s good to know how to make a well-crafted thing. I don’t want to reject that. But my suspicion is that we could be doing more interesting work if we didn’t think we had to follow in the footsteps of a pretty narrow canon of American fiction from the mid- to late-20th century. I feel like workshops should be reading, I don’t know, Moby Dick, or Clarissa or something. I’m teaching these novel workshops right now, and I want to say, “Do anything you want!” And all they want is for me to tell them the rules. Some of this conversation ends up circling the, “What’s the problem with millennials? Why can’t they get their act together?” propaganda. Young writers want rules because there’s no stable employment, and there’s no model for what you’re supposed to do with your life, so people are trying to professionalize everything they can.
SR: Did you find it was harder to be tuned into all of this [gestures] when you were living in Montana than when you were living in New York? Or here in Boston?
AM: New York is the ultimate catch-22 for a writer. It puts you in touch with everybody, and I had a good job at the New York Review of Books, and I had good freelance assignments, but you also know what everybody else is doing. You know way too much about the business. With Montana, the great and bad thing about it was that nobody talks at all about the business. It should be great for your artistic development, and it was for me, but I have way too many friends from that program who are great writers who don’t have books out, and I wonder if having a few more conversations about the industry would have helped. I’m trying to have it both ways, after railing against the synchronicity of programs and publishing. But as it is, the kids from Iowa seem to publish all the books, and it’s not like they’re better writers than people from other programs. They just know more agents!
SR: Have you spent enough time in Boston to start writing about it?
AM: I think I might be just about there. I’ve got a residency in December, and I’m going to start working on a new novel. I think it’s going to be set at least partly in Boston. But again, what excited me about writing about Boston is… I don’t know [gestures], Jamaica Plain. To write about the ridiculous construction zone I live in out by the Forest Hills T station. That’s interesting. Or maybe it’s not interesting, but I can’t write about, I don’t know, Southie. I don’t know it. I can write about Harvard Square, and the weirdness of what Harvard Square is in 2017 and 2018, which is this bizarre blend of corporate slick nightmare and old stuff that’s hanging on to a shred of character. I can write about this gentrifying zone in Jamaica Plain. I can write about the T that I spend every day on for hours and all the weird things that happen there. Suddenly, the place comes to life in its details. Writing about Boston as a concept is not interesting to me.
SR: Catherine Lacey told me the biggest difference she noticed between people in New York and Chicago was that people in New York distrust happiness, while people in Chicago are comfortable with it. Maybe it’s unfair of me to think of happiness as regional, but I was much more comfortable with my happiness in Missoula than I am here, in a sort of lazy, beatific way.
AM: For me it’s also something of a symptom of age. As you get older you start to realize that you should probably try to be happy, if you can. As an Armenian-Catholic-whatever, and a writer, it might not be possible for me to be happy, and I’ve accepted that. I’m more open to the possibility of happiness than I was as a 25-year-old, when it seemed fun and exciting to be miserable forever.
SR: You took some pleasure in your misery?
AM: I still inevitably do, but it would be nice to be content.
SR: It’s something I felt with Peter, too. In the novel.
AM: The book is about a period in Peter’s life that’s in some ways like a period in my own life. The events of the book didn’t happen, but he’s living in a small town, not knowing how to get from that step to the next step, being ambitious but without any real sense of the content of that ambition—which was all very real for me. So it’s kind of funny. Inevitably when you’re writing about aspiring writers, and you have a book out, you’ve transcended the situation you’re writing about. So it’s a book about, “What if I didn’t figure it out?” This stuff is so ephemeral. You know how many books get pulped? This next story collection could be the last book I ever publish and I’m not taking it for granted. But Early Work is in large part about a guy who is not able to realize his ambitions. And I have, at least the first step of them. This is what I’ve wanted to do my whole life.