INTERVIEWS November 25, 2011

An Interview with Michael Martone

Matthew Baker

Depending on whom you ask, Michael Martone is either contemporary literature’s most notorious prankster, innovator, or mutineer. In 1988 his AAP membership was briefly revoked after Martone published his first two books—a “prose” collection titled Alive and Dead in Indiana and a “poetry” collection titled Seeing Eye—which, aside from Seeing Eye’s line breaks, were word-for-word identical. His membership to the Society of Scottish Novelists was revoked in 1991 after SSN discovered that, while Martone’s registered nom de plume had been “born” in Edinburgh, Martone himself had never even been to Scotland. His AWP membership was revoked in 2007, reinstated in 2008, and revoked again in 2010. 

After his first two collections, Martone went on to write Michael Martone, a collection of fictional contributor’s notes originally published among nonfictional contributor’s notes, The Blue Guide to Indiana, a collection of travel articles reviewing fictional attractions such as the Trans-Indiana Mayonnaise Pipeline and the Musee de Bob Ross (most of which were, again,originally published as nonfiction), a collection of fictional interviews with his mentor John Barth, fictional advertisements in the margins of magazines such as McSweeney’s and Nashville Review, poems using the names of nonfictional colleagues, and blurbs for nonexistent books. 

But his latest book is perhaps the most revealing—Racing in Place is a collection of essays on Martone’s obsession with blimps, cattle, and the Indianapolis 500, symbols for him of “this kind of frenetic motion and also this kind of staticness in the Midwest.” Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Martone has often been described as a regionalist, and his relationship with the Midwest mirrors his relationship with literature: Martone thinks of the Midwest as a “strange, imaginary place, with no distinct borders or boundaries.”

As we both summer in Kokomo, I offered to visit Martone’s loft for our interview, but Martone suggested something a bit more complicated. Instead, I wrote each question on a postcard, then left it at one of three drop-off locations: under a park bench at Foster Park, in a steamer trunk at Two Cities Antiques, and at Don’s Books in a used copy of an 1897 edition of The Invisible Man. Martone then delivered each response on a postcard (or more than one, when necessary) of his own. He insisted on this method—although once I caught him making a drop off at Foster Park and managed to conduct part of our interview face-to-face. I should also mention one of his postcards appeared to be in someone else’s handwriting; when I later asked Martone about this, he said his handwriting had just been having “an off day.” 

From what I’ve read, your experiments with fiction and nonfiction began long before your career as a writer. In college you and your friends enrolled a fake student, Paul French, and even attended his classes. Paul French went on to graduate, and now even receives alumni mail. What first got you interested in experimenting with those boundaries? 

One of my high school friends, Justin Montgomery, moved to Alaska the summer we graduated.  He wanted to work on the crab boats—he’d heard you could make a triple-digit salary working as a deckhand for the summer, hauling crabs in from sunrise until sundown and sleeping on the boat. 

When he came back at the end of the summer, though, here’s what he said had happened.  He’d driven a week straight in his pickup, not even stopping to piss, just pissing in a glass jar as he sputtered along the highway, and then his pickup had died just outside of Nikiski and he’d had to hike his way into town.  And once he got there he didn’t know anyone and he couldn’t get a job on a boat—not on a crab boat, not on a squid boat, not on a clam boat even—and he was sleeping in a hotel and spent all of his money the first two nights he was there. 

Part of the problem was that he was shy. He had trouble introducing himself to the captains of these different boats. He’d get nervous when he did, mumble, stammer, give off this aura of general incompetency. 

So the thing he decided to do was this: on his second night in Nikiski, he walked up to a couple of men standing outside of his hotel and introduced himself as Jaspar Jinx. 

And when he did? No mumbling. He wasn’t nervous about what they would think of him, because he was pretending to be someone else. He was pretending to be this fictional person. It wasn’t Justin they were meeting—it was only Jasper Jinx. 

So he kept doing it. He started telling everybody he met that that’s who he was. And a few days later he got a job on a clam boat and sailed off into the Pacific for the summer where his captain turned out to be an alcoholic and a crook and borderline Ahab about these clams. And there was almost a mutiny, but then there wasn’t, and so Justin came back to shore with just enough money to buy himself a new pickup and the gasoline to get him home again. 

But when he did—when he got home—he insisted that we call him Jaspar. He wanted us to call him Jaspar Jinx. We’d known this kid since he was thirteen—we’d played basketball with him, gone trick-or-treating, built a rope swing in his backyard—and now he wanted us to pretend that he was someone else. He said that he liked who he was when he was Jaspar more than who he was when he was Justin. 

So of course we told him, you’re full of shit. We’re not going to call you that. You’d sound like a DC supervillain. But he insisted. He even went out and got his name changed—got it legally changed. His parents convinced him to change only the first name, but still, on his driver’s license, now it says Jaspar Montgomery. The rest of our friends kept calling him Justin anyway, mocked him nonstop about the “Jaspar” on his license. But I thought, huh. Maybe there’s something to that. Maybe in some ways he really has changed—really is different from that kid we knew before.

And that’s what got you into writing?

I was already writing—I’d been writing stories since middle school. But that incident with Jaspar changed the way that I wrote. I’d been taught in school and by my grandmother that fiction was something on a page. But Jaspar showed me that the boundaries weren’t where I’d thought they were—that just like we have these fictions on the page, we also have fictions in our lives. 

So I decided to make my own alter ego. Which wasn’t easy—in fact, it turned out to be almost impossible. I could change my name, or wear an unusual hat, but I couldn’t convince myself of the fiction. Lyn Hejinian writes about this in My Life: “I suppose I had always hoped that, through an act of will and the effort of practice, I might be someone else, might alter my personality and even my appearance, that I might in fact create myself, but instead I found myself trapped in the very character which made such a thought possible and such a wish mine.” 

I decided to practice by creating a fictional life through letters. I’d met this girl in the Upper Peninsula—my friends and I, during our Jasparless summer, had driven up there to go fishing in Lake Superior. And this girl from Montana had been there visiting her father, and we’d had a weeklong romance and then swapped addresses and she’d taken an airplane back to her mother. We hadn’t written yet, so I decided to write her some letters, and through these letters to create a fictional life. I used my own name, of course—she already knew me as Michael Martone. But the Michael Martone I told her about in the letters didn’t actually exist. The fictional Michael Martone had an allergy to citrus; he had an affinity for parakeets; he played the clarinet; he had a twin brother who’d died in his mother’s womb. 

I know that you’ve written a number of “alter ego” fictions since—those letters were your first attempt at learning that craft?

Yes. Well, actually, no. Now that you’ve said that, I’ve just remembered an incident from middle school, which I think was probably my first “alter ego” experience, albeit inadvertently. 

What was the “incident”?

In middle school I desperately wanted to fit in, but I didn’t stand much of a chance. I had glasses twice the size of my face, and wore XL t-shirts on an XS body, and was taking precalculus classes once a week at a college campus nearby. I played the trumpet in our middle school band, which made things even worse; at our school the trendy thing was choir. I tried out for the seventh grade basketball team and during the free throw drills I made zero out of ten. 

One of the popular kids was this guy named Dustin Vanloon. Back then he was Justin’s best friend—kids liked referring to them as a duo. You know, “Dustin and Justin.” Everyone liked Dustin because he owned a lot of videogames and always made all of his free throws and had a body big enough to actually fill out an XL—he was enormous for a seventh grader. He was on the basketball team and the wrestling team and did competitive powerlifting. I always sat with the popular kids at lunch—none of them had any idea who I was, but they let me hang around anyway—and Dustin made lots of jokes about sexual organs that I didn’t even yet know existed.  Everything I know about sex I learned from him. That’s all it took was a year of his jokes. 

But it turns out he was actually pretty depressed, and was on a lot of medication, and then one week he stayed up three days without sleeping. He still came to school, but at night—this is what his parents said later on—he’d just play videogames. I’m not saying the videogames killed him; his parents said he played them all night because he couldn’t sleep, not vice versa. Anyway, sometime during the third night his heart stopped. His parents found his body in the morning. 

That must have been somewhat traumatizing—even if you weren’t actually friends.

To some extent it was. But the really traumatizing thing came later. The summer after he died, somehow I suddenly fit in with everyone. My house became the hangout for all of these kids I’d been idolizing since kindergarten. They’d bring over all of these great records I’d never even heard of—The Velvet Underground, Highway 61 Revisited, Three Imaginary Boys—and we’d eat sandwiches my grandmother made and play Atari. 

Which was actually really good for me. I became more comfortable with myself, less terrified of talking to other humans. I became sort of the mascot of our little group, the clown. I even briefly dated a ninth grader. We never kissed, but we held hands. For me, at the time, that was an enormous victory. 

At a certain point, though, sometime during my eighth grade year, I realized what had actually happened. When he had died, Dustin Vanloon had created a vacuum. And I had filled it.  I had essentially become Dustin Vanloon—I was their new friend-with-videogames, their new friend-with-lots-of-jokes. Because my fashion sense was more or less nonexistent, I even wore the same size t-shirts as Dustin, the same size pants. I had become a sort of fiction. They weren’t friends with Michael Martone; they were sustaining their friendship with Dustin Vanloon through Michael Martone, using me as their medium. I’m sure they all felt guilty about his dying—I even felt guilty, and like you pointed out, we hadn’t even been friends—and the way they coped with it was by being especially nice to this new Dustin Vanloon. When that ninth grade girl held my hand, she was holding it because it was Dustin’s. For her, that was the allure. When I realized that, I broke up with her. I didn’t date anyone again until I’d graduated high school and gone off to college. I didn’t want to be anyone’s Dustin.