LEE MARTIN with Nicholas Rys
The Mutual UFO Network
(Dzanc Books, 2018)
Lee Martin’s new story collection explores the lives, desires, and quiet moments of people who live quiet, modest lives. His characters dream and want and desire, not for grand things, but for small, intimate things. In this, his characters feel real, feel true, and more importantly—to a reader like me—they seem honest and necessary. They are not wealthy coastal elites drowning in their suburban or urban ennui, they are hardworking mid-westerners grappling with the land and their communities and their wives and their husbands. They are people who often don’t occupy the space between the covers of book.
I spoke with Martin about his collection, his characters, and the importance of setting in his work.
Nicholas Rys (Rail): I’m fascinated and always interested in how short story collections are organized—how they transform from disparate stories into a cohesive collection, into a book. Can you share some insight about the organization/structure of this book? It feels so cohesive, both as a progression of tales and as a collection of stories reflecting similar themes and ideas.
Lee Martin: The narrator of the first story in the collection—the title story—says, “I began to wonder what would happen if someone you thought you knew slipped away into another world. How far would love carry you if you wanted to follow? What if that person turned out to be you?” I used this to introduce this collection about people who are alienated from others and from themselves even as they long for connection. The last story, “Dummies, Shakers, Barkers, Wanderers,” ends with a mother watching her drug-addicted son gently touching a foal born with neonatal maladjustment syndrome. Here are her thoughts:
She told herself there were days and days ahead of them—days and weeks and months and years—time enough for anything to happen. Anything, she thought, and a shiver passed over her. The word was so lovely, and yet so frightening. It lay against her, weighty and splendid, a promise alive and trembling at the heart of ruin, waiting for her to claim it.
I consider this to be the answer to—or at least a deepening of—the question posed in the title story. What happens to the misfit and the alienated? They find small moments of grace in which they believe in the promise of happiness. Each story in this collection, through the relationship it explores, takes us closer and closer to this final observation. The point is that I can’t get to that end without the stories that precede it. In this way, the stories are in conversation with one another, which I hope, as you say, gives cohesion to the book rather than a feeling of a random gathering of stories.
Rail: How important or integral is setting to you and your work, specifically in this collection? The stories all seem so firmly rooted in place, and it feels remarkably consistent, both in set-specificity and language choice.
Martin: I believe in Eudora Welty’s observation, “Place is fiction.” Which is to say the landscape and the culture create the stories. Characters are usually acting in accordance with, or in resistance to, the places they occupy. We build our fictional worlds from the particulars we know. “Love Field” from my collection is but one example. I lived in Texas at the time I wrote that story, and I created a housing subdivision surrounded by the land as it once was before the building began to erase it:
Now she lived in a neighborhood surrounded by pasture fields where longhorn cattle grazed and the blue sky stretched off to the horizon. Some evenings, she walked to the farthest reach of the subdivision and saw the land the way it had been before people had come to claim it: scrub trees and clay soil cracking from drought and grass turning to tinder—dry and burnt—under the blazing sun. How vast Texas must have seemed to the first settlers. So much room, a person could disappear if he wanted to, and perhaps no one would ever know.
My main character Belle, a widow, aches for company but fears she’ll simply become irrelevant. The vibrancy of the subdivision—so rich with families—contrasts with the stark landscape surrounding it. That setting, then, expresses Belle’s simultaneous desires and fears that lead to the central action of the story. I think it’s important for writers to speak from their own places, the ones they know intimately. Those places always create the most genuine stories.
Rail: There is a pervading sadness in these stories that seem to all play out in what I’d call a ballet of small, domestic drama. All these stories, in some ways, are quietly devastating. The moments of climax rarely feel enormous or melodramatic, even though sometimes the events might be so. Was this understatement/quietness intentional or am I overreading or reading with too much of my own lens?
Martin: It took me a long time to figure out how to tell the stories of the Midwestern people I knew best, particularly those who come from my native southeastern Illinois where right now economic depression and an opioid epidemic often make it hard for folks to get through their days. In The Mutual UFO Network, I’m trying to tell the stories of people who find the circumstances of their lives burdensome, and I’m trying to tell those stories in a way that allows my characters to retain their dignity. I’m very aware of what I consider to be a Midwestern voice—direct and understated, and, therefore, dignified. I keep in mind this quote from Anton Chekhov: “When you want to touch the reader's heart, try to be colder. It gives their grief as it were, a background, against which it stands out in greater relief.”
Rail: Most of the characters in this collection seem to be wanting something more than they have, and that want usually seems to be a strive for a human connection, even though many of these characters have wives, husbands, families, or friends. Of course, it’s good fiction to write about characters who want something more. However, I was drawn to the fact that, in many ways, these are not characters who, on the surface, appear “broken” or “seekers”—they appear to have these connections, but your stories speak to a pervading or underlying loneliness underneath that. Can you speak to this?
Martin: I think it’s true that—even though we may be a part of a family, a neighborhood, a community—we’re often strangers to ourselves and to those we love. Perhaps beneath all of our social interactions we’re trying very hard to cover up a yearning that comes from some sense of the empty spaces we all have. Maybe the emptiness comes from past disappointments or present regrets, or maybe it’s just the knowledge—which we do our best to forget—that we’re mortal, that someday all of this will end. In my stories, I look for the moments in which it’s no longer possible for my characters to deny the emptiness they’ve tried so hard to cover over. This isn’t to say that the ends of the stories in this collection are despairing. Quite the contrary, I think of them as redemptive in the recognition of reality. At the end of “The Last Civilized House,” for example, and elderly couple who’ve been forced to confront a deep shame from their past come close to having an accident while driving home from a shopping trip:
“It’s all right,” Ancil said.
“My word,” said Lucy. “My heart is pounding.”
“It’s all right, old girl.” Ancil reached over and patted her arm. “Don’t worry. We’re fine.”
They drove on, the houses becoming fewer and farther apart as they went, the darkness coming on now—a quiet, cold night, the snow settling in over the houses and the fields. Ahead of him, Ancil could see the porch light that Lucy had thought to leave on, a faint glow in the distance. He drove toward that light, toward that house of last chances, where some bright thing between them—neither Ancil nor Lucy dared anymore to call it love—had almost gone out, but not now, not yet, not quite.
A beautiful light can often arise from the dark and the ugly. I hope my stories all land in that place, which seems true to the way our lives usually are—or at least the way my own experiences have led me to believe.
Rail: I was very into your deft navigation of time in these stories, time in both the psychic sense (the Woolfian notion of psychological time) as well as linear, narrative time. Can you discuss the desire to tell stories in a less conventional, straight-line fashion, and this push to add depth to the stories by moing both forward and backwards in the same story, often times, on the same page?
Martin: I guess in some of the stories—particularly “The Last Civilized House,” “Across the Street,” and “The Dead in Paradise”—I’m interested in what my characters carry with them from the distant past and how it comes to bear on present and future time. Maybe the older one gets the more one pays attention to the way the past wraps itself around the present. The famous line from Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun speaks to this: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” Indeed. The past is with us always. When I first started writing stories, I didn’t recognize that fact as much as I should have. That’s what age does to us, makes us more aware of the fluid nature of time and the pressure the past puts upon the present.
Rail: I was fascinated and really interested in the father character in the first story, which is the titular story of the book. Without giving too much away, he is essentially a con-man, selling knowingly fake tapes of UFO footage to people. I read this story—or at least this man—as a stand-in for American capitalism. He knows what he is selling is BS, but it makes him money, it provides for him. However, as a result, it leaves him a broken and obsessive man, and drives away the very people he supposedly cares for and is selling these tapes to support. Were you thinking about him, in any way, as a sort of stand in for this? Was any of this on your mind as you were crafting him as a character?
Martin: I had absolutely no thoughts about what the character of the father might have to tell us about American capitalism. I was primarily interested in his capability for belief and the faith he had in the product he was selling and the family he thought he could save. That’s his tragic flaw—that faith—and it keeps him from recognizing what he’s causing to happen in his own family. I’m rarely interested in ideas when I write. Instead, I’m interested in my characters and their situations. If I can see them clearly and completely enough, the more abstract things will come to the surface. The emotional content of a story is in its particulars. “My task which I am trying to achieve,” Joseph Conrad said, “is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”
Rail: Could you talk a bit about the form of the story “The Last Civilized House”? In it, you utilize a close, limited third-person narrator, but this narrator switches from the two perspectives of a married couple. The first section belongs to the husband, then the second to the wife, and so on. I was fascinated by it, because I would think a story that did this would utilize the first-person point of view to toggle between characters, but you expertly used the close-third, which allows insight that these characters maybe don’t even know about.
Martin: The objective of such a point of view strategy is often to highlight misunderstandings or miscommunications. It seemed like the thing to do in this story about a long-term marriage haunted by a decision from the past. We move through our relationships the way Ancil and Lucy do in this story, assuming things about our partners and fearful of those moments that reveal more of the truth then we can stand to face. Often, our genuine feelings go unexpressed, and we bumble on, thinking we know this or we know that, when really we don’t. In this story, Lucy assumes that Ancil—in that long-ago time—blessed her decision. The point of view strategy, when applied to the pressures of the dramatic present, allows the reader to know quite the opposite. It’s this private knowledge on the reader’s part that creates the resonance in the story. We know everything could have been different if only Ancil and Lucy had clearly spoken their hearts.
Rail: You’ve been doing readings and speaking engagements on the back of this book. I wanted to ask if readings and talking about your work is something you enjoy doing, or if you prefer to let the work speak for itself?
Martin: I dabbled in the theatre when I was younger, so I absolutely love doing readings from my own work. It allows the frustrated actor in me to come through. In all honesty, I think the oral interpretation of one’s work adds another layer of expression to the written text. I love to hear a writer who reads really well. It opens up the work to me in new ways. I also don’t mind talking about my work. Having to answer questions, just like I’m doing now, invites me to think more deeply about how I’ve put something together, and in the process I learn something that may help me out somewhere down the road. When we teach something, we know it better, and that applies to our own work just as well as to the work of others.
Rail: In many ways, I feel the best compliment to give a good book is that it is unfilmable—so many writers feel the opposite, or want their work to be made into a movie, but reading this book, I felt that so much of its beauty was in the way you navigated time, which seems almost impossible to capture on the screen. Do you have any thoughts or opinions on this?
Martin: Ah, time! That’s the pesky thing that I believe has always stood in the way of possible film deals for my work. Anytime we step outside linear time and chronological narrative I imagine we present a challenge to a filmmaker. Of course, it can be done—we have many examples—but the filmmaker has to be truly devoted to the project and to the original work. The interiority that accompanies the navigation of time is what I love about fiction and also what I sometimes miss in good films.
Rail: Do you draw any inspiration from other art forms, or participate in any other art forms while they write or are considering their work—do you play music or draw? Were there any musicians or films or pieces of art that were inspirational or that you were thinking about while crafting this book?
Martin: I’m a music guy and I wish I played. I fooled around with the guitar a little when I was younger and I played cornet in the junior high school band, but now I just like to listen. I find that certain music makes a sound that I want to try to answer in my writing. Music also, of course, sets an atmosphere that I find helpful when crafting particular worlds on the page. Lucinda Williams is an artist I return to time and time again. Her songs are full of broken people and the yearnings of the heart, and I think that matches up fairly well with what I’m interested in when I write fiction.
Nicholas Rys is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.