by Linda Johns, Reader Services librarian, The Seattle Public Library
Stories for Boys by Gregory Martin (Hawthorne Books, 2012)
Thanks for being a part of Seattle Reads. Since readers throughout our community will be talking about the genre of memoir, let's start by asking you: Why is memoir the right form for you as a writer and for this story?
It never occurred to me to write this book as anything other than as a memoir, and perhaps that's because my first book was nonfiction, and I teach nonfiction, and I return again and again to certain memoirs for what they've taught me about life and about storytelling-books like Tobias Wolff's "In Pharoah's Army" or Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" - and I want to try to contribute to that tradition which I've studied and which I cherish. But I think as much as this, the story of my father's awful childhood, his marriage to my mother, his secret, closeted life, his suicide attempt and my attempt to understand him and to somehow integrate all of this into the life of my own family with my wife and our two young sons-all that was a story that didn't require any invention. The story and its questions compelled me, just as they were. And they compelled me particularly because I could see what had happened in my own family in the context of the larger story we're all going through as a culture and a country, with respect to secrecy, privacy, sexual identity and equality. My hope was that maybe this story could contribute in some small way to that larger story.
How much about the book "Stories for Boys" did you know or understand when you first began writing it? What was revealed to you during the writing?
The short answer about what I understood at the front end is "not much. "But I did know what I wanted. I wanted to understand my father better, to somehow get a handle on how this man I had known all of my life could have been successfully living a secret life without me ever having even a single notion. How did he-how does anyone-pull that off? I wanted to interrogate my own confusion, as well as my sense that the story I had always been telling myself about my childhood, now felt false. I suddenly felt like an unreliable narrator of my own life. Was I? I wanted to explore how the ground of my memory seemed to shift under my feet. I wanted to explore questions about secrecy and parenting. What do you tell children? How much? When? I didn't have good answers to any of these questions, and I hoped that through the writing I would move from a state of confusion to a state of lesser confusion, that the writing would take me somewhere I needed to go. And I needed to go there whether I was going to write about it or not.
In any kind of writing, decisions about what stays out (or gets cut during revision) seem as important as what makes it to the printed page. Is that even truer in a memoir? How did you decide what to let go and leave out?
In both of my books, I cut more than 50 pages. I wrote the beginning last, after I knew where I was going. I like to generate a lot of pages and then step back and see what patterns, themes and preoccupations begin to emerge. Then, knowing what the principal concerns are, I can eliminate material that doesn't contribute, or is redundant. I used to not like cutting, and maybe this is true of any apprentice writer - you want to make it all work. But it won't, and I know it, and I've seen on several occasions how the 8,000 word chapter is much improved at 5,000 words.
The one respect in which this certainly does have higher stakes in memoir has to do with cutting out certain details, certain stories, because you're writing about real people, who are never just characters, as they are in fiction. I didn't censor myself in the first several drafts of the books, but I did later. And I have to say that I don't have any regrets about those cuts now, and what's interesting to me is that none of those cuts had anything to do with the writing I was doing about my father, who gave me his full support and who read the manuscript carefully, helped me make it better, and never once asked that I cut anything. All of those kinds of cuts-this kind of self-censorship-had to do with smaller things, and minor characters, people who might have been hurt by a characterization or a detail that wasn't at all connected to the book's central concerns. Those cuts seem easy to me now, obvious, though they weren't easy to make at the time.
In a piece you did for "The Writer"" ("August 2006), you wrote how the first person point of view was too confining when you were writing "Mountain City," and your decision to use multiple points of view was a way to take the focus off you. In "Stories for Boys," emails and letters from your father also shift the perspective. What was your intention with including these notes to you and to your sons?
It was the same intention-the privileging of additional perspective. I wanted the reader to have more than just my first person voice, more vantage points to experience and also to judge the story, so that they could better weigh in on its credibility. I wanted the reader to read those emails of my father's, so that they could come to hear and know him in his own words. There are some sections in the book written in the third person limited, for the same reason.
There are significant formal differences between "Mountain City" and "Stories for Boys," and I think the main one is that "Mountain City" is a memoir of a place. The place, the community, and my family as a part of that community, are the essential subjects. In "Mountain City," I'm primarily an observer, like the narrator in the novel "Winesburg, Ohio." But in "Stories for Boys," I'm not just the narrator, I'm a principal character, one of the book's protagonists, and so I couldn't take the focus off of me nearly so much as in "Mountain City". Which is not to say that I didn't want to take the focus off. I would have greatly preferred to not have my own confusion and longing and questions and flaws as parts of the engine driving the narrative. I think most of us would prefer to be the observer. Virginia Woolf has this great quote: "At the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points." Who wouldn't rather be the observant fellow? But the memoir form has its own unique demands, and one of them is self-implication; the narrator is a protagonist who is implicated crucially in the story's outcome, who has something important at stake, who makes choices, good and bad, which have cost and consequence. And hopefully, also, this narrator is self-aware.
In that same essay you wrote: "My memory of the day I learned to ride a bicycle is a murky amalgam of inarticulate thoughts and sense impressions suffused by memories of my father's stories based on his own memory of that day. To say that this memory is mine is to slip into the ambiguity at the heart of language." (Love that quote, by the way.) How did you approach memory and writing in "Stories for Boys?"
First, thanks a lot. I enjoy thinking about the challenges of craft, and that essay was one of the ways I was trying to think about the relationship between memory and invention and credibility in memoir. William Maxwell has this great line in my favorite book which tackles this subject. In "So Long, See You Tomorrow," Maxwell says, "When we talk about the past, we lie with every breath we take." In "Stories for Boys" I tried, throughout, to be explicit with the reader about what I remembered and what I didn't, and just as much, to make the operation of memory, itself, one of the book's subjects, one of the book's thematic concerns. This, by the way, is not new at all, and is even central to the memoir tradition (as in, to take one example, Vladimir Nabokov's "Speak, Memory"). Memory itself is a subject of any memoir.
Can you tell us a little about what you're working on now?
Richard Ford has this great essay called "Goofing Off While the Muse Recharges," and that's pretty much what I'm doing now. My hope is to dive into a longer project that's more like literary journalism than anything I've written before, something less personal, something where I go out and do reporting. But for now, I'm sort of waiting until I can't quite stand not working on something. I can usually rely on mild self-loathing to kick myself back into gear. Right now, I feel pretty good about things, but fortunately, I know that it won't last.
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