More from Lee Martin
Published: October 28, 2005
|Where did the unusual character of Mr. Dees come from in The Bright Forever?|
It's not based on anyone in particular. I grew up in small towns in Illinois, and there were always people ... who were sort of on the fringes. Whenever there's a bright forever, there's somebody always outside of it, outside the light. I guess Dees was a combination of small-town characters I've known who, for one reason or another, found themselves a little bit outside the light.
What was the starting idea for what became The Bright Forever?
In this book, I just had this tremendous interest in what's a very unsettling subject matter, the abduction of a small child. And the thing that struck me was that our news is, unfortunately, so full of these stories these days. I guess, after a while, when year after year after year you hear about these unfortunate cases, you start to wonder what that says about us as a people, as a culture. You start to wonder what there is in those cases that shows ourselves to us. And the thing that really strikes me is when we hear the news stories, we basically get the facts--who, what, where, when, why. And what we rarely get that fiction can give us is the complexity of the inner lives of the people who are involved or affected somehow.
To circle back to Mr. Dees, one of the things I was interested in with him is what I hope is a compelling contradiction within his character. He has these desires that he doesn't quite know what to do with. He also this tremendous love for the world and the people in it, while at the same time having the inability to express that love. So he's often the victim of his own contradictions. And tragically enough, of course, this leads to serious consequences that change this small town and the people in it forever.
Do you know at the start where your novels or short stories are headed?
With a short story, I rarely know where it's going to go. I'm intrigued with a character, a situation, and I try to let that character show me where the story's going to go. With a novel, it's similar in that I start with a character or situation that interests me--a situation that requires some sort of figuring out. I have to be curious. And then I'll write a little bit just to sort of sketch out who the characters are and what they've involved in, and then at a certain point I'll actually stop and make myself think about what the structure of the book might be.
I like to have points of intensity that I'm writing toward, and if I can come up with at least three, each one building on the one that comes before it, then I start to see the overall arc of the book. At some point I'll jot down notes, but at a certain point after I've begun writing, I'm just so immersed in the world and the people I'm creating that it becomes a daydream. And so I'll literally sit in my chair and sort of daydream the motion of the book, where the book is going to go. It may change as I'm writing, but it gives me a bit of a road map.
Do you write a polished first draft as you go?
No, I'm not one of those paragraph torturers. My main goal in the first draft is to just keep pushing the story ahead, knowing that I'll go wrong in lots of places, but that by the end of the manuscript, whether it be story or novel, I'll know that material better than when I started out. I'll know what shape it needs to be, I'll know more about the characters, etc., and then I know that I've really earned my work, which is to go back and revise and reshape.
You have an almost eerie ability to get under the skin of your characters. In the December issue of The Writer, you attributed this in part to putting your characters in a "pressure cooker" and forcing them to respond. Are there any other factors?
The other thing, I think, that's really important is to understand right away that interesting characters are made up of contradictory qualities and impulses. They're full of contradictions. One thing I often do with my own students early in a workshop is, I ask them to look at the opening of a Tobias Wolfe story called "An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke." The opening of that story puts the character of Professor Brooke on the page in a way that we understand he has one image of himself but at the same time, unbeknownst to him, he's revealing to us ... a contradictory aspect to that image. And so then the character becomes what I call dynamic, in the sense of being capable of motion, of being able to give expression to the man he thinks he is, while at the same time revealing the other man that he doesn't know he is.
And so, to just add to the whole pressure-cooker thing, I really believe the secret to creating interesting and vital characters is the ability to understand that we're all made up of contradictions, and that most of us go through our lives behind a kind of facade or mask that we present to the world. And what stories do is they show us that those facades or masks drop away under pressure, and a deeper part of character is revealed.
As the author of two memoirs, what tips do you have for writers new to this genre?
A trend that you see with writers who are just starting to tell life stories or write memoir is the tendency to cast blame and the tendency to cast oneself as victim. I guess a really good piece of advice for those just starting to work with memoir is again connected with characterization: to understand that when you're writing your own life story, I think you have to be fair. Now that means you have to be willing to see the good and the bad in people, even yourself, and you have to be willing to be as hard on yourself as you are on other people.
Your prose and background seems to be part of what one might call a Midwestern or heartland school of writers--people like Kent Haruf, Larry Watson, who write with a wonderful clarity and elegance and a totally nonshow-off approach to writing. Are you at all self-conscious about being part of a school of writers that knows how to practice a certain restraint?
Well, if you're willing to put me in the same category as Kent Haruf and Larry Watson, I certainly [appreciate that] because those are two writers whose work I admire greatly. I've often thought that it's almost a response to the landscape, whether you're talking about the Midwest or the stark Colorado landscape of Kent or Larry Watson's Wisconsin [and Montana]. I think what you're seeing there are landscapes that are similar to the words you use to describe the work of Larry and Kent. In my native Southern Illinois, if you look at the landscape, everything runs at right angles, because that land has been surveyed and sectioned off into townships and ranges, and the gravel roads all run at right angles to one another. I think there's a certain restraint that's inherent in the people who occupy that landscape. And I think also--this is what I think is most important--there's an inherent dignity in the people no matter how hard their lives are, no matter how troubled their lives are, and no matter how responsible they've been for creating that trouble. There's just an inherent dignity in the people.