How I Write: Lee Martin
Published: November 18, 2005
|Lee Martin's The Bright Forever is likely to be considered one of the best-written novels of 2005, but this will not surprise admirers of his earlier work. A professor at Ohio State University, Martin has written much-praised short stories, memoirs and a previous novel, Quakertown. As with Mystic River, the haunting quality of The Bright Forever lingers in the reader's mind. The novel, set in small-town Indiana, centers on a young girl who goes missing. As Martin weaves a web of suspense, he deftly juggles six different points of view-and invites our contemplation of human character. |
Credits include the story collection .The Least You Need to Know and two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones.
Why: I've always, from a very early age, been in love with language and narrative. The reason I think I've made writing my life, in a sense, is because it's the way I interact with the world around me; it's the way I think about what it means to be alive on this planet Earth, and what it means in terms of our interactions with other people. I often think that writing is a very spiritual pursuit, not so much in terms of traditional religion but in the terms of communing with the world and its people.
Routine: If everything's going according to plan, I set aside time every morning to write. ... I just try to do what Isak Dinesen advised, which was to write a little every day without hope or fear. Which I still think is the best writing advice I've ever heard.
Getting ideas: I often get ideas from things I read in the newspapers. I'll read a news story, and it will make me curious about who the people are who were involved in it and why they did what they did, how they found themselves in those circumstances. And so I have to write a story, go to my imagination to figure out how someone might find him or herself in that particular situation. And then, of course, often story ideas come from memory. I have certain memories from childhood, say, that suggest story lines to me. And then I go to my imagination to create the characters and see how I can get them into motion.
Developing characters: I like to get my characters into trouble to see how they're going to respond. And I really do think part of my job as a writer is to start putting my thumb down on my characters, not in the sense that I want to cast them as victim; I want them to create their own trouble and then have to respond to that trouble. The pressure-cooker analogy is one that I often use-I want to get them into that kind of situation where they have to act, and those actions will have consequences that they'll have to deal with.
Using multiple points of view: I think that when you're using multiple points of view, you're coming at a story line from different perspectives, and you can do some interesting things with the way those perspectives play off one another. For example, in The Bright Forever, one thing I hope happens, particularly when these four first-person narrators occupy center stage at various points in the book, is that we start to get some interesting tensions between the way one character views an event or explains it and the way another character does. I'm also hoping that those four narrators become sort of commentors on one another's stories without even knowing it. And I hope that each time a different first-person narrator steps up, he or she not only causes us to glance backward at what other people have told us but also moves the story forward and sort of sets the stage for what's to come next.
Advice: I think it's absolutely crucial that you become someone who reads the way a writer reads-with an eye toward how this writer has made this story or this novel or memoir. You find the pieces that affect you deeply, and you try to figure out the artistic choices that the writer made to create those sorts of effects. And then you develop this really thick skin in terms of being determined to keep working at your craft, understanding that the tangible rewards eventually come after a long apprenticeship.