Michael Gerhard Martin is the author of the short story collection, Easiest If I Had A Gun (Braddock Avenue Books, 2014). He holds an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, and teaches writing at Babson College and for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. His work has appeared in the Ocean State Review, The Museum of Americana, Lit Review, Bayou Magazine, and The Rust Belt Chic Pittsburgh Anthology; he has been a finalist for the Dzanc Disquiet International Literary Festival short play contest, the Nelligan Prize, the Iowa Short Fiction Award & John Simmons Short Fiction Award, a Glimmer Train New Writers contest, and the Hudson Prize. He won the 2013 James Knudsen Prize for fiction from the University of New Orleans, and took Best of Show in Fiction at the 2015 Marblehead Arts Festival.
Damon McKinney: Your collection begins with the story, “Shit Weasel is Late for Class.” Could you talk a little about the decision to lead with this story and about the way story collections are organized in general?
Michael Gerhard Martin: “Shit Weasel” wasn’t originally out in front, and the title story of the collection was The Strange Ways People Are, which is also the title of another piece in Easiest If I Had A Gun. With a first collection of short stories, you’re kind-of auditioning to the literary world. And in “Shit Weasel” I’d done things I didn’t think I could do. It was topical—gun violence and bullying. It eviscerated our sentimental, victim-blaming, boys-will-be-boys bullying narrative, and more than one person praised it as “meta.” And I wrote the best ending I’ve ever written. I live in fear of that ending; I’m not sure I’ll ever get it that right again. So if I was going to catch reviewers and readers with the beginning of the book, I thought “Shit Weasel” was a strong way to lead.
I don’t know about other collections, but I thought about putting mine together like I think about making mix CDs. I wanted variety—not a clump of funny and a clump of sad and a clump of whatever—but also a sense of continuity and resonance. I kept stories with related characters close to one another, and my publishers dropped a story because it was too thematically similar to “Bridgeville.” My publishers had a lot of input there, too. But I feel like each story sounds a few distinct notes, and you try to make them all sound good together. That sounds like a total dodge, but it’s how I think about it. What are they about, and how do they sound?
DM: One of the craft issues that I’m particularly interested in is the decisions that authors make about what not to “show.” I wonder, for example, about your decision to not show Brian from “Shit Weasel is Late for Class” getting beaten up by the other boys. What effect does this omission have?
MGM: I’m a total point-of-view fascist: if the character can’t see it, it can’t be something that is part of his first person POV without an explanation. And in that story, the football players aren’t advertising their vigilantism, and Josh doesn’t hang out with them anyway, so it makes sense that Brian’s assault would happen off stage. It also reinforces the motif of secrets and secret shame that run through the piece. But in general, what’s important to show is what reveals characters, not what happens. Stories aren’t about events or themes, they’re about people, though I do think stuff needs to happen—I don’t advocate plot-less and conflict-less stories. But if the only point of a scene is only to move us from one place to another, it’s often not worth the trouble to include it. And that goes triple if it requires a POV shift.
DM: Easiest If I Had A Gun is filled with damaged characters, which suggests an affinity. It also gives the reader impression that being “damaged” in one way or another is a new cultural norm. What do you think?
MGM: I became a lot happier when I realized everyone is a damned mess, and the more normal people seem, the crazier they are. My mentor Lewis Nordan used to say, “Find your freaks—and after a while, you realize everyone’s a freak.”
Being damaged isn’t a new norm. The average European peasant in the 14th century drank upwards of 1 gallon of beer per day from the time he or she was 12 years old, so pretty much everyone who visited terrible violence on this continent was the child of a couple of drunks. I’m from a part of Pennsylvania where people were commonly missing fingers and toes, or breathing through oxygen tanks, or talking through larynx boxes when I was growing up. Some people are a little farther from trauma and starvation than others, but that’s what we have always been. And we’re constantly finding new way to traumatize ourselves and others, so it isn’t going away.
That sounds bleak and harsh, but I think there is “beauty in the strange ways people are,” if I can quote myself. I find the truth beautiful, and I think nice stories about nice people are usually boring lies.
DM: Many of your stories take on important social issues, such as racism. In “Made Just For Ewe,” a character refers to another with a racial epithet, calling them a “nigger.” Yet, in an interview on YouTube, you demur from using such language, instead using the “n-word.” Can you talk about how you make these linguistic distinctions between Michael Gerhard Martin the writer and his creations?
MGM: Actually, she never calls a person those racial slurs—she calls a piece of candy that word, and an ornamental angel doll another. And Elsa stops herself from thinking the word. That word is powerful, and using it as dialogue in a story is about the only way I would use it. But one of the things I try to capture in the story is the way that white people are racist without using racial slurs—the us-and-them mentality that governs so much of our culture. When the antagonist—the white woman who calls these little licorice gumdrop things “nigger babies”—says that word aloud, it is like she is telling every white person’s dirty little secret. We live in a country built on slavery and Jim Crow and mass incarceration of people of color. Look up the Coon Chicken Inn, or the Amos & Andy radio show, or click on the local news tonight—it’s right there on display. We live in a country where the news calls peaceful Black protesters “terrorists” for demanding their rights as citizens, but calls violent, ideologically-motivated white mass murderers “Gentle loners.” That was The New York Times, by the way, writing about the terrorist who shot up Planned Parenthood. This secret isn’t kept because people don’t know about it. There is an enforced silence.
After I read part of that story in Pittsburgh, two black women came up to me, and said they hoped I hadn’t been uncomfortable reading it because they were in the audience. And I said, in fact, I was, and I should be. No white person should ever feel comfortable using that word. But I think, when I wrote this story, I told the truth—I showed the truth. One of the women replied, “It’s not like it’s a word we haven’t heard before,” like it was just “fuck” or “asshole” or something. And then we talked about the setting of the story. They’d both been to a lot of craft shows, and their family used to set up at a flea market in an abandoned shopping mall in North Versailles, and they told me I got it right. And it occurred to me that we’d just started a conversation honestly, and moved on to find common ground, because I described this scene of unpunished outrage in a story.
I’m not the clueless, racist antagonist, I hope, but the protagonist—the white woman trying to figure out how to not be a racist when her whole world is constructed of fear and insecurity—is definitely based on my experience of whiteness, white privilege, and the lack of critical thinking white people exhibit when it’s convenient to us. I’m writing an essay now called “Be in the Building When the Bomb Goes Off,” about a time I was almost killed by a domestic terrorist who firebombed the building where I was sleeping. The place I was staying was owned by a gay man, my friend’s landlord, and he had a shop on the first floor, and someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the plate glass window, but the bottle didn’t break and the bomber didn’t make the firebomb correctly, I guess. It was the weekend of my 21st birthday, and I had gotten very drunk, and was sound asleep in my sleeping bag on my friend’s apartment floor.
I was pretty homophobic and racist and sexist when I was a young man, in pretty ordinary ways—but I was all of those things, nevertheless. Having someone try to murder you in your sleep will make you think critically. Believe it.
DM: The final two stories in the collection, “Bridgeville” and “Dreamland” feature a common character—Jack. What was the idea behind these connected stories? I wonder if this return to the same character signals some special interest in that figure and his troubles?
MGM: Jack does show up at the end of “Dreamland,” and I’m glad people recognize him. Emilie is actually the character I am most often drawn back to; I’m building a novel off of those 2 stories, and she has emerged as my protagonist. The characters are a patchwork of the personal mythologies of kids I taught in Pittsburgh years ago.
If I’m honest, Jack and Emilie had the kind of adolescence I always felt I missed out on. I didn’t date or even kiss anyone until I got to college, and when you’re young, you don’t realize that that is kind-of a common experience for a lot of kids. But these characters don’t really end up in good places, and this is partly because they try to form adult relationships when they clearly aren’t ready. I don’t see the end of “Dreamland” as entirely positive. Emilie and May should go to college; instead, a boy shows up and she puts her whole future and happiness in his hands. How romantic, right? Barf. That juvenile cocktail of low self-esteem and misplaced priorities is a disease that leaves young people—women in particular–poor and ignorant and saddled with children who grow up to make the same mistakes for the same dumb Disney-movie/rom-com fantasy of young love. I don’t want to sound like I’m advocating abstinence or celibacy—it’s pretty normal to want to have sex when you’re a teenager. I think my message is more controversial. Keep your options open. Don’t let juvenile emotional attachments determine the boundaries of your adult life.
DM: Reading the stories in Easiest If I Had A Gun, I am struck by the way the characters, the settings, the dialogue, all work together to create a feeling of realism, what the critic James Wood refers to as “verisimilitude.” I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your writing process, especially in terms of character development?
MGM: I steal. If you tell me a story, and aren’t going to write it yourself, it’s fair game. I sit in public places and eavesdrop on people’s conversations. The old saying is “write what you know,” but I write WHO I know—my characters are always constructs of me melded with people I know intimately. Sometimes I borrow from people I have had conflicts with. I’m not above a little literary revenge from time to time.
It’s important to understand that, in finished stories, a character is already ‘developed’—that character already exists as a construct in the writer’s imagination. And they can be altered to fit changes in the story as you’re writing it, sure—but when we talk about character development, what we’re really talking about is the way we reveal the character to the reader.
Fiction is about creating a plausible illusion, and then tricking the reader into investing emotion in it. So you give them specific, concrete details that make them feel like they know where they are—a sense of place. And then you give them hints as to what is important to the characters—the people they love, the dreams they have, the lies they tell themselves to get through the day. And then you give them voices—you pay careful attention to the way they sound, and make sure they sound distinct from one another. And then you pay attention to the people who have rampaged through your life, and introspect about the way you have rampaged through other people’s lives, and then you push them into the conflict and hope you make fire. Sometimes you have to try a dozen times before they start to burn, but it’s easier than it sounds. We are all burning, always.
Damon McKinney is a 2015 graduate of the English Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.