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The O:JA&L Masters Series
Flash Fiction

Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

INTERVIEW: Featured Writer Michael Martone

Click on the title THE TINY BOOK OF FORTS to explore more of Martone’s work in the new PDF chapbook available now as a free offering from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press.

Bombardment of Fort Moultrie, Charleston Harbor South Carolina by Conrad Wise Chapman

Michael Martone is an American author. A prolific writer, he has published 30 books and chapbooks. From 1996 to 2020, he was a professor at the University of Alabama where he taught in the Program in Creative Writing. Martone is now retired.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: You are such a prolific and fascinating writer—writer of novels, short stories, essays, poems, and more. I was going to include the number of publications that have featured your work but couldn’t count that high. Why in the world did you decide to become a writer?

MARTONE:                 BECOMING

Well, not a novel. I call them “nnnnnovels.” And I am not really a short story writer since what I do do isn’t really story-telling. Essays, I’ll grant you. Poems, too. And interviews, like this one. I write a lot of interviews. It is interesting that the interview as a form doesn’t usually rise to the level as a “form,” a genre of creative writing, such as the novel or the short story or the essay or the poem. The interview is lesser. Minor. But we’ll get back to that. I am a writer, yes. And it makes me very happy that you find what I do do “fascinating.” Thank you for that.

But you were asking how I “decided” to “become” a writer. Well, I am not sure I decided to become a writer. I’ve mentioned this before that my mother, a public high school teacher and administrator in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was a writer. She wrote speeches, newspaper columns, occasional poems, kept a journal, wrote letters and postcards. She was a writer, and every night after work and dinner, and after the dishes and getting us ready for bed, after reading to us (my brother and I), she’d sit at the kitchen table and write. She always wrote by hand. She had a beautiful, schoolteacher cursive hand. So, I didn’t decide so much that I would become a writer. It just seemed that writing was just another thing one did as an adult.

I realize now I was lucky. Very few of my friends were growing up in houses where a parent was writing unselfconsciously, routinely, wrote everyday like my mother. For most people to write, to be a writer, was something one decided to do not something one just did. It is as if you asked me when did I decide to become a toothbrusher. Writing has always been a habit and maybe a little hygienic as long as I can remember. It was (is) something one does. To “become” implies too that once one decides to go down that path of becoming one can reach the goal of being, being a writer. I guess I am saying that for me writing was always about the being and the becoming is always open-ended.

I am looking at my “Baby Book” right now.  Do we do “Baby Books” anymore? It is a kind of interview format—first smile?, first word?, first tooth?, first step?. The entries are from my, the baby’s, point-of-view. The answers are written in my mother’s beautiful hand, but they are, the answers, as if I “wrote”them. I imagine my mother again at the kitchen table after work, after dinner, after the dishes, after the bath, the diapers, the lullabies. I imagine her writing in the Michael’s Baby Book before going on to put the finishing touches on an invocation for next week’s PTA meeting.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: Why is Hermes special to you? Hermes, of course, is the trickster god, the one excellent at all the tricks. He’s also the god of thieves and liars. Fiction writers are notorious liars. What? Does Hermes make you do it? 

MARTONE:                 LYRES

Yes, Hermes. I do focus on Hermes as thief and liar and trickster. But he was also the patron of bankers. He was the escort of the living to the realm of the dead. No temples for Hermes. The god is found at the crossroads, in the verge, on the borders, in between the between. The road goes through a place, but it is also a place itself.

I had the writers in my classes write poems on their handheld devices and then send them to an unsuspecting recipient somewhere else. The exercise was a little bit about defamiliarization. The writers would nonchalantly report they had sent the poem to a friend in Oregon, Hong Kong, Peoria, across campus. I would shout, “You sent your poem around the world just like that in the blink of an eye and you don’t even find that astounding?” I had them turn the volume up on their phones, and when they pressed the SEND button Whooshes went up everywhere. I said, “You are in the presence of the god Hermes.”

But my main interest in Hermes? I provide those students a model of an artist, a writer and what an artist, writer does and how the Hermes model contrasts with other ways of being an artist, writer.

I love to think of Hermes’s origin tale in the Homeric Hymns. Hermes the thief, steals Apollo’s, his brother’s, scared cattle. Hermes is just a baby and outsmarts the elder Apollo who is the god of music and art and beauty and the sun etc. What interests me is when Zeus intervenes and tells Hermes the jig is up and to give the cattle back, Apollo, embarrassed and furious, is about to take it out on the little brat. And just like that, Hermes gives his brother a gift, something that he has just thrown together, cooked up. The Lyre. Apollo, being Apollo, takes up the brand-new instrument and immediately begins to play perfectly the most beautiful music. Because he is Apollo! He is charmed by the gift and forgives his little brother.

I never seem to want to follow the path of being an artist, a writer like that. Like Apollo. Apollo is the best musician and is committed to perfecting music and the performance of it within the fixed categories of “music” or “song” or whatever. Hermes, on the other hand, can’t even play the musical instrument he invented. Instead, for me, Hermes represents the kind of artist the transgresses (it is all about transmission, transportation, movement, speed) category and boundary. Apollo stays within the lines, aiming for perfection. Hermes goes to one category for the makings of the lyre and moves it into another. The lyre is made of dead animal parts—tortoise shell, horn, and entrails. Hermes, the artist, transforms the category of dead animal parts into the category of musical instruments. This is what I am interested in doing.

One of my books is a travel guide to Indiana. Another of my books is a compilation of contributor’s notes. Dead animal parts into musical instruments. The motto, by the way, of the State of Indiana is “The Crossroads of America.”

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: You use several nom de plumes for your work. Another writer I admire, Fernando Pessoa, an innovative and provocative Portuguese writer, wrote under what he called “heteronyms.” These are his alternative personae, and he even went so far as giving each of them their own birthdates and biographies and even cast their individual horoscopes. Have you gone that far? What does writing using different names do for you? 


Right off the bat, I would ask how do you know I use several nom de plumes. Do I? And if I did, would I reveal, like Pessoa, that I do? Interesting questions.

I am also interested in the “signature” as well as the name.

Shakespeare has six, I think, extant and different signatures.

Here is another discussion of category. The category of the author or artist as an individual solitary genius.

A grand cathedral is not “signed.” Nor are its various parts. It is later in time that the individual signature arises (Shakespeare trying the signature on for size). For a long time, we looked forward to the next “Jane Smiley” the next “George Saunders” authored book. We would read anything by Author’s Name Here. But now we live in a time where much of what is written, of what I write and read are on platforms like the Facebook or twitter, are online where I think the signature and ownership of a piece of writing, or a work of art is quickly disappearing. The ease of sharing and copying and publishing destabilizes the notion of authorship that has been around since Shakespeare.

The signature developed with a business model that writing could make the writer money, that it was a craft, a product, something to be bought and sold. A brand! A branding! The joke was that writing never made most writers money. If I could even sell a story to a magazine these days, I would be paid the pretty near the same amount writers of short stories were paid 100 years ago (no adjustment for inflation!). No, I willingly give away my writing for free (how much am I getting paid for this interview?). Facebook etc. are making gobs of money on the content I (and you) provide for free. Not that I care. There are other kinds of coin. Eyeballs and “likes.” Nor can I patrol and control the shares, the plagiarism, the copywriting of my work or the work of others I cut and paste and share and post.

No, we might be back to those pre-signature times. We are all building this big cathedral, millions and millions of side alters and stained glass.

Will it be (or is it already) freeing to be without a name that is a signature?

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I like so much of your work. One of my favorite anthologies is Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and Formalists that you co-edited with Robin Hemley. (See that anthology here.) In that collection you included the work of some great writers (Donald Barthelme, Rikki Ducornet, Isaac Babel, Jorge Luis Borges, Lydia Davis, Clarice Lispector, Robert Coover, John Barth, and many others). I’m still not over the surprise I got when I first read Stephen Dixon’s “Milk is Very Good for You.” Which of your works are your personal favorites?


Like the “interview” as a form or genre, the “anthology” seems to be a work that, in the scheme of things, in the hierarchy of publishing, is not as important or celebrated as the novel, story or poetry collection, memoir or autobiography.

When I was teaching, at the end of every year, I and the whole faculty had to complete annual reports, and part of the FART (the faculty annual report) was a list of publications. Editing and publishing an anthology didn’t “count” as much as those other kinds of books.

I always thought that was strange. I always thought of the anthologies I edited as having the same value as the other kinds of books I wrote and published.

One might say there is a difference between sole authorship and collaborative editorship, and there is a difference. But sole authorship or collaboration is just a difference for me.

Besides even books of sole authorship are collaborative as well. It is just that the collaborators (editors, agents, printers) are camouflaged, invisible. It is strange also that I worked in the era when “creative writing” was drawn into the university in America. The university is an ancient critical scientific sorting machine. It tried to be “creative,” but cannot help itself. It ranks, orders, decides. Its business is to form hierarchies of all sorts. Literary fiction and poetry were the genres it privileged. Creative nonfiction came later and still is unsettled as the university isn’t sure how nonfiction “fits.” Should it be in Communications? Journalism? English Departments? The university worries order.

I am happy to say that the rigidity in fiction writing found when MFA programs were conceived with Realistic Narrative being seen as the supreme kind of fiction to produce did break down over the years. “Genre” fiction—science fiction, fairy tale, etc.—now holds equal footing in programs, and, more importantly, “literary” fiction is now seen as another “genre. “That leveling, that “hybridization,” I see as a good thing. But it didn’t include the elevation of anthologist or editor to the level of author or writer. One still can’t enter a program listing “anthologist” as the specialty one wants to explore in creative writing school which is a shame as doing an anthology is a type of schooling after all.

So, Extreme Fiction (I am so happy you enjoy it!) was conceived to do a little bit of the work I mentioned above, a way to introduce fictions that were on the outs in creative writing programs. Programs at the time imagined themselves to be producing and propagating “traditional” short stories and dismissing other kinds of stories or fictions as “experimental” or “genre.” I think the book did a little work helping to level the genres, but the real deconstruction rests with the computer hooked to the internet and the generation of writers who came of age using it all the time then moving into the university. They always had this new deconstructing machine in their lives and work. The diversity and variety of creative writing was always at their electronic fingertips and not kept exclusively in the gears and sprockets and mills of the ancient analog critical sorting machine, the university.

All that being said, I come to your question of my “favorite.” You might now suspect I am resisting to answer. Not because I don’t have personal favorites. I did after all “sort” through many many stories and fictions to select and reject. But I do resist having favorites, in revealing them when I do.

Anthologies—maybe like my fictions—I think of as arrangements, environments, atmospheres. Outside my window here as I type I can see one part of my garden. “Garden” has been used this way before, “A Child’s Garden of Verse.” Did Robert Louis Stevenson have a favorite verse? “Anthology.” I like to remember that “anthology” is derived from the Greek for “flower gathering.” Outside now in my garden blooming: rose, iris, phlox, tickseed coreopsis, lavender, salvia, verbena, spiderwort, fleabane, dianthus carnation, clover, dandelion, snowball, false indigo, Jerusalem and Russian sages, coneflower, yarrow, borage, daisy, and peony. Don’t get me started on the grasses: Blue-eyed grass, zebra, blood, fountain… Now I do have some personal favorite flowers in the garden, but for me what is more important is the way they work together, complement and contrast, foil and fade, texture and color. Schools of fish schooling in a reef. Murmurations murmuring.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: Why should defamiliarization be important to writers? I’ve often read that life itself has no meaning but it’s our stories and poems that give it meaning. Isn’t one of the goals of writing to try to make sense of the chaos by writing stories that shape it into meaning?

MARTONE:                 MEAN MEANING

Defamiliarization is important because life is not chaotic or meaningful. Life, as it is lived, is quite orderly, rich with stable meanings. Life is familiar, settled. It has to be, or we would be overwhelmed by the stimuli coming at us (that real “chaos” is just the overwhelming storm of information in which we are pelted). We learn to filter, screen, block, edit, riddle, sieve, and pay attention only to the “meaningful” inputs inputting at any given moment.

This is why we believe we can drive and text. We shouldn’t but we do, and the design of the interstate highway system often allows us too. I can drive the 45 miles from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham and recall nothing of the drive. The sky, the clouds, the signs, the kinds of cars, the cellphone towers, the color of the pavement, even what is on the radio of what is advertised on billboards. Billboards try so hard to defamiliarize me. Billboards fight against the design of the road and our own filtering. Still the road is all ordinary, designed to be unobtrusive, normal, static. I can think my thoughts, plan my arrival, stare at nothing, be comfortable in my own interior inside the sound-dampening interior of my automobile as it proceeds at 80 miles per hour (80 miles per hour!) down the road. Oh sure, if a deer bounds out in front of me, if a semi-trailer begins to jackknife before me, if a tire blows, if a bell or whistle goes off once the car senses something amiss, I will be brought back into the pristine present to be present. But we, the culture, the car companies, and the Departments of Transportation work very hard to make the trip, well, as if it is not happening. Unless there is an accident or construction. Then the lights are flashing, the cones and pylons the brightest orange, the fines for speeding doubled.

What is the job of the artist? I don’t think it is an accident that the critics and philosophers that came up with the idea of defamiliarization were dealing with the Soviet Revolution, a workers’ revolution. A factory worker, a farmer, the hammer, the sickle. What is the work of the pen? The writer? I think they thought that the artist could be employed by revolutionarily revealing the blinders of received and settled ideas, prying scales from the eyes of the proletariat.


I don’t think the goal of writing, of making art is to shape chaos so that it means. “Chaos” implies, I think, danger, disorder, confusion, madness. A state to be avoided at all costs. A certain kind of writing brings meaning and order to that “chaos.” Let’s call that kind of writing “criticism.” The kind of writing I am doing, and I think you are thinking about is not about bringing meaning to the chaos. It is about bringing interesting chaoses, possible chaoses, to mean meaning.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I look forward to getting a copy of Winesburg, Indiana: A Fork River Anthology that you edited with Bryan Furuness. (See it here.) While in the literary world, some write about spoons and Illinois, some about Ohio, still others write about forks and Indiana. I love the very idea of the anthology and want to read what your contributors added. What inspired you to bring this anthology into being?


Yes, on with the idea of blowing up the notion of what an “anthology” is or does or looks like. Winesburg, Indiana is a hybrid. It explores the possibilities of collective work. It is, first, a collection of sketches I wrote about a town I invented, Winesburg, Indiana. I then asked other writers I know with a connection to Indiana to contribute to the expansion of the collection by writing their own story set there.

Anthologies are of two types usually. I like to do both. One is the collection of work already in print. The other is commissioning a brand-new piece from a writer that will be published first in the anthology. Winesburg, Indiana, is the latter. I did an anthology called Townships where I asked 36 Midwestern writers to write an essay about their Midwestern township. Writers like a good prompt, I think. I do. And since I often can’t pay the writer, the writer can write the piece in anticipation of using it again in their own work.

We’ve been talking about my interest in doing work in-between things, cross-genre work, resisting categories. Prose/poem? Lyric/narrative?

Fiction/nonfiction? Literary/genre? But here we can think about this other set of categories that I am interested in exploring, testing, disrupting. The desire to hold the categories of writer/editor/agent/publisher/etc. stabile seems like an interesting thing to test as well.

In the old days, I would send my typescript story (written on a typewriter in a manner that, if it was accepted by the editor, it would be marked up for the typesetter) into a magazine (oops, another category set: magazine publishing/book publishing). The category of the “typesetter” disappeared with the advent of the computer. The editor, in accepting my story, would now write back asking if I could send a copy on floppy disk. The writer’s, my, role expanded into what had been the editor’s/publisher’s realm. I set my courier type in a font the editor asked for, margins, leading, etc. Of course, this was before, the computer was connected to the internet and the blurring became expanded further and further. I was now writing my stories using the same software and printers that magazine and book publishers use. My computer is an incredibly powerful typesetting and publishing machine. In the old days if you published your own book, it was called “vanity” publishing. Now, of course, we say we “self-publish.” Anyway, I have always liked breaking back and forth along those boundaries.

I originally approached Bryan Furuness, the editor of the magazine, BOOTH, with the idea of Winesburg, Indiana. I would first publish my stories exclusively in the magazine, and we would together then to solicit other Winesburg stories that would be published in the magazine and then the book.

I love working with editors, suggesting to them how my work could be used in their magazines. With the Contributor’s Notes fictions, I would ask that they be published not in the front of the book but in the contributors’ notes section in the back of the magazine. The fictions found in The Blue Guide to Indiana were not originally published in literary magazines but in weekly newspapers and local travel guides in Indiana. Once they took the pieces, I’d ask that they frame them in such away that the fictions would seem to be actual things one could do in Indiana this coming weekend.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I love many of your super short pieces. Extremely short pieces can be so attractive, provocative, and subversive. One of your short pieces that has haunted me for years is “A Village” (see it here ) It was originally published in The Prose Poem: An International Journal. Has it ever been published as fiction? What do you see as the main differences between fiction and prose poetry? Would a majority of your short pieces fit into either category? Why do you think there is such a need to categorize pieces?


“A Village” does make an appearance as prose only or as a fiction as part of a piece in Four for a Quarter called “Four Places.” The three other pieces are titled “A Room,” “A Town,” and “A Resort.” All four were originally composed to be included in a catalogue of an installation of sculpture by four artists—Suzanne Bocanegra, Sharon Horvath, Mary Hambleton, and Robin Hill—in 1996.

Many of my short, short pieces begin as occasional work, written specifically for a specific assignment or written to specifications of word length or with interesting obstructions. I am a formalist. I like figuring out how to fulfill an assignment, solve a puzzle, rise to the occasion. When I edit certain anthologies, I like to give writers such prompts. “Write an essay about your home township.” As a writer, I love responding to such challenges.

In this case, the show was about “Place,” and the artists responded to Place in interesting ways in their art. Then they asked me to respond to “Place” as well and to their places rendered in their art.

I do think my little work “fits.” It fits more to the specific prompts, the ones that are given to me or the ones I construct for myself.

I think an important lesson one can teach in a creative writing class, something you can train students in is the ability to create prompts on their own that will help motivate them and keep them writing. Yes, it is very difficult to start with nothing but a blank page. But if you sit down with some parameters of your own invention, you are a long way into the work even before you begin to write it. In this way the writer or the artist deals with “genre” in a different way than the critic. You create the piece of writing, but you are also creating, manipulating, reimagining the details and characteristics of the genre where the writing is taking place. The initial cultural prompt is usually so general—write a short story. But if you add that it must be words or fewer then you are already on the way to a new short short story but also on your way to amending, contorting, rehabbing, the original received genre.

My book The Complete Writings of Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, Edited by Michael Martone was the result of a self-imposed prompt. How short can short short stories be? Six words? Three? Two? Thinking about that led me to the whole phenomenon of sky writing and how what is written in the sky would be these one- or two-word messages. The book then collects these very brief “stories” that are then annotated with faux footnotes.

One reason to do this is that it keeps things interesting if not for the reader, then for the writer. If to be a writer or artist is just to be able to understand and comply with a set of conventions or rules, then our worries about AI robots doing the work is valid. Take for example the genre of Business Writing and the Bad News Letter. You can be taught the conventions of that letter, create a boiler plate, and just switch out the names and addresses. Or letters of recommendation, I have written hundreds of them. Part of writing recommendations is that they vary only a little in detail, content, and address, but not in style, organization, or signature. Why shouldn’t machines write such things? I am a machine writing them. But if I were to say to myself—write a 350-word fiction in the form of a recommendation on letterhead concerning a current lover addressed to a former lover(or vice versa), I think the “letter” would be drifting between genres, and the reframing is part of the fun. In doing so you make the reader reconsider the genres of the recommendation letter (and its expression of affection) and the love letter (with its expression of affection).

There is the need for categorization because there is just so much stuff out there. We need a certain amount of order in order to “see” something as something different from something else.

But as I have been suggesting categorizing is more the job of the critic, the marketer and the artist that practices their art within the received borders for the reader, viewer, audience that wants to get what one pays for. Of course, there is the danger. If you are drifting between categories, by definition, you are invisible, and the work does not open eyes of the reader, viewer, audience to possibilities but instead camouflages itself entirely through the confusion.

I wrote a book of a dozen short fictions called Pensées: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle. It was published as a little gray book that was meant to invoke Mao’s Little Red Book. I gave a copy to Dan Coates, Indiana’s senator at the time. He looked at it and said simply: “What is this?” What was it, is it, indeed.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: What does this tendency for confusing genre do for you and your readers? I know I enjoy it and think I learn from it but wonder what you see as the benefits of confusing genres. Why is it important to shake them up now and then?

MARTONE:                 THE WAKING WOKE

One big convention of the realistic fiction writer (even when that “realism is the world of Game of Thrones or The Expanse) is to create a text that is transparent, a construction that convinces the reader they are not reading, a sustained waking dream.

Often in workshops, a story will be tagged when it knocks the reader out of that dream, that is when the reader remembers they’re reading. George Orwell’s has rules for the clear written style. Elmore Leonard’s ultimate rule:

If it sounds like writing rewrite it.

We have been talking about an alternate style, a style that calls attention to itself, to text, to artifice. Let’s call these “rules” alienating effects. Practitioners of the latter style, writers that play games, confuse the reader, mix-up genre are in the game not to create a waking dream but to actually wake a reader up from the dream. It is an argument old as Aristotle who posits that art’s task is to create a framed or safe expression of extreme emotion. Both modes of fiction would say something about constructing lies in order to get to a truth. Self-conscious writers revealing constantly the reality of the illusion would argue they are more truthful because they are honest about the lies.

So, if you watched the television series Fleabag (just the first thing that came into my head) there is a certain kind of emotional truth when the character and writer of the piece breaks the conventional “fourth wall” of transparency. It is even cooler in a later episode after a whole series of the main character addressing the audience directly while the other characters don’t “see“ her do it when another character looks the way she is looking and asks what are you looking at.

Yes, shake the audience up. Berthold Brecht at the end of Three Penny Opera has Mac the Knife sing an aria at the moment of his reprieval from being hanged. Isn’t that the way it is in musicals, he sings directly to the audience, the hero saved in the nick of time and you here paying a premium to watch these stories. The audience accepts the happy ending of the play but is reminded of how different it is outside the theater.

How important is it for the reader to be made uncomfortable and confused? There is a whole range of writing that runs from the waking dream to what now is being called the “woke.”

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: I read about your writing two books: one of poetry and one of prose and except for the line breaks in the poetry collection, the books were exactly alike. This got you in a bit of trouble with AWP for a while. What was your goal in publishing the two word-for-word identical books? Was it part of your strategy of confusing genres whenever you get the chance?

MARTONE:                 THIS IS JUST TO SAY

John Barth suggests in “The Literature of Exhaustion” that Borges’s greatness stems from his conceiving of interesting books that should be written and not the actual writing of them.

That is to suggest here that my having written two books, one in prose and the other as poetry, might not really be real. You mention that you “read” about my writing two books, but have you read those two books? Or have you actually seen the books in a bookstore or library? Your question indicates that the idea of writing two books, one in prose and one in poetry, is interesting, does attract your attention.  But do the books have to be written to accomplish that?

You don’t mention where you “read” about the two books. I suspect it was something you read online, an “Interview with Michael Martone” perhaps? We know, or we say we know, that information online is suspect—What is fact? What is fiction?—but we often proceed with the received idea that a published interview presents in the category of solid nonfiction. Could what you have read been in the form of a nonfiction interview but was really a fiction in the form of a nonfiction interview? Could the interview have been part of my strategy of confusing genres whenever possible? And could this interview be a “real” interview? Or is this interview adding to the store of fiction I am creating? I am writing this answer to you, Pamelyn Casto. But who is Pamelyn Casto? And how are these questions being generated? Perhaps Pamelyn Casto is an interviewing bot? Just saying….

In The Counterfeiters the critic Hugh Kenner suggests that something very interesting happened when our culture went all in on Empiricism as the way of knowing the world and our lives. Empiricism says, of course, that the way we know is by the collection of data we receive from our senses. We enter the world as a blank slate and our experiences fill up the empty board. The paradox is that our senses can be so easily fooled. And Kenner points out the explosion of parody, fakery, counterfeits, and satire at the switch of the paradigm from a Platonic worldview to an Empirical one. So, Robinson Crusoe, is published as another nonfiction adventure book and read that way and survives now as a novel, etc. First year composition students are not quite sure if Swift wasn’t being serious in “A Modest Proposal.”

That is to say, we all now live in such an empirical world, and we would like to believe that our senses can tell the difference between, say, fiction and fact, but it is fraught, isn’t it? Especially when the leader of the “Free World” suggests that “All the News that’s Fit to Print” is Fake News. We live in a world where one of the most well-known and anthologized poems in America concerning eating plums one finds in an icebox is either one of the great poems of the 20th Century or a note left on a kitchen table. Or both.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: The number four is special to you, too. Why is that? Is it because of its association with Hermes? I find your book Four For a Quarter intriguing. I enjoyed reading the online samples.

MARTONE:                             TRIVIA

Donald Barthelme said somewhere something about “being on the leading edge of the junk phenomenon.”

I think writers are often either more nominative or more predicative. I am a noun-er. I never was very good a moving things—things themselves are interesting to me. Plots? Narratives? Not so much. Stories have beginnings, middles, ends. And the existential nature of the medium we use in writing is linear. It lines up. It wants to go someplace. But if for whatever reason one is, as I am, a lyrical writer one resists action and movement (resists at a peril)on must use other kinds of patterns and structures than a linear one.

As I like to think of it: More blot than plot.

How is it I can have the reader experience my prose like a painting? All at once. Well, I can’t. That dang linear language again. But there are methods, devices I can use. Brevity is one. Collage. And if I am going to give up the classic skeletal form of narrative—Ground Situation, Vehicle, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action—I still may need a bit of cartilage to hold the thing together. Not my idea.

Various numbers and patterns have been used of course to give a shape to the shapeless by design. Lyrical impulses. 24 hours in the day. 12 Months. 7 days in a week, etc. 4 is that for me, my own goofy numerology. M is the 13th letter in the alphabet. 1+3=4. For a long time, I did collect photobooth photo strips starting when the booths did advertise “4 Photos for 25 cents.”

I had my students tell a story without words using the four pictures of the photobooth photo strip. A pattern emerged. The first two were a kind of pair—face one way, then the other. The third was often the wild shot, the crazy one, and the fourth resorted to a safe pose, a rest. I like the syncopated sense of that pattern.

In Morse code, M is dash dash and A is dot dash. Neither here nor there.

I guess what I am saying is that the number four has been fruitful for me as I sought to organize non-narrative “story.”

I loved learning that carbon has four bonding points, and it is the basis for organic chains. That is to say, the number works well for me elementally but also molecularly. I could build a whole book on it.

I want the solid geometry of my books, fictions, prose to be tetrahedra. Exist in four dimensions. Have four triangular faces. Four vertex corners.

A very important fiction for me is William H. Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” It changed my life. Set in Indiana, a college professor breaks up with his student lover, flees to a small town in Indiana, and thinks about it for 40 pages. Nothing more happens in the plot. No change occurs. They don’t get back together. He doesn’t end his life etc.

When I finished reading, I thought two things. How did he make me do that? Read 40 plus pages where nothing happens. And you can write about Indiana?

The “story” presents in 36 sections. Why 36 and not 37 or 32? My theory is that the signature township square of the American middle west (when you are flying over you can see the township squares below), 6×6 mile squares or 36 square miles, informs the structure of the Gass’s fiction. I do not know—and I asked him—if Gass was thinking of the township square as he wrote, but that numerical use of pattern worked for me.

Barthelme also said: …The story ends. It was written for several reasons. Nine of them are secret.

Hermes, yes. Trivia means the crossroads, where many lines arrive, meet, and depart. It is where one finds the god. “Trivial” implies the unimportant. But at the crossroads, through juxtaposition and rearrangement, the trivial may be transformed as something vitally needed elsewhere, something urgent, something discarded, dross. One person’s junk another person’s treasure.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L: Tell about your latest publication and what’s on the horizon for your creative projects.

MARTONE:                 COMING UP

Plain Air: Sketches from Winesburg, Indiana was recently published by Baobab Press. I hope to do a series of readings from it in Indiana this fall on the 4th Annual Double-Wide World Tour of Indiana. Table Talks and Second Thoughts is a memoir told in over 100 one-page prose poems. It will be published this fall as a special issue of BOOTH magazine. This might be of special interest to you and your readers: An Interview with Michael Martone by Matthew Baker. It will be published this fall too by Bull City Press. I have finished a chapbook of very short prose called The Little Book of Forts which, one day I hope, will become part of a bigger book called Fort Fort Wayne. I continue to write postcards. I mailed 31 of them today.

CASTO FOR O:JA&L:  Michael, it has been a delight to get to interview you. You have shared such interesting and thought-provoking information and it’s truly been a pleasure talking to you.


About the interviewer:  Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books And Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia Of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly flashfictionflash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L. Pamelyn Casto’s new book Flash Fiction: Alive in The Flicker (A Portable Workshop), a new release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press, is available now on Amazon.

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