Table for Two: An Interview with Michael Martone

categories: Cocktail Hour / Table For Two: Interviews


Michael Martone

Recently I got a postcard from Michael Martone announcing his newest book, Four for a Quarter.  Beneath several vintage-looking photo strips, the postcard and book cover show an old photo booth tucked into a tattered post-no-bills wall somewhere in post-industrial America.  The booth sports a sign that says PHOTOS, of course, but it took a little staring to notice that the designer (Lou Robinson) has inserted the word FICTIONS in a font so much the same size as PHOTOS that at first (and then for several weeks) I didn’t notice it.  It’s as if the booth sold PHOTOS FICTIONS.  But the fictions referred to are Mr. Martone’s.  The book is nicely made, beautifully printed and presented, kudos to the The University of Alabama Press (and a notation that much of the great literary work being produced these days is being picked up by university and other small presses).


Four for a Quarter is a delightful book on the page, as well, a stream of meditations, of stories, of collectibles, of comedy, of tragedy, of every possible thing grouped in four.  Or it seems every possible thing until you walk away and find the world falling into infinite fours, yet another organizing principle and OCD tic to contend with.

Four for a Quarter

Michael is the father of the alternative literary magazine bio, in which he tells a continuing story of his life and alternate lives via the normally prosaic 100 or 150 words they give you in the likes of Epoch, or The Iowa Review, or Iron Horse, in all of which and hundreds more Michael has published his work.

The two of us have agreed to pretend to meet for a meal and talk about Four for a Quarter, among other things.

BR: Where should we eat?  I thought of the Four B’s in Helena, Montana, which is a lunchroom, basically, good French fries.  Visiting during my high-school years, I’d eat there with my Aunt Kay who was a window dresser in the department store nearby.  Then, of course, there’s the Four Seasons in New York City, midtown, a little more upscale.

MM: I like the idea of The Four Seasons–designed by Phillip Johnson yes?–who is mentioned in the new book.

BR:  His glass house is in New Canaan, CT, where I grew up–we used to scale the high stone wall to see if we could see him in his pajamas.  Ah, but here we are.  The Four Seasons.  99 East 52nd Street.   And in we go.  The bar is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.  A good place for a bottle of wine.

MM:  … and in the Seagram Building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

BR [Under his breath]: Note rare four-word last name, and that the first clause of this sentence is all four-letter (but clean) words.

MM: … one of the initial international style buildings where the structure is the style, form turned inside-out.  And a glass box to boot!

Maitre d’: We’ve a four-top reserved in the Pool Room.

BR: Which, as our readers can’t see it, is very lovely, a square pool with a large tree growing at each corner.

Maitre d’: Your table, gentlemen.  Please don’t get too abstract.  [He hands us menus, which are broadsides beautifully printed.]

MM [sitting]: Back to the word “table.”

BR [ditto]: Of course.

MM: I was once asked to contribute some entries to a dictionary addressing things that until the book were unnamed. I used the word “table” to define two processes often found in New York. The first was when a group of friends discuss where the group will go to eat. I thought that could be called “tabling” (the extended nature of the process has a nice echo to the legislative notion of tabling) and the other end of the event when a group settles up the bill. Being the Midwesterner I always would purchase cheaply, anticipating the each would pay his or her own portion but inevitably after “tabling” the bill would be split evenly.  Again, the haggling over the check echos the other bill in legislatures.  I hadn’t thought of those definitions in years.

BR: Are you sick of people coming up with fours?  It’s such a temptation after reading your book.  In fact, for me it has become an obsession.

[The waiter arrives, and we order]

MM: I am not sick of folks coming up with fours.  The number, of course, has been with me for a long while–I started writing it when I was 44 and only stopped when the 44th president was elected and the first-class stamp went to 44 cents.  I am still amazed there are so many and that people find more.  I had always thought that there were more threes or twos.  In the way back of my mind there was the book LETTERS my teacher John Barth was writing when I was in grad school that depended upon sevens. Those numbers seemed more likely to generate a long list of subjects.  No, I have liked living with fours and still find it an interesting nothing to meditate upon.

[waiter drops off our bottle of wine, a rare Carraine from Chateau les Quatre Filles]

BR: John Barth! I loved Letters, all those missives between his characters regardless of century rocked me.  1979, right?  I’d been a big fan of The Sot-Weed Factor, all that swiving in colonial Maryland.  There’d been a long hiatus in Barth’s career.  And suddenly here those people I’d loved in (extracurricular) high school were writing letters to characters in later books and to Barth himself, wonderful.  I hadn’t yet discovered Laurence Sterne and no one had ever tried the phrase post-modern on me and here I was on the road with this or that rock band reading while everyone else slept and feeling in the presence of something entirely new and fresh.  And he was your teacher?

MM: He was working on LETTERS when I was writing my thesis at Hopkins.  I didn’t know he was writing LETTERS, and in conference one day I told him the title of my thesis.  Numbers. It was the only time I saw this very formal, very stately, and very brilliant man taken aback.  In LETTERS, as you know, there is a character who is writing a book called NUMBERS.  And here I was, a fiction manifest before him.

BR:  This wine.

MM: LETTERS got a first page review in the NYTBR which said something like this is the tombstone of literary modernism.  It signaled in 1980 a profound and instant change in the landscape of fiction in America. Raymond Carver calling for “No more tricks.” The dominant mode switched overnight from formalistic experiments like LETTERS and surreal or irreal fictions to narrative realism that has now been dominant for the last 25 years or so.

Waiter [Presenting our first small plate]: Like the fiction you write, Mr. Roorbach.

BR [inhaling the fragrances gratefully, hint of sage]: You under-read me.

Waiter: I don’t read you at all.

MM:  … Only recently has that dominance begun to change.  Barth told me when I was a student that I didn’t write stories.  He was right. Technically I did not write stories. I don’t write stories but fictions.  He was fine with that, of course.  I learned that stories were just another form.  That, I think was the thing I learned from Barth.  All is artifice.  Artifice is all.  And I had to master as many forms of writing fiction as I could.

BR:  I read the pieces in Four for a Quarter as poems, as flash fictions, as flash essays, as found objects.  Then again, there are some longer pieces, reaching four or more pages, such as “The Teakwood Deck of the USS Indiana,” clearly a story, as well as pieces that are developed as essays, though sometimes grouped with stories.  “The First Four Deaths in my High School Class” reads as nonfiction, poignant. Your use of language throughout the book would make everything here easy to describe as poetry, and in fact some pieces could easily be at home in Poetry Magazine.  How do you read the pieces here, or want them read?  One piece is called “Tessera,” and it is, in fact, like a tile or other more irregular fragment in a mosaic.

MM:  And the Greek word for Four. That particular piece is very much a mosaic, a collage, but not one that makes a whole picture when pieced together. The bits are connected by these other abstract coincidences.  Funny, that in stories, the narrative depends upon a huge coincidence to get the story started–the “one day” that sets the set-up in motion–but then the story seeks to hide all the accidents, force a more logical cause and effect. A story, too, never never wants to end in a coincidence, not if it is a realistic story.  O. Henry, yes. Or Twilight Zone twist. No gods in machines.  But this is a lyric “story” and its narrative is abstract. It is all about, for me, association, random association that is all about randomness and accident and coincidence.  Where the naturalistic realistic  story seeks to hide the artificial,  a story like this emphasizes the artifice.  So all the pieces don’t come together to form a picture as much as to picture the material itself. This is a mosaic that pictures a mosaic. You are forced to look at the individual stones as individual stones and then make the larger grouting moves.  I love the pictures of Chuck Close who paints individual abstract pictures that when connected on the larger scale create a super realistic portrait.  How to do that with words instead of paint?  Things to look for here in this story.  There is blood. Blood everywhere.  There are four basic blood types. Greece of course.  Myth and mythic tales.  I am very interested here too in animating characters who become artists or artists who become characters.  Thucydides had to write his own part of the story in his history. Achilles transforms from the warrior to the storyteller telling the story of his transition from woman to man.  Now that I think about it, these stones are meant to reflect different frequencies of light.  Heroes turned into regular Joes.  A poet and a first lady reduced to their bodily fluids. All about the sublime. Changing states is the change here more than changing character.

BR: What challenges did you face in structuring this material?

MM: I am sure that what I just said about Tessera sounds challenging.  I am not sure why I am wired to associate, to find connections in very random elements but I am. It’s not hard for me to structure. Structure is what the structure is all about.  I am conscious about resisting the existential nature of language to line up. Words want to become narrative. They have naturally a beginning, middle, and end of the line.  The challenge for me is to break it up, to disrupt what the written language wants to do on the page. It tends to the narrative. The challenge for me is to use that medium without the bias. Perverse, I realize. I figure that is the challenge for a reader who wants story, that thread out of the maze, not just the maze.  Yes, I build mazes but I’m not a very good Ariadne.  The clews of yarn I supply are pretty clueless.

BR: This makes a great bathroom book.  I mean that as a compliment.  I could keep reading it in reiterative increments pretty much forever.  When should I stop?

MM: Well, I’m not sure you should though I suppose there is a time limit on actually occupying the bathroom.  But not the book.  I like to think that all of us have just one book we write, are writing.  A big job for the writer now is keeping the book alive and in print.  Think Leaves of Grass. This new book contains pieces previously published in books of a different title, in magazines, delivered at readings. In the same form or slightly altered. I like to have in my stories the sensation that these things, this writing is alive, organic, growing, changing in different contexts, frames, delivery devices. You never step into the same bathroom twice!

BR: Heraclitus.

MM:  I want to design my one book to be a book that is read forwards and backwards and back again. I want it to feel as you are reading it that it is still being written.  Or that it is being erased. Or that the reader is writing all over it. There was that wonderful hypertext memoir that launched a virus when you began to read it that literally erased the text. A book about memory forgetting itself. Frank Gehry said of his house in Santa Monica where he used all the materials of construction–plywood, chain-link fencing, sheet metal, etc–to finish the structure that he wanted it to feel still in process, to feel as if it were being edited. I am all in to the dead author side of the argument. I am not the authority of the texts I create.  I don’t have the sole stake in the making of meaning.  I know I am collaborating with the reader.  I provide the interesting pieces (I hope) and the reader takes it from there. The reader writes the book.  So no I wouldn’t want you to stop.

BR:  I can’t, not to worry.

[The food comes.  It is good.   Our budget is $444 each, so no worries there, more if necessary, the nice thing about pretending.]

MM:  I just saw in The New York magazine that The Four Seasons is ranked number 52 (up from 56) in their annual rating of the top 100. It mentions the ridiculous prices–$55 for a crab cake–but does recommend the bar lunch at $35.

BR: Not for us, not today.

MM:  If I may quote: “… this plutocrat watering hole still manages to retain its special Oz-like feel.”  So we may not be in the 1% but maybe at least the 4%!  The reason I get New York Magazine is funny. My grandfather gave me what he thought was a subscription to the New Yorker, thinking I was wanting to be a writer and so would like the magazine. He made a mistake and sent New York. I have been a subscriber to it all these 30 years or so. Never subscribed to the New Yorker though I did own shares in the company when it was still traded publicly. When the magazine was bought out, I made more money on the tendering of the stock than I have ever made selling fiction. But that is another story.

BR:  My mother got New York, too, I think because it had a good puzzle…  I wrote an article for them once about death and ever since people introducing me will mention the New Yorker, not true, not true, but you can’t start a reading by saying you didn’t really have work in the New Yorker… Is Fore Street on that list?  It’s in Portland, Maine, and I think the best restaurant I’ve ever eaten in.

MM: It was just NYC places. Of course.  I love Fore Street.  My wife, Theresa Pappas, went to school in Portland and lived there for awhile and for a long time we did summer in Maine. I love it. We have to get back there. I love the Italians of Maine–the real cuisine of Portland not lobster rolls. Theresa worked a bit an LL Bean and her second book of poems is called The Desert Art and many of the poems are about the Desert of Maine. Great postcards from there.

BR [Spooning a scallop bisque]:  But I do love a good lobster roll.  And a great clam shack.  So long as the bathrooms are clean.

MM: The question about toilet reading also got me thinking about the James Wright poem that ends with “I’ve wasted my life.” Poetry is fond of putting pressure on such words as waste, forcing a reader to inflect till the cows come home. Has the poet wasted his life or has this man wasted his life by not being a poet? The perfect suspension in that hammock. Rock above the tropic earth. Poetry too makes nothing happen. I want in this book about a bunch of nothings make those nothings happen. I want you to waste your time on this earth.

BR: I really love the postcard captions you’ve collected and present in the book.  Here’s one called “Four Found Postcard Captions,” and the postcards happen to be from the Wadsworth-Longfellow House in Portland, Maine, where I’ve been with my daughter.



This most historic house in the State was built in 1785 by Major General Peleg Wadsworth, grandfather of the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who spent much of his life here.


The Boy’s Room was occupied by all the Longfellow boys at various times.  Here the Poet wrote his first poem.  Here also is the old trundle bed and the scarred school desk.


The Rainy Day Room.  Its chief interest is in the old desk on which the Poet wrote, in 1841, “The Rainy Day.”  “It rains, and the wind is never weary.”


The Guest Room of the house contains the four-poster bed and rocking chairs of the General’s wife, Elizabeth.  To this room the Poet brought his bride, and here, later, the Poet’s father died.

Waiter [checking in on us]: That was lovely.

BR:   Indeed.  And there are a lot of really delectable tidbits here of all kinds.  Michael, what’s your method of collecting material?

MM:  Somewhere, I read, Donald Barthelme wrote that he wanted to be on the leading edge of the junk phenomenon.  I love that idea.  I think some writers are writers of nouns. Most live in those active verbs, in the predatory predicate. You asked about collecting material but I know you were thinking of the “material” in the abstract. As writers we must be by nature abstractionists who wrestle those abstraction into the “concrete” conventions of writing. I love stuff. I collect a lot of things. I just wrote a piece about my thermos collection of all things. I think we are seeing more and more writers expand their notion of writing into the realm of the material nature of things.  It is hands on from here on out. Die-cut books, books in boxes. The writer because of the changing nature of the means of production the way books and magazines are made finds him or herself involved in what we used to think was the designer’s job, the publisher’s job, the editor’s job. I like postcards a lot. I of course collect postcards, arrange them into stories.  “Writing”a postcard is an act of publishing. And I love being involved in not only the abstract writing of the message but the concrete manipulation of the material.  The stamps. The writing instruments. And the post office contributes the cancellation, the bar codes of routing.  There is so much to read–other than one’s own writing– on the card. So many texts.  In museum school there is an argument between those curators that want to deploy labels with artifacts and those that don’t.  I like a third way of thinking about it. The labels themselves are artifacts that can themselves be labeled, even expanded.

BR:  What should writers be trying to do now that everything’s broken?

MM: Well, they certainly shouldn’t be trying to fix it.  Broken is good.  As you might guess I would say to take those broken pieces and put them back together in a new way. And then break them again.  Art is about rearranging the known. About re-framing the deranged. I worry at times that the cultural moment we are in as writers–namely the movement into the university for poetry and literary prose–subtly forces us to fix the broken instead of break the fixed. The university’s impulse is curatorial by nature. It finds a bunch of bones and puts them back together and then teaches its students to put the bones back together in the same way. To maintain, to store, to study, to norm.  All of these are important activities but not activities that art should be about.  I want to generate new genera and that is very difficult in the setting that seeks to categorize and sort. The university can be thought of as a vast efficient storage facility.  But you were asking about what should writers try doing.  Funny you should use that word. I edited an anthology a while back of new fiction called Trying Fiction for Colorado Review. Yes, I like the pun. The attempt and the difficulty both.  Writers should be trying.  Writers should try to be trying.  Should try to try one’s patience.

BR:  Tell me about your career.

MM: I was very lucky. After graduating from Indiana University in 1977, I returned home to find my parents had sold my bed.  I was an English major with no job so I slept on the couch. I out-smarted my parent’s gambit in a few weeks when I found a job as a night auditor in a hotel in Fort Wayne.  I walked in and told the manager that I was a liberal arts major and I knew nothing about accounting but I could be taught. And she bought that. The hours were from 11 to 7 in the morning.  I would come home then after my shift, and roll into my younger brother’s bed as he rolled out of it to go to high school. I think I thought that the third shift at a hotel would be easy. A long stretch where I could write and read but it turned out that the third trick in a hotel is one of the busiest. I did love the job.  And it gave me time to write in the daytime poems for hire in a downtown park.  I charged a quarter a poem, on any subject. Over the noon hour, I’d make $5 or $6.  Tax free! And write 20 poems or so. This was a stunt developed at IU with a bunch of friends.  We called ourselves RKO Radio Poems.  A poem must not mean but be 25 cents.  Hey there is the early inkling of the book right there. If you have ever seen the film Breaking Away, we were there outside the stadium writing poems for hire for the crew and the extras. I would suggest everyone do a stint as a night auditor. The job is very interesting but the hours are hard.  The consequence of that is there is always a night auditor job listed in the classifieds.  More?

BR: More.

MM: I published the first two books, little chapbooks of very short prose, myself with a little help from a Fort Wayne small press called Windless Orchard this was in the late 70s and the work was mostly things that I wrote for folks in the park in downtown Fort Wayne. Very local meditations on Fort Wayne and Indiana. I really mean I published them myself too. I used a typewriter and rub-on lettering and Xerography and mimeography.

BR: Rub-on lettering! Extinct now, of course, along the mimeograph (except in inner city schools and many English departments) and so much other writing technology.

MM: … Then I went to grad school at Hopkins where I wrote a book, of stories called Cardinal Numbers. Odd to think back on that now, what with the new book Four for a Quarter. Cardinal numbers was a book of ten stories each based on a number. My first hardback book was Alive and Dead in Indiana. I had been writing a mythology or that’s what I thought it was. Edith Hamilton, the great popularizer of the Greek mythology (which I loved) grew up in my town and i wanted to dramatize the myths of Indiana and record them in a series of monologues. Gordon Lish came to Ames, Iowa to give a reading and said to everyone there to send him stories. So I did and he actually took the lot and had me write more for a book!

BR: What was the path to Four for a Quarter?

MM: I see now that the seed for this book was in those early days of thinking about Indiana, numbers, monologues, and non-narrative lyric forms. I don’t think of myself as a novelist but I have always thought of myself as someone who makes books. When you are also not much of a story-teller and give up the narrative pattern you have to impose some arbitrary pattern to sustain length. I often just use numbers. If I had been born later in the digital age instead of the analog one I would say that what I do is just invent algorithms to solve the problem of structure in my prose. That is what we all do I know. We pose problems for ourselves to solve in the performance of writing. I just seem to have always done that in terms of numbers. I was the generation that was taught the “New Math” for the first time. Sets and bases. Sixth grade. Price Elementary School. Mr. Flora.

BR: How has parenting affected your writing, both on the practical end–getting to your desk, or wherever–and on the daydreaming end?

MM: I love what William Stafford told writers who came to him saying they were blocked. “Can’t write? Lower your standards!” Having children teaches you to actually lower your standards. As a parent you learn quickly it is about imperfection. Or the calculus of approaching perfection but never coming to it. What amazed me was childbirth itself. Birthing since we are now so removed from it, from this human animal moment, struck me as so interesting and absurd and wonderful from a writer’s point of view. There were all these competing narratives. My wife imagined the births would go this way. The doctor had her competing narrative. The nurse another. The birth assistant another still. And then me. And all of us reading books about birthing and watching movies and telling stories or hearing stories of birth. Amazing. Anyway, one can “write” this moment up in all these different scenarios and yet the moment when it does happen simply writes itself. Control means to roll against. Birth of my babies, the raising of the babies, taught me to roll with and that, in turn, taught me that I am in less control than I think of the stories I write.

BR: Love that, “roll against.”

MM: I find I think of myself as an arranger of things now more than the author of things. Improvisation is important in life and in the writing. I try to say yes to the things that are given me and then add and.  Yes! Yes and…

BR [forgetting entirely about the restaurant trope]:  You’ve taught at the University of Alabama for some years: How does that work with your writing and thinking and being, in general, a writer?

MM:  Yes? I teach writing in a generative way now but in an institution that is rigorously curatorial.  I have been fortunate at Alabama to be able to clear a space for the students to do lots of things and not worry so much about being professionalized. Try things. Discover self and art. It is a gift I can give. None of the students here pay for the schooling. I don’t make any promises as to what they will do or become.  I just say come here and write with me. Let’s find out what writing is for you.  Let’s make something up. My standards are so low. I don’t feel like I am a police teacher protecting writing from amateurs or dabblers or those who are simply no good. My students have expressed a profound interest in writing. I let them write what they want to write. I guess I am a flakey artist.  I have embraced that. I am far more interested in quantity of writing than in quality. Not at all interested in critical thinking–there are plenty of teachers around here for that. I tell my dean when he inquires after my goals for writing that successful outcome would be in twenty years my student will still be writing. How can we assess that he asks. I tell him in twenty years we will have to ask.

BR: Tuscaloosa had a terrible bout with tornadoes this past fall, and the University was clobbered.  What was that like?

MM: I was at school teaching when classes were canceled. There at been storm damage in my neighborhood that morning. I drove back home from school through streets already blocked by felled trees from that morning. It would have been safer to stay at school and have my family come there. I drove west into the storm as it came on. The tornado that then hit was further south in the city and sliced up from the southwest going northeast.  A very straight line so unlike most tornadoes. It was a half-mile to a mile wide. Many of my students were much closer than I to the destruction and they were immediately in it and out in it helping. I kept power and was in touch with them through the rest of the day through their cell phones, email and Facebook. What was very frightening was watching them go dark as time went by and their batteries drained. Like the stars going out. Perhaps that is the most disturbing aspect of this disaster. It is the first one I have ever been in with all this electronic equipment. All the cell phone pictures, the video you-tubing real time reports. All the information everywhere but here. Friends and family watched the storm happen in real time. Stranger than strange.

BR: And more than disruptive.  What’s your writing routine like, if any?

MM: I have been writing for 40 years–hey there is another 4–and I am one of those writers whose routine is not to have a routine.  I think this habitless habit really developed when Theresa and I had the first baby. I got really good at writing in the seams of time, the writing time filling space between the spaces of the not writing time. It was at that time too that I began thinking, more and more, that all writing, all kinds of writing, “counts.” That is to say, I don’t think that working on this interview is subordinate to the mail art text I am also writing right now in another window on the desktop.

BR: But we’re just having dinner.

MM: … I write a lot of postcards when I travel. I count that as writing.

BR:  I count gardening, hiking, skiing, this meal.

MM:  Letter writing. Journal keeping. Note taking. Blurb writing. Notes in the margins of students’ stories or essays.  That spills over to the “real” writing I do do. I don’t think my stories are the most important thing. Or the essays. There is just the great big differences. The adaptations of the writing to time and place constraints. I did this anthology–and I think the anthologies I do where I arrange other people’s words as important as the books where I am arranging my own words–where I asked writers for their writing rules. We called it Rules of Thumb. And I loved it because there were all this different accommodations with space and time that each writer had worked out and each was convinced that this was the way it had to be done. What is the name for that kind of dance exercise where you just keep running bouncing off of buildings, leap-frogging mailboxes, swinging around street signs, tumbling and falling and getting back up? What is that called?

BR: Singing in the Rain?

MM:  That is my routine. Just to make way. You know that from sailing up there in Maine, right.  A sailboat must “make way.” And once way is made then anything can happen.

  1. Theresa writes:

    What a great interview. It was almost like reading a Michael Martone work. I am so grateful to have been one of his students 25 years ago, a quater of a century – lol. I still write today. I am happy to have known him as my teacher and mentor. He is as remarkable as he is simplistic. He is truly a unique artist and person.

  2. Dave writes:

    Welcome to the party, Michael. Great interview. Looking forward to the book. Just taught MM by MM in an independent study class. A real pleasure.