In Michael Martone's new book on the mythical town of Winesburg, Indiana, there lives a cleaning lady who can conjure up the ghost of Billy Sunday, a lascivious holy man with an unusual fetish and a burgeoning flock, a park custodian who collects the scat left by aliens, and a night janitor learning to live with life’s mysteries, including the zombies in the cafeteria.
In this interview, Michael Martone discusses his experience co-editing Winesburg, Indiana and what readers can learn from the colorful inhabitants of this town.
Tell us about the concept behind Winesburg, Indiana.
The book began when Bryan Furuness, the editor of Booth magazine (and co-editor of Winesburg, Indiana), asked me to write a parody of an intense popular memoir such as The Kiss or Liar’s Club. I suggested that writing something even more extreme, more sensational than that kind of book would prove impossible. But what if we had a whole town of desperate people all writing mini-memoirs of their disparate experiences—what would that look like? We thought we would call the town Whinesburg for all the whining but then thought better of it and invoked Winesburg, Ohio, a book that was one of the first to dramatize internal emotional struggles as narrative conflict.
I think many readers will be somewhat familiar with both of those books even if they haven’t read them recently or ever. They are such seminal works. Winesburg, Ohio helped so much to introduce the notion that characters have “depth” in fiction. Characters and stories would now be about what was not evident—the hidden part of the iceberg that Hemingway, a great admirer of Winesburg, Ohio, famously indicated about the new psychological realism. And where Winesburg, Ohio complicated our ideas of character, Spoon River Anthology suggested the depth and complexity of social life in small towns and rural settings at the moment Americans were leaving those small towns and the countryside and moving to the cities. So even if you haven’t read those books, you have lived through and are living still in the historic shifts in our thinking of human nature and society. We take the ideas of the “subconscious” and “ego,” “trauma” and “depression” for granted now. But these books were the first to speculate on the dynamics of these new ways of being.
Why did you decide to work with multiple contributors rather than writing a single-authored collection?
I wanted to experiment with a new hybrid book. I have written collections of stories that were all mine. And I have edited books that were collections of multiple other writers. I wanted to combine the two here and see what that would look like. A theme of the book—a community of desperate individuals, the conflict between the single person and a group—I thought might be replicated by the structure of this new kind of anthology. I think of publishing now when I edit something more as community organizing and less as an act of gatekeeping. That is to say I wanted to throw a big party around a theme that interested writers I knew and see what happened instead of collecting and organizing a “best” anthology. I wanted the messy surprises and randomness of the galaxy, a Milky Way instead of the more stable structure of a solar system.
What challenges did you face to make the stories link together into a cohesive collection?
Well, continuing from the previous question, I am not sure I wanted a “cohesive” collection. The challenge is to capture the chaos and randomness of life but give it just enough cohesion, not a stiff skeleton but more like a limber cartilage. Growing up in Indiana, wanting to be a writer, I found that a very important story for me was William H. Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” When I read it for the first time, I thought two things. How did he do this? How did he keep my attention for 35 pages without a plot or story or narrative? There is no story in that “story.” And the second thing I found myself asking is “Can you write about Indiana?” Collage, associative links, meditative moves are the methods of madness in this collection. There is no there there. Now, many readers want and many writers do deliver story, narrative. But this book partakes in this more amorphous and lyrical way of connecting. It works (or it doesn’t) more through juxtaposition, accident, contrast, and asymmetry. In a way, I think, we are trying to make sense of not making sense. I don’t mean to be too theoretical here. But I do believe that I live in a world now that is more like a lyric collage than clear episodic narrative—the crazy quilt as opposed to the precise pattern. So there is the challenge, organizing the craziness of the crazy quilt.
The fictional town of Winesburg is full of colorful characters. Who are some of your favorites and why?
Oh, you can’t trick me into favorites. Like the glacial plain on which Winesburg is located, you have to think in terms of the horizontal, the flat mapping of people and events. The characters are not in a competition, not all in the same race. The book is interested in difference, I think, and variety. One can’t think that one is more different, just different.
Even though the book is set in Indiana, what themes do you think will resonate with readers everywhere?
I think the great theme here is the one of quiet desperation. Remember, Throw Park in Winesburg is named after Henry David Thoreau who suggested that most of us do lead lives of quiet desperation. The other great theme, for me, is the great American conflict between mobility and stability. As Americans we do pride ourselves on our ability to move—geographically, economically. We are on the move! But at the same time we value place, family, small town values. We know that mobility usually wins in this country, and yet we long for tradition and continuity. I think Winesburg, Indiana addresses this profound conflict where we all feel simultaneously that we are in the heart of the country and, at the same vexed moment, in the middle of nowhere.