This month, we continue the celebration of our state's literary heritage with a new post by B.J. Hollars in our Indiana Bicentennial Bookshelf blog series. This series is written by Hoosier authors about their favorite Indiana books and writers.
By B.J. Hollars
I first met Michael Martone in the Davenport Municipal Airport in May of 2006. I was a junior in college, and after stumbling upon his collection, Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List, I made it my goal to bring him to my college to read.
The book moved me. What other book could drift so deftly between James Dean and Alfred Kinsey, and—most importantly to me—the myth/legend/truth concerning our shared hometown, Fort Wayne, Indiana, which had allegedly found itself squarely in the crosshairs of Hitler’s bombing list.
What had our city done to earn the ire of the Fuhrer?
It was our manufacturing, of course. Legend has it our city produced enough magnet wiring to win the war twice, thereby placing us seventh on Hitler’s list.
For a young writer who was, perhaps, a little homesick, a little demoralized, and a little uncertain on what the future held, learning of our hometown’s perseverance was likely just what I needed to hear: proof that a random place on the map had the power to overcome great challenges. Proof for me, as well, that a random person might overcome great challenges, too. I wanted desperately to hear that message, and preferably from the man who wrote it first.
Which is how I found myself in the Davenport airport that day, peering out as the passengers de-planed and spotting the flowing-maned Martone and his high school-aged son slowly headed my way.
Introductions were made, conversations had, and so enthusiastic/star struck/nervous was I, that after beginning our hour long journey to the college, I proceeded to tack on an additional hour as a result of my poor sense of direction. We were somewhere in the cornfields of Iowa when Michael—no stranger to Iowa himself—humbly asked, “B.J., are you sure we’re headed in the right direction?”
I was not sure, though the next exit confirmed that we were not.
It’s bad enough to be a bumbling student, but far worse to be one who appears to be holding the visiting writer hostage. Years later, after I was admitted into the University of Alabama’s M.F.A. program, where Michael taught, I joked that it was probably my hostage-taking that ultimately nudged me from the waitlist. Perhaps they let me in, I reasoned, to ensure I didn’t take any other visiting writers hostage.
Looking back on that moment, it’s clear to me now that I would’ve driven onto the coast (any coast!) had Michael not mentioned the possibility that perhaps I’d gotten us lost. Indeed, it was a circuitous route, but Michael played it cool—put up with that bumbling student—and then put up with him for four additional years while serving as my thesis advisor.
This essay’s not about me, it’s about Michael. And yet I can’t get to the heart of Michael Martone without telling you all that he’s done for me. Yet I can’t tell you all that he’s done for me because while the Internet is endless, this blog post is not, and as my word count fast approaches, I’m left feverish for all I didn’t tell.
Like how Michael shepherded me through my first book proposal, which would become my first edited anthology. And how the next year he helped me complete my first nonfiction project, which would become my first book.
My story is not unique. It is the story that all of his students tell.
Which is why for me, the reason Michael Martone’s a great Hoosier writer—a great writer, period—is because his writing is only the half of it. Take your pick—Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List, The Flatness and Other Landscapes, Michael Martone, Four For a Quarter, The Blue Guide to Indiana, etc., etc.—all those books will leave you breathless. But keep in mind that he’s a teacher, too, and a mentor, and an inspiration, and a man, frankly, whose work far transcends the page. For as long as I’ve known him, he’s always doing his part to ensure that other writers find their own pages. He guides us when we’re lost, helps us right the course.
“B.J., are you sure we’re headed in the right direction?” he asked while I was stuck in the throes of my thesis.
I was not, again, though soon we found our path.
B.J. Hollars is author of two award-winning nonfiction books, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, as well as Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction. He has published two books with IU Press: Sightings and This Is Only a Test. He is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Next month, Michael Martone will be blogging for us in the Indiana Bicentennial Bookshelf series. Check back in May for his post!