Making It Plausible: A Conversation With Andrew Martin

Cool for America / Andrew Martin / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 07/2020 – $27 (Hardcover)

Interview conducted by David Ehmcke

I first encountered Andrew Martin’s remarkable fiction after the publication of his fabulous first novel Early Work. Since then, I’ve been anticipating the publication of his short story collection, Cool for America, in which he assembles an ensemble of characters who, in concert, animate the usual assays of underemployment, the limits of overeducation, and the state of public consciousness in the contemporary age. Andrew and I met over Zoom to discuss the new collection, what makes a fiction plausible, generational writing, and the ever-recognizable self-seriousness of Columbia undergraduates.

David Ehmcke: Starting off more generally, I’m wondering if you could talk about the process of putting Cool for America together. I know you’ve been publishing these stories for several years, and I think you’ve been working on them ever since you were a student in Montana’s MFA. I’m wondering when the collection first started to feel like a book. Did you notice a shared set of concerns emerging? Was it a deliberate move to orchestrate these stories together, or did it happen on its own?

Andrew Martin: For the most part I wrote them without a sense of a deliberate plan, and they organically took shape over time. I think once I started noticing that I had thematic concerns, I chose to lean into them, rather than worrying about making sure I’d covered every possible human experience. I think that was an important moment and decision for me. My agent Molly Atlas, once I’d written maybe half the stories in the collection and had been working on the novel for a while, started encouraging me to display more range. She would point to some books like Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins or the Wells Tower book, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, collections that are mostly contemporary, but then there’s a couple of stories in which, suddenly, you’re with the Vikings or in the Old West or something. She was like, “You could do that, that would be cool.” And I thought about it, but at the end of the day I decided to continue creating what felt more like a unified world to me, this community of characters, and a world of characters who could all plausibly know each other. I love the Alison Bechdel series Dykes to Watch Out For, and I love the sense that it’s this sort of endless soap opera with recombinations of characters who reappear, and you see them at different points of their lives. So, I was thinking about serialization, but serialization without clear chronology.

DE: I was really interested in how that serialization was occurring in the collection too, especially with how characters from your first novel, Early Work, recur in the collection. I was wondering if those recurrences were gesturing toward a disposition that you had, I guess about what the author’s body of work is or how the body of work is in conversation with itself among all of its works. I feel like there’s a  dialectic of sorts being positioned between Early Work and Cool for America.

AM: I mean, I love the idea of a coherent dialectic. I’m interested in those ideas very much as a reader and thinker, but I think that while I was writing, if I’m being honest, I was putting one foot in front of the other. But I love that in the books I read. Garth Greenwell did something interesting with that idea in his two books. One is more like a novel and one is more like a story collection, but they feel like two sides of the same experience. 

The prosaic truth is that I wrote the two stories about Leslie, that ended up in the story collection, and that really sparked the novel in some ways. Then I think the feedback loop from that led me to write the rest of the stories in the book, some of which exist in that same universe. But I love the idea of literary bodies of work having a life of their own separate from the writer, and also in conversation with each other. I think one of the things I’m always trying to do is create this sense of ongoingness in my work, so you can imagine these characters are continuing to live their lives. And when you shut the book, it’s not some definitive ending to them.

DE: It’s fascinating to me to think about your characters as having lives of their own, apart from how they’re documented in your work. Especially when reading Cool for America, it seemed to me that the compositional unit of your work is voice, like a lot of the stories precipitate out a voice or that the character first comes from a voice. But that voice also seems to have a stake in realism, or a kind of reality that makes it seem like they could, yeah, go on and live beyond the stories. So then I’m wondering about your relationship to realism and autobiography, and the ways that you’re aestheticizing reality. What’s the importance of, as you say, the plausibility of the real to the work that you create? How do you think through the relationship between your own experience of reality and also the ones you pose or can pose in your fiction?

AM: Something that I’ve been thinking about is the difference between voice-driven literature and what we think of as realist literature, and I think, as a reader and a writer, I’m absolutely driven—I think you’re totally right—by voice. To me, the fundamental building block of the fiction that I’m interested in so far as a writer is maybe something like plausibility of voice, and capturing the way that people think and the way that people speak. Obviously, it’s a highly stylized version of both things, but to me, it’s very much an oral tradition. And it’s driven by a kind of performative style. I think a lot of the stories, especially, were workshopped by reading out loud and driven by my love of a certain—I’m not a diehard stand-up comedy fan, except for the really great comics—but I love performance. I love live music. I love theater. I love and come out of those worlds. The artifice of those worlds is not the main thing I’m drawing from, but I think the primacy of the voice and the primacy of connection is really crucial in how I think about those things. I think realism is not necessarily the thing that I would stake my feelings to or my commitment to as a writer. Some of my favorite writers are people like Beckett, Kafka, and Bruno Schultz, writers who are working in a slightly off-kilter tradition, but they’re still, I think, driven by a desire to tell truths about the way people think and feel about the world.

DE: My experience of reading Cool for America, what was so exhilarating about it to me is that, in a way, I felt like it achieved a new realism. In assemblage, these stories seemed to so accurately bring together the sense of a public, a real public that I recognized in my own experience of reality, that was stuck in stasis. And this is why I bring up autobiography—because I know that with Early Work critics and readers often wanted to invoke autofiction or autobiography and put the novel in dialogue with what a lot of autofictional writers were doing—to me, it seems like the work you’re doing isn’t motivated by a desire to reflect elements of your own autobiography in the fiction, but it’s toying with autobiography as a substance to achieve the effect of the real, of characters that maybe don’t correspond to your actual life—they might have some resemblance to it, because, you know, you have a consciousness and you exist in reality—but they nonetheless feel familiar. That’s why people might wonder: is this autobiographical? Or is this that autofiction thing? Because it seems so real; the dialogue is alive. And that’s also why I love what you say about being energized by stand-up comedy, orality, and embodiment, because I get a sense of that aliveness majorly in the dialogue that you write. To me, it’s a striking and really exciting distinction from what I might say is the realism of the old in which there’s this bent to document the world so pristinely, in a way that feels very mediated and removed from the fiction, and then analyze or interpret the meaning of the events documented. Your work seems a truer, more immediate expression of how people actually are.

AM: I think it’s really important to somehow have a little bit of both. There were earlier versions, especially of Early Work, in which the dialogue always went on, like, another five pages, and it was just more about transcribing what people would say in my head if they were really sitting in a room for that long. A huge part of the process was to preserve tiny pieces of that, enough of it, so it sounds like spoken English, but honing it so that it’s just all killer, no filler, and also trying not to draw attention to it as overly staged.

I wanted to say quickly that, on the autobiographical question, I’ve been trying to think about it lately, because I think it does come up. And I think of autobiography as a tool for achieving the larger goal of making plausible fictions and creating worlds that feel lived in, real, and interesting to me. I think if I could achieve plausibility without using more of my own experience, or that around me, then I would. But I just haven’t found a better way to achieve what I want to on a craft level, on a mechanical level. I think that the impulse is really different, and it’s important to note it, as a reader, that I do think the autofictional impulse is much more about playing with the fiction of the self or playing with, “Am I the writer, or am I a narrator who can be taken separately.” I like those books a lot, but that’s not really what I’ve done with my own writing so far. It’s adjacent to that, and it’s certainly inspired by that, but I think it is one step over into a more traditional tradition.

DE: And I think it would definitely be an error not to use autobiography as a tool. This idea that the writer could have any kind of accuracy at producing work about experience and place, especially, that they have no like relationship to. If I decided I was going to write a novel based in Siberia, or something like that, I would have no kind of embodied relationship to the place of which I was writing, even if I read all the books that I could about the place. I think it has to do with sensation or liveliness in fiction; in order to achieve aliveness, it takes using autobiography as a substance or tool to achieve a different kind of fiction.

AM: That’s how it feels to me. It does seem like some writers really do get a lot of juice from research or from imagining themselves into a different world and place. One of my favorite writers is Penelope Fitzgerald. She’s an absolute master and just so fucking brilliant, and some of her greatest novels are historical novels, which I generally don’t like, but she writes two-hundred-page historical novels that approach their subject very slant-wise and in these interesting, strange ways. So you’re never thinking, “Wow, she really did all this research into St. Petersburg in 1916.” You’re just thinking about the sentences and the characters and the way that she juxtaposes language, and the subject matter becomes secondary.

DE: And for you it would be an impulse off of an experience of a place?

AM: It has been so far, but I keep threatening, usually jokingly, to write a historical novel about, like, Montana in the 1850s or Armenia in the time of the genocide. It’s one of those things where if you joke about it enough, maybe you’re serious. I feel like it’s not happening anytime soon, but check in with me when I need a good paycheck.

DE: Do I dare invoke the word millennial?

AM: What, me? Millennial? In my apartment in Brooklyn with my dog at my feet?

DE: This word keeps popping up. What does the phrase “millennial fiction” mean to you, if anything? Should people stop bringing it up? I’m wondering why you think this word keeps recurring in discussions of your work. What does it mean to write work that seems to speak explicitly toward one generation’s experience?

AM: It must mean something, and who’s gonna turn their nose up at being called “generational,” even if it sometimes feels a little back-handed. But it’s interesting which writers that term gets applied to. It’s usually young white writers who are thought of as generational in some way. I think of Anne Beattie, who’s a writer I really admire, and her early stories had a huge, somewhat unconscious influence on my writing, where you’ve got these couples and people in their 20s in the mid-70s, sort of post-hippies, dealing with their malaise and ennui, of being really smart but not knowing what to do with themselves. Somehow that ends up being what generational means. I don’t think I’m particularly representative of my particular generation so much as this creative class that is often looking for reflections of itself.

I do think there’s something specifically contemporary about my work, though. I think there’s an element of morality to it, or moralism, which I don’t necessarily endorse, but I think is there. I think there’s a sense of general belatedness that the characters feel, which I think is quite endemic to the people I know, of my generation, feeling like we missed something. I graduated college in 2008, right as the market crashed. It just feels like a lost decade in a lot of ways and maybe, like, a lost forever. And I know many generations feel that way, but I feel like, for example, with you guys [Gen Z], maybe there’s some sense of new blood, an energy; there’s a sense that you’re entering into what feels like more of a hot crisis, whereas we’re sort of between 9/11 and whatever this shit is. And our whole life has just been like one disappointment after another—that’s the line on us, I think, or is one way to read it.

DE: I mean, my take on the adjective “millennial,” and its recurrence in reviews of your work or general conversations about your work is that it’s an easy adjective. To me, speaking directly about Cool for America, the experience of public stasis or negative capability among all of these characters in the work—and I know they’re not all millennial characters—the experience of collective stasis, I think, responds to some of the most imminent phenomena that are affecting your generation directly. It’s a response to cultural desiccation, what you say earlier about relatedness, capitalist breakdown, and the result is stasis; it’s actually very macabre and urgent. Yet, dismissing it as millennial literature, it’s a way of making light of these very real responses to the ways that our systems and structures have failed an entire generation of people. On one hand, it’s easy to laugh and say, “Oh, that millennial literature,” and then it’s another thing really live with the work and recognize that all of these characters are symptoms of some overarching failure.

AM: Yeah, I’m sympathetic to that reading because I think it’s there. I have a tendency to question my own generation in its reading of itself sometimes. I’m just very self-critical, and I want to be self-interrogating at all times. I read a pretty good piece in The Guardian recently about how all millennials want to claim that they are the victims of a certain kind of economic alienation and the disastrous effects of the gig economy. And it is generationally true, but the people I’m writing about and a lot of people I know have done just fine, because they went to Ivy League schools and their parents have money. A guy I know who was an early contributor to n+1 now works for a hedge fund. There’s a cynicism to some of this posturing that gets a bit rich sometimes. I think that’s why I take—and I think some of my peers who have gone, like me, far to the left—some hope in in the younger generation who’s cutting through some of this posturing. I don’t know if that’s going to be effective either, but I like that positioning a little bit more. We’re somewhere between Gen X and Gen Z, where I, at least, feel a pull towards entropy, and I’d like to blame it on the gig economy and Amazon, but it might just be because we’re cynical bastards and need to wake up and be more attuned to the world.

DE: So you get two different generational readings there. Maybe it’s just my Gen Z instinct to use any evidence I can to throw against the machine and say, “Andrew Martin’s fiction is the symptom of a failing system!”

AM: I mean, definitely! I just think it’s also a little bit our fault too. We helped build this shit, unfortunately.

DE: Zooming into the fiction, I was wondering about the seeds of retrospection that are embedded throughout the collection. There’s the long parenthetical in “Deep Cut” that comes in and reveals that the story is actually being reflected upon years after it happened. This happens in several different stories, even occasionally in only one sentence that reveals the perspective. Could you talk about the orchestration of these temporalities or what excites you about this effect?

AM: To me, that’s increasingly the thing. That layering of time is something that fiction can do that other forms can’t. And, to me, the wonderful feeling of vertigo in the pit of your stomach when you read something, it often comes from moments like that, or from moments where you’re able to see different times at the same time, and have this double-vision or realize that the perspective you’ve been looking through is actually one you didn’t quite realize is more retrospective. I often find it, when I’m writing, through discovery; I discover it, which feels like a corny thing, but it’s true. I’ll be writing a story, then suddenly it’ll occur to me that the story only makes sense if it’s being told from some more distant point of view. Then suddenly the story is charged with all of these feelings, and charged with this urgency and sense of loss that it didn’t have before.

“Deep Cut” is a good example. When I wrote the first draft, it was just the episode of these kids at a show, and I was like, “This is a fine piece of writing. There’s some good stuff in it.” But the question was, “Alright, why? Why is this a story? What is interesting about this?” Adding that retrospective parenthetical really made me excited about it again, and made me revise it and find new details in my own memory and places to go with it.

There’s a paragraph in “The Changed Party” in which the character says something like, “It would be years like this, dealing with our wayward spouses, trying to medicate our children, and for a long time, I really didn’t understand that being happy was important.” It’s better in the story! To me, that paragraph is important because it frames what this guy thinks the point of his life was, which was that he had to overcome these obstacles in order to be happy later on, even if I think, when I read it, that guy is deluding himself, or that he made a bad decision at some point because he thought that was the meaning.

DE: I love that you bring up the example in “The Changed Party” because it also corroborates what you say earlier about your characters living beyond the work, giving them the ability or the sensation of moving on. Even after the story has finished, there’s a greater aliveness that proceeds after the fiction ends.

AM: I had a teacher at Montana, William Kittredge, who would always say, “A story shouldn’t land on both feet.” It was very cryptic, but I loved it, and I always think about that, that somehow it should continue to be in motion. There should be one foot off the ground.

DE: I felt that when finishing almost all of the stories in the collection, that in your closing gestures there’s a sense of inertia. It’s actually really exhilarating because the story continues on, yet there’s an end-stop, which forces a reckoning or a discomfort, or even just a breath on the reader. I remember reading “With the Christopher Kids,” and after I read it, I immediately sent it to my sister because I recognized a lot of aspects of our relationship in the siblings’ relationship. My sister isn’t huge into literary fiction, but she goes, “I like it; I would totally read the novel, but it just ends so abruptly!” I was like, “Exactly! It does!” Part of why it’s so great is that you’re denying the reader what would otherwise come next, and there’s an energy in that denial. 

AM: That to me, on a mechanics level, is one of the hardest things: to figure out how to get that ending so that it doesn’t feel like a trick. You don’t want to ever feel like you’re doing a magic trick. A little bit, sure, because that’s part of the fun of writing, but you want to somehow hit this balance between an abrupt drop-the-mic and not just making someone feel like “is there another page?”

With a lot of these stories, because I’m such a fiend for the clean ending getaway, in the first draft of them, I would end it too soon. A lot of the stories originally finished three or four pages before their current endings, and I realized I had to push on a little bit further in order to get to something that felt more resolved, or else it felt too much like a gimmick or a punchline. What you want is those punctuations, something emphatic that sends you out the door. 

DE: Now because this is The Columbia Review, and because you graduated from Columbia College in 2008, I have to ask the obligatory Columbia questions. Did you know you wanted to write when you were at Columbia? Did some extreme event of sleep deprivation or institutional bureaucracy lead to you to that realization? Or if you’ve dutifully written off the school and want to forget about it, I can endorse that too.

AM: No, I haven’t! What’s funny when I look back is that I knew, or at least I had been telling people since I was a kid, that I wanted to be a fiction writer. But at Columbia, I got really deeply involved in The Spectator almost immediately, and I eventually became the Arts and Entertainment Editor. I probably wrote an article or two a week for years, and was at the office until four o’clock in the morning, five days a week, when I was an editor. I think there’s something to that. There’s almost something a little bit dangerous about the specialization that’s happening now, where students are focusing on creative writing as the thing they do starting at eighteen. I think it can work for some people, but I didn’t have anything to write about. Well, I did have things to write about, but I didn’t have the perspective to do it. I did spend a lot of time writing fiction, and I did occasionally go to classes. Sam Lipsyte was one of my professors at Columbia who genuinely changed my life, mostly by giving me good stuff to read. He was respectful of my terrible fiction, and I think what he did with it was the best thing he could have. Which was that he basically patted me on the head and gave me confidence that I would eventually write something good. I also took a class with Jim Shapiro on the history of book reviewing that was incredibly helpful. He was really the first professor—and this was senior year of college—who took me to task for writing sloppy prose. He really line-edited me, and pushed me to be more careful on the sentence-level. 

Columbia’s funny. It’s the least rah-rah place in the world, and people are always angry, with good reason, at the school administration for something because they’re failing to listen to student needs in any way. It breeds this Stockholm syndrome. I have a lot of really close friends from school, and there’s a really strong Columbia mafia in journalism and the arts. I felt like I was a professional writer starting at eighteen because of the school and the various places like The Spectator and The Blue and White that were so hardcore about everything they did. I was writing serious music criticism and book reviews just to feel like I was in conversation with other cool weird people.

DE: It hasn’t changed much. There is definitely a performed seriousness among the people you angrily smoke cigarettes with outside of Butler Library.

On a conclusory note, I’ll deliver the forbidden question: What’s next? Is it still against the rules to ask that?

AM: No, it’s never against the rules to ask that; it’s the right question. It’s such a funny experience to have been in this publishing cycle for almost three years, because I sold the two books together. I’m only just now coming to the realization that my plate is clean. I’ve been working on new things, but you can always distract yourself with another round of edits when a book or story isn’t out yet. And I write some criticism, so that’s been distracting. I have endless pages of notes toward a new novel that I’m really excited about, and I’m trying to find the angle for it. That’s been the issue: I have all this material and these ideas, and as we were saying at the beginning of the interview, the entryway is always the voice and figuring out the distance of the voice from the situation. That’s the thing I’ve struggled with in this project, what’s the entryway. I’m writing about politics and I’m writing about family, and I’m just trying to think through the last five years of American life in some ways. I think that part of it is about the politicization of our consciousness. I’ve always been a political person, but since even the year before Trump got elected, once Trump started looming, the way that I thought about the world changed. So I want to write about politics, but self-righteousness isn’t very interesting. I need to write about the failures of the left as well as its virtues. That’s a long answer, but we’ll see.

DE: I like it; it sounds immense.

AM: It’s going to be nine-hundred pages long.

DE: Oh, I hope so.

AM: Nah, it’s gonna be a two-hundred-page book about people fucking and drinking, who are we kidding?

Andrew Martin’s first novel Early Work was a New York Times Notable Book of 2018 and a finalist for the Cabell First Novelist Award. His stories and essays have been published in The Paris ReviewThe AtlanticThe New York Review of BooksHarper’s, and T: The New York Times Style Magazine. He lives in New York with his partner, Laura, and their dog Bonnie.

David Ehmcke is a recent graduate of Columbia College and a former editor-in-chief of The Columbia Review. Currently, he is one of Columbia’s Henry Evans Fellows, and will begin a book project in the British Museum in spring 2021 that studies contemporary visual culture, the curatorial imagination, and the poetics of the museum.