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September 21, 2012 | Fiction, Interview

An Interview with Michael Martone

Matthew Baker

An Interview with Michael Martone photo

In 2010, Michael Martone began conducting a series of interviews. Each of these interviews was written under the pen name Matthew Baker, each of these interviews was titled “An Interview with Michael Martone,” and each of these interviews was with himself, Michael Martone. For each interview, Martone wrote Matthew Baker’s questions, then wrote Michael Martone’s answers to those questions. Martone then published these interviews—some as “nonfiction,” most simply as “interviews”—in a variety of literary magazines, ranging from Meridian to Ninth Letter to Chicago Review. In each magazine, the contributor’s note for Matthew Baker—Martone’s “interviewer”—read: “Matthew Baker is currently studying in the MFA program at Vanderbilt University, where he is the founding editor of Nashville Review.”

My name is Matthew Baker. In 2010, I was studying in the MFA program at Vanderbilt University, where I was the founding editor of Nashville Review.

Michael Martone has since admitted he chose to appropriate my identity for his  “interviewer” while trolling through online literary magazines—when he spotted my photo on Nashville Review’s website, Martone said, he saw “a bit of [himself] in [me],” and “right away” thought to himself, “Michael, that’s your interviewer.” Martone did not ask my permission—neither before writing the interviews, nor before publishing them. I did not realize I’d been “interviewing” Martone until the ninth interview had been published—a friend sent me a link to Devil’s Lake’s “An Interview with Michael Martone,” which featured, alongside the interview, photos both of Martone and of me—Martone had downloaded a photo of me from Facebook (I’ve since changed my privacy settings) and had forwarded it along to Devil’s Lake’s staff.

I was a fan of Martone’s work—I had read both Michael Martone, his collection of fictional contributor’s notes originally published as nonfiction (among actual contributor’s notes at the back of literary magazines), and The Blue Guide to Indiana, his collection of fictional travel articles—and so, instead of seeking legal recourse, I took a bus from Nashville to Tuscaloosa, took a taxi to Martone’s house (it turns out I’m equally adept when it comes to internet stalking—I found Martone’s home address after only three or four minutes of googling), approached Martone where he was weeding the flowers around his front porch, and asked him if I could interview him—actually interview him—here now at his house.

After Martone had taken off his gardening gloves and agreed to be interviewed, and after Martone’s wife had come out onto the porch and spotted his pile of uprooted weeds and shrieked and then chased him away from her flowers (the “weeds” Martone had been weeding, it turned out, were actually white flowers; “I’ve never seen such weed-looking flowers, before—I really thought that they were weeds,” Martone said), and after Martone had taken me and a couple glasses of whiskey into his study, the walls of which he’d painted with blackboard paint and were covered with notes and sketches and bits of stories written in blue and yellow chalk, I, Matthew Baker, asked Michael Martone some questions. This—what follows—is what he had to say for himself.

 

Baker: In a number of “my” interviews with you, you mention your friend Paul French—in one interview, French is an American poet living in Japan; in another, French is a physicist who teaches with you at the University of Alabama and who collaborates with you on “thermal art” installments; in another, French is the founder of a band called AVALANCHE that only performs cover songs by fictional bands.

But, of course, Paul French does not exist.

Martone: It’s not the case that Paul doesn’t exist—

Baker: Would it be more accurate to say, instead, that Paul French was a pen name used by Isaac Asimov for his Lucky Starr novels, a pen name later appropriated by you and used in “my” interviews as a synonym for Michael Martone? That the Paul Frenchs in “my” interviews are actually placeholders for you, for Michael Martone?

Martone: Yes, that’s more the case. Before going to Johns Hopkins—before I became a writer of fictions—I lived in Kyoto for several years as a poet. And AVALANCHE is my band—I’m the lead singer, and also the drummer, on AVALANCHE’s three albums. Have you heard our latest album, Kaonashi? I have it here on LP. We can listen to it, if you’d like.

Baker: In “my” interview with you in McSweeney’s you said, “Paul [French] wrote a novel called The Numberless, which he self-published in a shed on his parents’ farm just south of Fort Wayne. Each page is nailed to one of the walls or the windows of this smallish tool shed. They’re not in any order—the pages aren’t numbered in any way. But the walls are wallpapered with them, the windows are plastered, the pages hang from the rafters.” Does the shed exist?

Martone: The shed exists. On, of course, my parents’ farm. It’s still there today—each year I use a bit of my research budget here at [the University of] Alabama to send our first-year MFAs to Fort Wayne on a chartered bus. A few at a time, they go into the shed. After they’ve read the novel, they come out of the shed to try some of my mother’s goat milk ice cream. The MFAs always love my mother’s ice cream, but don’t have much to say about the shed. My parents’ farm is on 1050 N, between 450 E and 500 E—in Fort Wayne, all of the roads are numbered, like the pages of a book.

Baker: But unlike the pages of The Numberless. Why publish it in a shed? As opposed to other novels with unnumbered pages, such as Composition No. 1, Marc Saporta’s book in a box?

Martone: It’s not the same, having the pages in a box. It wouldn’t be the same even hanging the pages of The Numberless from the wall of a museum. My concept, for The Numberless, came from arcade games. Do you remember arcade games? This was an 80’s thing, so maybe you were too young. Arcade games were these machines the size of a closet—you could play videogames on them. But on each machine, you could only play one game. A videogame console like the Wii is like a record player—any LP I own, I can put it in my record player and play a song from that LP; any videogame I own, I can put it in the Wii downstairs and play it. But arcade games were more like a jukebox—a jukebox with only one song. You’d put in your quarter, and you could only play that one song: Space Invaders, or Pac-Man, or Tron

Baker: I thought Tron was a fictional arcade game—from the film Tron.

Martone: It was fictional when Tron was filmed, but became nonfictional after the film Tron was released. The arcade game Tron crossed over, from fiction to nonfiction—the same way fictional words in novels will sometimes cross over, become nonfictional, become a functional part of the English language. “Chortled,” for instance, from Through the Looking-Glass.

In “your” interviews that I wrote, of course, you were crossing over in the other direction—crossing over from the nonfictional you, sitting in your apartment in Nashville, to the fictional you I’d imagined and put onto the page.

You wouldn’t just stand at an arcade game, though. Some of them—After Burner, Sinistar, Gundam Senjō no Kizuna —you’d have to actually climb into it. To play After Burner—to “read” its story—you’d climb into it, sit in the cockpit, and grab the joystick—your floor was the arcade game’s floor, your ceiling its ceiling. That was part of the story: being there, in that room.

That’s what I was after with The Numberless. I wanted to write a story that a reader would actually have to walk into. To be inside of. A story bigger than its reader—a story that could become, briefly, the reader’s ceiling and walls and floor. The reader’s entire world. It wasn’t just a gimmick—it was tied to the content of the story. It’s part of what The Numberless was about: being there, in that shed.

Baker: Have you written any “room fictions” since?

Martone: In 2009 the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea hosted an exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s work. I’ve been a Kusama enthusiast since the 90’s—Cosmic Space (TWBBAA) especially, and Self Portrait—and so that semester when I was in Brooklyn visiting my friend Jack Dowland, he took me into the city to see Kusama’s exhibit.

Kusama had one piece there that she’d built for the exhibit itself: Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, what the curators of the gallery were calling an “infinity room.” One of the gallery’s rooms was empty—white walls, white ceiling, gray floor—and at the end of the room sat what looked like a small house. The house’s front was white, with a single door in the front of it, with a single metal handle. This white house was Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity. About twenty people were in line to go into it, and even as Dowland and I stepped into line, more people were stepping into line behind us. One of the curators of the gallery, dressed in a black suit and a black dress shirt, stood at the doorway with a pocket watch—each of us were only allowed to go into the piece for ninety seconds, to keep the line moving. If they hadn’t had that curator there, I don’t think it would have moved at all—I don’t think anyone ever would have come out of it, once they were inside. It was sort of the visual arts equivalent of Incandenza’s Infinite Jest (IV) / Infinite Jest (V).

Kusama is mesmerizing, by the way, in person. In the 90’s, in Venice, Kusama built a series of pumpkin sculptures—yellow with black polka dots—and then, at her exhibit, sat with her pumpkins and presided over them in a yellow-and-black-polka-dotted cape and hat. Kusama also built an artificial garden in Los Angeles and then—

Baker: What was in the “infinity room”? At the gallery in Chelsea?

Martone: You step into the room, and the black-suited curator shuts the door. You’re in a room the size of a small house, with mirrors for walls and mirrors for ceiling, standing on a slab of black stone, in the dark. It’s not lit—you can’t see your own body, let alone Dowland’s where he’s standing next to you. What you can see are golden lights the shape of cylinders. The surface of the mirrors is black, and the lights are reflected in the surface of them, seem to be hanging in the distance—some just beyond your reach, some entire neighborhoods away, beyond where the actual walls of the “infinity room” are, past Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen and even the Upper West Side. And there are no actual lights. You’re unsure where the lights are coming from—how many are being reflected in the mirrors, and how many are just reflections of reflections—because there are no actual lights in the room. Kusama has somehow arranged the lights and the mirrors to create the illusion of being in an infinite space with an infinite number of lights, while the actual lights are somewhere outside of the room entirely. You only know where Dowland is standing because of the outline of him—you can’t see Dowland’s actual body, just where the shape of his body blocks the mirrors’ reflecting lights.

I hadn’t worked with a “room fiction” since The Numberless, but after seeing Kusama’s piece in that gallery—after standing inside of it, with Dowland—I started thinking about them again. Kusama didn’t have to build a house for Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity—she could have created the same sort of illusion on the wall of the gallery, as a painting or a photograph. But it was a different experience, being inside that 3D piece instead of looking at a 2D piece on a wall—that’s what was so dizzying, was being surrounded by it, forgetting yourself, the piece becoming your entire reality.

I’ve been working on a bigger project since. On the outskirts of Tuscaloosa there’s an abandoned carton factory. Even the teenagers have tired of it—they’ve already graffitied every inch of the factory—the walls, the windows, they’re covered with neon words and symbols: “PROSTITUTE OF THE MIND,” “SHOVEL + FACE,” “WITH AIR ON AIR.” So I have the factory to myself, when I go there. Don’t mention any of this to my wife, by the way—she wouldn’t like it if she knew I was out hopping barbed wire fences, walking hundred-year-old metal catwalks littered with broken glass. A few weeks ago I tore my pants on the fence, and I had to tell her I’d done it helping Paul French clean out his garage.

Baker: And what do you do, in the factory? Are you “publishing” in the factory in the same way you did The Numberless—pinning unnumbered pages to the walls?

Martone: No. I wouldn’t want to cover up the other text in the factory—what I think of as the “graffiti novel.” The way I’m publishing my story—the way I’m binding it—is much different than the way I did it in my parents’ shed. I can’t say yet how I’m doing it, though—I’d like readers to be able to experience it without any preconceptions.

Baker: Does the factory have a title?

Martone: Not yet. Its working title is Tête-à-tête, but that won’t be its actual title— Tête-à-tête is just sort of a placeholder.

Baker: What other pen names have you used, besides “Matthew Baker”?

Martone: I’m glad you asked that. No other interviewer has ever asked me that—not even myself, interviewing myself. And I’ve thought for a while I should make some sort of public inventory.

So here they are: my fictional interviews, I publish under your name, Matthew Baker. I’ve published fictional poems under the name Neal Bowers, fictional stories under the names Christian Piers, Jonah Ogles, Arin Fisher, Sarah Mignin, and Matthew Douglas McCabe, fictional nonfiction under the username zzxyzz [on Wikipedia.org], fictional advertisements under the name Klemm Co., and fictional songs with the band under the name AVALANCHE.

But that’s been a convention in music for decades—a convention since The Beatles. David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth weren’t expected to publish as Byrne et al.—they published as Talking Heads. Richard David James doesn’t publish as Richard David James—he publishes as Aphex Twin. Sean Jean Combs published as Puff Daddy, then P. Diddy, now Diddy. In music, you’re expected to have a stage name. That’s part of the allure of it—the musicians’ personas.

In our country, a musician can make a living as a musician. Not by selling albums—most musicians don’t make their living from record sales—but by touring. By playing their music live. Musicians don’t have to get gigs teaching intro to music courses to undergraduate college students to pay the rent on their apartments—they pay their rent with their art. Writers, however, have to get gigs teaching intro to writing courses to undergraduate college students. That’s the best a writer can do, in this country. And I think that’s largely because writers are so uptight. It’s not fun to see a writer reading their work live—our writers know nothing of storytelling. All our writers know is how to string together some metaphors, how to avoid using adverbs. They can’t captivate an audience in the same way that storytellers could once captivate an audience. They can’t captivate an audience in the same way that Lady Gaga can. Our literature, in this country, is some of the most unentertaining in the history of our species.

Nobody’s paying $50 a seat to see even George Saunders reading live. Nobody’s paying $50 a seat to see Michael Martone. But what if I published under the name The Thief Vagabond of Worchester, and what if at readings I wore costumes as odd and whimsical as David Bowie’s? What if George Saunders published under the name Cat Killers, and what if Cat Killers and The Thief Vagabond of Worchester went on tour together, headlining readings opened by local writers? Our shows, they would be sellouts.

 

Baker: Which meaning of the word?

Martone: My favorite of Asimov’s Lucky Starr books was always Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter. In the book, Lucky’s brother is abducted by aliens from Jupiter and replaced with a lookalike imposter. Lucky has to go to Spondee, Jupiter’s sixtieth moon, to try to bring his brother back.

What I loved in the book was this one image: this image of Lucky’s ship—after it’s landed on Jupiter, before Lucky makes his way to Spondee—Lucky’s ship on Jupiter, at night, with each of Jupiter’s sixty-three white and blue and yellow moons hanging in the sky above him like stars. Mneme, Autonoe, Themisto, Thebe, and so on—the moons are of various sizes. That’s how I think of my pen names—the alter egos that I use. I think of my readers as being the planet Jupiter. Sometimes I prefer to be the sun—to send my words to the reader myself—but other times I prefer to bounce it off of other bodies, to send words to the reader off the face of one of the moons.

It colors the light in interesting ways.

Baker: But you’ve created, not just fictional Matthew Bakers and Neil Bowerses and Christian Pierses, but even fictional Michael Martones. In your fictional contributor’s notes, say, or “my” fictional interviews.

Martone: Yayoi Kusama lives in Tokyo, in, by choice, a mental hospital. Since she was a child, Kusama has had suicidal impulses. I didn’t know that until recently, and when I heard it, it made me sad, thinking of her wearing the yellow-and-black-polka-dotted cape and hat she’d made, sitting among the yellow-and-black-polka-dotted pumpkins she’d sculpted—being surrounded by all of that beauty; being, by the patterns on her clothing, even part of that beauty—but still wanting to destroy herself. My impulse is the opposite one. It’s an impulse, not to destroy myself, but to create myself, to recreate myself, again and again and again and again.

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