Chelsea Martin is easily one of the sweetest persons I know, as well as one of the funniest. She’s so quiet and seemingly unassuming, you don’t see it coming. It sneaks up on you, her humor. And then it infects you. Both of her collections — Everything Was Fine Until Whatever (Future Tense) and The Really Funny Thing About Apathy (Sunnyoutside) — are quietly hilarious books. But they’re also a little sad and a little lonely and completely unpredictable, which is what I like best, about the books, and about Chelsea. You can’t pin Chelsea Martin down or label her or even really describe her or her “work.” You just have to read it. Or talk to her. And even then, good luck. Originally this interview was a Gchat. 3 hours of Gchat. And part of me wanted to run it unedited. But the insecure, chicken part of me decided that would seem self-indulgent and bratty. So I cut it by half and put it in more standard interview format. But now you don’t see how I first beg Chelsea to do stand-up and later tell her she needs to write, direct, and star in her own films. Chelsea Martin is the type of person you truly believe can do anything she wants. And I want her to do everything.
Let’s start with comedy. You said in a previous interview that you’re influenced by comedians/comedy. In what way? And what comedians? I know you’ve mentioned liking Michael Ian Black...how does the comedy influence translate to your writing?
Well, I don’t remember what I was thinking saying that. But since I started doing readings, I’ve felt like if people don’t laugh during my reading, then I’ve failed. It’s a lot of pressure to be in front of people and I’m not very good at that type of thing. I need constant reassurance.
That’s interesting. I feel like that, too. Like I wanna make people laugh. But then you have the other people who say you shouldn’t have to make people laugh. Can it be a crutch? Or are we just so familiar with the feeling of being bored at readings that we want to make sure the audience is having a good time and the only way to know is to hear them laugh?
Yeah, I think it’s a crutch, maybe. But I also don’t really enjoy readings where I’m not laughing. I don’t see the point in hearing it read to me.
You have a great deadpan delivery that lends itself to humor. You’re so quiet, and yet so fucking hilarious.
It’s funny cos I try so hard to be expressive and everyone always gets deadpan.
That reminds me of the time we were at a strip club in Portland, after a reading with Kevin Sampsell and everyone, and we were all sitting there, eating chicken wings or something, and I remember Bryan Coffelt looking over at you and saying something like, “you’re not having a very good time, are you?” and I knew that you were...Do you get that reaction a lot?
Yeah! That’s a perfect example.
Is it annoying?
It makes me feel bad. It’s frustrating but I can see how it would be frustrating to be around someone who looks like they’re pissed.
Well, I think it’s just when people first interact with you. Pretty quick it’s easy to tell when you’re having a good time. Which, I’d say, is most of the time. Do you think this is part of the reason, though, that you were called “The West Coast Tao Lin”? Because he also has a very deadpan reading style and is hard to read emotionally? Or do you think it’s something about your writing?
Did someone call me that?
Yeah, I think so. I think like a year ago. Or maybe I made it up.
Ha. I’m trying to think of why someone would say that. Maybe we both seem like shy assholes.
Does your shyness translate to readings? Or do you feel more comfortable on stage?
Yeah, no, I fucking hate reading. Well, it’s not so bad while it’s happening. I enjoy the attention, and when I do well and the audience is laughing it’s really good. But I get super stressed out about it. I’ll stress out for days before a reading.
Do you write new stuff specifically for readings?
Sometimes. A big part of the problem recently is I feel like I read the same stuff at every reading. It’s humiliating.
Are you currently writing new stuff? What are you working on?
I have this half a manuscript and I don’t know where to take it. I’m doing some illustrations for it but I’m not sure why yet.
Have you shown it to anyone? Do you show people works-in-progress?
I’ve shown people pieces.
And are their reactions important to you? as far as how you continue with a project?
Um, not really, honestly. I think I was hoping they would pressure me to keep working on it.
I find most of the time when I show people stuff, I end up arguing with them anyway, against whatever they’re trying to help me with. Maybe it’s more a way to talk myself into what I want to do, you know? Or don’t want to do.
Yeah, I think you’re right.
So you mentioned doing illustrations...When you were growing up, were you mostly into art or writing or both? Did you feel you had a talent for one or the other?
I did a ton of writing and painting. But I never thought of it like I wanted to do something with it.
When/how did you decide to study it in college? Did you consider not going to college?
I wasn’t planning to go to college, but I applied for one art school that was close to me. It was a close call.
So you studied art or writing in college? or both?
I studied illustration, textiles and creative writing.
What do you think you’d be doing now if you hadn’t gone to art school?
I think I’d be working at Safeway. I had an “in” in my town.
Where did you grow up?
Clearlake, California. It’s 2 hours away from San Francisco. I think it’s like 10,000 people, but 9,050 are on welfare and 9,080 are on crack.
So how many people were in your graduating class?
And was it mostly poor white kids?
It’s pretty racially diverse actually. But yeah everyone is pretty poor.
Okay, so here’s my Marc Maron question: What were you like in middle school and high school? Were you awkward? Sporty? Druggie? Give me a sense of what you were like.
Okay, um, I’m wearing like gigantic raver swishy pants and a tight tank top with probably a rainbow on it. I have tons of eye makeup and tons of bracelets. I'm either eating lunch by myself or in the ceramics room with the art kids.
You sound like a slutty nerd.
No! I don’t know what I was.
Did you date? Did you have boyfriends?
I didn’t have any boyfriends until I was a senior. My first boyfriend was like 19 and lived in this house with his friends. He didn’t have a room though. He just, like, slept on their couch. He was basically homeless.
Sounds like my first husband.
He was really skinny and had straight brown hair that went to his butt and I thought he was SO HOT.
OMG, it is my first husband.
He looked like a prettier Alanis Morrisette. We dated for two months or something and he was like, crazy. He came to the high school with a wrench and tried to hit somebody for flirting with his sister.
So was he a stoner? Were you? What sort of fun were you having then? Drinking? Pot?
I drank a lot. I’ve never been a stoner. I wish I had something more interesting for you...just alcohol.
And what were expectations of you? Like, from your parents? Were they strict?
There was never any expectation for me to do well, or be a certain way. But it’s not like my mom is shitty. I’ve always been trusted to make my own decisions.
It was just your mother and you, right? Your mother was young when she had you?
My mom was 18 when I was born.
Did you have close relationships with girls growing up?
No girlfriends, really. Sometimes I would have one for a little while but girls are crazy. I’ve always done better with boys. I would say 8 out of my 10 best friends are male. But I do get really excited when I find a girl I like.
Do you think males related easier to you, too? Were girls intimidated or...
I’m scared of girls. You never know what they're thinkgin. And I think I come off like an asshole when I’m nervous. My experience with girls was always manipulative and confusing. When I’d have a girlfriend we would literally like try to make some other girl think she was our friend or something. And I was dumped by girls a lot. They would just stop liking me, and it was really painful. But boys aren’t really like that and in high school they’re mostly just trying to impress girls, so it was much easier to be friends with them.
God, that’s awful. That’s the worst part of girl friendships, for sure. It’s like a Judy Blume book she never wrote.
Yeah, girls are fucked. It’s better now, though. There are lots of women I like now.
Did you read much then? What were you reading?
I mostly read books my mom recommended or things that were referenced in songs I liked.
That’s an interesting way to come to reading. Can you remember any examples of song references?
Well, Morrissey likes Oscar Wilde, so I got into Oscar Wilde.
Let’s get to how you started publishing online. Or got into the Internet indie lit scene. Haha.
Hmm ok. I feel like I should have studied for this.
The first time I saw you you were putting a bunch of condoms on your leg in a video.
That’s right! That was for Blake’s website.
Did you come up with that concept or did he? Is Blake a perv?
He said contributors had to do one of two things. Um, something like put a piece of clothing on or write something on your face maybe.
For what site?
For Lamination Colony. I remember Brandon told me to submit to that site.
Brandon Scott Gorrell? Were you guys close?
Yeah. We used to email each other a lot. And we did some projects together.
I’m looking at “everything was fine until whatever” and it’s not like most of the stuff in here was published online.
I haven’t published much online.
But you still got attention somehow...
The condom video. Ha.
The second time I remember being aware of you was seeing your "McDonald's Is Impossible" video online. I think that was your thesis? I think I sort of fell a little in love with your persona watching that video. And I doubt I'm alone. How did you come up with that and how long did it take you to write it and were you happy with it? Also, how long did it take you to memorize?
I did that for my "senior show." It took me about a week to memorize, which is the total time I knew I was going to be doing a reading. (I was planning on doing an art show and changed my mind a week before.) It probably took a week to write it. I was obsessed with Zeno's paradoxes at the time. I was happy with the piece (but I hate the video). I'm still happy with it. It was a good idea.
Wow. So what else? HTML GIANT. You were a contributor at one time...do we wanna go there?
Hahaha. Doesn’t seem very interesting. But we could.
How long did you post on there? Not long?
I definitely had under ten posts. I didn’t really like doing it, honestly.
You were too controversial.
Remember when Kendra would post pics of her boobs?
Oh, that was the heyday! Now it’s pretty boring.
Except for Jimmy.
Yeah, I was gonna say, the only time I look is when Jimmy posts his shit on Facebook.
Right, okay, let’s wrap this up by bitching about AWP. This was your first year, right?
I thought the book fair was like, whatever, and everyone seemed really distracted.
That’s your book title.
People are more distracted now than in the past. They all got big shit goin’ on, Chelsea!
Well la dee da! Just, what’s the point of going if everyone is too on edge to hang out?
To have sex, Chelsea. No, I’m just kidding. Haha. No one has sex. It’s a myth. And you read?
Yeah, I did a reading that was kind of awful. I had fun, but my expectations were different. And Ian was there and I always hate that because a lot of my stuff is about him.
Sing it, sister. Does he mind? He seems pretty chill. He seems like he’d be fine with whatever.
He minds a lot less than I would, but he feels weird about it. What I write about him tends not to be the good stuff, you know.?
Yeah, I think it was good you had him with you. You don’t want to face AWP the first time alone. Or, ever.
I’d probably have followed you everywhere if I had been alone.
That would have been fine. I feel like if anyone made it this far into our interview, they should get a prize.
So tell us, Chelsea. Where do we go from here? “We” as a group and then you as an individual? (answer this as randomly as I asked)
"We" are going to log off and then "I" am going to eat egg rolls.
Thanks, Chelsea. You’re the best.