Interview with Andrew Martin, Author of Cool For America

Andrew Martin’s recently released collection of stories, Cool For America, continues the deep perceptiveness and lethal humor of his acclaimed 2018 novel, Early Work. Martin’s writing also conveys a deep love for his characters no matter how compromised they are (and they’re all very, very compromised). I was so glad to be able to talk with him—a bright spot during the ongoing tragedies of 2020. 

This type of interview usually starts in a writing-craft vacuum—like, “how do you approach editing?”—but that seems totally bizarre at the moment. So: how are you feeling right now day-to-day, and how are you feeling about the book?

It’s a funny feeling: it’s my second book, and the world has conspired to demand that I not obsess over how it’ll be received, over what it’s going to do for my career. And on the other hand, of course, those thoughts are still there. It gets more complicated and more fraught when you’re so aware of what’s happening right now, but the book is genuinely fifth or sixth on my list of worries right now after Covid, racial injustice, the fireworks in our neighborhood that are terrifying my dog…

But really more than anything I’m just feeling exhaustion after so many months of being on such high alert that part of me just wants to take a nap for the next six months. And because we’re experiencing so much of these crises on screens, all of it has a direct portal into your home all the time. Even if we’re past the worst of it here in New York, I’m going to be reading about everything as it happens in Texas and Arizona—there’s no escaping it.

But what’s helped me so much over the last few years has been when I can just get into the pocket and actually write. In some ways the Trump years have been an exercise in trying to do that, and these last few months have in certain ways been a hyper-drive version of it, even if it’s very difficult to think about my own writing and things that aren’t related to everything that’s happening in the world.

Part of what makes these stories so excellent is the attention they give to the gap between the grandeur a person wants to attach to their feelings vs. the reality of how banal their thoughts and feelings actually are. And that persists even now, even in very dramatic and serious circumstances: you go to a protest and can’t quite hear the speaker through the megaphone, and you wonder if you’re having the right feelings, feelings of the magnitude that the occasion demands. 

I love thinking about that. There’s been so much good writing about the current protests and racial justice movements, and I thought I needed a break from all of it, just so you don’t go numb. But then I read the Luke Mogelson piece in the New Yorker, the granular day-by-day account of Minneapolis during the protests, and he captured what you said so well, just by noticing the ups and downs, the periods when there would be these lulls, or noticing the particular behavior of individual protestors, each of whom has a particular story and reason they’re there. It’s such a classic novelist trick, and something I believe in so deeply and want to keep trying to explore. The classic example is War and Peace, when Nicolai is trying to find the battle and gets knocked into a ditch and then wakes up and wonders, “was that it? Was that the battle?” And that’s how I feel most of the time. [Laughs]

But what I do really try to capture in the book, and what I’m so drawn to as a writer, are the moments when things do click, but also trying to make it clear that those are brief moments, brief respites. As a human I find it very difficult to remember that life has these peaks and valleys: when I’m low I feel very low and it’s hard to remember that a moment of connection with other people is around the corner, and my instinct as a writer is to try to capture that aspect of experience. As a reader I feel loved and paid attention to by the writer when they capture those banal moments of difficulty or of boredom or failing to connect because then I think, okay, I’m not failing at life. And then that sets up the moments when characters are at a concert and for a second do feel connected to the world or get high and feel like they do know how the world works for a second.

And those moments almost always come from somewhere a character wasn’t expecting, and that unexpectedness can be what makes them so transformative.

Yes. And one story in the book, “Attention,” is trying to convey what it’s like to live in these last few years of the Trump administration, living through this very mediated screen life. I’m really proud of that story, but I do think it’s very much about frustration and stasis, and not knowing how to get absorbed into any moment. During the time I was writing that story my partner Laura and I went to an amazing protest at Logan Airport, after Trump announced his ban of Muslims traveling to the US. We’re at the airport when we don’t have to be, in the baggage area, and Elizabeth Warren is there, and we are doing something, and it’s weird but it’s kind of magic, like the world felt different and connected for this brief period. But my instinct was to not include that episode, or a fictionalized version of it, for the character in the story because it would have felt like a false dawn. So yes, I’m always thinking about how to express what it feels like to live in this kind of limbo.

I’m so glad you brought that story up, because I’m very interested in how it invested in summary in contrast to scene. In most discussions of craft, “the scene” is more or less venerated; to write well is to write good scenes. But in this story you invested in long almost Henry-James-like summaries, both to convey a kind of office experience of nondescript time-passing where there aren’t many indelible moments, and to convey the broader course of a person’s life and how she thinks about herself. What was your approach to summary in “Attention”?

That story was really a formal experiment, an attempt to capture a longer span of time in a person’s life than I’m used to doing, and I did feel like I needed to use different tools to make it work. There are some scenes in the story with conversations and events happening in time, but then in order to get the scope I needed I felt like I needed to zoom out and explain what a character does over time. It’s been a kind of hobby horse with me lately, refuting the obsession that everything has to be in scene—it’s become a cliché of writing workshops in a way that I think is limiting. Because everything doesn’t have to be in a scene. And so much great literature doesn’t conform to that rule. I get why that instruction exists, because often when you read beginning writing it’s all summary, but I think once you’ve got the training wheels off, there’s no reason you can’t have a paragraph explaining what a character’s perception of her life has been over the last couple of weeks or years. That’s part of the experience of life, and of one’s understanding of oneself, and part of the writer’s understanding of the character’s situation. Sometimes we make it harder for ourselves than we have to.

That story and “Childhood, Boyhood, Youth” are the two most recent stories in the book, and they were both deliberate attempts to do something formally different than what the other stories in the book do. Subject matter-wise they’re not that different, but they both take on larger spans of time and they’re both very much about how a person remembers things, the way one conceives of oneself at different points in a life. And I thought that was a useful contrast to have as I sat down to finish the book.

I think that’s such a feature of lived experience–trying to establish an idea of the kind of person you believe yourself to be standing slightly independent of any incident: the bar fight or important conversation. These stories fill in that part of experience that’s often missing from a lot of fiction.  

But it’s tough, too, because I’m so drawn to the “all killer, no filler” scenarios that I find myself becoming impatient when I slow down. But then, so much of the literature I love is a lot slower, so it feels necessary to try to develop that as a way of conceiving of things.

That love of the tight scenario makes me think about the way you use endings. There are several stories here that end right when another writer would be tempted to get into the details of a denouement. For example you leave the title story right when a new romantic fling is suddenly moving in to the main character’s house with a stack of books on top of a waffle iron, and you leave “No Cops” just as a bar fight begins. There’s a sense of being very interested in the moment a person loses balance but not very interested in the wipeout. How do you approach finding that right ending, editing until you find the exact last moment when after this, we know enough? 

That ends up being a huge part of the writing process for me. For a lot of those stories, writing the first draft wasn’t that hard compared to the later work. I can follow a woman emailing with an ex-boyfriend and worrying about it fairly easily, but then the story is given its real meaning almost always in the ending. It’s been a long process to understand this about myself—for many of these stories, because I was always angling for the perfect pithy ending, I would end the stories too soon. And then it almost becomes a gimmick, where you’re almost arbitrarily choosing a sentence to end on in the middle of dialogue, sometimes avoiding something else coming that’s more difficult. So the biggest revelations for a few of those stories came when I had worked on them for months and thought they were done, but then I got responses from other people, or felt myself, that there was something missing or not right yet. And then often the work was, alright, keep writing, what’s the next scene and the next scene and the next? And see if you find something there.

The best example of that is “With The Christopher Kids,” where I had written the two adult children with their mother at Christmas, and the mother opens the present of the gemstone from the daughter and says, “a rock, how thoughtful.” And it’s pithy and it’s sharp and you think, “boom, I’m out, I figured it out.” But then I felt it was too easy. And so then I wrote the epilogue, and for me the epilogue is the whole story. It’s one of my favorite stories in the book because it ends up being about the cycle of substance use, and the cycle to always come back to the scene of the crime and the inability to get out of the groove of some behavior. Finding that right ending let me find that way in that I couldn’t have found otherwise.

Your writing about substance use is so interesting to me. There’s obviously been so much writing about drinking and using drugs, and almost always there’s a sense of rebellion against a school marm somewhere, or brief periods of transcendence despite the consequences, or some doomed majestic grandeur something or other, but here and in Early Work there’s something I find so true that I haven’t seen many other places, of substance use as just kind of a grind: like having to show up for a job or being hounded by credit card debt. No romance, not even that much fun. How did you approach conveying the experience of drinking too much and doing too many drugs that was different than what you had read in the past? 

The honest answer, with that and in general, is to try to go back to first principles and write the world as I’ve observed it and as I’ve lived in it. Part of that involves a pushback against the ways things have been depicted elsewhere. And some part of why I myself have sometimes drunk too much or done too many drugs is because of the world of Kerouac or Hunter Thompson or Denis Johnson. Even though those are very much cautionary tales if you read them carefully and with any kind of nuance, and even if it’s only the characters who are advocating for that behavior, you can see that it’s not a happy way to live. And the truth is, for serious drinking in particular, it becomes a job.

I’ve had my rough periods, but for people I’ve known who are very serious alcoholics, you might go over and the night’s activities are entirely about accommodating this disease. How are we going to get enough booze? How are we going to get from point A to point B because we can’t drive, possibly can’t even walk, then how are we going to recover the next day, and then how are we going to find a social excuse to do it again that night? That’s been my behavior at certain points of my life and it’s ugly. But I’m not writing The Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas; the nuance and specificity and clarity of these particular people who I’m writing about is the goal. And you can walk around living that way for quite a while and keep functioning and keep doing other things. Some people have too much to drink and they die that night, and some people overdose on fentanyl that night. But my experience, for what it’s worth, has been more that you keep on kind of finding your way through, and either you recover, you get to normal and find ways to cope that don’t kill you. Or you don’t.

And substances do seem so useful for these characters, because so many of them just can’t let go of knowing what good taste is and when it’s violated, or seeing when other people are acting falsely. Leslie wishes she could tolerate the banal reading given by the guy she’s sleeping with—

The horror!

 [Laughs] — but without drinking, something important to her would be lost if, with all of her faculties fully intact, she stopped insisting that being trite and cliched is wrong. And so drinking works every time—drinking always lets you smudge over the present moment when you just can’t bear to live it on its own terms. 

It’s a utility function. It’s a classic coping mechanism when you’re bored with other people or frustrated with how the world is. I have a lot of quarrels with David Foster Wallace, but this is one of his big subjects and so it’s hard to avoid him. And it’s hard to avoid the corner he describes, when you’re someone who’s used to a certain kind of stimulation or discourse that lets you feel like you’re better than the world, that you deserve something different, and it’s really dangerous to feel that way. Ultimately you have to make your peace with the fact that no matter how many books you’ve read and how many movies you’ve seen, you have to get along with the world as it is, or else you’re going to be miserable.

Right, and it seems like that is actually the most dangerous thing. Substances might be the follow-on symptom that ends up killing you, but that underlying attitude of separation, that persistent inability to be satisfied with the way things are is really the disease. 

I think so. I mean, how many therapists have said, “maybe you should exercise every day!” [Laughs.] My therapist said recently, “maybe you should make a to-do list,” and I was like, “Oh yeah! Of course!” Most of the time we know what we need to do, but for some reason it’s harder for some people to do those things to stay healthy and stay attached to the world.

I am going to refrain from asking you “what are you working on next?” But you mentioned that for some of these stories you got the premise for them down fairly easily, and I’m wondering what kind of work you’re approaching right now that’s intimidating or makes you break out in a sweat in an exciting way. 

One of the hardest things for me to overcome is the kind of grand-trumpets-and-fanfare “I’m working on a novel” feeling. “Chapter One…” I find it almost impossible to work in that way. So the way I approached the first novel I wrote—and some of these stories pre-date the novel and some were written simultaneously—I find works better: finding characters, finding situations that feel interesting, and then applying a kind of steady effort regardless of the form. That’s exciting to me. I’m trying to remind myself of that.

I keep notebooks, both digital and physical, and I fill them with ideas on people I know and premises that I’m excited by. What I would usually do then is sit down and write a short story. But if my brain is telling me I need to write a novel, I keep rejecting those ideas or putting them aside. But the two Leslie stories in the collection were written completely separately from and before the novel, and they were just things I was excited to be working on. And then as I started writing that novel, I hit a point where I thought, okay, there’s going to be this character, this complicated woman, and I thought, oh, I already know the life of a person like that from writing those stories. And I thought, what would happen if she were here?

And then the world started to build itself based on doing the work. So it can be hard to remind myself that it’s this intuitive organic process. Maybe I want it to be the case that I could sit down and say, okay, it’s the novel now, I have this outline written out with all these ideas laid out. But the momentum of the thing has to carry itself, and maybe that has to involve starting at a smaller unit. But, on the other hand, I don’t think it works to just string together a few short stories and call it a novel.

I think someone looking at these stories could think that parts of that novel were carved up into stories, but the two projects were really on parallel tracks. The ideas in them fed each other, but they were produced very differently: the novel was written straight through, it was always one thing, and the stories were always each their own thing formally.

When you read interviews like this one, about writing and editing, are there parts of your experience that you consistently find missing?  

One thing I learned that might be useful is that starting to have your work read more widely in a published book changes your conception of yourself as a writer and your own work. Obviously it’s wonderful and quite literally a dream come true to have a book in the world, and to have strangers telling you about it and having feelings pro and con—it’s what I’ve always wanted to do with my life. But I don’t see people mention enough, and I think it would make me feel better if I saw people saying it more: that publishing has disrupted my inner life and my writing life. It’s disruptive to think about my work in the world, and to think about the fact that at least some people I don’t know will see it and have opinions about it. I find it harder to operate, harder to take risks even in the privacy of my own notebook.

And that dovetails with talking about the last few years of politics and social media, the sense that the personal is political and anything you say in any form could end up on the internet and be taken as a fatal example of your character. But I really don’t like the conversation that happens among older, traditional-minded people about self-censorship and the death of… whatever. It seems like it’s up to us to figure it out.  Your job as an artist is to continue to take risks, and if you fuck up, it’s other people’s job to tell you that you did. You don’t have an absolute right to a public square, you don’t have an absolute right to be an asshole. And I’ve been extremely grateful that my work has almost always been read generously and thoughtfully. And when it hasn’t been, there’s a lesson there, too.

For people early in their career and starting to publish more work, I think one of the hardest but most important things to do is maintain the sense of your inner voice and inner work that is not thinking about “what does the world want from me?” But, some writers I know don’t seem to see a divide between their public selves and their private writing selves, and some of them don’t know what I’m talking about when I talk about this sense of exposure.

And there are other writers who just say, “Yeah, I don’t look at anything, I just have to work. I just opt out.” Do you think about this stuff?

Of course. You used the phrase “in the pocket” earlier. I think in order to write well you really have to be in the dream that you’re trying to create in the mind of the reader, and nothing shrivels that dream more quickly than the thought, “how are they going to receive this? Or this? Or this?” I’m reluctant to make sports metaphors, but for all the overblown attention that the culture puts on professional sports, there is something genuinely moving about someone who can go into the pocket of that kind of absorption into the details of what they’re doing while being completely exposed to scrutiny while they’re doing it. I am still in the position of being a little surprised that people I don’t know are privy to the private things I wrote that have ended up in a book. But when that attention becomes something you know is awaiting your writing, it’s a different skill to maintain your intimate attention on what you’re making while holding away the knowledge that it’s going to be on display.  

A lot of the artists I really admire—the musicians or filmmakers or writers—are the ones who are really prolific. Because I think there’s some real joy in just continuing to produce. I usually go through phases. These stories and the novel, that was a few years of writing constantly, and that gave me enough stuff for two books. And now it’s been a couple years where I’ve written a bunch of stuff, but it’s not with that concentrated sense of really moving forward with a thing. I find that very frustrating, and I hope as I move through my career I might become someone who could put out a book every few years, partially just for the sense of, “alright, I did that and now I can move on to something else.” I can keep putting this material behind me so that I can keep moving on to new material.

Definitely. It often seems for those people that the work itself is a refuge, and maybe even a pleasure. There’s so much that’s so difficult and horrible about making work, and at the same time, it is a refuge from the constant attention-shattering of news and social media. That gathering together of attention is so difficult, but you can turn to it as a kind of pleasure in contrast to the other states of mind.  

And those prolific people seem to be able to already be working on the next thing, and to have changed into a person who is working on the next thing, by the time people are reacting to the previous book. They are able not to sweat people’s reaction to that earlier version of themselves.  

And that’s one of the nice things about this story collection. There are maybe a couple stories that I’m a little anxious about having certain people read, but for the most part it is really a past self. So I don’t feel protected exactly, but I don’t feel as attached if people don’t like it. I think I can handle that more easily.

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