Interview by John Wisniewski

Lee Martin

Lee Martin is the Pulitzer Prize Finalist author of The Bright Forever, and four other novels: Quakertown, River of Heaven, Break the Skin, and  Late One Night. His other books are the memoirs, Such a Life, From Our House, and Turning Bones; and the short story collection, The Least You Need to Know. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he was the winner of the 2006 Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching.

JW: What was the being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize like, Lee?

Lee Martin: Being a finalist for The Bright Forever was pretty amazing. The news came as a complete shock to me. My editor didn’t even tell me that the book had been nominated. To know that this quiet little novel rose to the top, along with books by E.L. Doctorow and the winner, Geraldine Brooks, told me that I’d written something that struck a chord with readers. It also gave me faith that if a writer keeps paying attention to the work, the journey can take him or her to some pretty incredible places.

I write to make sense of things, to take something unsettled, and unsettling, whether from my own experience or from news stories or from the world at large, and to dramatize it…

JW: What was the critical response to “The Bright Forever?”

Lee Martin: The critical response to “The Bright Forever” was fairly good. We had some signs early on that the book might be well-received. The Wall Street Journal listed it as a book to watch, it was a Book Sense pick, it was picked up by The Book of the Month Club, The Doubleday Book Club, and The Literary Guild, and it got fairly good pre-pub reviews. Kirkus was less than enthusiastic.

JW:  Any favorite authors?

Lee Martin:  I have too many favorite authors to name here, but I’ll say that Kent Haruf, Richard Ford, and Tobias Wolff were big influences for me.

JW:  What may inspire you to write?

Lee Martin:  I write to make sense of things, to take something unsettled, and unsettling, whether from my own experience or from news stories or from the world at large, and to dramatize it in a way that allows me to think more deeply about it. What causes me to first put words on the page is a desire to figure out something about human behavior, or as, Faulkner calls it, “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

JW: When did you begin writing, and why did you choose to become an author?

Lee Martin: I was always in love with language and with storytelling. I wrote at an early age and went through that teenage phase of writing tortured love poems before finally settling on fiction. I didn’t take a creative writing class until I was an undergraduate and the professor, a graduate of the Iowa Writing workshop, made me aware that with hard work and a little luck I might be able to have a career as a teacher and a writer. I’ve been blessed to have this come true. I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to say something about the world and its people, something that I hoped would speak to readers.

JW:  What will your next book be about, if you can tell us?

Lee Martin:  I’m actually working on a couple of new novels, one about the first woman executed by hanging in the United States (she was convicted on very circumstantial evidence of murdering her husband in 1845), and one about a death in a small town that opens up questions of family and devotion for a number of the residents. I also have a craft books, Telling Stories, coming out early this summer.

JW: What does your book tell us about human nature, and life?

Lee Martin:  My books are interested in the points of connection between people, no matter their gender, their race, their social class. I hope my books say that we’re all connected. We’re all just a step away becoming the person we think we’re nothing like.

JW: What lies in the future for you, Lee?

Lee Martin:  As for what lies in the future, I’m nearing retirement age (I’m 61), but I’m still excited about teaching, so I’ll keep going with that as long as I think I have something to bring to the table that will be helpful for writers. And I want to be able to write a little every day, to paraphrase Issac Dinesen, without hope, without despair.

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