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Michael Martone's Double-Wide World Tour of Indiana

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-09-22


When you go to see Michael Martone's book reading (Oct. 3rd at the Firefly, Oct. 4th at the History Center), he'll encourage you, against modern protocol, to please leave your cell phones "on." After having busted some undergrads for texting during a recent reading, Martone decided that he wanted a piece of that action, and told the forced-to-be-there students to include him in the text discussion. They did, of course, and became much more engaged than they had imagined. Martone now gives his cell phone number out during his readings, taking full advantage of this new form of communication.
For a renowned writer who's done pretty well in the old model of publishing, Martone enthusiastically embraces the new and transformative technology of the computer era. The following is from a conversation we had last week, where we talked about book readings, fictional devices, and that great, historical, and exotic city that is the backdrop of much of his work — Fort Wayne.

Fort Wayne Reader: I've seen writers give book readings before and I've been disappointed more often than not, so I guess: Are you good?

Michael Martone: Very good. (interviewer laughs.) I am! I'm really conscious of the difference between writing something for the page and the writing that sounds really good presented out loud. And also — and you can thank North Side High School and the National Forensics League — when I went to school there I learned about the performance of Oral Interpretation. And I think it helps that a lot of the stuff I do is in the genre of "funny." A lot of people go to a reading, especially some poetry readings, that can be very profound and serious and yet it take a while to get into it.

FWR: I'm fascinated by the way you blend the autobiographical with the fictional — is there anybody you've read that's been an influence on that style? I don't know if you know the writer Luc Sante but recently I read his book The Factory of Facts and I couldn't help notice a few similarities.

MM: Definitely. I think of Luc Sante. Also, and especially when writing from the starting point of non-fiction, what interests me is a person like John McPhee. John McPhee can be incredibly journalistic in the old objective sense, and then he'll have an essay like "The Other John McPhee" where he'll go find another guy named John McPhee and travel around with him. Or even "In Search of Marvin Gardens", where it's obviously a fictional construct — I mean, it's a terrific essay, a non-fiction report on the changing economics of Atlantic City — so I think John McPhee is definitely like that.

But what I always go back to with this question has a lot to do with poets. In the creative writing programs in this country, there's an association called the AWP (Associated Writing Program), and it has a convention where papers get presented. And when the poets give their papers, they never get bogged down with what non-fiction and fiction writers get bogged down with. And that is, what is fiction, what is fact, what is journalistic, what is made up? But poets don't really worry about that. They just make poems.

FWR: I did a one man show in Fort Wayne recently, and during the performance I discovered an unusual thing started to happen — I was speaking things that I had written, and things that I believed, and yet the persona that I was presenting I couldn't actually say was me. And I find a similarity in a lot of your fiction. You do use your name a lot in your stories and yet it's impossible to pin down who you are.

MM: I can see that. I think it is also true in those earlier stories — you know, the story says it's narrated by Colonel Sanders, or the story is narrated by Alfred Kinsey — yet those were just convenient ways to sort of disguise that Michael Martone. And I guess I got to the point where I thought, Well, if "Alfred Kinsey" is a disguise for me, then why can't I have this character named "Michael Martone" that's also a disguise?

FWR: I read a great thing by Stephen King where he remembers his first great line — a memorable line that was all his. I wonder if you have anything similar? The reason I mention this is that I was re-reading one of your stories, the one about the father whose birthday is on Christmas and he goes out drinking alone, and there's that great line, "One of our Christmas traditions is to worry about my father."

MM: Well, I think that is one of those lines. And I think it goes back to what you said about the importance of giving a reading. When you're a writer and you come up with a line like that, that sounds good, you still don't know if it works. What's great about a reading is you'll say a line like that and you'll get a reaction that you can see from the audience, right there.

There's another line in an essay I use all the time. It has to do with when I graduated from Indiana University and my parents sold my bed. So the message was clear that I was not to come home. But of course I did. (Laughs.) Just to say that often, in a variety of ways: "My parents have sold my bed."

FWR: Do you come back to Fort Wayne frequently?

MM: I usually come back two or three times a year.

FWR: What do you think of the continual change in Fort Wayne's topography? I know that the Fort Wayne that exists in your mind is the one that will always be there, but the city never stops changing.

MM: Well, the nice thing about being a writer is that my Fort Wayne remains frozen in the late 60's, early 70's, when I first started noticing the city. But your question, what do I think of it, well, I've been thinking a lot about it. For a while I was doing for Fort Wayne Magazine a series that I was calling "The By-Pass Series." I just realized, when I turned 50 or so, that I always said I was from Fort Wayne, Indiana, but where I was really from was the US 30 by-pass. All of my significant family, life experiences took place on the by-pass. And I started thinking about the by-pass, the archaelogical strata of the by-pass. I remember when the McDonald's right across from what is now Glenbrook was being built — Glenbrook wasn't there. And I remember sitting in the parking lot when they built the K-Mart behind it. There was a place out there called the Gerber Haus, where I got my first swim lessons, and, of course, it's all gone. And my parents, their honeymoon was in a motel on the by-pass called the Johnny Appleseed Motel, which I think is where the farm machinery store is now. But that was their Honeymoon Hotel. (Laughs.)

FWR: I was thankful to read your story on Colonel Sanders ("Pieces," in Double Wide) because for years I could never understand how the Hobby House Restaurant was allowed to sell Kentucky Fried Chicken.

MM: That was the original plan — Colonel Sanders would go around and sell the recipe to restaurants and every time they sold a chicken he would get royalties. And of course the other thing about the Hobby House on Anthony is that a busboy there was Dave Thomas--and that's why that Wendy's on Anthony is such a sort of, special Wendy's. Because Dave so adored Colonel Sanders and the franchise idea that when he bought that property he wanted to have a little museum there. Which I think is great.

FWR: Do you have any opinion about the new ballfield?

MM: I've been following it only briefly. But it always amazed me that the idea of how to save your hometown — because American cities all have the same sort of economic tragedy — that the solutions are always the same. If you're going to have a major public works there. . .I have a fondness for trains and railroads and I like what's happened with the architectural firm moving into the Baker Street Station--I mean, I love that neighborhood and the downtown and I much would have preferred to put in a great trolley system. Just to keep those rails alive. If it's going to be completely entertainment value, well, why not think of it that way?

What's happened in our lifetime is the disappearance of public space. So there's no real identity — I mean, what is Fort Wayne? Well, Fort Wayne is the by-pass. Back when my mom and dad were there they really had to mix it up in downtown Fort Wayne. They had to "be" with people in Fort Wayne. And now you don't have to be with people. So the baseball field makes a quasi-public space, I guess.


Michael Martone will be at the History Center for a free book reading and signing on Saturday, October 4, at 5:00 PM. The History Center is located at 302 East Berry Street. For more information, call (260) 426-2882. He’ll also be at the Firefly Coffee House on Anthony Friday, October 3, at 8 pm.

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