A Word About Writing

An Interview with Domingo Martinez, by Heidi Sistare

Domingo Martinez made a big impression with his debut book, The Boy Kings of Texas. His memoir of life in Brownsville, Texas, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in nonfiction. Martinez’s writing is filled with powerful characters, complex histories, and the kind of rich details that are rooted in family and place. We talked about the writing process, how to research family history and childhood memory, and why no one has asked him about addiction.

The Boy Kings of Texas

In a piece for All Things Considered you said you wrote The Boy Kings of Texas “…without the help of academics, writing groups or peers.” How do you think this way of writing impacted the story? Do you always write without external support? Or, if you find support outside of the academics, writing groups, and peers, where does it come from?

Isolation, when you’re trying to “create” something, I think can be a bit dangerous because of the obvious fallacy: what impresses you usually fails to impress others.  That’s what the internet and Amazon publishing is for.  

But I also believe it to be the most authentic form of creation, in a way.  If you begin a writing project and then farm it out to your peers for reactions or contributions or response — at what point does it become an interactive / shared credit project?

What I did was, over the course of all those years of just coming home at night and writing the original manuscript of “Boy Kings of Texas,” I wrote what I needed to write, what was burbling up, and then upon revisions, I would read each piece or whatever I was revising using an internalized perspective of either my brother’s or my sisters’ voice, or maybe a friend who’s opinion I trusted. I read it through what I thought was their perspective. And because of this, I eventually developed this fantastic ability to read what I’ve written from a tertiary point of view, in my own head.

Also, I would often play back the piece d’jour (whatever I’d written) electronically using the “voice” thing on my iMac, then pace my apartment here in Seattle listening to what I’d written in the middle of the night, smoking cigarettes out the windows but not inhaling and sort of conducting the rhythms of the sentences, layering stories and making adjustments. There was usually some cadence I was working against, like a book I’d read by Annie Proulx or Michael Chabon at the time, and their structures would unconsciously work their way into my style here and there, but I always welcomed it, when I realized it. Because that’s what art is, as an organic, living thing: you’re directly influenced by what you absorb daily.   

You said that it took you 15 years to write The Boy Kings of Texas. How did you change as a writer over those 15 years? Are you approaching your second memoir differently in any way? 

You can see the sensitivities develop in my book as you begin the opening chapters. Some sentences are so old, they could buy a round of drinks. The book was obviously intended to be a collection of short stories until I realized there was a narrative through-line that could be extended into a larger project, and my earlier stories have bits of archaeological flint that still manage to make me cringe, when I read them again.  As an author, you can’t help it.

Anyway, again, getting back to your question: You, or at least, I, can see the tone and language shift, settle down as a style, as the page count increases.

My next book, due out in November, I wrote in a matter of a few months.  I attempted at first a narrative braiding, but in the end it didn’t seem to sustain the atmosphere I was hoping for, so I went back to an triptych-type structure, Acts I-III.  This story was much more on the surface, and it was horribly painful to write, but it needed done.   

What were the differences between writing the chapters about your childhood self versus the later chapters when you’re an adult? 

Height, mostly.  By that I mean perspective.  The early memories are more like flashes of emotions and feelings, images like you’d see in early motion pictures, except in feelings, totally without sound, so you have to string them all together to make the story.


An Interview with Rebecca Makkai, by Evan Allgood

Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, The Hundred-Year House, is a ghost story, a love story, a mystery, a comedy, a drama, and (rarest of genres) a well-written page-turner. It traces the history of a spooky literary estate named Laurelfield; as the reader moves forward through the book, he or she moves backward in time, from 1999 to 1955, then to 1929 and 1900. (The first three sections read like novellas; the last is a brief epilogue.) I spoke to Makkai about that counterintuitive structure, the differences between writing her first and second novels, and which book she’s reread the most.


An Interview with Murray Farish, by Celia Johnson

Murray Farish’s characters are familiar at first. One could be your neighbor, that person you pass on the street, maybe a relative. A few might even seem pretty close to you. Then each story grows darker. Some of his tales dip suddenly. Others sink gradually, so that you are unaware of the depths you’ve reached until the very end. Farish’s debut collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was recently released by Milkweed Editions and, as T.M. McNally observes, “These stories are the gift of a serious and electric talent.” I spoke with Farish about his dark and twisted subject matter, his creative process, and his literary heroes, who all became famous later in life.


An Interview with CJ Hauser, by Celia Johnson

Small towns. Cool ocean breezes. It’s the perfect time to visit Maine. And if you can’t head north, I suggest picking up a copy of CJ Hauser’s The From-Aways. Menamon is a town of Hauser’s own invention, a place where lobster boats bob in the water and the locals date back generations. Two women, who are completely unalike, land in the town and find their lives irrevocably reversed. Hauser’s debut novel is not only poignant, but filled with incisive wit. I spoke with her about her fiery characters, her creative process, and what surprised her most about the publishing process.


An Interview with Kimberly Elkins, by Celia Johnson

In 2001, Kimberly Elkins picked up a copy of the New Yorker and became engrossed in an article about Laura Bridgman, a woman few people know, despite world-wide renown in the Nineteenth Century. Laura was deaf and blind and had no sense of taste or smell. As a young girl, she amazed others by learning to communicate. She was a true pioneer (before Helen Keller). Elkins first wrote a story about Laura and then, over many years, produced a novel. What Is Visible was recently released and it is a mesmerizing tale. In a review for the New York Times, Barbara Kingsolver observed, “A novel’s extraordinary power is to allow a reader to take possession of the inner life of another. This one provides entree to a nearly unthinkable life, and while no one would want to live there, it’s a fascinating place to visit.” I spoke with Elkins about her fierce protagonist, the challenges of writing historic fiction, and, as a debut novelist, what advice she’d give to her former self.

what is visible

An Interview with Roxane Gay, by Heidi Sistare

Roxane Gay’s novel, An Untamed State, was recently published by Black Cat / Grove Press. The story follows Mireille, an American lawyer and young mother, as she is kidnapped and held captive when visiting her parents in Haiti. Roxane Gay writes both fiction and cultural criticism; all of her writing is incisive. Her book of essays, Bad Feminist, comes out in August. We talked about An Untamed State, how she supports other writers, and how she produces such an impressive amount of great writing.