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.
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.