An Interview with Domingo Martinez, by Heidi Sistare
August 4, 2014
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.
As an adult, when I snap into a memory, I understand larger, layered implications, this incredible crush of empathy or sympathy and compassion that radiates in 360 degrees, like this compression of fog, but instead of being visible it’s more this blanketing of acute feeling, just this profound awareness of human complications and understanding for every person that’s there, in that moment, and so in order to tell the story, you have to, as the narrator, cherry pick which human failings or triumphs are relevant to the narrative. And you have to do this alone, pick through people’s anguish to tell their stories, or how they relate to the bigger story. I think it’s the other side of PTSD, watching for the next threat, where it might come from, who might be your next attacker, and could you take him or her down.
People wonder why we’re drunks.
What books have been influential to your writing? Are any of them memoirs?
William Goldman, right from the start. I read everything he wrote before and after “Princess Bride,” mostly because it had the word “sonofabitch” on the back cover, and it was in the library in my high school in Brownsville, Texas. I could read his personal life through what he wrote, is what gave me the confidence to continue when I first realized I wanted to be a writer, at 15. It’s this weird instinct I have that when I read something a writer has actually experienced, I can zero in on it and say, “That’s real.” Versus what’s fiction. I know Martin Amis has very small hands that way.
Maya Angelou also said something really important in her speech at Clinton’s inauguration that triggered me. She said something like, “As a young black woman, I went to the Chicago library to find a particular book, a book about a young black girl who had my experiences, who had suffered the way I suffered, who had lived what I lived.” I’m paraphrasing, obviously. She continued: “The library did not have that book. So I decided to write it.” I thought, “Hunh. She’s right.” So I wrote a book about fighting, fucking and drinking in South Texas. But I should also include J.G. Ballard, A.E. Hotchner, the mid-John Irving, et cetera. It goes on. What was interesting in most cases was how long it took me to breach the wall of “audience vs artist,” and study their work as texts, because I think it’s then that you’re able to really quantify yourself among other writers as regular, fragile humans, and the effect of their “art” on you. It’s less “kill your darlings” than a willingness to “assassinate your heroes.” That’s what they’re there for. Then, if you’re really good, you pick up what’s left and do more, if you can.
What kind of research do you do when writing a memoir? Do you reconstruct scenes by talking to family members? Look through old photos? Visit the people and places from the past?
I would drink beer and call my brother.
– “Hey. You remember when that guy did that thing?”
– “Which one? The one with the thing?”
– “No, you dick. The one with the other thing.”
– “Oh, yeah. Man, that guy was a DICK.”
– “Wasn’t he? He had that thing with the bit that was like that, and he said all that stuff about Dad.”
– “No, no, no. You got it all wrong. He had that thing, yeah, but the bit was like that, and he did this other thing for Dad, and our sister was all like, ‘Ah!” And it was on that other road, not the one you’re thinking.
– “Bullshit, he said ‘This,’ and then you said, ‘That,’ and then the cops came.”
– “I’ll have to ask him.”
– “Didn’t Gramma shoot somebody?”
That exemplifies most of my research for Boy Kings. Funny thing this, in the end, it all coalesced into the larger memory form, and no one in the immediate family disagreed about any details or specifics; my brother, Dan and I were able to reconstruct our whole family history while drinking beer on his couch, or on mobile phones. The only people I had grief from was from Joe, my neighbor, who threatened to shoot me (understandably, but he’s so pathetic it wasn’t worth more than forwarding his email to my family for a laugh. He’s got two dodgy eyes from the diabetes, couldn’t shoot a house) and my cousins on my mother’s side who had a completely different idea about our maternal grandmother and their origins, etc. Which fit into the narrative perfectly because I kept saying: We had no idea who our mother’s family was.
When you’re writing do you think about whether your personal story is relevant to a broader audience?
Of course. If it’s not universal, then what is the use of a story? Do you think we’d still be reading about “The Odyssey” if it was just about a bunch of hairy Greeks on a year-long bender, whooping it up because they’d fooled their way into a fort by hiding in a horse? No wonder fraternities are still called “Greek” societies.
Anyhow, last year at Breadloaf, I was able to talk to this fantastic woman, a PhD, who was writing her own family story about her family in Iran. It read like a brick wall, with lots of “begatting.” We talked for an hour about writing in the “micro” with the idea of the “macro” always in mind — writing in a sort of dual perspective that makes your specific story universal, engaging in such a way that anybody of any background can read it and relate. That’s what you’re after, when you’re telling a story. That’s what makes the audience a part of the art.
Is there a question you’re surprised no one has ever asked you in an interview? What’s the question and what’s your answer?
The booze, primarily. No one ever asked about the addiction and the drinking, which completely befuddled me. I opened up entirely about the nature and quantity and comprehensive culture of alcoholism and drugs in that lifestyle, which obviously haunts me and my family now, and no one ever asked. My next book is about those consequences, actually. Also the self-harm. I had a whole essay written about the mind-set of someone cutting themselves (I was a teenaged raver goth chick, from Alabama, when I was a kid in Texas) and no one ever asked me about that. I was totally embarrassed about that, wondered if my editor would cut it, but in it stayed, and we never spoke about it. Odd.
Domingo Martinez is the New York Times Best Selling author of The Boy Kings of Texas and was a finalist for The National Book Award in 2012. The Boy Kings of Texas is a Gold Medal Winner of the Independent Publishers Book Award, a Non-Fiction Finalist for The Washington State Book Awards, and was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize.
The Boy Kings of Texas has been optioned for an HBO series through Salma Hayek’s production company, Ventana Rosa.
His work has appeared in Epiphany Literary Journal, Seattle Weekly, Texas Monthly, The New Republic, Saveur Magazine, Huisache Literary Magazine and he is a regular contributor to This American Life. He has also appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and The Diane Rehm show, and was the recipient of the Bernard De Voto Fellowship for Non-Fiction at Bread Loaf Writer’s Colony in 2013, and was recently inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters. Mr Martinez is also a fundraiser for 826 Seattle, the literacy project founded by Dave Eggers.
Heidi Sistare writes from her home in Portland, Maine, where she attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. You can view her published work on her website: www.heidisistare.com
Photo credit: Photo by Nicole Rule Photography