Lee Martin is the author of The Bright Forever, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In the following letter, he writes to Amos about meeting Richard Ford and of Ford’s influence on his writing.
Lee writes that in Rock Springs Ford taught him “to look closely at what mattered most to me in the places I knew as home.” Ford’s collection also changed the way Lee thought about and wrote stories: “He taught me that the individual life mattered and would be of extreme interest to a reader if I treated it with respect, if I didn’t turn away from its simultaneous ugliness and beauty, and if I wrote with forgiveness.”
Lee Martin is also the author of River of Heaven and Quakertown (both novels); a short story collection, The Least You Need to Know; and two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones. He has won a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, a Lawrence Foundation Award, and the Glenna Luschei prize. He lives in Columbus and directs the creative writing program at The Ohio State University.
You can find a fascinating writing by Lee Martin here: Largehearted Boy.
And who is Amos? I wondered that, too, so I asked Lee and received this response:
Amos is Amos Magliocco, and he was a student of mine at the University of North Texas. Since that time, he’s gone on to earn an MFA from Indiana University, published his word in fine places such as The Missouri Review, and won a Pushcart Prize. He and I stayed in touch via emails and calls after I left UNT for Ohio State, and we exchanged visits and saw each other at AWP. This summer, when I taught at the Kenyon Review Writer’s Conference, I could choose a “fellow”–someone who would participate in the conference and help me teach my workshop. I chose Amos. My letter to him is in response to a Facebook message he sent me. He’d read a story in the current O’Henry collection that he thought I’d either hate or love because it seemed to derive a good bit from my own work. –TW
September 16, 2009
I’m glad to hear that some rainy weather has finally found you there in Texas. I well remember, from when I lived there, how welcome even the briefest rain shower was. In fact, the long stretch of hot and dry days that made up the summers and early autumns always left me, at one turn, feeling anesthetized, and at the same time, yearning for the distinct Midwestern seasons of my youth, where a cold snap, or blackberry winter, as we called it, could bring a little variety to the heat of July, and where the leaves beginning to change, as they are here in Ohio now, and the spiders spinning their webs over the yew shrubs and the deck railings, could herald the turn toward fall and then the winter beyond it. It was the seasons I missed more than anything when I lived in Texas, and perhaps because I was so distant from my native Midwest, I started to evoke it with more precision and passion in my writing. I had no choice. The only way I could live there was by conjuring it on the page.
It took me a good while as a writer to trust the world I knew best—that world of small farms and towns and the men and women who worked hard at jobs that didn’t pay them nearly enough. Sometimes those people lived too large for their own good. Sometimes they made poor choices and suffered the consequences. They cut each other with knives, they burned down buildings just for the thrill of it, they left families to run off with someone not their wife or husband, they ended up in prison, they took a deal from a judge and went to the army to avoid ending up in prison, they lived lonely lives of regret because once upon a time they’d had a chance to really be somebody and then, like the years, that chance just went away. Despite whatever wrong turns they took or lives they wished for, they often found joy in the most simple things: a few hands of Pitch around a kitchen table, an ice cream social at the Methodist Church, a tenderloin sandwich carried home in a paper bag from Bea’s Cafe.
One afternoon, a man who was a ne’er-do-well came into the barber shop in my small town and the barber told him a state trooper had just been in looking for him. The man went out the back door into the alley. He smashed a Pepsi bottle against the brick wall. He used the jagged end to slash his throat.
The barber, an upright man who patiently worked with wood in his spare time, crafting pieces of furniture, who raised five girls with love and kindness, found that man in the alley and did the only thing he could. He pressed a towel to his throat, but it wasn’t enough to save him. Why was the state trooper looking for him and why was that enough to make him do what he did? What was it like for that mild-tempered barber to tend to that man while he bled to death? How did he carry that story to his home that evening? How did he carry it with him the rest of his days, through the snow and ice of winter when the dark came on by five o’clock and people longed for the comfort of home, through the spring when the grass greened and the smell of the earth thawing made everyone feel just a little more alive, through those long days of summer when the light seemed like it would never fade, and the clear days of autumn when the air could be so still the calls of crows would travel for miles? That was the world I knew most intimately—knew it inside my skin—that world of ordinary living pierced by sudden violence, that world of simple beauty set against the brutality people could visit upon it, but when I was a young writer trying to find my voice and my material, I erroneously thought that no one would ever be interested in the stories I knew best. Why would anyone want to read about those itty-bitty towns and farms and the people who lived there?
Then I met Richard Ford. I was living in Memphis at the time, and there was a book expo being held at the Peabody Hotel. I knew that one of my former teachers, Jim Whitehead, was going to be among the featured authors, so I decided to go down in hopes of saying hello. As luck would have it, I’d no more than stepped into the lobby, when the elevator door opened and out stepped Jim. He was a burly man with a big heart and a booming voice, and, when he saw me, he clapped me on the shoulder, told me how good it was to see me (it had been three years since I’d been in Jim’s workshop at the University of Arkansas), and said, “Come in here.” He motioned to the ballroom where the authors would sit behind tables and sign books for folks. He got me a chair and told me to sit down and keep him company. Then he spotted Richard Ford, and he introduced me to him. I remember that Ford was soft-spoken and gracious, and, though I was nothing to him, he took the time to shake my hand and chat a little. He didn’t make me feel that I was a nuisance or someone he had to make small talk with while he waited for the bigger fish to arrive. He treated me with respect, genuinely wanting to know a little bit about me. He had a quiet dignity that was disarming and a way of making me feel that at that moment my life was something that very much interested him. His story collection, Rock Springs, had just come out, and, of course, I bought a copy, which he kindly inscribed, “With the pleasure it was to meet you and with the best wishes for your work.” That book changed me as a writer forever.
Although the stories in that collection are set in Montana, they were about the sort of people I knew from my native Midwest. They were people in all sorts of dire straits, but they were doing their best to figure a way out, and the narrative voice I heard—a voice similar to the one I’d heard from Ford himself that day in Memphis: dignified, humble, curious, gracious—taught me how to tell the stories of ordinary people, to tell, more specifically, the stories of the people who mattered most to me. It took Ford, a southerner writing about the American West, to take me home to southern Illinois in my writing. He taught me that the individual life mattered and would be of extreme interest to a reader if I treated it with respect, if I didn’t turn away from its simultaneous ugliness and beauty, and if I wrote with forgiveness.
I don’t know whether these are the same qualities of the writer’s treatment of his characters and their events in the story that you recommend to me, the one that you say I’ll either love or hate for how much it seems to derive from my own work. To tell you the truth, I think “derivative” is only a useful term if applied to writing that’s false to the writer—an imitation, in other words, that takes the writer away from his or her genuine voice, urgent material, and unique vision of the world. I think you and I are simpatico when it comes to this and have little use for the writers who fall prey to the current gimmicks just for the sake of a little flash and flare and a chance to feel on the cutting edge of a trend. It seems to me that we should be in the game for larger stakes than the pyrotechnics of language or the clever shifting of form. Of course, those things sometimes align themselves nicely with what a particular writer must confront in the world around him or her and, therefore, become essential to their necessary exploration, but, like you, I’ve seen too many young writers fall back upon tricks of language and form to keep themselves from having to give shape to the mysteries of the complicated and compelling worlds they occupy. I know I sound like a curmudgeon now, having lived long enough, I suppose, to earn the right to wag a finger or two, but sometimes I think there are fewer and fewer of us holding the fort in the camp of realism these days, and for me that’s where the real stakes are and will always be. The day-to-day living in the real world, even for those seemingly ordinary people on my farms and in my small Midwestern towns, is rich and mysterious with desire, thwarted more often than not by poor choices and circumstances, but still pulsing and well-worth examination.
Richard Ford, in those Rock Springs stories, taught me to look closely at what mattered most to me in the places I knew as home. If my work teaches someone else to do the same, then I’m as pleased as I am for you and the rainy days that have found you, my friend. If we’re lucky, we find our fellow-travelers in both the real and the literary life, and their company makes all the difference. Good luck with all your work and the rewards it will give you in the seasons to come.
Until Next Time,