"The next time they talked on the phone, she told him she had just started to come when she heard her daughter return home downstairs and call out to her. Falling from the bed, she ran across the room to close the door. As she ran, the orgasm caught up with her, the blood rushing from her head, her legs turning spongy, compressing beneath her."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and grew up there, leaving, at seventeen, to work as a roustabout in the last traveling circus to winter in the state. He has held many jobs since then, including night auditor in a resort hotel, stenographer for the National Labor Relations Board, and clerk for a regional bookstore chain run by the associates of the Gambino crime family. For the last twenty years, Martone has been digging ditches. As a ditch digger, he has helped lay agricultural tiling, both the original fired-clay tile and the flexible pvc tubing, in the farm fields of northern Indiana, Ohio, and southern Michigan. He worked on the national project that buried thousands of miles of fiber optic cable along active and abandoned right-of-ways of North American railroads. He has often contracted to do the initial excavations at archaeological digs throughout the Midwest's extensive network of mounds, built by archaic pre-Columbian civilizations, where he would roughly remove the initial unremarkable strata for the scholars who followed at the site with hand trowels and dental instruments. Often when digging ditches, Martone would employ a poacher's spade made in the United Kingdom by the Bulldog Company and given to him by the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, who ordered it from the Smith & Hawking catalogue and gave it to Martone as a going away present when Martone left Boston where he had been digging clams. Its ash, "Y" shaped handle still retains a remnant of the ribbon that decorated the gift. Martone has operated a backhoe, constructing drainage ditches, and he has used a DitchWitch when digging a trench for buried electrical conduit in housing developments around Las Vegas, Nevada. He has been certified to run a drag line as well as licensed to maintain boilers in obsolete steam shovels. He is proficient at foundation work, having been employed for four years in the area of poured form and precast concrete retaining walls and building footings. Briefly, he worked as a sand hog, tunneling a new PATH tube between Manhattan and New Jersey. Martone has mined coal and gypsum in Kentucky and repaired the sewers of Paris and Vienna. Honorably discharged from the SeeBees, he once helped fortify, through the entrenchment and the construction of sand berms and tank traps, the Saudi Arabian city of Qarr during the Gulf War. He has buried culvert in Nova Scotia and created leech fields and septic tanks in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. Having installed irrigations systems on the Trend Jones designed golf courses of Alabama, Martone recently took a position as a grave digger at the Roman Catholic Cemetery in his home town in order to be closer to his family. Using the newly purchased Komatsu excavator, he dug the grave for his mother who died unexpectedly in her sleep. He observed the funeral from the cab of the machine, waiting until the mourners had departed to remove the Astroturf blanket covering the spoil and then back-filling the opening and replacing the squares of real turf on the dirt. Since that time, on his days off, Martone digs, with the poacher's spade given to him by the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, his own grave, or, at least, attempts to dig his own grave as all of these efforts, so far, have been filled back in, as the resulting holes, to his professional eye, were never quite right.
INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR
CA: What is important about reading and writing short fiction, in contrast to other genres (memoir, academic writing, journalism)?
I am not sure it is important to read fiction in contrast to other genres. Or more accurately, as a writer I do not, as I write, worry too much the differences of genre. That to me seems like a critical act—sorting, norming, judging—and I am not interested in promoting or even identifying the kind of writing I do. I make things and figure others, readers, will have to make of them what they will. I might republish this “interview” as a “short fiction.” I see my job as blurring the distinctions you are asking me here to sort. There is a cultural desire to keep categories stable, but there is also a cultural understanding that the boundaries of such categories should be tested, transgressed. You sense this or you would not have invited a “fiction” writer into the realm of “academic writing.” You wanted to mix things up. As a writer, I write. But I try not to write into existing precincts. I wrote a series of “Contributor’s Notes” that were fictional and when they were accepted by various magazines I asked the editors to publish my “stories” in the contributors’ notes section of the magazine. I have done a “fictional” travel guide to Indiana that I sought would “pass” as a “real” travel guide and even be sold in the travel guide section of the bookstore. What I see as important is making interesting things that appear in surprising places, out of context, so that the reader will be off balance and confront reality for the fiction it is. Reading fiction only in the context of a fiction magazine seems to me to tame the real importance of fiction. Fiction writing, and here I am thinking of all writing as fiction, should resist and confuse categorization. Art for me is always about deranged arrangements, framing unframed deviations.
CA: What does fiction reveal about social worlds?
This kind of literary fiction appears when the culture develops concepts of privacy and leisure time. People were wealthy enough to afford both the time and the space to read about these very issues. Adultery becomes an obsessive theme as it worries the dramatic tension of intimates who keep secrets from each other. In “Four Calling Birds” I wanted to write a fiction that once more returns to the dynamics of adultery in a monogamous culture but do so in a self-conscious way, making the various sections so much about the adulterous act, adultery on steroids. I am not so sure that fiction when it is read reveals any “what” to the society that reads it. I do think that it can reveal the artificial and constructed nature of any given society. That is, art makes the “normal” strange. Making the normal strange is not an act of instruction or revelation, I think, but an act of destabilization that opens space for seeing alternative imaginations, allowing other cultural constructions to be considered and gain a footing or not. Fiction reveals, then, mostly itself and society as a “fiction,” in the sense that it is a made thing, and as a made thing can be unmade, remade.
CA: Your story “Four Calling Birds” has a beautiful repetitive structure in which four people are presented in various configurations of distance and togetherness and finally merged. How did you arrive at this structure? What attracts you, either as a reader or a writer, to highly patterned representations of human emotions such as desire?
Part of the pattern of pattern derives from the song itself, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the roundness of it, its compulsive overlapping list making. If one is using language as one’s artistic medium, one is stuck with its sequential nature. We read one word after the other. Language wants to line up. It wants to go somewhere. I think there are some writers, perhaps poets most of all, who seek to resist the existential nature of the medium they deploy and have developed many devices, techniques, strategies that resist the linear nature of language. Repetition is one such strategy. Brevity. The use of white space or making the reader conscious of the material nature of a piece or the conventions of reading—one starts reading in English at the upper left, reads a line left to right, etc—in order to, again, disrupt the order of things. As I said some writers are attracted to resisting the built-in forward momentum of language. I don’t write narrative. I don’t write stories or short stories technically. I call them fictions. And they are far more lyrical than narrative. They work, if they work, through association not cause and effect, linkage, or logic. They seek to create an environment, a bias, and an atmosphere and in the tradition of Poe or Hawthorne the unity of effect, an atmosphere of sensation, feeling, emotion. I think of them more like an installation. An installation that the reader is encouraged to meander through in different ways. The reader is meant to make the meaning out of this interesting confusion. As the writer, I don’t mean to mean anything. I don’t think of this kind of writing as experimental though it often gets labeled that way. I like to think of myself as a formalist. I am sensitive to the elasticity of different forms and interested in taking forms out of one context and placing them in another. The form at play here is the Christmas song and the larger pattern of the number four found in the culture. And the form of the photo booth that is a public secret space as is the confessional. Both are thrilling and intimate, close and expansive.
CA: Bonus question: We loved the use of linguistic jargon at the beginning of the story, and we’re curious about how the term “schwa-y whah” ended up in your story.
A note points out that “Calling Birds” is itself a corruption of language. We hear it as Calling instead of Collie and imagine the birds in question are festive songbirds instead of dusky thrushes. So I did play along and picked various calling birds and their songs or calls to be a kind of pattern to the music of each section’s language. As a writer, I find it hard to be abstract since the medium I use is abstract already. A painter can use paint and have paint be paint. The viewer admiring color, say, or texture and not necessarily the illusion of image or representation. It is impossible for you, the reader, to read the word “word” and respond to my choice of ink. No, we jump right past abstraction to representation. So the different calls of each section are subliminal at best. The Blue Jay section wants to sound squawky and the Veery section breathy buzzy. As I wrote I had the Internet play the various calls. I love the mockingbird that lives outside my window and its range of sound. All the patterns and runs. Another subtle-to-the-point-of-invisible pattern here is taken for the larger pattern of my book, Four for a Quarter, of which “Calling Birds” is a part. It is a book of 44 short fictions, each about a different 4 in the culture. Four for a Quarter refers to the old instant photo booths one could find in dime stores and on boardwalks. I like the pattern of those pictures. I often find that people being their own subjects start out relatively tame and then begin to experiment so by the third shot they are making crazy faces and leers. Then in the fourth shot they return to a posed controlled one. So the stories of the book mimic that structure. Dot. DOT. DASH. Dot. Here in “Calling Birds” the third out of pattern shot is a calling bird that can’t be heard and the one sexual liaison that is conducted alone. Another story uses the four-letter alphabet of DNA. Another employs the four types of blood. Yes, I hoped I was creating a hieroglyphic language, a code, a permutation, of four image-rich pictographs.
OTHER WRITNG FROM MICHAEL MARTONE
(1977) At a Loss (fiction)
(1984) Alive and Dead in Indiana (fiction)
(1985) Return to Powers (nonfiction)
(1988) Safety Patrol (fiction)
(1988) A Place of Sense: Pieces of the Midwest (editor of nonfiction anthology)
(1990) Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List (fiction)
(1992) Townships: Pieces of the Midwest (editor of nonfiction anthology)
(1992) Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List [Revised and Expanded] (fiction)
(1994) Pensées: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle (fiction)
(1995) Seeing Eye (fiction)
(1999) The Flatness and Other Landscapes (nonfiction)
(1999) The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction: Fifty North American American Stories Since 1970 (editor with Lex Williford of fiction anthology)
(2001) The Blue Guide to Indiana (ISBN 1-57366-095-7) (fiction)
(2002) 101 Damnations (ISBN 0-312-28480-2) (contributor)
(2003) Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and Formalists (editor with Robin Hemley of fiction anthology)
(2005) Michael Martone (fiction)
(2005) Unconventions: Attempting the Art of Craft and the Craft of Art (nonfiction)
(2006) Night Terrors: An Introduction to Zombigaze (meta-biography)
(2006) Rules of Thumb: 73 Authors Reveal Their Fiction Writing Fixations (editor of anthology)
(2007) Double-Wide: Collected Fiction of Michael Martone (fiction)
(2008) Racing in Place: Collages, Fragments, Postcards, Ruins (nonfiction)
(2009) Not Normal, Illinois: Peculiar Fictions from the Flyover (editor of fiction anthology)
(2011) Four for a Quarter: Fictions (fiction)
(2013) Five for Ten Cents: A Less Expensive, Dimestore Edition of Four for a Quarter (fiction, rumored)
- Interview at HTMLGIANT
- Biography at Web Del Sol
- Biography at BSU
- Interview at Devil's Lake
- Interview at Fiction Collective 2
- Interview at The Quarterly Conversation
- Detailed bibliography