In his memoir Stories for Boys, Gregory Martin struggles to reconcile the father he thought he knew with a man who has just survived a suicide attempt; a man who had been having anonymous affairs with men throughout his thirty-nine years of marriage; and who now must begin his life as a gay man. Martin explores the impact his father’s secrets have upon his own life a husband and father of two young boys with humor and bracing candor. The book is resonant with conflicting emotions and the complexities of family sympathy, and asks the questions: How well do we know the people that we think we know the best? And how much do we have to know in order to keep loving them?. Recently, Hawthorne’s Craig Mather sat down with Greg Martin to discuss the writing, memory, and memoir.
Craig MatherWhat is your favorite part about the process of writing?
Greg MartinI’m not particularly good at the early stages of writing. I don’t like not knowing what to write about, or not knowing what shape the writing will take once I’ve found my subject. I am talented at riding my road bike forty miles a day during this period, instead of writing. But I like the middle of a book-length project – that point in the writing when I know I’m not going to be done for a year or more, that part of the process when commitment has already become a given. I put in long days, 4-6 hours of writing. Once I have some sense of what I’m doing, of the shape of the book, of the emotional and narrative arcs – I’m pretty good at banishing the internal critic and churning out the words. With Stories for Boys, I had two different stretches where I set myself the goal of writing for 100 days in a row, for at least 3 hours a day. During that period, I pretty much had faith that I was making progress, making the story better, not worse, and that was enough. I don’t require myself to be particularly lyric or profound, just to “get black on white,” as Frank O’Connor said.
CMAre there any authors in particular who inspired you in your own writing?
GMBefore I ever really made the commitment to try to become a writer, I loved Steinbeck – for his sense of humor, his compassion, his characters, his evocation of place, and I learned a lot about the writing process from reading Working Days, his journal of writing Grapes of Wrath. Once I had made that commitment, James Galvin’s The Meadow was probably the most important book for me – for a lot of the same reasons – compassion, place, character. But with that book, it was the formal inventiveness, the lyricism, which floored me. I read and re-read that book over and over – I read it so much – passages, sections – that it worked its way inside of my system. For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve been in awe of Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson. Both are concerned with family life and intimacy, and with the struggle to make sense of the past. With both, place is absolutely critical to their work. All these concerns are really central in my writing as well.
CMWhat is the best book you’ve read in the last year?
GMI loved Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. It’s this huge book about a place I don’t care about and never want to visit. But every night I looked forward to picking it up because I wanted to spend some more time with Frazier. I did learn all about the gulag, which is nice to have in my back pocket at the neighborhood barbecue. Close second: Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. I liked this book for pretty much the same reason. I don’t care about Russia (though I know it looks like I do based on these two selections), but Batuman consistently cracked me up: wry, knowing, wise beyond her years, and I learned all about Tolstoy’s utopian commune – another gem for the Fourth of July party.
CMInterspersed throughout Stories for Boys are pictures and emails and personal letters that help tell the story of how you dealt with your father’s suicide attempt and the revelation of his double life. How did this format develop?
GMI really admire WG Sebald’s books about exile and the aftermath of the holocaust: Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants. Sebald is tough sledding, prose-style-wise, and he’s far from clear. But I really like how he blurs genres, and how his books have all of these amateur photographs, some of which he took, some of which he discovered. I could talk way too long about these photos and what they do, but they add another layer to the story – and they seem to be there to “verify” what Sebald’s narrator is describing. Most of the photos in Stories for Boys are ones that I took, or my wife took, or someone in my family took 30 or 50 years ago. I think of them as “raw material,” like the emails and letters from my father. All this gives the reader other vantage points to see the story. I think also what this does is to make the book less of a dream in which the reader enters, and more of a made thing, an object, an artifact. A scrapbook – something that someone put together to make a record – rather than something rarified, literature with the big capital “L.” It’s not perfect. It’s sort of homemade. A story of a real life, told by a real person, struggling to get closer to the truth. Hopefully what this does is help make the book seem more authentic, more credible, more of an “attempt” to get at meaning, rather than something airbrushed, something with all the edges filed smooth. But I realize that this, too, is a kind of manipulation of the reader’s experience. It’s artifice, an artistic choice about how to present something that aims at a certain kind of rough-sawn verisimilitude.
Okay – one more thing about that: I never thought of my father, before his revelation and suicide attempt, as a mystery. As mysterious. He was just my dad. I didn’t give him much thought. But he was able to maintain a double-life for all 39 years of his marriage, and no one knew. So whether I thought of him as mysterious or not, he was mysterious, more than a lot of people, anyway. Or another way to say this might be that he had a far more rich inner life than I ever gave him credit for. I had no idea. Letting my father speak for himself in letters and emails allows him to reveal himself to the reader, in the same way that he has chosen to reveal himself to me.
CMYou say in Stories for Boys that you had an irrational impulse to tell your two boys, Oliver and Evan, the whole truth behind their grandparents’ divorce, even while they were still seven and four years old. Is Stories for Boys itself a product of that same impulse?
GMAbsolutely. I want them to read it someday, when they’re older, when they’re ready to understand. In reading it, I think (and hope) they’ll come to know me and their grandfather better. By then, in some ways, they’ll have my number, but in other ways they won’t. If I hadn’t written all this, put it in some kind of readable form, it would all be lost. The person I was during that time would no longer exist. I have absolutely no faith in memory. If I don’t write it down, it’s gone. I wouldn’t really know what I was like during those weeks and months and years after my father came out as a gay man and attempted suicide. It would all just be speculation, conjecture. But now there’s this record, these words on a page – which are themselves plenty full of speculation and conjecture.
At the time, and still, it burned me that all through my childhood there were these secrets, and these secrets were intimately connected to sadness, grief, which I couldn’t understand. No one explained things to me. No one told me the kind of story I needed to hear. Because there were plenty of ramifications of my father’s secret life on all of us – we just didn’t understand it at the time. He was the only one who knew.
So this book is an account that in some small way can act as a corrective to the things I could not tell my sons when they were little, when they were too young to understand.
CMThe memoir is a very personal form. What were the greatest difficulties you experienced in writing on such a personal topic?
GMI worried a lot about exposing my father in a way he would never want. When my mother discovered that he was gay, he attempted suicide. I think there were two parts to it: (1) he had decided that he would rather not be alive than not have a life with her, and (2) he thought that if anyone really knew who he was, he would be unlovable – unloved, entirely alone.
In a way, what I was trying to do with the book was to prove to him that this was not true. That he was loved and loveable, that he did not need to feel ashamed of who he was. So that was the risk I was taking – part of what I hoped would outweigh this exposure, this trespass – because whenever you render a real person in words on a page, you strip them of their agency, and you necessarily simplify them. The idea of a “round” character, in memoir, is an idea only. No one I’ve ever portrayed in my writing is ever as “round” as they’d like to be or as they see themselves.
So that was the hardest. But my father was truly understanding about this. There’s another question about this later, but I’ll tackle it here: he read multiple drafts of the book, he answered lots of very personal questions, sometimes at length, sometimes not. And so he participated in the making of the book; that lessened my concerns about how he would react to having so much of his life and his story revealed.
I was less concerned about exposing myself – though I did so more in this book than in anything else I’ve written – my own depression and confusion, my own feelings of shame at being connected to what at the time I thought of as sordid and melodramatic. But if you’re going to write memoir, you have to be willing to reveal your own flaws, vulnerabilities, quirks, failings. It’s one of the ground rules, and I knew that going in. No one wants to read a story by someone who says, “Hey, you know what, this thing happened, and I’ve got it all figured out, so just sit down and take notes.” And I didn’t feel that way at all, anyway. The writing, itself, was a process of moving from a state of greater confusion to lesser confusion, and I hope that’s communicated in the book.
CMYour last book, Mountain City, was also a memoir. What attracts you to this form of writing?
GMIt’s funny – Mountain City is sometimes shelved in memoir, sometimes in cultural studies (next to books it would never be friends with), sometimes in nature, sometimes in US history. It’s really the story of a place, and of a particular family in a place. I’m the lens, the narrator, the observer, who has a claim to this little town in northern Nevada (my mom grew up there, my aunt and uncles and cousins and grandparents lived there), but I didn’t grow up there, and I only lived there for a short time. So I’m both an insider and outsider (the ideal vantage point), and the reader, by the end of the book, doesn’t really know all that much about me. I suppose they know about me and what I care about because of what I focus on, but mostly what they come to understand is how this town works and how these characters’ lives are inextricably connected to this place. But Mountain City doesn’t really operate by the kinds of conventions that govern the memoir form – where the narrator’s story is central, where that narrator’s story of transformation is what governs the plot and action.
CMHave your mother and father read Stories for Boys? How did that possibility affect you as you wrote it?
I talked earlier about my father’s reading and helping me with the book. My mother read multiple drafts as well. I think it was harder for her, even, than it was for my father. Each time, it was like ripping off a thick, crusty scab that would then bleed profusely. But she did read. And I needed her to. Her perspective, her hurt and betrayal and ultimate resilience and coming to terms is a crucial part of the story. I admire my mother as much as anyone I know. She has a rich emotional life; she’s insightful and pretty fearless, but given the choice, she’s not particularly self-reflective. She’s a do-er. She’s from a small town in Nevada and has the requisite, ingrained stoicism. But the circumstances of her life have not allowed her to remain that stoic person. She’s been forced to reflect and reckon and move on. My father was the love of her life. She was the love of his life. It’s tragic what happened between them in the way that anything tragic must always be personal before it is ever political or participate in some larger national significance, national tragedy, and their story certainly does participate in that significance and that tragedy.
Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I think fifty years from now, in this country, anyway, the homophobes will be in the great minority, under their white hoods in their remote enclaves. We will still have the super-evangelicals with their disbelief in evolution and medieval notions of civilized life, but my hope is that we will be leaving them more and more behind, eating our dust. And so, then, stories like my father’s will be more and more infrequent.