Q&A: Author Valerie Martin on Writing

Posted: November 11, 2009

Valerie Martin, who taught creative writing at Mount Holyoke from 1986 to 1990, has returned this fall as a visiting professor of English. She grew up in New Orleans, attended the University of New Orleans, and received an M.F.A. in creative writing at University of Massachusett-Amherst in 1974. She is the author of nine novels, three collections of short stories, and a biography of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1990, her novel Mary Reilly, which purports to be the diary of Dr. Jekyll's housemaid, won the Kafka prize, was translated into 16 languages, and, some years thereafter, was the subject of a film directed by Stephen Frears. Her novel Property, narrated by another voice from the past, that of a woman slave-owner in antebellum New Orleans, won Britain's Orange Prize, was short-listed for France's Prix Femina Etranger, and placed on the long list for Ireland's Impac award. Martin has taught at numerous colleges and universities, including University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, University of New Mexico at Las Cruces, UMass-Amherst, and Sarah Lawrence College.

Q: Your books cover such a wide range of subjects, from Saint Francis of Assisi in Salvation, to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Mary Reilly, to the Serbo-Croatian war of the 1990s in Trespass, and lots more in between. Are there thematic consistencies throughout your work?

A: I often get the rap that no two of my books are alike, so nobody’s ever heard of me. But I cover a lot of the same thematic material in my books. My approach has changed a little over time but I’ve always been fascinated by relationships of power, both personal and societal. For ten years now I’ve been interested in the territorial instinct that humans seem to come with, just like our friends the animals. I’m also interested in jealousy and competitiveness. Those were important ideas in Property.

And I’ve always been attracted to the Double. Both that “other” which each person has within himself, as in Jekyll and Hyde, and also doubles in other characters. In The Confessions of Edward Day, Guy Margate is Edward Day’s double; he’s a savior, competitor, advisor, critic, and a sometime friend. And he plays those roles both as an actor and a person.

Q: Do you have a favorite among all the books you’ve written?

A: It’s usually the last one I wrote. But I do like The Great Divorce, because the research for it was following a veterinarian around at a zoo, and I really like animals. That’s another question I’m interested in: Are we animals or something else?

Q: All your books appear to require a lot of research. Do you enjoy that part of your writing?

A: No. I don’t. Whenever I start a new book, I tell myself to do something that doesn’t involve research. Trespass (about a couple whose college-age son becomes romantically involved with a young woman with a mysterious past in the Balkans) was supposed to be about an upper-middle-class family living in upstate New York but it turned out to require mountains of reading to understand the war in the Balkans. I try to make strategic strikes. I go after specific information. I find that I talk to everyone about what I’m looking for, and it suddenly starts coming in.

For my next book, about a woman from Marion, Massachusetts, who is 20 years old in 1872, one of the things I want to know is what kinds of novels she would have read. So I’m researching that.

Even though I don’t much like the research, it’s satisfying to learn something and understand it really well.

Q: What’s your writing process?

A: I usually write a proposal in which I describe what I see as the subject of the book, who the main characters are, where and when it takes place. I also include titles of comparable books. For example, I compared Trespass to E. M. Forster’s Howards End. Both books pose the question: Who gets the house? It’s amazing how often in modern literature that question arises. Once I’ve written the proposal--I usually try to write 40 pages or so--that’s when I feel like I’ve started the book.

Q: Has your travel influenced your work?

A: Definitely. I spent three years living in Italy, and that produced two books, Italian Fever and my biography of Saint Francis. Being in Italy also changed the way I see the world, especially the way I see this country. I had always thought that Americans, especially in foreign policy, tended to be imperialistic, that there was in the American public a sentiment in favor of having an empire, from the start. Living abroad made this seem both more appalling and more laughable than it had before. I saw that comparisons between the U.S. and the Roman Empire are absurd. It reminds me of the book Are We Rome? (about the fall of the Roman Empire and the fate of America). It’s not so simple.

In some ways living in Italy made me like America more, because although our government is very frustrating, compared to some European governments it works pretty well. I used to think everything in Europe was better, but I don’t think that anymore. It’s just different.

Q: You grew up in New Orleans and some of your books are set there. Have you ever been interested in writing about Hurricane Katrina?

A: No. I haven’t lived in New Orleans for so long. When Katrina happened I felt cut off from the experience of family and friends there. They lost everything and I didn’t lose anything. So I didn’t feel I was the person who should write about it. Katrina made me angry with the media, and it made me read the fine print on my homeowner’s insurance.

I do want to write about my childhood in New Orleans. I’ve started a memoir. It’s called “How I Lost My Religion.”

Q: You’ve taught on and off for many years. How do you go about teaching fiction writing?

A: It’s hard. I’m trying to find a new way of doing it. This is one reason I’m enjoying my classes so much this fall. The tools I use are new to the students but old to me. I’m trying to come up with new ways to be of use to them. When teaching beginning writers I try to push them away from writing about their own personal experiences. I want them to think about their own experience in terms of old stories, myths. I want them to think of characters like Diana and Electra. 

The class I have now is writing short stories. I’m letting the discussion come out of the elements in their stories. Last week two of the three stories we worked on started out with people in cars. So we talked about setting, time, and space and how they affect dialogue. Why is a conversation in a car different than a conversation in a house? I’m pleased by how easy class discussions are.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge you face as a teacher of writing?

A: Some people think that you can’t teach anyone to write, that you can only teach someone to write a competent sentence. I think I can teach someone to write a competent story. But beyond that, a writer really needs to have a gift. The trick is to stick with the students who have a real gift and are ambitious. It takes more than just enthusiasm. That’s a long-term relationship for me. It doesn’t happen very often.

Q: How does modern communication media affect the way your students write?

A: They’re writing and texting each other all the time, in cryptic English. They’re putting letters down and compressing words on Twitter. That’s a really useful idea: to say less. They come up with strange spellings because of limited time and space. It’s cryptic, but it is communicating. If someone is good at it, on a blog, say, people will start to notice that he writes well. That’s the beginning of taste!

What is discouraging about blogs and comments on Amazon pages is how sloppy the writing is and how abusive writers get when they think you don’t know who they are. That’s what college is for: to get rid of sloppy writing and become impatient with bad writing.

Q: What’s on the horizon for you?

A: I’m writing a new collection of stories called “Acadiana Stories,” about mythological creatures in Cajun country in southern Louisiana. I think of it as nineteenth-century magical realism. One story is about a centaur who has a great love of opera. It’s fun. It’s like putting together the different kinds of stories that attracted me as a child.

Related Links:

Valerie Martin Gets Wide Press on New Book

English at MHC