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The Shadow of What Happened Stays: An Interview With Lee Martin on His New Novel 

Guest Article by: 
Tyler
Article Type: 

In November of 2009 I walked into an art gallery in downtown Nacogdoches where writer Lee Martin was giving a reading. I had not heard of him and though I was mostly interested in poetry at the time, it felt like the right place to be. And it was. Martin read to a packed house from his novel THE BRIGHT FOREVER, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and once he finished, everyone rushed for a copy. It was stunning. For someone singularly interested in poetry, I was suddenly holding a novel in my hands, wanting to know the ending. That’s what a great writer can do, startle you. I’ve continued following Martin’s novels, short story collections and memoirs, always struck by his ability to portray our most human conflicts with precision and compassion. His newest novel YOURS, JEAN is no exception. A work based on a true crime in 1950’s Illinois, the novel tells the story of a young librarian murdered and all those who encountered her that day, a day full of promise for a new start. In true Martin fashion, the murder is only the catalyst to examine how love drives us further and further in directions we didn’t know possible. I was able to interview Martin in April over email and what follows is our correspondence at a time more important than ever to support the arts. 
 
How have you been during this pandemic? This is not the ideal way to have time as a writer to work but have you been able to produce anything? Or perhaps you’re reading more. If so, what’s got your attention? Any guilty pleasures you’ve resorted to?

So far, so good, here. I teach in the creative writing program at Ohio State University, and we’re finishing the semester via online instruction. I miss seeing my students in person, but otherwise, it’s business as usual. I have class preparation work to keep me busy, plus we’re in thesis defense season with our MFA students now, so I’ve been reading all sorts of interesting and compelling work that I’m sure will find its way to bookstores in the future. I’ve also been able to attend to my own writing. I like escaping the pandemic by living in worlds of my own creation. The one thing the pandemic has afforded me is the time to slow down, which is always good for the writing. I’m very much living in the moment these days to keep me from thinking too far ahead. I’m a natural-born worrier, so living in the moment is very good for me. I’ve also been reading some fiction and nonfiction. I’ve always meant to read the John Williams novel, Stoner, and I finally got around to that. I loved it! I’m also catching up with some friends’ work. I’m reading John Dufresne’s No Regrets, Coyote right now, and it’s glorious. Finally, I discovered a new memoir, Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, by Eliese Colette Goldbach that’s a wonderful and timely read. As for guilty pleasures, I’m always up for those in the evening hours when I’ve dealt with the written word all through the day. My guilty pleasures usually come with what I watch during the evenings: old sports reruns via YouTube, episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or Last Tango in Halifax.
 
Your new novel YOURS, JEAN is based on a true crime. When did you uncover this story and why pursue it? With so many horrific crimes committed throughout the years, why make this one into a novel? 
 

The murder upon which YOURS, JEAN is based happened in Lawrenceville, Illinois, which is eight miles from where I went to high school. I really can’t remember when I first became aware of it, but I’ll wager it came to my attention via the ghost stories that persist to this day. The murder of the high school librarian took place inside the school, and over the years people have insisted they’ve seen strange things like a light moving at night from room to room as if passing through walls, or they’ve heard odd noises. But none of that is what pulled me to the story. It was, instead, my curiosity about the people who may have crossed paths with the killer that fateful day. That’s why I make no mystery out of the killing itself. I was more interested in how the murder affected other people’s lives. 
 
I’m curious about your research for this novel. What did that look like? Do you feel any obligations when working with history? You really pull off the vernacular and sustain it throughout. How were you able to stay in this space?  
 
I gathered the facts of the story from news reports and then felt no obligation to them whatsoever. My imagination has to intersect with fact in order to write a novel. I created characters that weren’t meant to represent anybody in the real world, and I asked myself what might have been going on in their lives at the time of the murder. Then I put everyone into motion, moving through this place in 1952. Here’s where period research became important: old telephone directories, photographs, high school yearbooks, etc. Anything that allowed me to immerse myself in this small town in 1952. Building a world, even one that actually existed, relies upon the particular details. Knowing the movies that played at the theatre in town, the cars that people drove, the music they listened to, the clothes they wore, the slang they used, kept me in that space.
 
Each of your books plays with a different narrative structure. YOURS, JEAN is no exception. What was the process for laying this out? After finishing the novel, I feel you really pull something off with your structural choices. Getting it right must have been challenging. Were there any sweeping changes during the writing process? 
 

The major challenge in the writing of this novel came from knowing when to cut from one character’s point of view to another’s. I have a number of threads running through this book and giving a sense of urgency to each required some playing around with those point of view shifts and also knowing when to extend a character’s chapter and when to move in and out quickly. I tend to recall making changes in that regard as the novel moved from draft to draft. Above all, I wanted each story line to be under pressure from both its own internal circumstances and the murder that has taken place until they all intersect toward the end of the book.
 
When I read your books, I can’t help but see the idea of guilt running through. It’s the kind of guilt no one can extinguish, the kind that lingers even after someone assures you, There was nothing you could have done. How could you have known? That voice we can’t shake is always in your writing. You’re so good at it. It kind of haunts your characters. For me, it’s what makes your work so painfully true. Where does this notion of guilt come from?
 

As you may know, my first memoir, FROM OUR HOUSE, dealt with the story of the farming accident that cost my father both of his hands when I was barely a year old. He was running a corn picker, and the shucking box was clogging. He should have shut down the power take-off, which would have stopped the rollers in the box from spinning, but for whatever reason, he didn’t. He tried to clear the shucking box and the rollers caught first one hand, and then, when he tried to pull it out with his free hand, the rollers caught it, too. I think of the moment often, that moment just before he reached into that shucking box, that moment when other futures were possible. I think of the lives my family might have had if my father had taken the proper precautions. That’s where what you’re noticing in my writing comes from. Ingrained in me is the belief that people often create their own fates through what they do or what they don’t do, and  we all carry with us the shadows of lives we might have had. That’s the haunting.
 
When I finished the book, I felt a sort of ache for the characters and all that seemed possible for them. Can you touch on this? I feel the theme of possibilities is at the heart of YOURS, JEAN. 
 

That’s a great segue from my previous response concerning the shadow lives we all carry with us. In YOURS, JEAN, characters are often dealing with the possible lives that get changed because of either their own actions or because of the murder. What would Mary Ellen’s (Jean’s colleague and landlady) life have been like if her daughter Robbie hadn’t suggested an inappropriate relationship between her mother and Jean? What would Robbie’s life have been like if her boyfriend had stayed true to her? What would Grinny’s (the cab driver) life have been like if his daughter hadn’t become pregnant? What would Norville’s (the hotel clerk) life have been like if he hadn’t gotten up the courage to ask Lorene Deveraux to marry him? And of course, what would Jean’s life have been like if her former fiancé, Charlie Camplain, hadn’t come to the school that day intent on convincing her to resume the engagement. I should add that most of the characters’ lives end up being better in many ways on the other side of the murder, but the shadow of what happened stays with them always.
 
There’s a natural nostalgia you create in most of your work but none as strong as in your new novel. You’re writing about small midwestern towns in the 1950’s, what surely was “a simpler time” we’d love to rush back toward. But this is always the trouble, isn’t it? It was never “simpler.” Can you talk about how you confront this illusion? 
 

You’re right that the natural assumption is that life in these small Midwestern towns in the 1950s was somehow more simple, more innocent, more idyllic. The reality, of course, is that people’s lives were just as complicated then as they are now. As a novelist, I just have to pay really close attention to my characters’ desires and fears and the actions they take that lead to complications. In YOURS, JEAN, for example, I’m interested in how people’s actions resist certain cultural expectations or issues of morality. The individual life is always unique, no matter the time period.
 
Which character are you most drawn to? Who gets your heart, so to speak, and why?

I found myself constantly thinking back to Ed McVeigh. Although he only briefly appears through memories, the recollections are tragic. 
 
I’m drawn to each of the characters because my chief job is to understand the source of their behaviors. I can’t write a character, even the most despicable character, without a degree of empathy. That said, I found myself really drawn to the character of Mary Ellen McVeigh, Ed’s widow, who sacrifices her teaching career rather than admit to something that simply wasn’t true. In the end, she turns out to be quite heroic.
 
Can you speak on the idea of love in YOURS, JEAN? I haven’t read a book in quite a while that takes on love the way this book does. That final phone call alone…
 
I suppose the book looks at a number of different kinds of love: romantic love, the love between parents and their children, the love between friends, the love for one’s own life and its values and dedications. I’m interested in what challenges those types of love. I’m interested in how, despite those challenges, love persists. That final phone call was a surprise to me. I won’t give too much away, only to say that a phone call at the end of the book after so much difficulty and loss, allows love to rise again in what I hope is a surprising and complicated way.
 
You have a section in your book TELLING STORIES that reads, “...a writer leads us to the inevitable in a way that surprises us...to make us believe we were reading one story when really we were reading another.” I’m struck by this idea as a reader. How do you make this happen in your work? 
 

A surprise has to arise organically from the particulars of a fictional world. I’ve learned over the years to think in terms of opposites, which is to say any one character or situation always contains something contradictory to what can be seen on the surface. Charlie Camplain’s violence, for instance, also contains a tremendous love. My job as a novelist is to arrange the circumstances of the plot in such a way that allows that love to rise up in a way that I hope surprises readers but also makes them say, “Why, of course.” On the craft level, this involves planting seeds throughout the book that make the inevitable surprise possible, but also keeping those seeds below the surface so it’s only in retrospect that the readers see them.
 
Where do you think YOURS, JEAN fits with your body of work? How is it similar and how does it diverge? What does this novel offer fans of your previous books or new readers? 
 

All of my novels have been interested in small town life and the secrets and resentments that can fester there. They’ve also been interested in the endurance of love in the face of extreme difficulty. YOURS, JEAN is no different in that respect. This novel also returns to a narrative strategy of alternating points of view similar to what I used in THE BRIGHT FOREVER, only in this case there’s no mystery involved. YOURS, JEAN is more interested in diving deeply into the aftereffects of tragedy, and examining the question of how love can persist.
 
Where does your fascination with secrets come from? I can’t think of anything more suspenseful than someone letting you know they have information. I love how you play with this theme throughout your work. There’s an edge you create. 
 

I guess experience has taught me that we’re nearly always trying to keep something hidden, either from others or from ourselves. Sometimes we aren’t even aware we’re telling ourselves one story when actually a deeper, truer one exists. The work of my fiction is to bring that truer story to the surface. I try to do it in a way that makes readers want to know what’s going to happen next. A well-constructed plot puts pressure on characters until it’s impossible for them to hide things. I guess that’s where the edge comes from—that tension when we sense something is eventually going to be revealed and being left to wonder when what’s hidden will become known.
 
What’s next for you? How’s the tour schedule? I know it’s really tough right now for any public event but some authors are going virtual. Can you tease any new writing projects?   
 

As you can imagine, this is a very tough time for books that are coming out, which makes me all the more grateful for your interest in doing this interview. I’m already canceling or rescheduling appearances and thinking about possible virtual events. In the meantime, the writing continues. I have a new memoir, GONE THE HARD ROAD, coming out in 2021, and I’m toward the end of the first draft of a new novel. I’ve been pretty tightlipped about the novel—I’m never sure if anything will come of what I’m writing—but what the heck, why not end this conversation with a true teaser. I’m working on a sequel to THE BRIGHT FOREVER. At the end of that book, Henry Dees, haunted by guilt, leaves the small town of Tower Hill, Indiana. He had to go somewhere, right?
 

Yours, Jean Cover Image
$26.95
ISBN: 9781950539147
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Dzanc Books - May 26th, 2020