The Circuitous Politics of Cool: An Interview with Andrew Martin

ANDREW MARTIN’S NEW COLLECTION, Cool for America, widens the purview of his work to include children with startlingly wrought interior lives, young marrieds struggling with parenting and alcohol, and a straitlaced businessman grappling with the phenomenon of pony boys. His debut novel, Early Work, garnered high praise for its wry yet winning humor, as well as a sharply drawn female protagonist, Leslie, who also appears in Cool.

Early Work addresses the insular middle-class ether its characters’ fumble through, most pointedly in a discussion of white appreciation of rap and latent racism. Now amid economic uncertainty, global health crisis, and the hopeful political force of Black Lives Matter, Martin maintains a light touch. A sobering undercurrent runs through Cool, as if the author were contemplating the end of his characters’ prolonged adolescence.

Martin and I met via Zoom to discuss the new release, how and when to write violence, punk shows as a rite of passage, the influence of Philip Roth, and what’s in store next for the young journalist turned novelist. Martin’s appearance on my computer screen was personable and unassuming, our conversation almost as natural as talking over a beer at a neighborhood bar.


SARAH COZORT: Your new collection, Cool for America, establishes a world across your work, as characters from your first book, Early Work, show up in this collection.

ANDREW MARTIN: I think of these stories as parts of a larger work. The collection’s structure has a lot to do with the way that people I’ve known, in their 20s and early 30s, are different versions of themselves in different places. Even within the span of a few months or a year, you change a lot during that time in your life.

For instance, Leslie shows up in three different stories in the new collection, but she’s a different version of herself in New York, where she’s a minor character to that narrator, whereas in Montana, she plays the lead role. I wrote many of these stories simultaneously with the novel, though it was very rarely the case that things from the novel migrated to the stories or vice versa. It was more that some of the stories inspired the novel, and then the novel inspired more stories.

You mention Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge in one of your stories, which is a brilliant but failed attempt to subvert the hero narrative. In that novel, the protagonist, Larry, rejects Western ideology for an Eastern-influenced strain of asceticism but, eventually, attempts to be a savior to a woman. Are you thinking of this narrative arc as you write?

Yes! It’s very conscious — the Maugham in that story, and versions of that narrative in general.

It’s at its most self-conscious in the novel, because it’s about this guy who’s memorized all of these quest narratives. The narrative for our generation, really one generation back, but we inherited it, was Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson — sort of tough guys who are “sensitive,” in their way, do lots of drugs, have sex with lots of people, and somehow achieve some kind of knowledge or enlightenment at the end. Peter thinks you go and do all this stuff and at the end, you’ve got a book. It just appears.

The book [Early Work] is trying to complicate and subvert that, certainly. So, some of the male characters in the stories [in Cool for America] are younger versions of Peter’s type. There’s still hope for the protagonists in “Childhood, Boyhood, Youth” and “Short Swoop, Long Line.” They’re having some of these revelations sooner in life than Peter. They still have time to, maybe, get it and realize people who don’t look like them are humans. Women are humans.

Leslie is a female version of the adventuring hedonist we see in Kerouac’s and Hunter S. Thompson’s work. She’s whole, smart, relatively in control of her sexuality, and a little prone to disaster. How do you write about women? Does having two sisters help?

[Laughs.] All of those terrible conservative politicians who are like, “I’ve got sisters! I’ve got a mother!” It always means they’re about to say something horrible. That character started as a rebuke to the male version of that [adventuring character], yes. I have a lot of friends who are writers, and the most successful ones tend to be adventurous and complicated women.

Leslie was inspired in part by a wave of great books that have come out in the last decade by women, like Sheila Heti and Nell Zink, where you do have these characters who are awful, at times, and artists and kind of self-deprecating and allowed to be all these messy, weird things.

Also, though, they have their shit together on some fundamental level. Leslie’s not a train wreck. She’s aware of her career. She’s moving forward. She’s actually writing. The interesting difference I see between people who succeed in this world and people who don’t, of either gender, is there are people who go home at the end of their day and write, and there are people who can’t make that shift from living the story to writing the story.

Would you write a character there’s no hope for? Someone irredeemable?

I think I will. I’ve known some. We all have, but I think of myself as part of this Grace Paley and Lorrie Moore tradition. Obviously people are terrible in those stories, but they’re guided by the Paley principle, “everyone deserves the open destiny of life, even fictional characters.” I have a character somewhere who goes, “Maybe that’s just an excuse for letting people off the hook.”

I wonder if it takes a certain kind of courage to display characters who are doing terrible damage to people that can’t be easily fixed. There’s a friend of mine who I think does that very well, Lee Clay Johnson, and his stories are very violent. His book [Nitro Mountain] scared me and made me wonder if I’d be able to write about people like that.

Violence and injury do show up in your work. In “Cool for America,” the injury sets the stage, whereas “No Cops,” “With the Christopher Kids,” and “Deep Cut,” build to a violent end, but the violence doesn’t change much of anything. It’s never deus ex machina.

“Deep Cut” was just published separately in The Atlantic, and for some reason that finally made me take notice that I have four stories in the collection that revolve around injuries or violence.

On one level, it’s symbolic. There’s this physical act of reckoning that takes characters out of their head and into the physical world. These are cerebral characters who are constantly living with their own thoughts, with anxieties, in their swirling consternation, and then they suddenly have to respond. At the end of “No Cops” there’s an actual fight, and Leslie has to decide whether to take action. In “Cool for America,” there are consequences to the decision to let a relationship build. So, I do hope this violence is serving a purpose, and is not a) gratuitous, or b) a sort of deus ex machina.

Speaking of “Deep Cut,” injury in the context of a rowdy punk show seems like a relatively benign rite of passage, unlike violence or injury elsewhere in the collection.

Right? It’s obviously not entirely safe to be passed around [overhead] by strangers and, like, get elbowed in the face, but in that space it seemed understood that this was a contact sport, and you were going to help other people. Kind of like anarchy in the best way.

At the end of “No Cops,” Leslie watches a bar fight unfold. The last line of that story is, “It was a first draft.” Immediately, I thought of Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, when she sees that five-year-old in the Haight on acid. In the documentary about her, she’s asked how she felt witnessing that, and she responds, “It was gold.” What are your thoughts about this tension in the writer between voyeur and witness?

I’ve grappled with this a lot. As a citizen. As a person. As an undergrad at Columbia, I worked for the student paper, which was a daily, and journalistic objectivity was hammered into us. You have to be ruthless, and you have to be willing to report on what you see, regardless of your politics or sense of right or wrong. There was a preview during that time of what we’re seeing now — massive protests and hunger strikes. We were on Fox News all the time. Students would shout down right-wing speakers who would come to campus. Through all of this, the journalist couldn’t take an opinion.

Now, we’re in a moment where journalists are thinking, “What is my obligation to my community,” “What is my response to the history of racism and oppression in this country,” and, “How can we help fix these problems while also maintaining the principles of journalism?”

There’s an essay by William Kittredge, who was friends with Raymond Carver and that world of Pacific Northwest writers of the ’70s and ’80s. He’s writing about Carver’s mistreatment of the people around him, I think, and he says something like, “I used to think that the work justified everything. Now, I know nothing justifies anything.” You have to try to be a good person in the world, in other words, as well as a good writer. Somehow you have to reconcile these things. “No Cops” is a little bit about that. I think a lot of my work is.

You approach vital but divisive topics, such as how the homeless are treated, but it never feels didactic.

I’ve been thinking about “No Cops” as I’ve been marching in the streets [of Brooklyn] denouncing the police in my minor, timid way. One of the central questions of the story is whether or not it’s ever okay to call the police, more or less, and there’s a down-and-out alcoholic at the center of the story who prompts these questions. And now I live next door to a police station, and there’s a guy in pretty rough shape who shares the block with them, with me. And so we all do this dance around each other. Can I be of some help to this person? Is it safe for him to be here on the stoop next to the police station? That story was originally drafted five or six years ago, and it’s about Missoula. But it’s funny how it feels relevant right now.

One of the more recent stories in the collection is “Attention.” It takes me so long to write anything, so that’s one of the first stories that’s caught up, somewhat, to the current moment. It’s grappling with how to be a person in the world during this evil and mind-breaking administration.

But it’s really hard to keep up. I lived in Charlottesville for years and moved away in the summer of 2016. On the day that I was finishing a final edit on Early Work, in Boston, the murderous right-wing rally in Charlottesville happened. It was so hard to reconcile the slow pace of fiction with what was going on in the world. I tried to jam in references to Trump and the alt-right, but ultimately, except for one oblique sentence, I removed all reference to those events from the book. They weren’t organic to the work. It just wasn’t the place for it. I guess I try to have faith that if you are writing from a real place, your politics will come through.

In “Attention,” two characters are in bed together, and one asks the other if she thinks there will be a revolution. This discussion struck me as true to many young people’s private experiences in the last few years.

I lived in Boston during the first stretch of the Trump administration. Because of who happened to be there and what was happening, I fell in with the “serious” socialist crowd, with whom I’d long been a fellow traveler, if never, you know, particularly active. I was an artist, you know — can’t get too bogged down in tactical details.

I do think that one of the things about being super ideological, which I’ve become, most of the time, is you can lose the ability to see yourself or your cohort outside of your narrow political aperture. This is all to say I think a lot about writing about this sort of insular world of left-wing politics, but it would probably get me denounced by all of my comrades. [Laughs.]

I know Iris Murdoch writes about factions of the left in Britain. Do other models come to mind?

The Golden Notebook is the best thing I’ve read about factions of leftism. It’s all about whether to stay in the Communist Party in the ’50s after the revelations about Stalin. My friend Caleb Crain just wrote a great book called Overthrow that’s about the fallout from Occupy Wall Street. It’s about these characters dealing with their legal cases after they hack a government database.

My partner, Laura, who’s a diehard Henry Jamesian, said The Princess Casamassima was the best thing she’s read about the debates between the upper bourgeoisie, who want to be involved politically, and the actual revolutionaries. She said it’s the best book about “radical chic.”

A passage in “Attention” seems to describe Trump but doesn’t name him. You make this move elsewhere in the collection with Amazon and, in Early Work, with Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. Can you speak to the choice to be explicit or merely describe?

There’s a lot I dislike about my work, but the thing I do like about it is its clarity. Often, that does seem to mean using proper names, so more often than not I will name musicians, or books, or politicians. Sometimes, in MFA programs, students are told not to have too many references — like, “What if people don’t know who Kendrick Lamar is in 10 years?” To which I say, “They can Google it, because we all live in the future.

But, particularly with things like Trump and Amazon — things that on some level I don’t want to give the satisfaction of preserving in print — there will be more terrible leaders and other monolithic corporate entities that treat their workers terribly, who promise everything and deliver nothing. So, not naming is making a bet, or maybe a wish, that the current version won’t last. Also, it can just be fun to force the reader to think it through.

I’m occasionally reminded of Philip Roth when reading your work, especially when you’re writing in first person.

Roth’s voice across his work has had a big influence on me. His writing tends to have a spoken quality, argumentative and erudite but always clear, rarely using words that the average person would have any trouble understanding. He does a kind of realism that is stagier than it looks at first glance. His people give speeches and have debates that are more eloquent, and go on for far longer, than real conversation, but he creates structures in which this feels natural.

Can you tell me about the process of deciding which stories made it into the book?

At one point my agent suggested I write a story that would demonstrate my “range” — think the Viking story in [Wells Tower’s] Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned — and I turned around and wrote a story about a book club made up of twentysomethings that meets in Brooklyn. So maybe range isn’t in my repertoire right now! There’s one story I cut about a wild stepbrother visiting Missoula for a long weekend that I have a lot of affection for. It’s kind of a classic B-side situation. If FSG ever puts out a “rare and unreleased” comp, that’s where it belongs.

You’ve talked about your desire to write a multigenerational book tapping into your own family’s story.

[Laughs.] Where’d I say that?

Is that true?

Yes, that’s true.

How are you approaching that work differently?

It’s hard. I’ve been writing about a young woman trying to write a multigenerational Armenian family saga. She’s doing research into the Armenian Genocide and unable to sleep, because the material is so horrible. For me, the instinct is to take a slightly meta approach.

I do need to be a little less antic and find new ways of working to get at the meat of life. My tendency is to undercut everything with a joke. Cool for America is serious, and a few stories are not funny at all, but I often feel the best route to a point is through humor.

Let’s talk about the cover! What is that?

[Laughs.] That is the question.

It’s Mount Rushmore, but is it a sand sculpture? Concrete?

The photograph was taken by a Brooklyn-based artist, Jason Fulford, and it looks like a madman recreated Mount Rushmore in their backyard. When I saw it, I thought, “What could better capture America?” I’m sure I’ll be asked about it again, so I should probably make up a story. “My uncle Jim built this in his backyard, and now he’s buried under it.” That’s pretty good, right?


Sarah Cozort’s work has appeared in Barely South, The Nashville Scene, LARB, and the Academy of American Poets (online), among other publications. Her scholarly work focuses on use of creative-writing pedagogy in the first-year composition classroom, writing studies’ labor, and narratology of birth work.



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