Interview With Author Dr. Lee Martin

# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

Hello. I’m Lee Martin, one of a number of Lee Martins who are writers. I’m the one who writes literary fiction and memoirs. I’m the author of six novels, one of them a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; four memoirs; two short story collections; and a craft book on narrative. I teach in the creative writing program at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. My latest book is a memoir, Gone the Hard Road. It’s a companion piece to my first memoir, From Our House. That first memoir told the story of the farming accident that cost my father both of his hands when I was barely a year old and the anger he brought into our home. This new memoir is the story of my mother, a grade school teacher, who gave me a love for books and made a creative life possible for me in spite of the eventual cost to herself.

Father’s day

# What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?

I grew up in a rural part of southeastern Illinois on an eighty-acre farm in a township made up of gravel roads that ran straight and joined together at right angles. To get to the nearest town, we had to get on a paved road that we called the slab, the blacktop, or the hard road. If someone, as I eventually did, left the area, they were said to be “gone the hard road.” My home, when I was a child, was a place of sadness and anger because of my father’s accident. I sensed at an early age that I wasn’t made for farm work, and my mother must have known that, too. She recognized my talents with language, and she did all she could to encourage them. She enrolled me in a children’s classics book club, she took me to the public library, and she bought me books. Because of her, the world opened to me and I began to imagine a life somewhere beyond the dusty gravel roads. Thanks to my mother, I’m blessed with the life I have now, the life of a writer and a teacher. Gone the Hard Road is my attempt to understand how my mother was able to guide me to this life in spite of my father’s resistance.

Mom and me as a baby
Mom at the chowder

# What inspires/inspired your creativity?

I’m not sure I believe in inspiration. Instead I believe in perspiration. In other words, I think writing happens because someone puts the time in year after year at the writing desk, developing what natural talents there might be, rather than by some stroke of inspiration. That said, there are tricks I use to make sure I’m writing. A seemingly insignificant detail–a pair of shoes, for instance–can create a narrative. Day by day, I follow that narrative out of a curiosity to see what might happen next.

# How do you deal with creative block?

I’m not sure I believe in writer’s block either. If something’s not working, try a different approach. If something’s really not working, start something new. Norman Mailer once said, “Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego.” Isak Dinesen said, “I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.” The key is to keep writing.

# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

Go ahead and make mistakes. Make lots of mistakes. Then figure out why they’re mistakes and how you can fix them. How else do we learn?

# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

I usually choose a detail or a phrase from the book that resonates on a literal and a figurative level for the title. I think you can see how that works for Gone the Hard Road, a book that ends with me leaving home. As for covers, that’s usually in the hands of the publisher, but with Gone the Hard Road the publisher did ask for my ideas and I sent a few images to show them what I was thinking, and they came up with what I believe is a very attractive cover that captures the essence of the book’s setting.

# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

Bad reviews hurt–I can’t lie about that–but if they’re thoughtful they often have something to teach me. Having written a long time now, I can safely say a bad review never kept me from writing. In fact, I often translated my hurt or anger onto the page of whatever I was working on at the time. Like a good actor, we have to use our life experiences for the sake of our characters.

# How has your creation process improved over time?

The more I write, the harder I am on myself, and that’s a good thing. When I was young, I wrote and wrote, and I was blind to my own shortcomings. Everything seemed so wonderful to me. Then the more I read and the more I wrote, the more I began to understand how much I still had to learn. Writing is a life-long apprenticeship.

# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

I’m going to give one answer to these two questions. My wife and I fell in love in 1974 when I was 18 and she was 16. Then, as young people do, we went our separate ways. It took us thirty-four years to make our way back to each other. That’s a story I want to tell. I also have a new novel slated to come out in 2022, and I’m working on another one now.