August 22: “Contributor’s Note” by Michael Martone

Happy birthday to me, Story366! I’ve been waiting for this post all year. Is it because I like aging? Is it because I like receiving warm wishes? Is it because I like cake and presents? A couple of those are true, but really, I’ve been waiting because I’ve been holding off on covering Michael Martone until today, as IT’S HIS BIRTHDAY, TOO!!! I have long admired Michael’s work—he’s one of my most direct and traceable influences—and for almost twenty years, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing the guy, too—he’s one of my favorite people in the whole writing world. I ran into him at AWP  in LA and he told me I was doing a good job on Story366, which of course means the world to me. I thanked him and said that I was holding out for our birthday to cover him, so here I am, celebrating with Michael Martone, Valerie Harper, Ivan Lendl, Beanie Man, Kristin Wiig, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Richard Armitage, Carl Yastrzemski, Ray Bradbury, one of the Backstreet Boys, the Loch Ness monster, and a whole bunch of other people with whom we share today.

I’ve read everything that Martone has put out except Michael Martone by Michael Martone, from FC2, which I finally picked up at AWP this year (already with the intention of reading it for today), and got more than halfway through it before it was time to go to my birthday dinner. I’ve always been a fan of his work, especially his high-concept projects. Early in his career, in Alive and Dead in Indiana and Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List, he wrote a lot about his home state, Indiana, often from the POV of famous Hoosiers. I first met him when he visited Bowling Green, around 1998, and he had just released Penseés: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle, a whole book of shorts from the perspective of the former VP and fellow statesman. I published one of his 4-themed stories in Mid-American Review, over fifteen years before that book, Four for a Quarter: Fictions, was finished and came out. He published The Blue Guide to Indiana, which features fake Indiana tourist spots, written exactly like the Blue Guide travel series. The great thing about these projects is that Martone knows that they’ll become books one day and in his cover letters, he explains to the editor what he’s doing, how the individual piece fits in, and editor after editor falls in love and publishes them. My last two projects, Chicago Stories and the Breakup Stories book, are modeled after this type of project. I wouldn’t be this me without Michael Martone.

Michael Martone by Michael Martone might be his most clever, well conceived, and well executed concept. Each story is titled “Contributor’s Note,” save one, which is titled “Vita,” hidden in the middle of the book, and each story, more or less, begins “Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Inidiana, in 1955 …” then diverges from there. In each piece, Martone fabricates a fake mini-biographies of himself, focusing on different aspects of his (fake) life. They are fashioned like contributors notes in literary magazines, though most are much longer, running several pages. The real miracle: Martone actually talked twenty or so literary magazine editors into publishing these pieces in the contributor’s notes section of their magazines. This probably took the most legwork, the most convincing of any of Martone’s projects, as again, many of these stories—or “fictions,” as Martone would call them, as they don’t necessarily have antagonists, conflict, etc.—are several pages long. So picture a lit mag like Ninth Letter or Sou’wester, Martone’s name on the back cover. You flip to the table of contents and don’t find his name there, nor do you find any work in the contents of the mag. Later, you flip through the contrib notes, and smack dab in the middle of everyone’s fifty-word bios is this seven-page monstrosity of a note, which is actually Martone’s story, his contribution. I’ll have to ask him who was the first, what mag agreed to this before seeing anyone else do it, becoming the first. What an idea, but kudos to him, equally, for actually pulling it off.

Since Martone isn’t afraid to spit in the face of lit mag convention, I’ll spit a little at Story366 convention today and discuss the stories in the book in general instead of any particular piece. Remember, just about all of them have the same title, and when you read a dozen or more of them in a row, they do tend to slightly run together. That’s intentional, though, Martone building a rhythm, a lyricism, and some patterns. Most of these patterns are contradictions (what someone might call “lies”), Martone in one story describing how he got his job at Alabama, while in another, he depicts himself as a lifelong grave digger. In one piece, Martone reveals that his mother, a high school English teacher, is the actual author of his early creative work, but in another, she dies during childbirth. Martone discusses his family a lot, plus his career, his travels, his accomplishments, and yes, his Indiana, which he can’t seem to escape. Each piece reads as much like a poem as it does an actual contributor note and I ate them up, one after another, enjoying the paths through his not-lives that he takes us down.

Like any great satirist, Martone is most sharp when he points the lens at himself, what makes this project so great. Reading through Michael Martone by Michael Martone, it’s easy to spot those inconsistencies, but after a while it makes sense: All of it is a tribute. Martone ribs his parents a lot, not always portraying them in the brightest of lights, but he does so because it’s clear he’s fond of them, that’s he’s incuding them in on the joke. Same thing with Indiana. He keeps going back to his beloved state because he loves it. He could write about Utah or Maine or Mississippi, but he doesn’t care about those states. The people and things close to Martone must be screaming, Me! Do me next!

Clearly, I’m a fan of Michael Martone and Michael Martone by Michael Martone might be my favorite thing he’s written. He’s done us all a great service with his teaching, editing (I use both his Scribner’s anthology and Not Normal, Illinois in my classes), and his innovation as a writer. He inspires me and continues to do so, year after year. Happy birthday, sir.