The title STORIES FOR BOYS carries all sorts of connotations and possible meanings. So often, stories associated with or geared toward males include characters like Batman, James Bond, Robin Hood, King Arthur. These characters all exhibit stereotypical characteristics associated with the “ideal” male: strength, unemotional, straightforward, and super noble. But all of the boys (from the narrator to his father to his children) in this story, however, deal with complex emotions; in short, the book shows every kind of human weakness and explores emotional pain. How did you see yourself tackling such themes generally alienated from men, especially under the title STORIES FOR BOYS?
Masculinity, especially for boys, but also certainly for men, is so narrowly defined by our mainstream culture. That notion, which is spelled out in your really good question, is in the air that all of us breathe. I wanted this book to explore notions of masculinity—sometimes lightly, by poking fun at myself (as when I refer to Christine calling me by my superhero name, Mr. Incredible) but most often seriously, by attempting to capture the widest range of my actual emotions, from confusion to sadness, anger to grief, and all the shades in between. It’s a terrible myth that to feel deeply, to grieve, to cry (Boys Don’t Cry) is a weakness, rather than a strength. Obviously this is a cliché, however true, and so books and stories are necessary to explore how and why. But there is certainly this notion that it’s better to be quiet or stoic or to supply an answer or a solution (however bad) than to only listen or acknowledge one’s mixed feelings and confusion and hurt.
I wish I could say that I’ve evolved beyond these mainstream notions of manhood, because at least I can intellectually articulate them. But I’m not so sure. They are still very much a part of me. But what happened with my father forced me to reckon with them in new ways. My first book, MOUNTAIN CITY is also about masculinity, in part, and so the territory wasn’t completely new. But it certainly was different. The challenge for the writer is to somehow have these ideas enmeshed in the story itself, rather than standing apart, so that the book doesn’t pontificate. No one wants that from a novel or memoir. (The Op-Ed is a good form for that.) Stories have to do far more work than explore an idea. They have to penetrate the heart, exorcise readers’ memories, even inflict a kind of pain—both aesthetic and emotional, so that the reader has the kind of experience that the best stories can give.
Can you explain how the memoir took shape and why you included so many pop culture references, psychology studies about repression and white bears, all sorts of stuff about Walt Whitman, emails from your dad, family photos, drawings by your son, even a surprisingly formal, articulate letter somehow written by your family dog?
The best stories intersect with the larger culture and with history. They’re not only about their own particulars. Writing about Whitman, about social science, about pop culture, allowed me to connect this particular story about this particular family to culture and history, to ongoing themes about gender and sexuality and secrecy and intimacy which are larger than any one life or family. And also, I just find the social science really compelling, and I’ve loved Whitman ever since I first encountered him in high school. And so by including all of this, it also helps to develop my character, to show the reader how I’m trying to come to terms with what’s happened with my father.
As far as structure goes—I’m an associative thinker, not a linear thinker. I think like a mosaicist. Collage comes far more naturally to me than chronology. I like tangent and return, tracing the movement of the mind in motion. And so while the book does have a narrative arc that is linear, beginning with my father’s suicide attempt and ending in the more recent present, that’s really not my natural mode. I wanted the story to have more freedom from time than that—so that I could explore my memory and childhood, my father’s memory and childhood. I wanted to build a structure that would allow for tangent and interruption, while at the same time move forward. Stories which work this way successfully teach the reader early on that this is the method, the reader adapts and accepts and so isn’t surprised by it. In fact, one of the things I hope the reader begins to look for is the surprise of the transitions – not just what will happen next, but what kind of section will come next.
And finally, I wanted the emails and photos and all the “raw materials” to give the reader more access, more vantage points and perspectives to view the story—so that they could come to know my father through his own words and not just my account of him and his life.
In your book you reflect on the tension between your desire to write about your experiences with your father and your desire to refrain from telling his story, especially part of it for which you were not present. Since his experiences had such a great effect on you, how did you draw a distinction between what was appropriate for you to discuss and what was not and how did you confront any issues of betrayal regarding both your father and mother?
So, this really is the question, where the memoir is concerned. What’s fair game? What’s not? I think I can honestly say that I didn’t leave anything out when it comes to my mother and father. It’s all in there. Anonymous sex in the bushes at the park, under bridges, out the interstate in the rest area. There really isn’t anything that gave me pause, that was truly hard for me to accommodate about my father and his life, that isn’t in the book. Because, in some ways, that’s the story—the attempt to accept and accommodate, to reckon with and more, to transform from shame to something better, more resonant and even beautiful. How did I know that this wasn’t going to betray my father or my mother? Well, I worried about it in the writing, but I didn’t censor myself, not one bit, during that process. But the answer to this tough question is really simple: I asked them. I showed each of my parents the complete manuscript and asked for their feedback and help and asked them if they were okay with me publishing this. They both said yes—they were very strongly affirmative. And in asking them this and first, writing this book, I relied on my own sense of their love for me, and my own sense of my own capacity and ability to tell the story with complexity and compassion. Had I been as compassionate as I could? I thought so. Had I attempted to characterize them and what had happened as complexly as I could? Yes. So I could stand by my story.
When this comes up in my memoir class, and student writers wonder if they are betraying someone, I often say, “Well, if you want to know the answer, why not just pick up the phone and ask? Send it to them, see what they think?” Sometimes it’s not possible to ask. But more often, though not always, this is not an option they want to consider. They’re not willing to expose their loved ones to what they truly think, or to what they’re thinking about and confused about and wondering about. I suppose it takes a certain temperament to just come out and say or ask these things, and for whatever reason, I happen to have this temperament. Now, what would I have done if either of them had said, “I do not want you to publish this. I can’t have this out in the world”? What would I have done? I don’t think I would have published it. It helped that I had already published an essay, The Family Plot, about the first few months after my father’s suicide attempt, and so I knew, before embarking on a book, that they would both probably be okay with it.
On page 82, you claim that you too had “perfected a skill” you’d been learning all your life, a skill modeled for you since the day you were born–“the ability to maintain a veneer of equanimity, a surface polish, a detachment from your emotional life.” To what extent do you believe that this is a universal issue, one that runs to the heart of who we are as humans, or just solely something that you personally cultivated by watching and imitating your father? If it is a universal issue, is it possible for use to live without secrets, without lies, to be the same person on the outside as we are on the inside? And if it is possible, is it worth it to live without secrets, seeing the consequences your father had to endure after his confession?
I do think it is a universal skill or ability, but I think people possess and cultivate it very differently. That’s one of the questions the book poses. Are some people better at keeping secrets than others? Why? I think it’s pretty clear that my father developed this kind of ability to separate in his own psyche as an unconscious coping strategy to deal with trauma and sexual confusion. I think I developed it, without the trauma in my own childhood, because it was constantly on display, though I didn’t consciously know. I think I got this even from my mother, who must have been cultivating her own denial all along as well—all the things that she didn’t let herself notice, didn’t let her self acknowledge or feel. I can tell you it’s a real handicap. I think I sometimes come across to people as someone who thinks he has it all figured out, when deeper inside this is far from the truth. But I think I project that. I’m more on to myself than I once was, which helps. But no one want to be vulnerable, to talk about real problems to someone who acts as if they don’t have any problems. It’s hard, as we all know, to be the same person on the outside as we are on the inside. I think all of us, on some level, have this feeling that if anyone really knew what went on in my mind, then… As if whatever passing thoughts we had were so truly strange or horrendous or boring, rather than really human, really ordinary. I think one of the things I love about writing—for me, the personal essay and the memoir—is that I get to artfully explore these questions and notions.
But I also think that the book explores the questions of when do we reveal secrets, and to who? And so I hope that I’ve left the reader with the questions: if I were a parent, would I tell my children this? When? How much? Would I tell this much to the reader (total strangers)? How much? Why? For what supposed greater purpose?
GREGORY MARTIN is the author of Mountain City, a memoir of the life of a town of thirty-three people in remote northeastern Nevada, which received a Washington State Book Award, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and is referred to by some people in Mountain City as “the book.” Martin’s work has appeared inThe Sun, Kenyon Review Online, Creative Nonfiction, Storyquarterly, and Orion. He teaches creative writing at the University of New Mexico. He lives in Albuquerque with his wife and two sons.