A Long, Strange Trip

The incredibly true story of how two young writers hit the big time



Greg Martin, author of Mountain City
Released this week from North Point Press (cloth, $21)

Art appreciation seems to be divided into two distinct categories: things you like for their own sake, and things you like because you know the artist. In the former case, you would like nothing more than to know the artist; in the latter case, your enjoyment is directly tied to the fact that it is your brother, for example, who is playing the innkeeper in the nativity play. It is the knowledge of his struggle with his lines, or his shyness, or the fact that he is wearing your dad’s bathrobe with all of the loose nuts and bolts in the pocket that makes it enjoyable, hilarious, or moving when he calls out: “There’s no room at the inn!” When it comes to an oeuvre by family and friends, most often what is sublimated is your critical judgement and what is emphasized is the knowledge, understanding and background that makes you appreciate that one-liner more than anyone else in the house.

So it is with Greg Martin, whom I have known for nearly 15 years. Sharing an interest in the woods, the West and writing, we have continued to cross paths, and I have been reading versions of Mountain City, a profile of his Basque family and the town where they live in northern Nevada, since we were both in graduate school. I have even been to Mountain City, fished in the Owyhee, and hung around Tremewan’s store. While all of these things disqualify me as an objective reviewer, they do enable me to ask some questions, which may shed some light on where, how and why a first book comes to be.

What were the circumstances or motivations that led you to become a writer?

Being some kind of artist is the only ambition I’ve ever had. When I was a teenager, I thought I might become a pianist. I played the piano pretty seriously until I was eighteen, and that instilled in me the virtue of ritualized practice. After seeing the poet Philip Levine read, and sensing how his poems elevated the lives of ordinary working people, I decided I wanted to become a poet. Later, when I started graduate school in poetry, I decided that I’d give myself 20 years, and if I hadn’t gotten anywhere, then I’d choose another career. As it turned out, all my teachers kept reading my long narrative poems and saying, “Why aren’t these paragraphs? Have you considered prose?” At first, this was a little discouraging. Then I tried prose, and my writing started taking off.

How have you supported yourself while writing?

I waited tables a lot. I also worked as a demolition expert/wheelbarrow driver for a remodeling contractor. I worked for $6.50 an hour as a librarian at the Poetry Center in Tucson, one of the best jobs I ever had. For a while I wrote encyclopedia entries for Simon and Schuster. Finally I ended up teaching writing at a community college, which is what I do now.

During one really low point, I was looking through the classifieds for grant-writing jobs, because I thought that was maybe something I could do. All these jobs were listed under “Development.” I wasn’t qualified for any of the jobs so I just kept going. I got to “Dog Bather,” and it said, “experience necessary,” and I had never bathed a dog before. I hadn’t even ever gotten a dog wet. I didn’t know then that the experience was something I might someday need to put on a resume.

How was your book accepted for publication?

When I finished the manuscript, one of my teachers, Alison Deming, suggested an agent. He liked the book, took it on, and four months later, North Point Press accepted it. I know it’s not at all the typical story. I feel incredibly lucky. My agent had met an editorial assistant at North Point at a party the year before, and he sent it to her. She liked it, championed it, and put it in the hands of North Point’s editorial director, who had previously been Ivan Doig’s editor at another publishing house. So she had a real understanding of the sheepherding tradition in the West, the Basque contribution, and on top of that, she liked the book.

How do you deal with criticism, and praise?

William Stafford said, “What one has written is not to be defended or valued, but abandoned: Others must decide significance.” I listen carefully to the criticism and advice of my editors at North Point, to my agent, and to a few friends who I feel understand my aesthetic. The rest I try to ignore. I have been truly flattered by some praise, and it’s been wonderful to be validated by certain writers, like Ivan Doig, whom I admired before I ever even thought of being a writer. But I try to keep things in perspective. I want to keep doing this for 50 more years, and to do that requires humility.

How important is truth to you?

With nonfiction, readers need to know that the “I” voice is the narrator, and that the principal characters are real and stand in the same relation to the narrator that’s depicted. That’s a trust that I won’t violate. But with exact chronology, or whether this character actually did or said this specific thing, I’m far more flexible. These are dramatic concerns, and have to do with that different kind of truth, the capital “T” Truth. In this sense, the nonfiction narrator is sometimes as fictional as a novelist.

Who is your audience?

I wanted to write a book that my Uncle Mel, who does not read literature and rarely even reads the newspaper, would enjoy. I wanted to move him, and make him laugh. At the same time, I wanted to write a book that would be respected and possibly liked by any careful reader, and by authors who have written in the same tradition: Ivan Doig, William Kittredge, Kathleen Norris, James Galvin—the dead greats like Willa Cather, John Steinbeck and Wallace Stegner. I wanted to participate in that tradition.

Do you have any suggestions for other first-time writers?

One suggestion is to be as single-minded as possible about writing. Try not to want certain jobs in order to feel important or successful or economically secure. Those things will just cause anxiety and distract you. One of my wife’s friends recently told her she was a saint for “allowing” me to only earn adjunct faculty wages when we have a baby on the way. This same friend also thinks I have “the work ethic of a housecat.” My wife’s friend is not helping. As a writer, you can’t worry about what your wife’s friend thinks. My wife’s friend can’t possibly realize how difficult it is to read books on a couch all afternoon, day after day. Especially after a morning of writing. Not only does this take serious concentration, it also requires the willpower to block out imagining what “productive” people might be doing with their day. People underestimate how hard it is to not be productive in this society. I can’t worry about what anyone thinks. I need to be on the couch. I haven’t read the great Russian novelists.

Mark Sundeen, author of Car Camping: The Book of Desert Adventures
Released last week by HarperCollins (paper, $13)

It’s natural that ties of friends and family would preclude any real objectivity when it comes to dealing with what they write, or paint, sing or play. The reverse can be true, too. Pre-existing familiarity with an artist can make for an easy friendship. If nothing else, that familiarity saves you a lot of time you’d otherwise spend asking banal questions should you ever—as you might have hoped—ever actually get to meet that person. Dream a little dream.

Entire chapters of Mark Sundeen’s first book, Car Camping, will be immediately familiar to serial readers of Great God Pan, the roughly twice-yearly “Champion of Californiana” that Sundeen co-edits with pal Erik R. Bluhm. I got to meet Sundeen during his visit (with Bluhm) to Missoula last fall, and found him in person to be much as I’d surmised he’d be from reading his “Car Camping” serial in Great God Pan: affable, easygoing and with a sense of humor as dry as his preferred desert haunts. Sundeen currently guides river trips in Utah, the state which will be the subject of his next collaboration with Bluhm, Salt Desert Tales, due later this year.

Do you make time to write daily or weekly, or are you one of those malarial types who doesn’t go near it for months and then sits down and writes for days on end?

Sometimes I don’t go near it for months at a time, but that has less to do with temperament than employment. When I am guiding river trips I just don’t have time or interest in writing. I was just working for Outward Bound for four months in Mexico. Hardly wrote anything. But then when I have the time, I try to write every morning. It is the most useful thing I have ever made myself do. For instance when Erik and I were in Wendover—we had a grant to work on Great God Pan—I wrote about 100 pages in six weeks. I have found that inspiration comes from discipline, and not vice versa. I think that writing is work, just like carpentry or housepainting. You would be pretty upset if you hired someone to build your house and he only showed up when he was inspired. Or if he said, “I can’t finish before winter. I’m having terrible builder’s block.”

Do you take criticism well, and do you even care? Do you find compliments mildly embarrassing, even if or especially when they’re affixed to the book in blurb form?

The blurbs are fine, because they came from writers I like. I don’t know how I will feel if I get glowing praise from somebody who is a buffoon. I’m sort of dreading hearing something like, “Hunter Thompson for Gen X.” I got a pretty nasty and snide review in the New York Times. People said I should be thankful that they even reviewed it, and I said fuck that. It filled me with some sort of murderous rage, and helplessness, reading some easterner take pot shots at my book when he clearly had no interest in it from the start, and was just reviewing it because he got paid like $500 bucks to do it, and he didn’t feel like getting an honest job. I set the review on fire after I read it. Hopefully I will get more immune to it as I get older, and get panned more often and more severely.

Did you ever go looking to become a writer or did you just kind of wander into it? The same question could also be asked of the desert: Were you out searching or did you just find it?

I was always better at writing than I was at anything else. That hung over me sort of ominously, because I didn’t really enjoy doing it, and I absolutely had nothing to write about. So when I went out to the desert, it was partly about trying to get material, but more to find something to do that would be consuming enough to make me not worry about writing. I found both, which explains why it took seven years to write this book. I started writing for Great God Pan because it was fun and there was no pressure for it to be literary and because once you wrote it, you could publish it and be done with it, instead of tinkering with a story for five years. Not surprisingly, the things I wrote when I was 21 and trying to be literary are very bad, and the things I wrote to amuse myself and my friends turned out to be my book (which isn’t very good either, according to the New York Times).

Did someone offer to anthologize the “Car Camping” serial after reading Great God Pan, or did you shop the idea around to various publishers?

The book was pretty much all my initiative. If that mythical tap on the shoulder from the big publisher actually exists, I’ve never seen it. I went through all the self-promoting query letters, book proposals, rejection letters, etc. I assumed I would raise $5,000 and publish it myself. Then, luckily, I got an agent. By the time he sent it out, it was already finished, complete with all the made-up stuff. I still feel like I got away with something. I basically wrote a novel and they published it as a travel book. They never asked any questions like, “Is this true?” I’m sure the higher-ups at HarperCollins never even read it. I didn’t complain. Selling a paperback about camping to one of the biggest publishers in the world was a bit like being at the kids’ table at Christmas dinner. You miss all the fascinating conversation that the adults are having (darn), but nobody really cares or notices when you throw cranberry sauce at the dog.

How important is truth to you? You mention in the introduction that you had to “make some stuff up to plug the gaps” at the request of your publisher.

I didn’t really care at all about truth. I cared about making the reader think it was true. My main problem with most novels these days is that by the first page you know it’s all made up. It’s all fable or metaphor or cartoon. I lose interest right away. As for the made-up events, I thought they made the story better, but I’m glad they never really happened to me. They are nothing to brag about.


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