Michael J. Lee lives above a barber shop on St. Claude Avenue. Before that, he studied in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama under Michael Martone. On Thursday, Sept. 29, at 7 p.m., Lee and his former classmate Christopher Hellwig will read with Martone as part of the Live Prose at the Antenna Gallery reading series hosted by Room 220. Lee and Hellwig composed short pieces describing their experiences studying with Martone for the occasion. Hellwig’s will appear on Room 220 later this week.
Francine Prose selected Michael Lee’s collection of short stories Something in My Eye for the 2010 Mary McCarthy Prize in short fiction. It will be published this February by Sarabande Books. His stories have appeared in 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Writers, edited by Blake Butler and Lily Hoang, as well as Conjunctions, Sleepingfish, Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly Review, and others. He is fiction editor of the New Orleans Review and recently finished writing his first novel.
Michael J. Lee on Michael Martone:
Though it’s been years since I was Michael Martone’s pupil—and I have, out of necessity, moved far, far away from Tuscaloosa—those years I allowed him to mold and shape me stand out as some of the best of my life. I think it’s fair to say that if I had not been fortunate enough to stumble into his class that one autumn morning, fifty years ago, I would still be just a no-name writer, typing away in the darkness, and not the beloved and bestselling author I am today.
I can remember my first workshop clearly. I was seated at a long table in a white, oblong room, under fluorescent light, surrounded by my young peers, each one staring at the marked-up manuscript before them—my manuscript. My story was about to be savaged, offered up as an example of what not to do, and I was about to be humiliated in such a way that I would never willingly take another writing workshop. I had been warned about this kind of treatment since the day I made the decision to live the writing life.
But in truth, I had it coming. The story did not display any traces of the kind of literary fireworks I would later produce. But there was a perfectly good reason for this: though no spring chicken, having been out of school almost forty years, I had been whooping it up till dawn every night since I arrived in T-town. The football games, the smoky bars, the risky hook ups: I felt like I was twenty-one again, and was having so much fun that I did not devote adequate time to my writing.
So my story could have been better, or at least longer. At three paragraphs in length, it was more of a setup. It concerned a man who had committed an unspeakable crime and had moved to a new town to get away from the deed and to start his life over among strangers. So it had that going for it. But I hadn’t gone to any lengths to develop the characters, and beyond that the piece was riddled with typos. The only thing I could do while waiting for Martone was to avoid eye contact with my peers, pull the hood of my sweatshirt down lower over my eyes, and take slow sips from my vitamin water.
In those days, Martone was a warm, graying, healthy man whose face was framed just so by thick black glasses, a dedicated intellectual and family man whose very presence often made me ashamed of my lifestyle. He entered the room, took his place at the head of the table, paid his regards to the class, then announced that the workshop would commence.
My peers began just as I’d expected. They charged me, or my work (my work being an extension of me) or my imagination, with being lazy, sloppy, graceless, foolish, disinterested, old-fashioned, insulting, dubious, culpable, and boring, and then offered some suggestions on how I might improve the piece. I took it all in stride, jotting down the gist of everything they said, even smiling weakly through the tears and shaking my head when I felt that they got in a particularly good jab. I would find ways to make them pay later.
Finally, when the others had burned themselves out, Martone cleared his throat and began to speak.
“Michael?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, gazing down at my notepad from within my hood.
“Michael, will you please look at me?”
“Yes,” I said, and my eyes followed his voice to the head of the table, where he sat, smiling warmly.
“I want you to keep your eyes right here,” he said, forking his fingers at his own eyes.
“Ok,” I said. “I’ll try.”
“What you’ve written is a story,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“A story,” he said. “Something with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
“Ok,” I said.
“There are a lot of people here who think otherwise,” he said, “but you shouldn’t listen to them.”
“Why not?” I said.
“Because what you’ve given us is so rich.”
“Really?” I said.
“Really,” he said. “Where your peers see laziness, I see intentional torpor. Where they see sloppiness, I see a mind too fiery to look back.”
“And where they see culpability?” I said.
“I see blissful ignorance.”
“Anything else?” I said, holding my pen at the ready.
“No,” he said. “That’s it.”
I was disappointed that he didn’t have more to say, of course, but it was quite a nice thing for him to bring the conversation up out of the gutter like he did, and I never forgot it. We forged quite a bond on that day, and in that workshop in general, especially when I began writing better. During the next few years, I took as many classes as I could from him, even through distance learning. He even helped to direct my thesis, in which I was finally able to expand the story about the criminal who flees his home for another home, and after some serious editing, it went on to sell a million copies. Anyway, I just think you should take some of this into consideration the next time you hear the name Martone and it summons all sorts of awful connotations.