“You’re a conductor of a tsunami of emotions and words.” A conversation with Domingo Martinez
I drove my car straight to the front steps, parked right in the emergency zone, figuring no one would mind at 3:00 a.m.: I had no idea what I was doing or where I was. A feeling of utter helplessness radiated down my limbs, and I’m sure, settled quite telegraphically on my features.
I parked the car and forced myself to stride purposefully to the front desk, careful not to betray that sense of powerlessness.
A homeless man sat in the chair opposite the one receptionist, stuttering out a perceived or fabricated ailment so he could spend the night indoors. Ten other homeless people waited behind him.
I gave him a full three minutes before I kept myself from physically lifting him out of the chair and shoving him aside, and when the receptionist could finally sense my mounting anxiety and eroding self-control, she acknowledged me and bade me forward, asked why I was there.
I elbowed the smelly little man to the side and started with what I knew–name, car accident, emergency call from the state patrol, her parents were back east…how big is this fucking hospital? How do you not keep track of the intake of people?
“Here she is,” she said finally.
–Excerpt from My Heart is a Drunken Compass (Lyons Press)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: The parallel events you relate in My Heart Is a Drunken Compass are intimate and traumatic and your prose feels urgent, direct, an unvarnished reflection of that pain. The first is a 2007 accident after which your youngest brother is hospitalized with a life-threatening head injury. In Seattle, away from your family and unable to travel to Texas to be with him, you cycle between grief and guilt, fear and relief at not being there. The second narrative hinges on an accident two years later that lands your recent ex-girlfriend in the ICU for months with similarly life-threatening injuries. Though you are no longer with Steph, you are drawn into a daily cycle of hospital visits, supporting her parents in spite of the palpable awkwardness and deep discomfort that the situation (and relationship) brings you. You hold it together for someone else’s family, self-medicating with booze as your own emotional and professional life implodes. As you wrote about this dark period in your life when you were too (in your words) “crazy” to have any possibility of perspective, how did you maintain that balance between controlling the narrative and allowing your prose to reflect the raw, painful immediacy of that time?
DOMINGO MARTINEZ: When I first started charting the course these two stories would take, I began with the idea of braiding the narrative so that the parallels could be made more physically evident on the page, as we’d move from the back stories to the dramas of the waiting rooms to the steep precipices of change — all pushing the stories on a dual track so the similarities were made almost vulgarly apparent.
In the end, both my editor and I felt this execution wasn’t working because it obstructed flow and created more questions than answers. Instead, I decided to treat each story as an individual event providing a consequential, cause-and-effect flow in a kind of “memory chronology.”
The pacing through the action and traumas reflect the anxiety I still live with, in remembering those times. The words came crushing down on me as I wrote this book (there’s much more I’ve written, but had to parse for purposes of story telling) and it took me far less time to get this out than the first one. These memories, these wounds, were much closer to the surface. So they demanded an immediate vocabulary and vehicle. This book felt like it was sitting on the back of my neck, all the while the first book was being extolled, winning its gilded lilies. I’d stop people in mid-sentence, mid-praise of Boy Kings of Texas and start telling them about the next book I was going to write: “You think THAT one’s harrowing? Jeeze, let me tell you ANOTHER story…”
I think a clearer answer to your question is that when the story is ready, the story tells itself, and if you have the tools and craft, the story will lead you where you — or it, rather — needs to go. And this one needed to get out. I felt freed when I was done with it, from many things.
In the end, though, in the torrent of stories like this, you’re more of a conductor of a tsunami of emotions and words, a crashing train with a volume of verbs and anger hurtling behind you, and you understand you’re all going to die at the same time. As a conductor, you have the brake to slow you down around curves and switches, but no capacity to stop it entirely. So you do the best you can to control the eventual body count, and hope it goes out with style and grace.
AR: Your sentences are dynamic, compulsively-readable riffs, sometimes hilarious, sometimes full of despair, but always propelling the story along. There’s a rhythm to your prose that makes it read like a spoken narrative, like a friend telling an incredible story. It feels spontaneous, almost effortless, and I wonder if you can talk a little about how you achieve this effect as you draft and revise: how do you approach revision at the sentence level without losing that original feeling of momentum and surprise?
DM: Thank you for that description; I’ve worked incredibly hard in crafting the ability to be able to translate the central narrative voice in my head so that it appears as faithfully on paper as I’m living it, or thinking it.
There’s a backhanded compliment in that phrase, “effortless.” I’ve worked really hard developing this style, which now seems effortless. Ha. Anyhow, I think the best description I’ve had from someone is “conversational.” I could have taken that badly, but I chose not to. The rest of it is just instinct and revision. Though I do count, as a part of this discipline, my early iMac, when I’d stay up far too late at night writing the stories in Boy Kings (I did this often with Drunken Compass, as well) and using the voice program, play the day’s writing back to me on the iMac, with the computer voice that sounds like Stephen Hawking, and just pace my apartment, listening for those jarring moments on the page, then fixing them, then playing it all over again. See? Revision.
AR: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that your writing process for The Boy Kings of Texas was very solitary, and that the book was completed over 15 years. In My Heart is a Drunken Compass you give the reader a glimpse into that period of your writing life before you were published. In spite of the seemingly constant barrage of bad luck and traumatic events that are central to Drunken Compass, you manage to stick to a writing routine, even when you have little confidence that the work will ever be published and with virtually no community of writers to share your writing with. In fact, only after your best friend Sarah offers to send out some of your work on your behalf do you finally send your stories out- at practically your lowest emotional point. I’m curious about whether your essential writing practice changed as you set out to write your second book. Do you approach sharing your work in progress any differently now that you have access to a wider community of writers?
DM: I did reach out and try to work with others in a “writer’s group” for My Heart is a Drunken Compass at first, when it was finally sold to my publisher. That didn’t work out, and it simply doesn’t work for me, I am now thoroughly convinced.
I was lucky enough to be invited to Bread Loaf last year, and that was as close to working with others as I could get. When I came back to Seattle, I tried to keep that spirit of “writer’s community” alive, but the fire died out. (Sorry, Cormac.) I’m not sure if it’s about people’s schedules, the off-topic discussions about The Walking Dead that take up so much time, or the fact that I do make every attempt to listen to other people’s criticism of my work, then hold up their work in comparison to mine and find their credibility lacking. Or it might just be that I’m an asshole sometimes, as Sarah likes to gleefully point out.
Secondly, I don’t find a structured support system in place, here in Seattle. I’m finding that Seattle is more of a city to which you retire, after you’ve had a successful career, in which case I fully appreciate that my situation was blind, absolute, astronomical luck. I gave it a whirl, but I think people here just aim too damned low for my tastes. I think my operating manifesto back when I first started was, “I’d rather be rejected by The New Yorker than included in the local chapbook.” There’s the hubris of youth for you. Twenty years later, I was finally published in Epiphany, a small literary magazine out of New York. (See?! My plan worked!)
So I’m back to writing in coffee shops and bars and libraries, and sometimes at home. And when I feel ready, I’ll see if Sarah is interested in reading something I’ve recently written. She’s the only person right now that I genuinely, absolutely trust, and even with her I carry veto power. I mean, it’s my career, after all: not hers. But otherwise, yes: it’s back to being the lone wolf, though this time, I’m guarding this side of the door, trying to keep the other wolf — the larger, scarier one — on his side of that same door.
AR: So, about that scary wolf at the door…in My Heart is a Drunken Compass you let the reader witness a complete rock-bottom period for you: professionally and personally, where bad luck has a cascading effect (“one more level descended.”) But as the book closes, your luck has finally begun to turn: the friendship with Sarah deepens and grows, your first stories are sent out and accepted for publication, and you find an agent who champions your work. How do you define success now, from the other side of that door, and how has your perspective on success changed (if at all) during these last few years? Do you have advice for writers who are still staring that wolf in the face, who may be discouraged and struggling to find their audience?
DM: I don’t think I was the only unpublished writer who thought publishing my first book was the answer to all of my life’s problems, all my issues and lapses. I was naïve enough to actually believe it would satisfy every yearning, heal every wound and quiet all the storms the limbic system can muster in a person’s life. I can tell you, that’s not at all the case. It’s a lot like I would imagine mountain climbing would be like if I wasn’t such a coward and afraid of heights, and out of shape. (Well, pineapple is a shape: I’m shaped like a pineapple. In some cultures, people put photos of me at their front doors to welcome you in.) You start the climb and when you reach a certain point, you stop, catch your breath, look at the sights and take it in, and then start again, move to the next stage, stop, catch your breath, look at where you are and take it in, and then go on, hoping the footing doesn’t give way since you’re now so far up. It’s terrifying, sure, but it’s a much more fulfilling terror than realizing you’re in a career that’s losing its sustainability and you’ll never be able to retire, like I was at 40 and managing a print shop.
As for advice, the only thing that doesn’t feel insincere is telling people they have to take risks, no matter the wound to your ego, and where there are no risks, create them yourself. It’s fine to do things the traditional way, but if you see a crack with a bit of light shining through, break it open and put yourself through that hole. Send your work to The New Yorker instead of the campus chapbook. Take your lumps when you get rejected. Then get up and do it again. So take the risk. Ask the cutest boy to dance. He might be too pretty and scrunch his perfect nose, but he’s probably a really good kisser.
AR: Do you write with a particular reader or audience in mind? How does this shape your writing style and the details you choose to bring to the foreground?
DM: Funny you ask that. There was a period when I would write things in order to make my younger brother laugh. In Drunken Compass, I go into specific detail as to how as a family we’d reached this point of unusual idealization of that kid, but I spent most of the last year with him and I’m afraid to say, Derek’s not as quick-witted or sophisticated as I’d made him out to be, in my mind. Not to take anything away from the guy: this was just a product of distance. He’s sharp enough, a good heart and all that, but he’s just not the “idealized” version of himself that we had made.
Now I write for the producers at HBO, and I think that’s a much more healthy and realistic target audience. Certainly more generous. Actually, I’m kidding there, I think. That’s very much a job for me: For them, I’m writing for television, and it’s been quite the education, let me tell you. It’s the opposite instincts there, where you have to eliminate nuance and subtlety.
Writing for print, for a story, I think I’m now very obviously writing for my own self, to see what amuses and moves me. (I always felt I had the best sense of humor of anyone I knew. But then I met my friend, Bruce, who’s much funnier than me. Screw that guy.) Anyhow, I don’t think I edit or parse a story for any particular audience anymore. I try to write it as clearly as I see the story unfold in my mind, taking an emotional radar picture of a moment, and translating that one into the next.
AR: I’d love to know more about the process of adapting The Boy Kings of Texas for HBO—first of all, congratulations! It’s great that the book is getting that added recognition and it seems lucky that you’re directly involved with creating the script. I imagine it must feel a bit strange to prepare for a group of actors to play your life back to you. Writing for theater and film necessitates creative collaboration in a way that writing prose doesn’t. Scriptwriting can provide some cues for performers, but the writer has to relinquish control earlier in the process. How much does fidelity to the original book/your life matter to you as you think about adapting these stories for a new medium and audience? And what has surprised you the most about the process so far?
DM: Working on the other side of publishing all those years in newspapers allowed me to see the process from the point of view of editors and art directors, enough to know that “fussy artists” who throw fits when their “art” is adapted or reshaped to fit the medium are not asked back. I saw it happen a hundred times when an illustrator or photographer made a fuss when their work was molded to fit a page design, or a writer argued about “their voice” being changed: they were never asked back. So when I was asked to do my first bit on This American Life, I think my response to Ira was, “I’m putty in your hands, Mr Glass!” He grew quiet for a moment, didn’t know what to make of me. Then I think he laughed. I’m changing and rewriting as much as HBO is asking me to and doing it happily, eagerly and with great enthusiasm. They’re paying for it, so I will give them anything they want; they are, after all, the professionals here. That’s the relationship a lot of writers don’t understand from the get-go: you need to trust the people you’re working for, and the minute their checks are signed, the work is theirs, not yours. That attitude has been one of the key qualities of surviving this business. That’s a huge part of why I get asked back.
What has surprised me the most was the fact that I was ASKED to do all this for HBO. It was quite a coup for my agent that they hired me on as their principal writer for the series, having no experience in television. That’s the first WOW. The second came about eight months later, after we’d worked on an outline and finally signed the contracts. That’s when we realized there was a particular bit of phrasing that made everyone choke on their coffee: HBO bought a memoir, based on as much truth as memory allows, but wanted fiction. The whole “based on a true story” thing. So we had to scrap everything we’d done to that point and start writing FICTION, for television, both totally new and unfamiliar landscapes for me. That was pressure. But we’ve made it to the next stage and are working on the script for the pilot. WOW number three.
My favorite moment, if I can share it here, was when this whole process was starting and I was on a conference call with Salma Hayek, her producer, Jerry Weintraub, his producer, and some other people. Obviously, I didn’t feel qualified to even listen in on the call, but there I was, pacing in my apartment in Seattle while these two heavy-hitters from Hollywood were discussing my book. It was surreal, as you can imagine. At the end, Weintraub barks out orders to his producer to get me down to L.A. the following week (“Domingo, Domingo; I read the book. I loved it, I loved it, kid,” right out of a Coen Brothers movie), there’s a back and forth of pleasantries between them and then click: the line goes dead. It’s me and Salma alone on the line for a moment and she says, “Welcome to Hawllywood, baby.” I just about melted.
AR: My Heart is a Drunken Compass takes place in Seattle, your hometown now for many years, but many ghosts and echoes from Brownsville (Texas, where you grew up) appear throughout the book. Though the stories you were writing for Boy Kings centered on your Texas childhood and your family, you still seemed to need to keep yourself at a physical remove from Texas. I’m curious about how or whether your relationship to Brownsville has changed in the past few years, with the publication and success of The Boy Kings of Texas. Does writing about a place that holds many complicated and negative memories for you have a purgative or reframing effect? How does your relationship to a place change after you’ve turned it into a story?
DM: Oh, those are two very complicated questions. I wish I had the “media response” button where I could say, “It’s been a joy and an honor to be so privileged to write about a part of the United States that…” but it’s never going to be that easy.
I’m having to get coffee for this one. Stand by.
All right; coffee and emotional levels corrected. Can continue with interrogatives.
Boy Kings certainly reframed my relationship to Brownsville, and with it, most of my family, and entirely for the positive. All positive, even after what I wrote. Neither my father nor my mother have read that book, interestingly. In my dad’s case, it’s just too far above his level of literacy and I know he will not understand the humor and the complicated relationship my older brother, Dan, and I have with him in our memories. It helps that he’s sober still, Dad, and he’s able to separate THAT Mingo from who he is today. For my mother, she’s far too literal a reader and she just flat out said she couldn’t go back there. I gave her every opportunity, described what was in the stories, had her respond to my memories so that I corrected facts and anecdotes about her family, but then left it at that. As far as I know, she still hasn’t read it. I have her blessings, but she just doesn’t want to go back there.
Truth is, I’d been writing that book for so long, and I was in Seattle while they were stuck in 1985 in Brownsville, Texas, so it never seemed likely that anyone I was writing about would read it. Fast forward to 2013 and I’m getting death threats from my fat cousin, Joe, who still works at the Popeye’s Chicken they opened out on 802. I think the best description is to try and imagine a high school reunion where you’re insistent on arguing how horrible a time you had in high school, and even so, you attend it, only to discover you’re having a great time and you’ve convinced everyone there that they had a horrible time, too. And it pleases you, no end. That’s power: reframing EVERYONE’s memories to coincide with yours. How’s that for a purgative?
I’m kidding. Sorta. My family still doesn’t know why I won’t move back to Texas. I have a hard time explaining why. Last year, I was invited to the Governor’s Mansion for some writer’s festival or another. They asked us to breakfast with that moron, Rick Perry. (“Writers, hunh? What do writers eat?”) I showed up early, jetlagged, and walked over from my hotel and there, at the gates, were two middle aged white men in military uniforms with M1As. Our eyes met, my breath caught short, and I turned around and went back to my hotel and slept until my event that afternoon. Fuck that. That was an ordinary Saturday morning book festival, in Texas. I can’t do that anymore. I don’t trust anybody with an assault rifle and I especially don’t trust a police state full of men still coming off last night’s Viagra. And the thing is, when I point something like this out to anyone in my family, they think that it’s ME that’s being paranoid and oversensitive. That’s my relationship to Texas now. I’ll never be one of them again, and I’ll never be a real Seattleite either. But that’s being an American, isn’t it? One foot there, one foot here? Never fully one or the other?
AR: In an interview you gave after Boy Kings was named a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction you mentioned that you regretted not including an apology to those you’d hurt unintentionally. And in the coda for Drunken Compass, it feels like you’re attempting to do just that– to acknowledge just how complicated it is to tell your story when it’s braided so closely to the stories of the people around you. The potential to hurt others can deter us from writing honestly (or at all) about lived experiences, whether fictionalized or not, and as a writer I appreciated your effort to address this dilemma in the book. How much did the reaction to Boy Kings (whether from people featured in the book or outside readers) influence your approach to writing about friends, family and other complicated, real relationships in My Heart is a Drunken Compass?
DM: I have a catalogue of enemies in my fantasy world of publishing. Sherman Alexie plays Dr Octopus, Junot Diaz is The Joker, and David Sedaris is … French. Anyhow, a long time ago I remember listening to Sedaris on This American Life, reading another essay about his family and he ended it with him in his sister’s kitchen, teaching her parrot to say, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” And I knew exactly what he was saying, even then, before I’d published anything.
Mining other people’s stories to use as wallpaper for your own stories is an arrogance, a narcissism that would be well beyond redemption if you can’t turn it into art, make it human and beautiful and fragile and universal. So I try to apologize to the people I use in my writing by making them as qualities out of a Greek play, making them eternal. Maybe not heroic, maybe not beautiful, but certainly human. Tragically human. Even the people I once hated. (There’s so much love in writing about people you hate. You have to be careful. Writing about someone you think you detest, it’s like inviting them into bed.)
I think that coda I wrote for the end of Drunken Compass is some of the best writing I’ve ever done, mostly because it was an apologia to my family, my friends, my exes and my enemies, and it was a chance to walk away.
I wasn’t afraid to write the most revealing, embarrassing private things about others because I was writing the same way about myself, and the distance made it seem like it would never reach them anyhow. That was Boy Kings, and because I was writing about my family, and my Mexican upbringing, I knew I’d never face a lawsuit. That’s not how we resolve things. Guns, sure, but not lawyers. And how you avoid guns is, you don’t go to that particular Popeye’s Chicken. With Drunken Compass, I was writing about white people, so I was more careful, changed names and locations, preceded the narrative with a disclaimer, adjusted enough to avoid legitimate litigation. I stayed as close to the truth as I could without putting myself in danger or knowing that I was hurting my ex. There’s the humanity, I think, and the art form in memoir: don’t write about someone else’s dirty laundry just to hurt them unnecessarily. Tell the story. The story will tell you when you’re being savage. I tried to maintain my humanity. And that’s why in the coda, I didn’t have to teach a parrot to make my apologies for me.
Find a copy of My Heart is a Drunken Compass on IndieBound.
Domingo Martinez is the author of My Heart is a Drunken Compass (Lyons Press) and The Boy Kings of Texas, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2012, a Gold Medal Winner of the Independent Publishers Book Award, a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee, and has been optioned by HBO for an original series. Martinez’s work has appeared in Epiphany, Texas Monthly, The New Republic, Saveur Magazine, and Huisache, and he is a regular contributor to This American Life. He has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and The Diane Rehm Show, and he was the recipient of the Bernard De Voto Fellowship in Nonfiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2013. Martinez is also a widely sought speaker on topics ranging from the contemporary Latino experience in America to the consequences and processes of writing memoir. He lives in Seattle, Washington.