Street Talk

Michael Gerhard Martin

Michael Gerhard Martin grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and took his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.  He teaches Rhetoric at Babson College, and is the Fiction instructor for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Summer Programs, where he attended his first workshops.  He has been a semi-finalist for the Hudson Prize, and a finalist for the Nelligan Prize, a Glimmer Train New Writers contest, and the Iowa and John Simmons Fiction awards; he is the winner of the 2013 James Knudsen Prize from UNO for his story, “Shit Weasel Is Late For Class".  His work has appeared in Junctures, Bayou Magazine, and The Ocean State Review, and his book, Easiest If I Had A Gun: Stories, is coming this Fall from Braddock Avenue Books.

Writing Process Blog Tour


What are you working on?

My friend and publisher Jeffrey Condran asked me if I’d like to write this post, and I was delighted. You can read his response here:

If you’re a writer and you don’t like attention, get out of the business.

But I don’t do my own blog; I’m not all that into writing anything that isn’t fiction, if I’m honest, and I’ve started about 14 blogs over time and promptly abandoned them all. I also hate Twitter – not the company or the fine people who work there, but the idea that I should express myself in 140 characters, and care about the foreshortened ejaculations of people who tweet. I don’t tweet. Facebook is bad enough.

Right now, I’m wrapping up work on my first book, Easiest If I Had A Gun, which will be out this Fall from Braddock Avenue Books.  The title comes from a line in my story that won the James Knudsen Prize this year, “Shit Weasel Is Late For Class”.  The young narrator thinks about killing himself as a response to some pretty vicious bullying, and the suicidal impulse leads him to get his hands on a pistol, which, he says, is “like a remote control.”

It’s weird, having a book on the way. And it’s also less work than I anticipated. Most of the stories have been worked over again and again, but you never think anything is good enough. I just know I’ve taken all of them as far as I can, and it’s time to listen to my editors if they have anything to say, and to trust them if they say it’s all good. The worst that can happen is that I’ll get panned, never publish anything again, get blind drunk and stumble in front of the Commuter Rail.

No big deal.

Other than that, I’m drafting and outlining. When I don’t have the resources to develop a longer piece – when I’m busy teaching and doing all of the millions of things that the stupid real world requires of us – that’s when ideas come like thunderstorms in upstate New York. So I’m grabbing what I can, and I’m hoping to put together a few short pieces by the end of August so that I can start sending them out.  

Right now, I have nothing out to magazines, because all of my good stuff is in the book. And for a couple of years, I submitted to magazines compulsively. People who know me know that I have a tendency to fixate – have you ever seen a golden retriever obsess on a tennis ball just out of reach under the couch? So I turned that doggedness to the dumb task of entering fiction contests and sending out manuscripts. With each success – near misses for the Nelligan Prize, the Hudson Prize, the Iowa & Simmons Awards – my mania intensified.

Now I’m sweating off the sugar high of winning the Knudsen, of publishing in both Bayou and the Ocean State Review, of having a book in the works, and I’m craving more. More.  More, I tell you!

How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?

I often work really dark, so I also try to make my readers laugh. If you don’t laugh, you’ve probably had it too easy.

Mark Twain said, “Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”  

I also like to leave you staring into the existential abyss.

I grew up Catholic, so the idea of a great and final void, empty of meaning and judgment, sounds perfect.

If I could buy a summer home in the existential void, I would do it in a second.

Why do you write what you do?

Because I want the world to know that Pennsylvania is a gothic horror of halfwits and dead dreams?

Because writing is an acceptable form of self-mutilation, and it is even more acceptable if it’s entertaining?

Because all around me, people are constantly nostalgic for childhood, and I want to rub their noses in how wrong they are?

In “The Liar,” Tobias Wolff’s narrator says he doesn’t know why his lies are so tragic, dark and morbid.

Once, I sat in my basement with an insurance inspector and egged him on while he related every way he’d ever seen a house kill people. Bad wiring. Collapsed floorboards. Exploding furnaces. Carbon monoxide.

He had very pale skin and hair, and I wondered if he suffered albinism.

He took pictures of the chimney, the water heater, and the gas meter, and told me the gas meter should be moved outside of the structure for the safety of everyone within.

He said he knew I wouldn’t spend the money to do it.

He didn’t say, “It’s your funeral,” but he didn’t have to.

His smile was enough.

How does your writing process work?

First, I write down my basic idea for a story while I am running around. Nothing ever comes at a convenient time.  Often, I’ll look for a story to model my piece on – I’m big on structure, an appreciation and a set of standards that I definitely got from the late Lewis Nordan when I was his student.

Next, I let that idea sit on my desk or in my computer or in a notebook until I have forgotten about it.

Then, I have that idea again, at a more reasonable time, like when my chair has offered me a stipend to write over the summer, and I bang out a quick hand-written draft. I wish I could say that when I’m stuck for ideas I comb my notebooks – and that has happened – but 99% of my ideas die there. It’s like thinning fruit on the tree.

Lately, though, it’s been a quick Word file. I haven’t written by hand in a while.

I like to work at a café in Salem, MA, where the wait staff are arty punk rockers who have the common decency to wonder what this moonfaced old hippy is banging on his keyboard about.  

I’m hard on a keyboard – I have strong fingers, and a lifetime of pent-up hostility.

Once I have the start of it, I will spend time on my back thinking about it. I have a bad back, so I literally lie on the bed, face-up. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t doze – I do, and sometimes I sleep, but the dozing is the important part. I’ll play with ideas and characters in half-sleep, and if I’m lucky I’ll have a vision of the whole thing coming together. If I get it, I’ll make notes, or sometimes even write the ending right away.

I like to find the ending and write towards it – to try to earn it. A lot of my teachers praised Flannery O’Connor’s thing about just letting the story unfold like Revelation, and mine DO unfold – but her novels are not nearly as good as her stories, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admitting that I plan before I write.

I’m looking forward to next week, when I’ll pass this baton to writer and fabric artist Rachel May ( She is the author of Quilting With A Modern Slant, holds an MFA from U. Nebraska, and is about to finish her PhD at URI. Her work has appeared in New Delta Review and Cream City Review, among others.

And, I can’t wait to hear what …