We never know when inspiration may strike. Take Douglas A. Martin new novel Wolf (paperback, Kindle), an anti-crime novel that, as his publisher Nightboat Books explains it, “Begun as a response to a front page photograph illustrating a tragedy that the media quickly sensationalized in the early 2000s…” In the following email interview, Martin discusses this new book, as well as the new reprint Nightboat are issuing of his first novel, Outline Of My Lover (paperback, Kindle).
I always like to begin with a plot overview. So, what is Wolf about?
You might think this should be an easy question. Not so much. I react against any kind of prefacing when reading, really, thinking how the work should just stand without any framing, though I have been mellowing. The few times I have read from this book so far, while I was waiting to find a publisher, I would just say, “It’s a patricide.” Thinking about plot as shaping, I have also sometimes said it’s about this family triangle that becomes a square. That’s me thinking about genre or domestic fiction as inherently Freudian in function, I guess, but I don’t have a good elevator pitch. It’s about discipline, both in the home and in society. The setup is a single father household and how some adopted routines of the day-to-day life start to come out of place once this adolescent slips into a fantasy.
Where did you get the idea for Wolf, and how, if at all, did the plot change as you wrote it?
There is a piece of writing by George Perec that I was giving in school which I have thought about a lot, “Approaches to What?” Published the year I was born. He writes about where we train our attentions, to which “big” things and how, to what effect. Around the same time as reading this, I had begun working with an agent to try to sell a book. She said to me at one point, looking out for my future and all that, “When are you going to leave your world behind?” It was not an unkind prompt, and I began to think about how I could move some of what had mattered most to me in the fiction I was creating out of my life into other setups and situations…though here in the end this wouldn’t be such a stretch, with the ultimate outcome of a murder aside. The plot was always there in that I knew it was events around and that went into a fateful night. What changed were the particular brightness or not of references. Suddenly I have that not hurting a fly line in my mind, Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock’s ending, one movie my stepfather said I should watch that will now never leave me. What changed as I was writing were some of my sympathies also as I continued to check my own rebellions.
Your publisher, Nightboat Books, called Wolf “an anti true crime novel,” and says it was, “Begun as a response to a front page photograph illustrating a tragedy that the media quickly sensationalized in the early 2000s…” But I’m a little confused: is this a work of fiction or a heavily fictionalized take on a real-life crime? Or something else entirely?
I don’t like easy classifications, and so this is an attempt to create a nexus of a couple of interrelated realities interacting. Would having one or the other change your reading experience? I honestly would stop at “book,” but there are markets. Somewhere to go to get what you might like to get. It’s like a question I would sometimes get with my first book of prose. Why not just write a memoir? It is a novel against the way I perceive a particular genre to work. But I wouldn’t even call it thinly veiled.
So how different is the story in Wolf from the real-life tragedy that inspired it?
As much as the novel is more open to me, I don’t allow myself the liberty of just making anything up. Within the recreation, what I am doing is more like guided interpretation. I cop to that. I am working within a setup of some known facts, or pieces of information that came down to me as facts, certain documented instances that became evidence. This sets a story on its trajectory, like a “based on true events” one, while I hold to the spaces around what has been recorded. One thing that has been instructive to me is there is another case that this one is often mistaken for when I start telling someone about the book. And that speaks to me. Then it is not an isolated incident. It is beyond that, something like an afterlife of a fact, how they echo. That’s how it becomes a book to me. At one point I thought I might call it a household story, after the Grimms, and another layer that went into its compositional mixes was an analysis of folk tales that Vladimir Propp did long ago.
Does Wolf include the photo in question?
No, no pictures. And if so, it would have to be one treated somehow. Preferably by my own hand. No matter where it fell, it would collapse and condense too much being bound along with the words, and would also cease to blur with other pictures that are used in the narrative, other descriptions that somewhat become the backgrounds of each other. So this way the picture can expand. But I have tried to find the one in question again at various points, and once I did, on microfiche, but then I lost it again, in the basement of Bobst library where I went for other things too. My point in searching was not to assert or include it, to prove it, but that I wanted to check back in with initial feelings, to gauge if I still saw what I might have before I began looking into what was behind it all more.
As I mentioned, your publisher calls Wolf “an anti true crime novel.” But in writing this book, did you read any true crime novels, even if just to see what not to do?
Yeah, I read and also literally ripped apart some! I knew I did not want this note of sanctimoniousness I had picked up on in one. I knew I did not want moralizing as the move of closure. I did not want to do this or that just because it would be predictably more exciting but tried to keep in mind what was feeding those excitements. If [Sarah Weinman’s] The Real Lolita had been published at the time, that’s probably where I would have started. Or Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites, studies of the experience or pull a particular group has with a genre, which is a set of codes. To get a better grasp on what this was meant to be doing to me in being presented to me. My mother loves true crime. But at the time I was composing it initially, I felt alongside Maggie Nelson’s Jane, a friend with this book my boyfriend at the time trying to help get published. When she published The Art Of Cruelty, I was still working on this book and then teaching sections of that. I thought about the move of Truman Capote’s “non-fiction novel,” and at some point there was a memory of another book. [Norman Mailer’s] The Executioner’s Song was the only one in this cubbyhole on my stepfather’s side of the parental waterbed. As much as I point to Mailer’s doorstopper, I am also thinking about how Matthew Barney developed it in one of his Cremaster installations I had seen. And portraiture, what happens in painting one. I read horror growing up. But I read it more for the sex than anything. That’s what I wanted to get to. What Clive Barker was doing at first. Stephen King of course. Anne Rice above all else for her male intrigues. Really what I should have read as part of the writing was Harry Potter, because that’s one of those recorded details about the model for my youngest boy here, that he was quiet and read Harry Potter.
Aside from the people you may have just mentioned, are there any writers who had a big influence on either what you wrote in Wolf or how you wrote it? And I mean just on Wolf specifically, not on anything else you’ve written?
I matured as a writer reading Dennis Cooper. Wolf would not exist without the gravity of his books, the way those worked their themes. And also profound to its formulation was Elfriede Jelinek’s Wonderful, Wonderful Times. Its gruesome climax took my breath and impressed me very deeply as a benchmark.
What about non-literary influences; was Wolf influenced by any movies or TV shows?
What’s influential for me tends to be just as much what I want to react against. Mystic River. I also told people early on that I was writing an anti-Mystic River, though to be fair in the film once we get past the soundtrack of the racing heart, there is that one incredible scene of Sean Penn doing Greek wailing among the crowd. And even if I were inclined to just let go some crack the author made about Chelsea when he visited my MFA program, I don’t like what somehow becomes politicized spectacle within entertainment, when it is a daddy will make everything all right, plus those places where clearly titillation coexists alongside arguments for retribution. This haunts me. But I still went to the dinner with that author. Why do I love David Lynch? Because I feel like he doesn’t let you off the hook? Because of that horror in everyone laughing around me in the theater when Leland grabs Laura’s check like that, and I feel there is a way for me to actually know it intimately? I tried True Detective twice now, but first I was like no way am I signing up again for something that launches from the corpse costumed woman. Giving it a chance again, I got interested in how season three was starting, but the gentleman witch I make my home with wasn’t into it. My wanting to throw a beer at the screen during that handcuffed to the bed scene in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Get up and leave? Just going off the first episode of Escape At Dannemora, I said inside to myself, “This is Wolf!” Recognizing something of the territory, like in the conditions of the piece and its underpinnings, why it might be going where it would. But I need to finish it. I could probably point all the way back to 2001’s Bully. This project started like a year after that in its earliest notes towards.
Now, along with Wolf, Nightboat Books are also issuing a twentieth anniversary edition of your first novel,Outline Of My Lover, on the same day. For those who haven’t read it, what is that story about?
It’s historical fiction now. It is about a boy who grows up not really feeling like a boy. There’s the broken home. He is close to his mother and his sister until he starts doing things sexually they do not believe in, and his answer becomes casting out into the wider world. He comes to believe that he can be taken care of and protected by having an influential enough boyfriend.
Is this new version of Outline Of My Lover the same as the original, or did you make any significant changes to the text?
I have a good answer for this one. The press it first came out with has almost closed a number of times, and shifted hands a number. It was begun by a punk anarchist. That is to say that storing the floppy disks or transferring a hard drive for that somewhat hypothetical future was not the most pressing issue. The book was sold World Rights to a big commercial publisher in the UK, and maybe I should have moved over there. I did not understand how to support a book. The editor who bought it this was to be her first project as one, but then actually more different life happened and she I think left to have a baby, while I was just trying to write my next book. I was thinking in those days if I just wrote enough books I would get to a good enough place. This is a long about way of telling you that for this edition I typed over the whole book myself, so there would be a file to work with, partly because I thought it would be interesting as an exercise but also I could not just hire a typist. Plus it’s short. There was one sentence I almost changed, where I thought I had gone too far. The rest of the time I could see where I was coming from. So no, I didn’t change anything, not intentionally. Not the one sentence either.
So do you think people who enjoy Wolf will also enjoy Outline Of My Lover, and vice versa?
Good question. I would say they throw each other into increased light. The boy in Wolf is much less me than the boy in Outline, but there are unities. Aesthetically Wolf is far trickier, the way the voice melds and moves is much more kaleidoscopic, but both books have at their center a desperation given the units we are meant to exist within. Both attempt to move to what one or another party is taking for love or other ends.
Earlier I asked if Wolf had been influenced by any movies or TV shows. Do you think Wolf could work as a movie or show?
When I first started teaching writing my early directive was if you want the book to live, you should try to write what is unable to be filmed. I would amend that in some honesty to something like I meant without some significant adaptation, some aspect that would require a real translation from one medium to another. Because a filmmaker like Claire Denis has taught me as much about writing as reading any book has. Or comparing Catherine Breillat’s book Pornocracy to the film of it, Anatomy Of Hell. And Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent is a good analogy for beginning with a newspaper report, without even mentioning the reset of The Piano Teacher. One other auteur I studied while writing Wolf was the early Bruno Dumont. Assayas. I’m no longer such a francophile in my reading but seems like I still am in my cinematic references. Wolf is in many ways Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, saw it with that boyfriend I mentioned above. 20 years ago, JT Leroy, whoever was posing as that supposed author at the time, asked me this same thing about Outline Of My Lover, about if it were a movie. I think I just said I wanted Kim Gordon to be my mother. I could see Wolf as a limited series, with episodes confined to one of its particular shifting POVs. Or something way more experimental, me somewhere in there behind it all. Most recently I got really entranced by the way consciousness is layered in these short films Salacia and Atlantic Is A Sea Of Bones by the activist artist Tourmaline, her techniques for her subject matter.
Finally, if someone enjoys Wolf, and they get Outline Of My Lover and enjoy that as well, which of your other books would you suggest they check out next?
They Change the Subject and Once You Go Back are autobiographical fiction in the way Outline Of My Lover is, with different constraints. With the one, trying to write moments of similar emotional intensity in intact sentences and some more contained way, though the stories probably still need each other to lean on as a whole, and the other what if the rock star never was a factor, where is a boy like me at now (many years ago).
If Wolf proves to be more your thing, there is a reason Nightboat published Your Body Figured, too, though here the sexuality goes somewhere else.