‘Conjectures Based on What You Know About Yourself’: Q&A with Chelsea Martin

Chelsea Martin (photo by Catlin Snodgrass)
Chelsea Martin (photo by Catlin Snodgrass)

“Being unemployed feels like being in The Sims’ Build Mode, but with less soothing music.” So declares the nameless narrator at the heart of Mickey (200 pages; Curbside Splendor), the new book from Chelsea Martin. As Mickey opens, its main character – a struggling young artist – impulsively breaks up with her long-term boyfriend and is soon fired from her job. These events springboard our hapless protagonist into ruminations on grand existential concerns like the struggle to pay rent, the inherent loneliness of the human condition, and why cheese and crackers are so damn important at gallery showings.

Mickey is one of this summer’s literary gems, a book that bummed me out and made me laugh in equal measure. It’s no exaggeration to say the novel represents a benchmark for Martin, with Mickey delivering the fullest realization of her signature style, one that is droll and detached, and yet offers uncanny insight into the nature of our closest relationships, whether they be with our lovers, friends, or parents. It’s a book Martin will continually have to refute is autobiographical simply because she imbues her narrator with a voice so real it feels as though it must be born of lived experience. Chelsea Martin was kind enough to talk to me about Mickey and her creative process, including how to write without censoring yourself and producing art from a place of malaise.

ZYZZYVA: I was thinking about Mickey in the context of your last book, Even Though I Don’t Miss You, which came out in November 2013. For me, Mickey seems like a major artistic development for you as a writer and, based on reviews I’ve read, I’m not the only reader who feels this way. When you’re working on a new book, how much do you think about it as an evolution or follow-up to your previous release?

Chelsea Martin: Early on in the process of writing Mickey, I remember feeling panicked that I had not “finished” Even Though I Don’t Miss You, because in Mickey I was still processing some of these same themes and feelings and had more to say on these topics and was making similar stylistic choices. I was worried I was writing the same book again. But Mickey evolved into something completely different. I think there is definitely a through line, probably several, connecting the two books, and I feel good about that.

The project I’ve recently started also shares many of the same ideas as Mickey (and is even further from Even Though), but I feel much less panicky about it this time, because I know it will change and develop. Finishing a book doesn’t necessarily mean you’re done processing something or are going to stop thinking about it or being interested in it.

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Z: Although you’ve stated in interviews that Mickey is not autobiographical, the book creates the impression of being a highly personal work due to the intense level of interiority you afford the nameless narrator. The book doesn’t restrain itself from exploring this character’s most selfish or destructive tendencies. Do you ever find yourself holding back from writing something down because of the impact it could have on your personal life?

CM: Yeah. I’m a private person, and tend not to be very forthcoming with details or stories about myself. I’m trying to change this!!! I have been working on a big nonfiction project so I have to overcome some of that. It is a challenge for me, because I do care a lot about hurting people’s feelings or presenting other people or myself in a false or unflattering light. It’s pretty unavoidable in personal nonfiction, actually, unless you’re writing only about yourself.

But I don’t really believe in taboo topics when it comes to fiction, or feel any shame about what I want to write about, so I don’t have to hold anything back in that sense. I figure some people might be offended or weirded out by what I write but that doesn’t seem like my problem.

Z: Writers are well known for mining art from personal tragedy, a process which Mickey deconstructs and pokes fun at with great success by listing titles for the narrator’s theoretical art installations (“Untitled #13 – Nostradamus predicted I would feel sad today and everyday hereafter” being a particular favorite of mine). In life there’s the kind of despair that can make it difficult to attribute meaning to anything, let alone commit words to paper. But there’s also a more functional, low-level depression or malaise during which I’d wager many writers perhaps function at their “best.” 

I think it’s a state you capture brilliantly in the book, as when you write: “When I had a job, I had to pretend to be happy for at least part of the day…But now I’m home almost all the time and, having exhausted many of my friends’ capacities for compassion, I am able to devote full days to plotting petty revenge and going over my past failures ad nauseam.” Do you find you are able to accomplish much of your writing at times like this, that it almost proves inspiring in some way? 

CM: Yes, definitely. That can be a great time to write. I find there is a rawness to my writing when I’m low-level depressed. I think you can kinda tell I don’t give a fuck, and I really like that quality. When I’m in a more positive headspace I’m more cautious and analytical about what I’m writing, so that can be a good time to edit. But I try not to expect certain emotional states from myself, especially when it comes to productivity, because things like that end up being excuses not to write, or to not make myself feel better.

Z: While reading Mickey, I found myself relating to the narrator’s observations about relationships in very real and uncomfortable ways. Perhaps my favorite passage in the book occurs on page 93 when the narrator remarks of her boyfriend Mickey, “But I could never know what Mickey thought or felt, desperate occasional reassurances…Our emotional vocabularies didn’t seem to be sufficient enough to relay this kind of information.”

It’s cruel that the impossibility of bridging this existential gap seems to be both the reason why we’re compelled to pair up and the reason why these same relationships more often than not fail. I’m curious about how you’re able to achieve the kind of objectivity and distance I imagine is required to write about interpersonal relationships in this level of detail.

CM: I don’t really relate to the words “distance” or “objectivity” in terms of my writing, especially Mickey. I think I became unhealthily close with the narrator while writing her (which is why I think so many people have trouble believing it is fiction), and I tried to see things in her specifically limited and emotional way. It felt like a form of method acting, as far as I understand what method acting is (not sure I do at all).

But also, yes, I think this kind of thing comes naturally to me, if you mean being analytical and obsessive about how and why relationships work the way they do, yes, I’ve done that all my life. When my brother was a baby I wondered why his dad seemed to love him so much more than he (my step-dad) loved me, even though me and my step-dad had lived together for years and I was a talking, walking human and my brother was just a crying, pooping baby. Was genetic material really that powerful? And if it was, did that mean that my brother would always love his dad more than he loved me? Or did I still have a chance (at being the sole proprietor of my brother’s love) because your dad = 50 percent shared genetics and your siblings = 50 percent We were technically half siblings, but maybe since I didn’t think of him as a half brother at all, maybe I could count us at the full 50 percent shared genetics?

I was trying to mathematically prove that my brother could maybe love me more than he loved his dad when I was nine.

But the thing about writing about relationships is that in describing relationships you can only ever be describing yourself. You can’t know what’s in someone’s head, and you can’t know the reasons for their behavior. You can only make conjectures based on what you know about yourself.

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