Andrew Martin on the Fine Line Between Autofiction and Autobiographical Fiction
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on the Thresholds Podcast
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan talks to Andrew Martin, author of Cool for America, about a trip to Montana in the midst of a tumultuous year, putting on a persona for writing, and how the two combined to change the way he tells stories.
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From the episode:
Andrew Martin: When I was in graduate school I was in a nonfiction class, and I tried to write a more straightforward memoir-essay about my family and about my sister, and it was just kind of dead on the page. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction. I’ve written a lot of book reviews and personal essays, but there’s always some frame and there’s always some persona, and I know that’s always true in nonfiction, but I tried to write a very straightforward essay about my life and I just couldn’t bring it to life. I’ve just found that giving it the fictional frame, giving it this edge, this irony, just changes it and brings it to life for me in a way that it doesn’t for me as a nonfiction writer.
And I think the great thing about writing the kind of fiction I do—which is, you know, autobiographical but not autofiction; it’s drawing on my life and feelings and situations, and the characters are often writers and thinkers and artists of some kind—some of it is my deepest held feelings and thoughts, and a lot of it is not. I love not feeling any obligation to distinguish which are the things that I feel in my heart and which aren’t. There are some really true things in these characters, inner monologues that I’ve worried about and thought. And there are some where I’m like, oh god, this is terrible what he’s thinking here. I should keep that; that’s interesting.
There’s a couple of nonfiction pieces I’ve written where I’ve been able to access that distance and where I also can feel like, well, I’m being a little bit glib here, but this is my essay persona, so I’m not going to worry that much. I wrote this piece when Philip Roth died that was kind of in a persona a little bit. And I really love Philip Roth and he means a lot to me. But in order to write that, I think I had to use my fiction skills and sort of make it funny and make it a little bit glib. And that felt exciting, too, to be like, oh, even though this is all true, you can still take a tone, you can still find an angle. It doesn’t have to be like, this is all coming straight from the center of my heart.
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Andrew Martin’s reviews and essays have been published in The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, VICE, and elsewhere. His debut novel, Early Work, was published in 2018. He lives in New York with his partner Laura and their dog, Bonni.