E. S. O. Martin on Bringing Lightness to the Lonely Places within Ourselves
An interview with E. S. O. Martin, from The Write Stuff series:
E. S. O. Martin is an MFA graduate of San Francisco State’s creative writing program. She is the founder of Snow Goose Press, an indie co-op publishing house which has recently released its first book: Dilettantes and Heartless Manipulators, a novel by Nate Waggoner. Way back in 2007, her cover story for the Chico News & Review was a finalist for the Hearst Journalism Awards Program for feature writing. More recently, E. S. O. Martin has had fiction published on The-Tusk.com and in Flaunt magazine. Her novel Indigo is forthcoming in 2017 by Snow Goose Press. She blogs sporadically at esomartin.com.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I tell people that I’m a writer, and that I started a cooperative publishing house called Snow Goose Press. I also say I used to work as a journalist but I now mostly write fiction.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
I’m committed to staying home while my son is little, so right now my biggest struggle is finding time to write. Taking care of my kid fills my days to the point where I basically ask myself what the hell I did with all my time before I became a parent. I’ve always been pretty disciplined about my writing though, and having a child has made me way more intentional about how I spend my time. The people at the Magic Spreadsheet forum have helped keep me motivated as well. The Magic Spreadsheet is a Google spreadsheet and Facebook group where you basically compete for how many consecutive days you can write without breaking your chain. My longest chain is 146 days long, but there are people on there who have written every single day for years. My son will be starting preschool soon, so I expect I’ll have a lot more time moving forward.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
I think everyone who loves books ought to try their hand at writing one… if only to appreciate how hard it actually is. There are a ton of resources, both in bookstores and online, that will help get people started. You can learn to do almost anything if you put in enough time and effort.
At a most basic level, though, being a writer involves reading a lot and writing a lot. Be a bibliophile. Read everything. Read all the time. And try to write more or less every day, even if it’s only a page or two.
I’ve noticed that having a small minimum quota—250 words—means that I still write on days when I might otherwise feel too discouraged because I don’t have the time or energy—weekends, travel days, sick days, etc. I might feel like I’m just spinning my wheels, going nowhere. But the fact that I practiced at all means that I’m still warmed up for when I do have more time. Often, once I’ve settled down to write that single page, it’s easy to coax myself into writing a little more and a little more. An object in motion stays in motion. One page a day still adds up to a short story a week, or a book at the end of the year. If you can do more than that, then all the better.
Also, I’d advise beginning writers not to get discouraged if it seems like slow going. Most writers practice their craft for a decade or more before anyone notices them. I think it was Raymond Chandler who said that every writer has a million words of crap that they have to get through before they can get to the good stuff. That’s a lot of time to spend on something that probably won’t see anyone’s eyes but your own. I think it helps to remember where the passion is. If you’re going to spend ten thousand hours in a room by yourself, you should enjoy your own company. Try to entertain yourself, make yourself laugh, make yourself cry, surprise yourself, scare yourself. Play around. Have fun. Be willing to risk sounding stupid.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Yes and No. I’ve been writing since I was about 10 years old, and I’ve been writing professionally for about a decade, so I definitely don’t feel like a beginner anymore. But I’m just now at the point where I have the skills to do the kind of work I’ve always wanted to do, and I think it’ll probably be another decade (at least) before I’ll have a backlist long enough to make a comfortable living at this.
If this was any other career path, I think people might consider me a failure because most people don’t expect to work so hard for so long and receive so little financial gain. But in many ways I do feel like a success because my husband and I have built our lives in such a way that we can spend time with the people we love, doing the work that we love. To me, that’s much more important than buying the latest iGadget or Birkin bag or whatever.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I really like videos of people giving tours of their tiny houses. Firstly, tiny houses are pretty cute. But more importantly, I think there is a lot of pressure to buy certain things and live your life in a certain way. Basically you work your life away, earning money to buy stuff you don’t need in order to impress friends you don’t have time to make. And then you die. And there’s an estate sale at your house with signs that say: “Here lies the house of someone who filled their life with knick-knacks and garbage for want of meaning and love.” It’s kind of scary. We live in the richest country in the world, and yet most of us aren’t any happier than someone living under a tarp in Calcutta.
So I see tiny houses—along with minimalism, and sustainability, and the rest of the slow movement—as a rejection of empty commercialism. It’s indicative of a larger conversation where people are asking, What’s life all about? How do I live a happy, fulfilling existence? What are my actual needs? How do I want to spend my limited time on this Earth? How can I improve life for others? I like that. I like the questioning. And it’s fun to see all of the different answers people discover for themselves. When it comes to happiness, one size doesn’t fit all. That’s what I like about tiny houses.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
My mom is a total bad-ass. She throws herself full-throttle into everything she does and she is never afraid of starting over. First, she left communist Poland when she was nineteen and she moved to America, even though she didn’t speak any English. The first English word she learned was “chicken” when the stewardess on the airplane asked if she wanted a “chicken or beef” lunch. Once in the United States, my mom started a family and spent some time doing the whole stay-at-home-mom thing with my brother and me. Then, when she was thirty, she put herself through college and went all the way through grad school and she is now a marriage and family therapist. There were a couple years where my mom and I were both going to college at the same time—she was in grad school, and I was just starting out. Now she’s doing the career-woman thing and she’s really successful at it. She goes dancing, she does white-water rafting, she goes out on dates, she has traveled all over the world, she has lived all over the United States. And throughout it all, she has always been a caring, patient, loving parent. And she has a fantastic sense of humor; she is one of the funniest people I know. My mom is a huge inspiration to me.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I wanted to be Bastian Balthazar Bux from The Neverending Story, the book by Michael Ende and the movies. Here was this little boy who who felt totally insignificant in his own world. He was introverted, misunderstood; a reader, a dreamer. But then he discovers this world in a magical book that interacts with the reader. The world is dying from lack of attention and it needs his imagination to keep the world alive. He has to keep the stories going to make this world healthy again. And then he eventually passes the story on to another kid—presumably the current reader of The Neverending Story.
Man, this book totally spoke to me at that age. It was like I found my purpose. I was not impressed by what was going on around me in the real world at that time—divorcing parents, moving to a new town, starting a new school—and books and my own imagination were the ultimate escape. It was around that age that I decided I wanted to be a writer. Writing was a way to explore all of the confusing things I was thinking and feeling. Writing gives you the distance to take something painful and turn it into something positive. And it was fun. I’ve been writing ever since.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
Enough to cover our monthly expenses. Anything extra gets shuffled over into our savings. Right now I’m at the beginning of my creative career and it feels like stories are everywhere and I could write forever. But life is unpredictable. From what I hear, it can be hard thirty or forty years down the road when your readers are always comparing you to a younger, fresher version of yourself.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
I fall in love constantly with my husband and my son. My husband, Sean, is my first reader, my confidante, my patron, my partner. I’m always trying to make him laugh. I would say I’m even more in love with him now than when we married seven years ago. And my love for him has only grown deeper now that we’ve had a child together. Marrying Sean is the smartest thing I’ve ever done. None of this would’ve been possible without him. We make a good team. And my son is such a wonderful person: he is smart and silly and inquisitive and caring. He is the best version of both of us.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve got a few books in production that I hope to publish in the next few years. I think the first one will be out during the summer and fall of 2017.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
In my office I keep a shelf filled with my favorite books. I add and remove and reshuffle the shelf as my reading tastes evolve. Right now, looking over my shoulder at the shelf, I see Richard Yates, Stephen King, Michael Cunningham, Justin Cronin, Alden Bell, Michael Chabon, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Milan Kundera, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ray Bradbury, Lionel Shriver, Judith Guest, Kazuo Ishiguro, Stephenie Meyer, Neal Stephenson, Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Kresley Cole, Garrison Keillor, James Patterson, Carl Honore, Edgar Lee Masters, J. Robert Lennon, Sarah Napthali, Pablo Neruda, Laura Esquivel, Hugh Howey, Roddy Doyle, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It’s all over the place, really—not limited to any one style, genre, or country of origin.
I think what the books all have in common are stories that sucked me in to the point where I couldn’t put them down. I also like nuanced, complex characters that I can root for—which isn’t to say that I expect them to be especially good or heroic; I’d prefer that they weren’t. As Anne Lamott once said, reading a book is like taking a long car ride with someone, and preachy goody-two-shoe characters make dull travel companions.
I think in my own work, I seek to delight and illuminate—to bring lightness to the dark, lonely places within ourselves where we think we must be the only ones who think or feel the way we do. But at a basic level, if all I managed to do is entertain someone for a few hours then I feel like I accomplished something. Basically, I don’t think anyone owes me. Time is one of the most precious things a person can give. If readers choose to entrust me with their time, I want to make sure they get something valuable out of it.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Housing is absurdly expensive and there is a huge amount of economic inequality here… but you could say the same about any urban area. I hate the way the Bay Area is so spread out. It seems like maintaining friendships here takes a herculean amount of driving and calendar coordination.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
I went to a party once where I watched a couple of people do suspensions—where hooks were inserted under their skin and they were lifted into the air. They seemed to enjoy it. But this definitely ranks in my Top Five of strange things I’ve seen people do.
What are some of your favorite smells?
I like the smell of wet cement after the first rain. I like the smell of dust and oil in the warehouse where my husband works. I like the smell of a hot summer wind coming through open car windows on Interstate 5. I like the smell of coconut oil in a newborn baby’s hair.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
When my son’s older, I’d love to spend a year or two living and traveling abroad with my family.