Q and A: Professor Juan Martinez Discusses His Road to Authorship
Assistant professor of English and MFA in creative writing faculty member Dr. Juan Martinez has been published in some of the most prestigious literary journals in the U.S. and abroad, including Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, TriQuarterly, and NPR’s Selected Shorts. Now his much-anticipated collection, “Best Worst American,” will be published by Small Beer Press in February 2017.
Dr. Martinez and MFA faculty director Christine Sneed sat down to discuss his writing habits, revision tips, and the joys of working with students at Northwestern.
You've been teaching creative writing at Northwestern for several years now – what do you find most rewarding about the program?
The students, who are invariably interesting and interestingly varied: they’re smart, they come from all walks of life, and they’re insanely well-read. They feel like they’re emblematic of our city. Chicago’s stuffed with some of the most interesting, most literate people I’ve ever known. I take the L every day, and every day I find at least one person reading a book, if not more. So much of our student body reflects the city – funny, well-read, lots of fun to be around.
How do you balance your own fiction-writing with your teaching?
I’ve been neck-deep in novel revisions for the past three years, so it’s been weirdly easy to find a balance: re-writing benefits from breaks, and so much of what I teach is stuff I need to remind myself to follow when re-writing, so the teaching provides a necessary renewal of all sorts of ideas I’ve internalized and have left unarticulated. Teaching forces me to articulate those ideas. And sometimes to question them.
What are two tips you can share with aspiring writers?
(1) Write early in the morning if at all possible, and get at your drafts with the lowest possible expectations, allow the first impulses and the first jottings to come as close to play as humanly possible – for me that means writing rough drafts in the morning before the day takes over, but I know that’s not realistic in all cases. But find a time. And don’t freak out if you feel it’s not going anywhere, or if you feel it’s no good. Just play. Produce. Revision comes later.
(2) Revise the hell out of everything. If you’ve never revised, if you’re resistant, try writing the whole thing over from scratch – a whole story, a whole chapter. It goes by quicker than you think, and it produces results. If re-typing the whole thing from memory sounds too daunting or insane, print out the first seven pages and start retyping them, see how it goes.
What are a few of the books that made you want to be a writer?
Here’s a few: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Pale Fire, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, Philip K. Dick’s Ubik and Radio Free Albemuth, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and At Freddie’s, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, plus loads of Anthony Trollope and George Eliot and Charles Dickens. Also Stephen King. He was one of my very first loves as a super young teenager, and I still look to him.
How do you get your writing done?
These days I do all first drafts of stories by hand. I’m working on a new long thing, and that I’m doing on Google Docs for the sake of convenience and speed. Mornings, usually. When not chasing after a super energetic toddler.