“The second and fourth parts of that sentence came directly from life, but the first and third parts came from some thoughts I had while watching a movie, and the sentence after it I just thought would be really funny.”
Chelsea Martin’s Everything Was Fine Until Whatever (Future Tense) is a zany collection of sudden fiction, short shorts, prose poems, proems, and lists that blurs the boundaries between fiction and autobiography. It toys with fixed notions of identity in a tired, ironic voice that’s as funny as it is provocative, and often disturbing. Martin is also an accomplished visual artist; EWFUW includes a number of her drawings. After reviewing Martin’s book for The Rumpus, writer John Madera wanted to talk further with Martin, and ask some lingering questions about writing, art, comedy, inspiration, and some of the strategies she uses in her work.
The Rumpus: Let’s talk about your drawings. When I first saw them I thought of Marlene Dumas. They have a similar kind of intimacy, not to mention a similar tonal palette. I know that she uses magazine clippings and Polaroids of lovers, friends, and strangers. Are you doing the same?
Martin: I use my friends and my family and myself.
The Rumpus: Some of these self-portraits?
Martin: Yeah. I like doing self-portraits. I do a lot of them. I’m not a narcissist though. I’m more of a masochist, because my friends always accuse me of being a narcissist and I get embarrassed, but I do it anyway. Maybe that makes me a martyr, not a masochist. Not sure. Maybe it doesn’t have to mean something about my personality. I’m pretty sure I’m not a narcissist.
The Rumpus: One of my favorite series of drawings in Everything Was Fine Until Whatever is the trio of drawings with the horned figure. I find them to be playful but with a kind of menacing undertone, probably because we never see the face of the “monster.” What’s the story behind those drawings?
Martin: I just thought it would be funny to put a monster in a very ordinary social situation, but then not really be able to tell how he’s feeling about that. I used photos of myself for reference for both the monster and the girl.
The Rumpus: Because these are bodies floating in an ambiguous space another artist that comes to mind for me is Leon Golub. Unlike his figures though, yours aren’t anguished, although there is a similar sense of futility. Your drawings also having a comic feeling about them. How did you choose these subjects? What materials/media are you working with?
Martin: I want to draw subjects that seem very boring and everyday… Stuff that would be normal except for one thing. Or two things. Or stuff that’s undeniably weird. I also like drawing dinosaurs and sticks of butter. My artistic process involves pens, gesso, acrylic paint, and markers, all on vellum. I use a window painter’s technique and paint on the backside of my image before I mess with the front.
The Rumpus: Who are some of your favorite visual artists?
Martin: Matt Furie, Anthony Zinonos, Marcel Dzama, Steven Cloud, Jeffrey Brown, David Shrigley.
The Rumpus: Have you considered producing a full-length graphic narrative of some kind? Comic book? Graphic novel?
Martin: I want to do graphic novels. And comics. And screenplays. And children’s books.
The Rumpus: Why did you choose subtitle your collection A Book of Stuff??
Martin: Kevin Sampsell [publisher of Future Tense Books] added that. I don’t know. It seemed appropriate that he added it, because we had such a hard time titling the book, and I would send him long lists of potential titles. I started feeling bad about the book because it didn’t have a title. The title that we ended up choosing has a given-up feeling, which illustrated the whole experience of finding a title. It seems like we could have titled it I Don’t Know Anymore, How About This One and it would have the same effect. I saw that Kevin had added “A book of Stuff” and thought it had the same kind of self-deprecating feel, or like we didn’t trust the title to convey to people that it was a book. And I didn’t really like it. But I just left it.
The Rumpus: Would you talk a bit about your writing process? Do you keep a journal and then transcribe and edit those entries? Where do you like to write?
Martin: I don’t really like to write anywhere but my own apartment. I send a lot of text messages to myself as email when I’m not at home. My texts are usually like, “If I ever break up with my boyfriend I want to date a very angry rapper.” Sometimes they’re more like, “Write down thoughts about game playing happiness martyrdom phone text,” and I have no idea what I was referring to when I sent it. I put all of these texts in Word documents, and add stuff to them, and sort of organize it, and read it all later when I’m drunk or feel like it. Then I add more stuff and a lot of it is really bad.
I have hundreds of Word documents filled with pages of one-liners. If I begin to write a story, or if one of my thoughts leads to more than a couple paragraphs of writing, I’ll go into these documents and pull out lines that I think would work with it. Sometimes I put the same line into three or four things I’m working on. I also hide my documents in many different places on my computer, because I often write things that I would never want anybody to read, at least unedited, and I’m paranoid that someone might figure out what the password to my computer is and maliciously read my Word documents. So a lot of the time I lose things I’ve written and/or completely forget about them.
The Rumpus: I’ve heard Samuel Delany, one of my favorite writers, talk about how many of his stories were inspired by other stories. Were any of your stories inspired by, or responses to, other stories?
Martin: I was inspired to write about a sassy, talkative baby after reading Dallas Wiebe’s story “Going to the Mountain,” which is about a sassy talkative baby who is afraid to go to kindergarten and talks to a philosopher about it.
The Rumpus: In your book you write that “everyone who grew up poor has a somewhat decent sense of humor.” Some of what you write sounds like stand-up comedy of the Bill Hicks variety. Some examples:
“I dated a boy who wouldn’t have sex with me for a long time because he said he liked me too much and didn’t want to ruin anything.
When we finally had sex he put his finger in my butthole.”
“I’m at a point in my life where I wake up in the morning and literally don’t know what to do.
My mom says this feeling is my hormones telling me to have children, but it feels more like my hormones telling me to buy Goosebumps series books on eBay.”
“I’m at the point in my life where I masturbate to memories of cuddling.”
“Once I overheard my mom telling my aunt that I was a mistake… and [when I] told her what I’d heard… she said, ‘What do you want, I’m only five or six years older than you.’”
“I’m confused about my sexuality, not my sexual orientation.
As in, is this my labia minora? It seems big.
Or should I be running out of lube this quickly?”
Have any comedians influenced your writing?
Martin: I love comedians. I love Michael Ian Black, Conan O’Brien, Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, Robin Williams, Kathy Griffin, Steve Martin, Mitch Hedberg, Andy Kaufman. I love anybody funny. I think my ten-year-old sister is really funny. She makes me laugh way more than most people do. I like being around funny people. I think funniness is a sign of intelligence. I think it’s really important to have a sense of humor.
The Rumpus: When film director Pedro Almodóvar was asked if his movie Bad Education was autobiographical, he responded, “Everything that isn’t autobiographical is plagiarism.” So how much of your writing is autobiographical? How much do you distinguish fact from fiction and vice-versa in your writing? Would you talk about the various personas you adopt in these stories?
Martin: I basically have two ways I start writing. Either I’ll start with something about myself, or something that happened to me that seemed important, or I’ll start with some idea I have that doesn’t have much to do with me. But one will always lead to the other.
When something is finished, distinguishing “fact” from “fiction” is a matter of “the first part of that sentence really happened but it leaves out this important detail, and the second and fourth parts of that sentence also came directly from life, but the first and third parts came from some thoughts I had while watching a movie, and the sentence after it I just thought would be really funny.”
I mean, there is a lot of stuff I write that makes it seem like my intention is to make people think I’m speaking about myself entirely, and it is my intention to make people think that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what it is.
The Rumpus: Even in the midst of the self-deprecation, the ironic and self-conscious asides in EWFUW, there’s also a kind of yearning for connection, for intimacy. You also seem to be saying that technology can be both a conduit and barrier to that connection.
Martin: I don’t know how to talk about technology in a positive or negative way because it’s just the way the world is to me. It seems like talking about the advantages of breathing through holes in our face instead of holes that lead more directly to the lungs. I made my first website when I was ten. I flirted using instant messages all throughout high school. I like the Internet. I like cuddling. I like my cell phone. I like awkward eye contact with strangers. I like hearing people’s voices. I like parties. I like Craigslist. These things don’t seem technologically exclusive to me.
I do think that people yearn for connection and intimacy, and that they’re hard things to achieve. People choose the most flattering photos of themselves to put on Facebook. Text messages can be vague and confusing. But conversations are confusing too. And some people wear lots of makeup. I think it’s just hard to be a person.
The Rumpus: One of my favorite stories in EWFUW is “Maybe Her Pending Corpse is a Window.” What inspired that story?
The Rumpus: What are you working on right now? What’s next?
Martin: I have a book called The Really Funny Thing about Apathy coming out with Sunnyoutside sometime. And some secret stuff.