“The Final Order of Things Came From Intuition”: An Interview With Chelsea Martin

Chelsea Martin credit Caitlin Snodgrass

Chelsea Martin’s novella Mickey opens with a lyric from Matchbox 20’s “3AM,” a song that seems like its about a break-up, but is in fact about Rob Thomas’s relationship with his mom. Similarly, Mickey might seem like its about a break-up—the first scene is, after all, the unnamed protagonist breaking up with her boyfriend, Mickey—but there’s something else happening below the surface. Through a series of vignettes, the book unfolds to be about a young woman’s relationship with her estranged mother. Sharp, hilarious, and insightful—Martin’s writing style is deceptively simple. I’ve read my (annotated, coffee-stained) copy of Mickey three times now, and each time the book transforms into an entirely different book. Lines that I once thought were funny are suddenly sad, and vice-versa. To steal from Mira Gonzalez’s blurb of the book: It’s “both hysterical and heart-wrenching.”

I spoke with Martin via email about humor in writing, editing, and hiding behind a break-up.

There’s a quality to your work that makes me be like, Wait. Am I the only person who would find this funny? This is really funny. But I saw you read at AWP and the whole room was laughing. It seemed like a lot of what the audience was responding to were these humorous statements about sadness and loneliness and anxiety. How, if at all, do you think humor relates to sadness and loneliness and anxiety?

Oh man, I don’t know. I’m glad you find it funny. I don’t think sadness and loneliness and anxiety are necessarily funnier than other themes, they are just some of the themes that are closest to my heart. I think everything has the potential to be funny because everything is absolutely fundamentally absurd.

I read in a LitHub piece that featured you about how, because you work in different mediums, you’re always trying to figure out which medium would be best for a project. What about your goals for Mickey made you decide that a novella would be the best course of action?

I’m obsessed with the internal monologue/inner life of my characters, so a lot of my artistic drive comes in the form of writing and expressing a character’s interior, and writing is the most natural way to do that. I did consider adding visual elements to Mickey. Art pieces the narrator was working on, or sections from a sketchbook, maybe. But I decided against it because she actually isn’t all that productive. She has ideas, but she doesn’t follow through with them. She wants to make art, but at this point she’s just thinking about it. So I thought describing her thoughts about art would be more fitting.

This is a break-up book, but in many ways it’s more about the break-up between mother and daughter than the break-up between two romantic partners. I got the impression that these relationships with men were the way the protagonist deals with her relationship with her mom. I know it’s really annoying when interviews make a bunch of statements and then go “Can you speak to that,” but…can you speak to that?

That’s exactly the way I see it. She has all these feelings and uncertainties related to her mother, but instead of dealing with them in a healthy way she projects them onto other characters, mostly Mickey. Mickey would probably be a side character if she could deal with her mother directly. I think the level of obsession our culture is with romantic love deeply impacts our expectations of what love will look and feel like. But I think the lack of focus on other kinds of relationships can be detrimental, too. If there is a lack of representation of the certain situation you find yourself in can make you feel like something is wrong with you, as if it has never happened to anyone before. What is it supposed to feel like to be ghosted by a parent? How does one maneuver a situation like that? How long does one continue to make an effort? For the narrator in Mickey, it was easier for her to avoid those questions and focus on her relationship with Mickey. For lots of reasons, but one being that, despite how fucked up and stupid her relationship with Mickey was, it is extremely culturally acceptable for a romantic relationship to be complicated. And she found comfort in that.

Something I really loved in this book is how expression of emotion is depicted. I feel like I never cry during things I should cry during (break-ups, funerals, etc.), even though I’m sad. But, like your narrator, I do cry during things like Project Runway reruns. Why do you think commercial things illicit such emotional responses?

Well, mostly probably because TV shows are heavily designed to elicit an emotional reaction. Also I think because big events like breakups and funerals are so fraught and mixed up with big decisions and how you see yourself under these new circumstances, and how your life might change, that maybe it’s too much to really feel it in the moment. But with something stupid like Project Runway, you can just watch someone almost achieve something and then fail, and it can feel like a metaphor for all of your own failures, or, because the stakes are low and have nothing do to with you and you’re probably alone binge watching TV with plenty of time on your hands, it can feel like just a good opportunity to cry at the idea of failure.

It’s easy to assume a book like this is entirely autobiographical. I’ve already heard some people do it, and I’m sure I was guilty of it at points. Like, I imagined all of this taking place in Oakland, even though I don’t think that’s ever explicitly stated. I just know went to art school in Oakland. But, overall, I imagined the narrator as a person who is not Chelsea Martin. You didn’t write a piece of conventional fiction and, therefore, you didn’t use a lot of conventional fiction’s character development techniques. So, I’m really curious about how you went about character development, especially in regards to the narrator?

I like to have characters develop as they do in real life, just by watching them live and talk and deal with situations. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how I’m characterizing them, mostly because I want readers to be free to interpret characters however they want, so I’d rather just let the characters be themselves (so to speak).

I don’t mind readers thinking that my work is some form of autobiography. I think there is a much higher level of trust and closeness with work that is interpreted to be autobiographical, so I didn’t want to work against that at all (unless you count interviews).

Being asked about how autobiographical my work is puts me in a kind of weird spot, because it’s not like I’m writing about things I’ve never felt before. I don’t think it’s fair to make an author pick out which parts are or are not “real,” because I assume most writers draw from their own experiences, even when writing about something they haven’t specifically gone through.

But yes, the book is set in Oakland 😉

Your writing is pretty minimalistic. What is your editing process?

Editing for me = a lot of deleting. I get rid of everything I think is boring. After reading my own work 800 times, most things get to be pretty boring. So I just delete them.

How was the order of this book constructed?

The order of the book was probably the biggest challenge for me. I wrote it in entirely no order, knowing that I would have to put it in order eventually. And when it finally came to it, it became clear that I could order it in a million different ways. Mostly the final order of things came from intuition and how things felt next to each other.

I’m going to ask you a question that I’ve wanted to know the answer to for awhile and now that I’m interviewing you I can do so: do you like Matchbox 20? I feel like this isn’t the first time your work has mentioned Matchbox 20 and Rob Thomas? Or maybe you’ve just tweeted about them/him. I like Matchbox 20, which sometimes embarrasses me.

I like Matchbox 20. I didn’t care about them that much when they came out. I mean, I knew all the lyrics and watched their music videos with a lot of interest, but that’s just because I was obsessed with Top 40 music. I never once considered buying their album.

I started listening to them intentionally a few years ago, 100% for nostalgia, around the same time I started writing what would become Mickey. I knew someone who liked them a lot that I didn’t talk to anymore, and I started thinking about what it would be like to rely on a mainstream band like Matchbox 20 to tell you what you wanted to know about a person who wasn’t around you anymore. So I started listening to them a lot while writing to try to capture this feeling. Then I realized how lonely and pathetic and weird and naive the songs are, which are all things I relate to heavily. So these kinds of feelings also became inspiration for the book. And then it just became clear that I really liked Matchbox 20 and it wasn’t just for nostalgia or inspiration purposes. I would be so proud to have written If You’re Gone.

You’ve worked with a lot of indie presses that are doing interesting things. What was your experience like working with Curbside Splendor?

Yeah, it’s great so far. I like working with small presses, but I’m always a little nervous because small presses are kind of working things out by trial and error and each experience with each different publisher has been so different. But Curbside has been really great and I love working with Naomi and Catherine.

I know you’re also working on an essay collection? Can you talk about that project at all?

It’s a book of personal essays that I’m currently trying to sell. I’d rather die than describe my work before anyone has read it. That was my elevator pitch. Please contact my agent, Monika Woods, if you are interested in publishing my book of essays.

Okay, last question. What are you reading now (or what you read recently) that excites you?

I’m currently finally reading The Trial by Franz Kafka and I like it. Also just read Madison Langston’s book Remember to Never Get Better, and it was very good.


Photo: Caitlin Snodgrass

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