The stories in Juan Martinez’s collection Best Worst American abound with stylistic leaps, acute observations about popular culture, and eccentric characters. Martinez is equally adept at chronicling contemporary anxieties as he is venturing into the surreal–one story’s protagonist is aided in everyday tasks by a sinister ghost child straight out of Ring, for instance. Martinez will read on Saturday at Spoonbill & Sugartown; in advance of this event, we talked with him about the making of his collection, writing for radio, and more.
The title story was commissioned by Selected Shorts. What were some of the challenges of writing something that would work for radio as well as on the page?
The honest answer is that I’m not sure it works on the page. Or that it works on the page as well as it does on the radio, performed by an actor capable of doing a bunch of accents & an Oprah impersonation. This is the first and (so far) only piece I’ve written where I was 100% convinced I wouldn’t have to worry whether or not it worked in print — it was commissioned for radio, I wrote it for radio, and just about every time I read it in front of an audience I follow it up with an apology for not doing any of the accents. But it works — it works in print, too, if only because it’s short and goes for funny and sad, and I guess that’s what I’d say about the challenge of doing something that’s meant to carry across two fairly different mediums: that as long as you’re willing to try to make someone laugh, or just feel, you can trust your audience to go along.
The protagonists of several of the stories have distinct opinions on pop culture, beginning with the narrator of “Machulín in L.A.” When you’re creating a character, when do their tastes in books and films tend to enter the picture.
Their taste in books and films comes fairly early. Jobs come first. Jobs and what they want — what they desperately want (often it’s a different job, or a better job) — and then what they love. And they’re often lonely people, and I found that when I’m at my most lonesome I could only connect to the larger stream of humanity through books and films, so my characters share that trait. They can’t talk to you, they can’t reach out, as much as they want to, but they’ll totally bond over a Mystery Science Theater 3000 binge.
Two of the stories feature characters obsessed with a secret organization called Pragma. Had there been only one, it might have read like crankishness, but given the recurrence, it comes off as more sinister. Do you think you’ll revisit Pragma in future stories?
Totes. Pragma’s totes coming back. It always does, always at the corners of something else. I blame all the Machen & Lovecraft & King & Straub I gulped down. Also Chesterton. Plus Charles Portis — Masters of Atlantis. I’ve always loved the idea of secret societies that control everything. And I also love the idea of these grand secrets turning out to be a little shabby and disappointing when fully revealed.
What was the process of organizing the collection like? Did you have a sense that Best Worst American would be the title from the outset?
So I had no idea Best Worst American would be the title. The original title — the one I submitted the collection under — was Vanishing Women, because so many women vanish in the stories. But I have two amazing editors in Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, and they were the ones to suggest Best Worst American, which is both catchier and better at capturing the vibe of the collection. As far as organizing, the plan was to open with some of the louder stories and to ease into the stranger, slipperier, darker narratives, with the shorter pieces working as thematic counterpoints.
There are several recurring motifs in the collection, from anxiety over plane crashes to overweight men clad in capes. Were there any themes or images that you hadn’t realized were present in your work until you began work on this?
Oh, man! That’s such a good question. There’s a few things, but I’m struck by how many children get lost. I wrote the bulk of these pieces before we had a kid, and now that I have one I’m pretty sure this fear of losing a kid is so present it’ll likely won’t surface as much in fiction, but it really struck me — that we have all these submerged preoccupations and fiction squirrels them out into the open. So lost kids is a big one. And capes! Yes. I know you’re a Robertson Davies fan, and I am too, and I’m struck by how dignified some people look in capes — Davies cut a dashing figure, as did Orson Welles. Someone also pointed out that the collection name-checks Publix quite a bit, but it’s a mainstay and a beloved supermarket in Florida — as beloved and as much a mainstay as H.E.B. is in Texas or Wegman’s in the Northeast, so it’s more of an acknowledgment of a particular aspect of Florida living as it is a thematic concern.
Photo: Sarah Kokernot