In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Marlin Barton
Tell us about your fiction piece “Reading Aloud” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
Just as the character in the story does, I read to my mother when she was in a nursing home for the better part of the last year of her life. She had read to me when I was a child, and as I read to her, it occurred to me that the roles were now reversed. She had always loved literature, but in the last 20 or so years of her life, she turned to reading mysteries and crime fiction. When she died, I was in the middle of reading the first Dexter novel, Dexter Darkly Dreaming, by Jeff Lindsay. (I did find it amusing that there I was in a nursing home reading such a dark and violent novel aloud. Her roommate seemed to enjoy it too!) It was a novel she’d read before. So after she died, I, of course, kept reading, and I realized that I wanted to know the ending that my mother already knew, which seemed like such an apt metaphor for her passing and my life continuing without her. I felt like there was a story in that.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
What most excites me as a writer is really pretty simple, and that is fiction that clearly has depth and says something honest about human nature. I also love to read fiction with a lyrical voice, but that voice always needs to be in service to the story. It shouldn’t be there only for show. I tend to learn toward traditional, realistic fiction, but I’m open to stories that break with traditional forms if they don’t sacrifice heart and depth. Stories that strike me as written only for the sake of experimentation turn me off.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
Probably my mother reading both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to me. I can still hear her voice as she read those books, and I can still recall my deep concern for Huck and Jim as they traveled farther and farther south on the Mississippi River. I knew that was the wrong direction! I also need to mention here that when I was a child I had dyslexia, and my parents learned of a program at the Philadelphia Institutes that could correct dyslexia through a series of “patterning,” where the child actually learns to properly crawl and creep in a coordinated fashion, even when the child has already been walking for years. Eye exercises are also involved. I won’t take the time to explain the theory behind it, but it works. My dyslexia was completely corrected. If it hadn’t been, I’m quite sure I would never have become a writer. But the point I’m trying to get to here is that while I would do my daily crawling and creeping, my mother read book after book to me. I know that words and stories must have crawled into my system and eventually made me want to see if I could write a story. By the way, I finally wrote a story a while back about a twelve-year-old boy with dyslexia called “This Is How Much I Love You,” which I hope will find a good home at some point.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, which celebrates its centennial this year, had a profound influence on me. I thought the stories were beautiful, and I loved Anderson’s language and the way the stories are connected by place and recurring characters. In fact, when I began writing stories, I discovered I was connecting stories by place and character, which hadn’t been something I’d set out to do intentionally. As for mentors, there were two writing teachers I had in the MFA program at Wichita State who taught me a great deal: Philip H. Schneider and James Lee Burke. I learned so much about craft from them, and they both pointed me toward the right books to read.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I play guitar, though not at a high level. I’ve never played in a band and have rarely played in front of anyone. But when I was in high school something made me want to take lessons, and as my ability grew, my taste in music improved greatly. I began to listen to music and lyrics in a different way, and I think that attention to language helped me move farther along toward becoming a writer.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
I have to be careful with pacing. I can get too bogged down in a scene with too many details. It’s a matter of cutting, and listening to writer friends when they offer a critique. I never send a story out without someone reading it first and responding to it. As for a quirk, I don’t know if this qualifies, but I have a tendency toward writing a formal sounding prose. Maybe sometimes it’s more formal sounding than it should be. But I think I’m trying to capture something that can maybe best be summed by these lines from Emily Dickinson: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes--”
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
I completed a novel called Children of Dust [forthcoming in 2021 from Regal House], which I’m now fine-tuning a bit, that’s set in the 1880s in rural Alabama. It’s largely about race, and I’ve written it from the point-of-view of two white characters and one who is mixed-race. I’ve tried to be very careful how I’ve dealt with the material because race is, of course, such a volatile topic. But this book is something I felt I had to write, and I’ve drawn from a lot of family history/legend/lore.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
I’ve found over the years that I often write about the nature of guilt, and how characters carry it within them and how they attempt to struggle with it. I’ve also written a great deal about my characters’ capacity for evil. So sometimes my stories use violence, but certainly not always. I’ve never been interested in writing about a completely evil character, what one might call a psychopath, because those characters are, by definition, one-dimensional. I want to write about fully rounded characters who have to struggle with all kinds of human impulses.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
I like to write about three hours a day, and I tend to be slow and methodical. I’m certainly not prolific, but I’ve found if I simply keep at it, the work does get done. I’ve now written three novels, and I’m at work on a fourth collection of short stories. I may be a rarity, but I write first drafts in longhand on yellow legal pads, letter size and college rule, with a blue ink pen. Funny, but if I didn’t have those materials, I don’t think I could write. It’s just what I’m used to. And on days when the weather is good, I like to write just below the house where my wife Rhonda and I live on the Alabama River. Almost all of my work is set in a fictionalized version of the small community where I grew up in the Black Belt region of West Alabama, in the fork of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers. So when I sit beside, and look out on the Alabama, it helps transport me to the place in my imagination that I need to reach.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I’m about nine stories into a fourth collection, of which “Reading Aloud” is a part, and I hope all the stories in the collection will find as fine a first home as “Reading Aloud.”
Marlin Barton lives in Montgomery, Alabama. He is the author of three story collections Pasture Art, Dancing by the River, and The Dry Well and two novels: The Cross Garden and A Broken Thing. His stories have appeared in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and The Best American Short Stories. He teaches in a program for juvenile offenders called Writing Our Stories, and he also teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College.