2012 National Book Award Finalist,
The Boy Kings of Texas
Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press
Interview by Mira Ptacin
Mira Ptacin: Did you have a certain idea of what your story was before you wrote this book, and what it meant? Did the “moral of your life story” change as you were writing your memoir?
Domingo Martinez: Oh, God no. I didn't attempt my hand at writing creatively until I was in Seattle and working in the weekly alternative newspapers, back in the early '90s. When I moved to Seattle, I was intimidated, and stopped writing after I had written for a few papers. I taught myself graphic design instead. After a few years, I decided I wanted to start writing again, maybe not professionally, but just trying my hand at storytelling. Something. Anything. Expression.
I tried fiction at first, and it was vacuous, left no real impression. Ironically, much of my autobiographical “issues” sort of bubbled through: father issues, brother issues, I hate my sisters, how fucking dare they, I’ll show them! etc. These left an impression, but not the one I intended, and drew attention from the people I trusted then, and so my focus shifted to memoir.
I have repeatedly said The Boy Kings of Texas took over fifteen years to write. That’s not hyperbole. I have drafts of “The Mimis” where I was full of resentment and bitterness toward my sisters and my mother. For Dad, I had ten reams of stories about sublimated fratricide; my brother Dan vacillated between hero and scoundrel. And because I had no idea how to publish or what I was doing, I instead sat and re-wrote these stories over and over and over again. As I grew older, sitting on these growing volumes, they began to change, because I began to change and mature, and the resentment and bitterness eventually grew into understanding and compassion. I began to see my family and their decisions and choices coming from a place of desperation, hardship, and—in our own twisted, limited way—love. I saw what we went through from a socioeconomic and geopolitical tertiary point, which was the benefit of living 3,000 miles away, and I was able to understand how our history informed our choices, had seared my neurobiology into a permanent low-grade post-traumatic stress disorder, and that I could, with a little bit of work, make it funny. I focused on mastering my finesse with language and wit to anesthetize the reader as I unfolded these terrible stories, making them laugh at absurdity or a clever wordplay, and then sucker punch them with something that would make them choke up, or perhaps shift out of their framework, understand the world a bit differently, see it the way I was seeing it, even if they disagreed. If this book had garnered attention ten, five years ago, it would be a very different book, and it wouldn’t have matured like this, as a form of redemption for a family. It would have been full of bitterness and certainly devoid of the care I later took to show how much love and appreciation I have for my family. I broke away from them, disconnected entirely, and they never let me go.
MP: Describe your relationship with your editor.
DM: Gmail, with the occasional phone call. The time difference between Seattle and Connecticut makes it difficult, but we work it out…I’m kidding. I owe a debt to Lara Asher I’m afraid I will never be able to repay. When I first spoke to my agent, Alice Martell, every primal instinct of trust and being on the right path resonated loudly: this is her. This is who you want. All the pop-ups and switchboards in my head lit up and said, “Press OK to Continue.” Alice and Lara have worked together before, and Lara has told me that Alice always brings her the best projects. When this manuscript hit Lara’s desk, her own instincts as an editor and reader kicked in.
From a reader or reviewer’s perspective, this book has been gangbusters, because it’s entirely unconventional in structure and style. I wrote an immigrant story in delicate, flourished language that at times borders on the naughty, or even the dirty, then in the nostalgic and gruesome, and then suddenly shifts on you with the heartbreaking. Then it turns into Mexican vaudeville, with a hat dance. While this was great for the reader, for an editor responsible for acquisitions, it was a great risk. And Lara took that risk. Lara “got” what I was doing, she says, by the second page. She received clearly the message I had taken so much time to infuse into this book, the message Alice also “got” when I sent her my unsolicited PDF pitch via Gmail (and she couldn’t open it on her Blackberry. I still have her response—“What is this? I can’t open it. Send me a Word document.”)
When I handed over my initial manuscript, I was of the mind that I was handing Lara the granite, and together we would carve the statue inside from the larger block. (Remember, I had been writing this for years; it was over 500 pages.) Lara handed me back the granite block with rounded corners, stylized reliefs and corrected tenses and said, “This is the book. This is the story. We love it.”
Again: instincts. In this regard, I didn’t trust mine, so I trusted hers. And she got us here.
MP: Why do you write?
DM: Because I like to make myself laugh. I’m the most entertaining person I know, which I think is fundamental to the narcissism of artists. It’s a compulsion that I’ve had since I was a kid: to tell the right stories, and in just the right way.
MP: Memoir stretches the boundaries of what is considered “reporting,” and sometimes even the boundaries of what is considered “nonfiction.” At what point do you feel the author must taper their creativity and stick to the facts? And at what point in a nonfiction story is it better to write in a more artful way?
DM: Ah, the Mike Daisy principle. You know what’s funny? When I listened to that episode of “This American Life” where Mike Daisy does his “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” abridgment for the radio, I remember listening to it and my ears pricking up at certain transitional points and shifts and thinking, “That feels a lot like what I do, when I have to massage one memory into another for transition.”
Now, I’m writing memoir, which is based on memory and perception, not “journalism” or reporting. I corroborated my book against my brother Dan’s memory, which is about the harshest punishment you can get if you’re trying to get things right. (“NO! That’s NOT the right STREET! It was BROWNE Avenue, not Indiana!” and “It was 20 blocks of 40 pounds of pot! Not 10 blocks of 50!” in his George C. Scott voice...)
There’s only one section in my book that I chose to use the “creative nonfiction” method and blended two experiences into one because I couldn’t keep the narrative pace moving at the tempo I was after by keeping them separate. So I combined TWO stories (both actually happened) but recreated the experience into one event so that the story moved along. Is that falsifying? Yes, in a way. But if both elements are true, then how does the combination become false? (That’s logic, innit?) It felt horrible to do, and I felt dirty. So I never did it again. I’m not telling you what story it is either, and I’ll go to my grave feeling like a dick because of it. You ask good questions. Anyhow, after that? I decided never to do it again. So the answer is: You’re your own moral scale, and when you feel like you’ve lied, in print or on record, then you need to appreciate how much of that moral agitation you can live with, and if that threshold increases and you’re OK with it? Then maybe you should move into law. Or debt-collection. Because you’re in the wrong business.
MP: Is there anything you didn’t include in the memoir that you wish you would have?
DM: An apology to the people I hurt unintentionally. And intentionally. I left a lot of bodies behind getting here; I think that’s a consequence of any success story that you don’t normally hear. But I wasn’t prepared to absorb this much hurt from people. I had a fantasy of this book as a method of redemption, but mostly it’s just changed the color value of my personal regrets, from Pantone 541 to Pantone 540.
Mira Ptacin is a creative nonfiction and children’s book author, New York Times bestselling ghostwriter, as well as the founder and executive director of Freerange Nonfiction Reading Series & Storytelling collective. She currently teaches nonfiction writing at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. www.miraptacin.com