Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Interview with Scott Stein, author of "Mean Martin Manning"

A few months ago, I read a novel called Mean Martin Manning, the tale of a man who just wanted to be left alone--dammit--to eat his cheese and salami and to collect his ceramic frogs. Scott Stein, the author of that very funny, satirical novel, agreed to answer a few questions for me here.

Bibleeohfile: What gave you the idea to write this novel?

SS: I guess the initial idea was to jab at the “blank slate” view that some have of human nature and behavior—that it’s infinitely malleable, if only we have the right environment or program to improve people. I address the development of the novel in some detail here.

What do you think of what’s currently going on with some restaurants being required to post caloric information, the “war on obesity,” and the recent news that Mayor Bloomberg is trying to get smoking in New York City’s public parks outlawed? Were you foreshadowing with Mean Martin Manning, or just a coincidence?

SS: I wasn’t thinking specifically of the war on obesity, or Bloomberg. I wasn’t trying to foreshadow a particular policy direction. But it isn’t just a coincidence, either. As a writer of satire, I pay attention to the news, to emerging attitudes, and Mean Martin Manning, exaggerated though it is, was me addressing and making sense of what I saw happening: The redefining of individual behavior and personal choices as public concerns, and what enables a society to go in this direction, and what a toll this takes on the individual. I have addressed some of the specific policies you mention and current developments on my blog.

How did you come up with your main characters? Are there pieces of your personality in Martin? Is Alice based on anyone you know?

SS: Neither character is based on a real person. I don’t think I am much like Martin. We have some things in common. I don’t like being told what to do. I can be stubborn. I see absurdity.

I came up with Martin through writing. Without any ideas or premises in mind, I wrote an initial paragraph:

His mother would sing to her baby in his crib with the voice of an angel. But when the angel sang Martin wept, because Martin was a mean baby. Some might say that babies are neither mean nor nice, that babies simply are—like moldable clay or blank slates. But Martin was mean all right. A mean baby. Later, he was a mean boy, still later, a mean adult, and his meanness, like a garden well tended, grew with age. He was, at 83 years, meaner than in his youth, not the result of a hard childhood or bitterness at old age, but the predictable culmination of a life steeped in cruelty and uncaring.

That paragraph didn’t end up going anywhere – I shifted to first-person and the voice and tone changed dramatically. But I was just playing with words and sentences and got that paragraph, which set up the basic premise of his character. An old, mean guy. He became a bit younger in the actual book. And it’s debatable whether he’s really all that mean. But the opening paragraph got me started, anyway.

Some time later, a hint of a plot developed. Not only was he mean, but he was isolated. He hadn’t left his apartment in a long time. Working out why he was in his apartment, and what he did there, led to details about his character.

Pitney began as a plot device. Martin had to leave his isolation for the plot to develop. “What would get him to leave?” became “Who would get him to leave?” And Pitney was born and became his foil. She took on a life of her own. She was fun to write. Her developing character helped clarify to me that the book was a satire of a certain kind.

To me, some of the funniest parts of your novel were the scenes where you describe how Martin was going to get his revenge on Alice, Henry the dog man, the court, and then on the world. Did you have a favorite part?

SS: I loved writing that whole fourth part. It was fun to invent ways, relevant, appropriate ways, for him to go after those who’d wronged him. It was fast writing. I enjoyed letting Martin Manning loose and watching him do his thing.

Your bio says that you teach writing fiction, writing humor and comedy, creative writing, and freshman writing at Drexel University; do you find yourself drawing on things from your courses for your writing?

SS: I don’t draw on my courses for my writing.

Many writers describe themselves as "character" or "plot" writers. Which are you? What do you find to be the hardest part of writing?

SS: Fiction writing is all hard. Until it’s easy. Getting started, finding the right voice and pace, finding the approach that works for that book, that’s very hard for me. Once I’ve found that, it’s still intense, draining, but it’s fun, and easy in that it feels right and moves quickly.

I am a character and plot writer. I can’t separate them. For me, the character dictates the plot very, very early on. Who is the character, what would challenge him? That is the beginning of plot. Then the plot goes forward and shapes the character. How he responds to the challenges of the plot is what makes him the character he is. Character and plot feed off of each other.

What are your goals for the future? Do you have other ideas for novels that you'd like to write or do you plan to focus more on your online magazine, When Falls the Coliseum: a journal of American culture (or lack thereof)? (Personally, I hope you're writing another novel featuring Martin campaigning for president.)

SS: I am working on a new novel. I can’t say much about it except that I’ve got a long way to go. I plan to continue to work on When Falls the Coliseum. No sequel for Mean Martin Manning is in the works. If there were to be one, I don’t see Martin as a willing candidate for office.

As a reader, what do you enjoy reading? Any favorite authors?

SS: I read a bit of everything—history, biography, fiction, philosophy, and science. I don’t have a favorite author.

Do you read your reviews, and if so, what's the oddest one you've ever received.

SS: I do read the reviews. In publishing these days especially, authors have to be willing to do their own self-promotion. So reading reviews and trying to get press attention for your books is a part of the process that I participate in. I don’t know if I’ve had odd reviews. I can think of one where the reviewer didn’t get the book, didn’t appear to have read carefully, but I’ve been lucky. Most of my reviews were written by people who clearly read and got the books, and thought about them. Both the Philadelphia City Paper and The American Spectator reviews made the connections to the larger issues Mean Martin Manning addresses while still appreciating the humor and fun of the novel.

More of Scott's writings can be found online at his site, When Falls the Coliseum. His book, Mean Martin Manning, can be purchased online through his publisher, ENC Press.

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