What’s the Use of Being a Boy: An Interview with Douglas A. Martin

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At Work

Though a work of fiction, Douglas A. Martin’s recent novella Wolf is written in response to true events: in the early 2000s, two boys, ages twelve and thirteen, were persuaded by a child predator to kill their father. Wolf shifts between various timelines as it imagines the lives of the boys preceding the act—the mental abuse by the father, the manipulation and sexual abuse by the predator—the moment of violence itself, and the courtroom proceedings. In real life and in this novella, the boys were tried as adults and ultimately sentenced to, respectively, seven and eight years in prison.

It’s difficult to write about true events, especially those that receive extensive press coverage, but Martin explicitly writes against the callous sensationalism of the news cycle. He returns the story to the boys themselves. With a narration in the close third person, Martin creates a composite, in all its contradictions. The boys are seeking freedom from their father. They genuinely believe they’ve found an answer in the abusive family friend. Martin allows this belief—this optimism, curiosity, sensitivity, earnestness—to live on the page alongside violation and claustrophobia.

What makes Wolf unique is its refusal to disentangle all these emotions for the reader. In one particularly wrenching scene, the younger boy is writing notes about the nature of love—it seems, perhaps, to be a love note addressed to or about the family friend who has been abusing him: “He writes it on pieces of paper, like it was going to happen the way he wants it to. He knows what love looks like. This was how at first it was going to feel, he has to know like the friend said.” And despite all I know about the context, it is difficult to refute this certainty, he knows what love looks like. The voice is so immersive that I am alongside the boy and, if only for a moment, conflate love and abuse. Even after I shake myself into my own body, I have to ask, How well do I understand the difference? I’m realizing how much I usually depend on instruction to understand and name suffering. Wolf asks us to do this work on our own.

In one of the courtroom scenes, Martin shifts to the perspective of the jurors, who think to themselves: “Best not to get too close to them. Best not to imagine being like one of them, having felt what either must have at one time or another.” When I wrote to Martin, I wanted to ask how to resist this tendency: Best not to get too close. I wanted to know how writing—despite how regularly language is used to lie and mislead—could ever be enough.

This interview was conducted over email in May.

INTERVIEWER

How did you first learn about the crime that inspired Wolf? When did you realize you had questions that needed to be explored in writing?

MARTIN

It was about a year after the actual event, once the story had gone national and the trial was beginning. One day it was a front-page piece, and that was the first I saw of it, almost twenty years ago now. I am not someone who normally reads the paper, but I wanted to know more than just what was behind the picture of two boys and a much larger man in court. My reaction to how my care was being solicited was part of what led to me writing, but also, any time the boys were quoted, it felt so out of place. When I tried to read about the story, the reporting kept bothering me. It continued to play out in the paper for a while, along with new headlines like “bizarre twist,” and stories taking angles on how it was all part a growing trend of children who might be tried as adults given the severity of their violent acts. It got to the point where I felt if I read anything more, I should write it more as I felt it.

INTERVIEWER

The syntax in Wolf is unusual, but the style becomes familiar—almost hypnotic—over time. There’s this sense of simultaneous overwriting and withdrawing, like an overwhelmed child speaking quickly, slightly out of order, dropping words. At one point the younger boy thinks to himself, “He had to know if he wasn’t confident with what he felt it could be taken away from him, time then to pull away, learning to go down deeper into the self, go like breathing disappearing quiet thoughts apart inside where there no one is to see.” How did you find that voice?

MARTIN

Your characterization of the voice puts it together beautifully for me. The sentences have heartbeats but also breathing patterns, and how these two impact each other would be part of it. I think of the voice as in the head, but it is a forced interiority as a retreat, navigated with no small amount of effort. Like you could drown inside your own head, while you were pushed this way or that. These are directives that identity is shaped around. That voice in the head is made up of all these voices that surround and enter whether you like it or not, coming together, gaining weight to try to guide you. I picked it up by thinking how consciousness more often than not is through other forces of nature than water flowing placidly.

For the longest time I thought it was a matter of which of the boys the story would be given to, to center it, but then I grasped it was more a matter of the way thoughts will pool unspoken in a room when everyone there is afraid of how they might be judged or seen.

INTERVIEWER

I’m curious about the absence of names. Since Wolf is based on a true story, there were names you might’ve borrowed. What motivated you to use relational terms—the younger, the older, the friend, the father—instead?

MARTIN

I think it underlines how I want to look at some supposed roles within these positions.

Before I resolved it, I did have proper names, which with the boys for a stretch would get switched in my mind and the page, the character of one seeming closer somehow to someone I knew who shared his name. Then I thought there might be something to that, so I experimented with intentionally reversing them as part of the fiction, but it proved just a calculation, a gimmick in a way. What I settled for I hope is toward a greater truth. Like when I think of myself in my life moments, that would not be as my given name. I do not experience myself inside that way.

At one point I thought of going as far as the book being named after the whole family—King—because there might be allegorical resonance as well, but it was too grand, too major, really. It would have been irony just for the sake of it.

INTERVIEWER

The word boy appears everywhere in the story, usually to refer to the two brothers, but the narrative also slips into a more general voice, where “a boy” can be any boy. How did your understanding of what it means to be a boy shift in the writing of this story? What does it mean to be a boy in a story/world in which men commit such extreme acts of violence?

MARTIN

That is a guiding question for me. I have long loved Gertrude Stein’s formulation, “What’s the use of being a little boy if you are going to grow up to be a man?” When I came across it, this spoke to me because it was during the first years I had begun doing a couple of things. One was to consider maybe I could be a boy—I had never felt like one growing up, though I was told I was one. But also, I was engaged in understanding how, in some of my earlier formative relationships, with these mentors I would have because of their artistry, there were aspects of me that were surely just that for them, boy. It made my loneliness make sense.

INTERVIEWER

I reread Wolf as I was working on my questions, and it was startling to reencounter the text. I knew too much the second time around and the proximity and details of the abuse became even more intense. I started thinking about your proximity as a writer, and the rereading that must have been necessary to editing. What was it like to reread your writing over the course of the project?

MARTIN

It is there, right before you, and you are not seeing it. Really looking at it, I was frayed. Still that must have been nothing like living it as a reality without any relief, and I needed to feel like I couldn’t go to bed after rereading it. Earlier failed attempts at the manuscript were a product exactly of trying not to reread. There were drafts where I played around with putting it all out there in some grab-bag way or more conceptually organized chapters. But really what I needed to do was make my peace with why I had been drawn to take it up, to live with it in this form, strained to its breaking point.

The longer I went, though, many things came up that would assure my commitment. Over the years these were as various as walking through the documentation of a Tehching Hsieh performance, Cage Piece, and remembering about a step-cousin of mine whose hands seemed to never stop shaking, how he and I were both strung, how we both became drawn to dance as one escape from our fraught adolescence.

INTERVIEWER

At various points you describe the boys in the courtroom. I found myself wondering how much of the imagery was speculated and how much was written with reference to real footage and documents. I felt tempted to search for the news articles, and yet I also wanted to allow myself to experience the story without visual references—I caved about three-quarters of the way through. Could you speak about beginning with and transforming images into prose—particularly images from a crime story? I’m thinking about this especially in the context of our media culture, which often sensationalizes traumatic photographs or footage.

MARTIN

Yes, that was the last thing I wanted to do. Even less to invite comparisons like those credit rolls at the end of a film where the actor is situated beside the real-life personage. But there was a tension. I didn’t want to invent, but I also did not want to deny. I wanted a way for those images that existed in circulation to find some dimension beyond flat shock and standard procedures. To see the brokenness of the boy’s handwriting moved me as much as the crime scene photographs, and I wanted to express this. It struck me as incredibly indecent to put the pages of his notebook up on some newsite.com and alongside that also audio files that could be clicked to hear voices during testimony that I listened to sometimes feeling part of the whole violation.

Just recently, before the world took its pause from casual traveling, I was in Chicago to read and also saw a Warhol retrospective thanks to the poet who had arranged to bring me out. I was remembering then how I had studied at points the Death and Disaster series, the electric chairs and car crashes, also his most wanted men, and I had felt something in line with that. In an even more sustained way, I focused some of what I was doing through reading about Gerhard Richter’s reframed presentations of media subjects. I was striving for some similar endeavor in words, like what might supplement a copy of a copy, what can’t but form otherwise than through this trace of an echo. A monograph of his portraits stayed on my desk for a long time.

When I was in college, it was the audio of the opening moment when that rock lands in Heavenly Creatures, the scream that runs at the audience. But before I was a teenager even, even more a child, the girl in Night of the Living Dead with the spade in the cellar was the most unsettling to me, because you could hear it every time you planted anything, if you tried. Something still defying and going beyond the eyes.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a scene in which the younger boy is writing notes to himself about the nature of love. “He knows what love looks like.” Out of context, the scene could be beautiful—the boy’s writing is thoughtful, tender. But readers know that the “love” the boy thinks he knows is the manipulation of the predator. The certainty in he knows what love looks like suddenly seems terrible. What do we do in a world in which such extreme violation of a person and their language—such violation of the word love—is possible? How do you write into that question?

MARTIN

The hardest question I have ever been asked so far, and I do not want to hedge here. I begin wondering what the word is supplementing. I probably do not know much what a love looks like that has not been predicated on imbalances. It can also be the question of pedagogy. It is a question a lot of writers who have formed me have worked upon, and I hold onto those who have been my guides. My teacher Eve Sedgwick said one of the cruelest moves you could make with another person’s mind was to take away their sense of self-definition. I have done something I am sure with her words in crude paraphrase. I remember what I do because of something I need. How I spent many years with a man who would regularly announce he had never been in love and did not believe in it, but still that did not end it for me.

Spencer Quong is a writer from the Yukon Territory, Canada.

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