Michael Martone and I met while sharing a taxi from Dubai’s Burj Al Arab hotel to Dubai International Airport. When I suggested Martone be interviewed, Martone agreed, but on the condition I pay for our taxi. This interview was conducted during the course of our ride.
I’ve read that when you were younger you fought as an eco-terrorist, for several years, in the wilds of Alaska.
No. That anecdote—like most of the anecdotes you’ll hear about me—simply isn’t true. I did fight as an eco-terrorist, but it was the wilds of Indiana, not Alaska. And it wasn’t just when I was younger—I’m an eco-terrorist still. Although I should say that, when interviewing eco-terrorists, you should be aware we prefer the term eco-soldier.
I was surprised when I read you had been, or were, an eco-soldier. Your work itself doesn’t seem to have any political agenda.
My fiction isn’t work—my fiction is me at play. My work is what I do as an eco-soldier. But even as an eco-soldier, my work doesn’t have what I would call a political agenda. If we have an agenda, it’s an ecological one.
The ecological work I do is with a group called AVALANCHE, which was founded by my friend Paul French. Have you read Paul’s novel? Paul wrote a novel called The Numberless, which he self-published in a shed on his parents’ farm just south of Fort Wayne. Each page is nailed to one of the walls or the windows of this smallish tool shed. They’re not in any order—the pages aren’t numbered in any way. But the walls are wallpapered with them, the windows are plastered, the pages hang from the rafters. When the sunlight is at the windows above the tool bench, you can’t read those pages—they light up, bright white, their words disappear.
Even today, The Numberless is still there. If you go to Paul’s parents’ farm and ask about it, they’ll take you out to the shed and leave you there. You can stay as long as you’d like, reading. My wife, as a thirty-something, lived in the shed for almost a week, reading and rereading Paul’s novel. Some of its pages are hidden—taped to tool bench’s underside, tucked into the insides of the lawnmower’s engine, crumpled up in the mouth of a pair of locking pliers—and she became obsessed with reading every page. Back then, she wasn’t my wife; we hadn’t even met yet. Paul’s parents called him, after she had been living in his novel for about a week, and said, “We don’t mind your readers coming to visit, but we’re starting to think this one’s moved in for good.” So Paul drove out to meet her. Eventually she joined AVALANCHE, which is how I met her.
How did the group get its name?
When Paul was a teenager, he was in a band, called AVALANCHE, that only covered songs by fictional bands. It wasn’t named AVALANCHE for any particular reason—fourteen-year-old Paul just loved the word. Every group he’s been in since he’s insisted on naming AVALANCHE. He started a reading series at Klemm College, in Indiana, which he named Klemm College’s AVALANCHE Visiting Writers Series. I have never understood how he gets people to go along with that sort of thing.
Paul’s band’s songs are on iTunes, now. My favorite is “Kaonashi,” originally written by the fictional band Drugs for Droogs. Paul and his bandmates invented Drugs for Droogs, including an elaborate background story—Drugs for Droogs was founded in L.A. in the 1960’s; they developed a cult following in, for some reason, Quebec; their bassist and drummer were killed in a train accident just months after “Kaonashi” went number one; etc.—and then Paul and his bandmates wrote Drugs for Droogs’ song “Kaonashi” and covered it on AVALANCHE’s first album. Paul got ahold of a photo—he won’t say whether it was of an actual band not named Drugs for Droogs, or whether he hired these dreadlocked twenty-somethings to pose as Drugs for Droogs—either way, a photo of these twenty-somethings standing on a rooftop, holding guitars and drumsticks and etc., with this flock of pigeons taking off behind them, which Paul and his bandmates included in their liner notes with a caption that read “Drugs for Droogs, 1963,” along with photos of the other fictional bands.
What’s AVALANCHE’s ecological agenda?
The band AVALANCHE didn’t have any sort of ecological agenda—I think theirs was basically a get-cute-girls-to-fall-in-love-with-us agenda. The eco-soldier group AVALANCHE, however, has an ecological agenda that’s complex and knotty and varies from region to region.
Well so I’ll try. When I said our agenda was solely ecological, that may have been misleading. Because AVALANCHE is also anti-capitalist, in certain respects. Our country—you are an American, aren’t you?—our country is a country in which local identities are being devoured by corporate ones. Fort Wayne has been devoured by the chains. In Fort Wayne, you cannot eat at a restaurant that is locally-owned, a restaurant whose menu has been imagined and designed by someone who actually lives in Fort Wayne. In Fort Wayne you can eat at Olive Garden, T.G.I. Friday’s, Panera Bread. You can eat at Damon’s Grill, which was not founded by someone named Damon, but instead by people named Irv and Jerry and Sam and Joe, people who named it Damon’s for marketing reasons. You can eat at Jason’s Deli, which was not founded by someone named Jason, but instead by people named Joe and Rusty and Pete and Pat. There is no Damon. There is no Jason. Our locally owned restaurants, named for actual people, have been devoured by corporate restaurants wearing the names of fictional ones.
And it’s not just the restaurants. It’s our hardware stores, our cookware stores, our automobile repair shops, our hotels. American cities have become every other American city. If you live in Fort Wayne, why bother to vacation in Myrtle Beach? Myrtle Beach is just a slightly warmer Fort Wayne. You’ll eat at all of the same places. You’ll shop at the same pharmacies. If you forgot your swimsuit in Fort Wayne, you can get the exact same swimsuit at the mall in Myrtle Beach. The same size, the same color. Hanging from the exact same sort of hanger.
And when that’s our landscape, as a people, it affects each and every one of us. You think there aren’t other Michael Martones? You could go to any city in the U.S. and find some fifty-something exactly like me: wearing the same clothes, eating the same hamburgers, napping on the same furniture, complaining about these same things. We have no uniqueness anymore. We are people who wear different names despite the fact that we are the same person. What the chains have done on a corporate scale has happened to us on a scale of person-to-person. We are a nation of clones.
But a restaurant being part of a chain—part of that corporate identity—makes it possible for that restaurant to sell meals that cost $6 instead of $13. One could argue it’s worth living with the Damons, the Jasons, if it means Americans will have affordable food.
That’s what we’re known for. We’re the country with the most food. But it’s deceptive. We have the most food because we have the cheapest food. We have ketchup that is 60% corn syrup, milkshakes that are 90% corn syrup, chocolate bars that are 70% corn syrup. What we have is corn syrup. What we have are artificial flavors. We have nutritionless, artificial foods—they make us feel full, give our stomachs that swelling feeling, but our bodies can’t actually use any of it. Our foods are a sort of fiction. We’re full on emptiness. We have exactly as much food as the Siberians, the Malaysians, the Peruvians, which is not enough. I met a Peruvian woman who’d taught her children to swallow mouthfuls of air when they were hungry—to use the air to ease their hunger pains. That’s us, as a nation. We’ve been taught to swallow corn syrup, to swallow Cheetos, to swallow Coca-Cola. They’re the same thing. Like mouthfuls of air, just with some taste to them.
Louise Erdrich was talking to Lisa Halliday the other day, and Louise said, “We now see what barely fettered capitalism looks like… We all feel it and we don’t know quite why everything is beginning to look the same. All across our country we are intent on developing chain after chain with no character and employees who work for barely livable wages. We are losing our individuality…. I feel the sadness of it every time I go through cities like Fargo and Minneapolis and walk the wonderful old Main Streets and then go out to the edges and wander through acres of concrete boxes.” When Paul French heard that, he said, “Michael, I’m in love with that woman, and she belongs with us. You go recruit her—I’ll put in the order for her ski mask.”
Before, when I was asking about AVALANCHE, I was wondering what, if anything, AVALANCHE has actually done.
What we do you could call corporate sabotage. The eco-soldiers I work with in Fort Wayne, we focus on advertising. Billboards, bus stop advertisements, that sort of thing. Our agenda, if we have an agenda, is for the U.S. to revert to older forms of advertisements.
Natural forms. Fruit, for example. Why do trees grow fruit? Because their seeds are too heavy for wind dispersal. So the trees grow fruit with the seeds inside. The fruit is advertising for the squirrels and the birds. It’s a marketing ploy to get the squirrels and the birds to swallow the trees’ product—the seeds. And so the squirrels and the birds eat the fruit and then later shit out the seeds somewhere nearby. And disperse them.
What we want, what AVALANCHE wants, is to revert to these older forms of advertisements. We want to eat at Jason’s Deli only if an actual Jason works at the sandwich counter inside. We want to tear down the billboards and the suburbs and the shopping malls made of fake stones. We want Myrtle Beach to be more than just a warmer Fort Wayne, which we want to be more than just a warmer Green Bay, which we want to be more than just a warmer Duluth. We want to somehow save this nation from the numberless clones, from the numberless Matt Bakers and Paul Frenchs and Michael Martones—we want to go back to a world where there is only one of me.
We also want Louise Erdrich to join us, but she has not yet said yes.
May 13, 2011
MATTHEW BAKER was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Denver Quarterly, Ninth Letter, Meridian, and The Kenyon Review, among others, and he was a founding editor of Nashville Review.