Valerie Martin, who completed her MFA in Creative Writing in 1974, will serve as a guest judge at Declamation Day 2010. She was kind enough to answer our questions about her literary influences, philosophies, history, and her experience at the MFA program - as well as her memories of the infamous 1970s student streakers.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Sedalia, Missouri, but when I was three my family moved to my mother’s home town, New Orleans. My father was a sea captain for Lykes Bros. Shipping Company, which sailed from that port. I think of myself as a New Orleanian.
When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
I don’t think there was a moment when I made a decision. I was good at writing in school and I loved reading stories, so by the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to write stories. At the University of New Orleans, I took my first creative writing course and after that, I was hooked.
What were some of your early literary influences?
I read lurid fairy tales as a girl and loved spooky stories about the history of New Orleans. In college I discovered Gustave Flaubert, Albert Camus, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Thomas Hardy. Though wildly different from each other, these were my gods.
You’ve written of your “attraction to realism, both as a method and as a world view.” What experiences brought you to the perspective of realism rather than romanticism?
I haven’t gotten to realism “rather” than romanticism yet. The attraction of each is so strong I vacillate between them like a lover who can’t commit. I firmly believe that the romantic view, especially of nature and our place in it, is mistaken and dangerous, and I try in my life as a human to avoid all sentimentality about my place in the universe. But, when I’m making up a story, the appeal of the romantic view, of superstition and magic and lore, is very strong. These days I’m writing stories about mythological creatures running wild in South Louisiana, but my recent novel Trespass is a realistic examination of the dangers of territoriality and fear of the foreign. My novel Property is about slavery, a subject I believe has been fiercely romanticized, so I tried to put as cold and clear an eye on the matter as I possibly could. It’s a deeply unromantic book. What can I say? I’m torn and I’ve been torn for 40 years.
How did you decide to attend the MFA program at UMass?
After I graduated from UNO, I went to LSU in Baton Rouge for a year, enrolled in an MA program in English. I took the only creative writing course offered and my professor encouraged me to consider this new degree, the MFA. At that time I think there were, perhaps, four MFA programs in the country. I had very little money and there was usually a fee to apply. When I was accepted at UMass I was very excited, but I knew I couldn’t attend without financial aid. I told then Chair, Donald Junkins that I couldn’t afford to come; he told me he would get back to me soon. I thought that was that, but the next day he called to say they would offer me a teaching assistantship. So my husband and I packed up and moved to Amherst.
What was your most memorable experience while in the program?
I suppose it was directing and producing my MFA thesis play, a truly dreary melodrama that made its way from the makeshift stage at Herter directly to oblivion. But it was fun, I made new friends, and I learned a lot.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I enjoy finding the rare student who is truly gifted and simply has no choice in life but to be a writer. It’s happened a few times over many years and each time I’ve had that Eureka feeling. I read the first story and think, “Here’s a writer.”
You’re the author of nine published novels, as well as other works. What was your very first publishing experience like?
It was both anti-climactic and typical of the period. It took me a year to find an agent and a year for that agent to find an editor. I was fortunate to sell my first novel, Set in Motion, to Farrar Straus, and though the advance was very small, it was well produced and received good reviews in a few of the right places. I was delighted that Anatole Broyard was enthusiastic about it in the New York Times, as I thought, with a name like that, he must be a European with wide ranging tastes. I knew he was a well respected critic in that mythical city of New York. Years later I learned that Broyad was a New Orleans boy, from the same part of town as my mother’s family. His lifelong secret was that he was black. Henry Louis Gates wrote a most wonderful essay about him and when I read it I understood why he had felt interest in my novel.
What is the strangest thing you remember about your time as a UMass graduate student?
That’s easy; it was a nude streak. I think it was in 1973. Streaking was a craze at the time, and universities all over the country were having to deal with students who demanded to run naked through the streets. I had been in Massachusetts only a few months and it was already colder than I thought the world ever possibly could get. The UMass streakers had a permit and the town police were completely cooperative and helpful, another wonder to me. We went to the Student Center to watch the opening of the event (I had, personally, absolutely no interest in taking off even my inadequate wool coat), and there in the foyer we could see a great mob of students stripping down for the run. It was a dark, cold, bitter night. At a signal, the doors opened and the students surged forth in a long, long column, their eyes bright, smiles rigid between their red cheeks, skin pale, legs pumping, and, as the cold hit them, not a sound passed among them. As we watched they turned onto E. Pleasant. Their route took them down to the green, if I remember correctly. The police lined the road, which was closed to traffic, blandly supervising these valiant streakers, who made the long loop, poured back into the Student Center to great applause, put on their clothes and returned to their lives as students. I was impressed!