Courtesy of Lulu Liu
Early Work is Martin’s first novel about a young writer and his life.
Andrew Martin published his first novel, Early Work, this past July. After reading about it in The New Yorker, I picked it up. At 240 pages and chock full of wit, it was the perfect read to dive into as I lay on the beach in Cape Cod, in denial of summer’s impending end.
The novel follows the life of a young writer named Peter alongside the rest of his social milieu, including his girlfriend Julia, a medical student, and Leslie, a newcomer. We watch them as they fuck up in ways both major and minor, write (or at least try to), get drunk and spend time envisioning their futures.
While I might not have agreed with everything they did, I was struck by how Martin somehow managed to make them feel sympathetic. I had the pleasure of speaking with him about Early Work and what it takes to find success as a writer.
One of the themes that Martin aimed to explore through writing the novel was the gap between what one imagines themselves to be capable of and the quality (or lack thereof) of their creative output. Martin drew upon his own experiences with realizing the effort that writing, or at least writing well, requires.
“It was a lot harder for me than I’d imagined it would be to actually put in the time and the hours, to try to find something that I had to say that was unique. It takes so much work and thinking and actual labor in a way that I think as a younger person I didn’t really understand. I really wanted in the book to dramatize that junction between what you hope to do and what you imagine you can do and the actual work it takes to do it,” he said.
One adjective that many critics have used to describe the characters in Early Work is “self-aware,” even if they struggle to break away from clichéd notions of themselves. Not only is this a reflection of Martin’s own worldview, but it is also a natural by-product of the fact that the characters are living in our current era, constantly exposed to the world’s less picturesque sides.
“I think they have this double-consciousness, this self-awareness. It comes fairly naturally to me as the way that I perceive the world. I romanticize literature. I love books more than anything, and I love books about writers more than anything,” he said. “At the same time, I feel like to live in 2018 and to see the damage that kind of romanticism has wrought on the world, there’s an ugliness to some of that, especially in the way that it’s involved gender ideas and gender ideals. The characters, like myself, understand that they are living these archetypes or clichés, but they also can’t help but want to continue to do that.”
Martin explained that the inspiration behind his use of Missoula, Mont. as an ideal locale or an escape in the novel was two-fold: partly that he himself received his Master of Fine Arts at The University of Montana, but also that he hoped to follow in the footsteps of other authors whose characters sought a future by traveling West.
“As I wrote the book, I was thinking about the American literary tradition of lighting out for the West. You know, the end of Huck Finn where he’s lighting out for the territories or Moby Dick where he’s heading out to sea. And On the Road. I feel like poor Peter has probably read Kerouac way too many times and has some vision that the West is going to answer his questions and Leslie’s as well,” Martin said.
While some have criticized the novel’s focused scope, Martin’s chief aim was to explore the rich minutiae of the everyday lives of his characters, using it to get at the stresses, cultural references and relationships that characterize his generation.
“I can’t help but read everything that people say online. The criticisms are often ‘Well, it’s just a bunch of lazy, privileged people hanging out and not doing anything,’ and I really wanted to capture that, to capture what it actually looks like to be a person alive right now; and sometimes that does involve a lot of going around in circles and not knowing what you want to know and drinking too much,” he said, adding that he was proud to have stuck with his original ideas.
As for his advice for the Peters and Leslies of the world whose dream is to make a career out of writing, Martin emphasized the importance of staying in practice as well as possessing grit.
“It’s a cliché, but it’s so true. So many of my friends are writers. So many of them who are really great writers haven’t been published to the extent that they deserve. The ones that made it, who are published and who are professionals, are just people that are ridiculously stubborn,” he said. “It’s the stubbornness more than the talent at the end of the day that distinguishes those that are doing it for a living from those that aren’t.”