Contributor Showcase: Seth Marlin
By Sierra Myers
Seth Marlin is the former author, under pseudonym, of Iraq war blog Calm Before the Sand. He has since gone on to earn an MFA in Fiction from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, and his stories and poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in M-Brane SF, Underground Voices, Knockout Lit, Greatest Lakes Review, A cappella Zoo, and Spark. His work has further been anthologized in Short Story America, Railtown Almanac, and The Way North: Selected U.P. Writers, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A native of Michigan, he currently resides in Spokane, WA, with his wife Liz and dog Jack.
Sierra: In “Metronome,” there is a hurriedness towards marriage, with the main character hosting interviews for a betrothal that his company/parents demand. Is this your interpretation of part of success in today’s society? That if someone isn’t married, or aspiring towards marriage, they might not be considered for a higher/nobler position?
Seth: I think that marriage often does reflect a revised set of priorities, and yes, I certainly do think that culturally, we expect people’s lives to follow a certain track – school, marriage, children. But at the same, it’s not necessarily a principle I agree with, and I definitely don’t think it’s applied equally across gender or class lines.
A key consideration in “Metronome” is the way that social expectations differ for men and women. The man in this instance, a junior partner at a prestigious law firm, is expected to take on a spouse before his career can further advance, but by contrast the woman likely faces career stagnation as a result of doing the same. Even the protagonist questions her work, and implies that it cannot coincide with having a husband and children. In the world of “Metronome,” marriage bestows agency upon men, and denies it to women. As is often the case in the real world.
A big focus in my work has always been power – one of my old teachers, Greg Spatz, talks some about power in character interactions, and “Metronome” reflects my take on some of those ideas. The protagonist here might well be a spoiled trust-fund type, but due to his position he still holds all the cards. The woman, meanwhile, is clearly smarter, better-educated, and significantly better-adjusted than her counterpart, but also still playing the role of supplicant. I imagine that would rankle for someone of her qualifications, but she’s also not foolish enough to let it show. The protagonist spends the entire interview either tuned out, or trying to disqualify her, and yet she won’t allow it. She’s better at this game than he is, so when she drops the act and calls him out directly, the result is shocking. The power dynamic is abruptly reversed.
One of my favorite moments early on was the woman’s vignette about her parent’s polyamory. Her passing reference to “The Morals Commission” was off-the-cuff, but I liked how it turned the story into something much more frightening. What might have been humorous before, now carried hints of theocracy, of fascism. It’s a good bet that anytime I open up with levity, I’m setting up for something much bleaker. I also think that the scene reveals something else – that however power might function between these two characters, it still applies pressure upon each of them. These two represent the wealthy elite of their era, and yet both are moved by forces far larger than themselves. This piece owes as much to The Handmaid’s Tale as it does to The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice, and as in those narratives, power enslaves everyone – even those who enjoy its largesse.
Sierra: The woman in “Metronome” is a very strong character. She knows what she wants and how to get it within the limitations of this fictional world. What or who inspired such a forward character?
Seth: I should say that, even for the reasonably enlightened young man, writing strong women does not always come naturally. I was lucky to work in grad school with some prodigious female talents – Laura Citino, Jennifer Moody, Casey Patrick, Aileen Keown-Vaux – all of whom were there to call me out in workshop when my characterizations of women fell short. As hard as that may have been to hear at the time, it’s proven invaluable to me ever since. I find it odd, the outrage from certain corners of the Internet right now over folks like Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn. Whether it’s games or books or television, Sarkeesian and her peers are giving important feedback as to how we write female characters in popular culture. Or, very often, how we don’t.
There’s a Tori Amos lyric: “My dark twin, the annihilating Feminine / does not need civilizing.” I enjoy the sense of menace that line connotes, but at the same time the menace is in reference to a subjective fear – that held by the song’s male addressee. We’re very afraid of smart women in our culture, especially smart, outspoken women. I was intrigued by the opening scene – this Eva Green femme-fatale type, negotiating marriage like some billion-dollar corporate merger – but it also made me wonder: how can we better subvert this? This character was obviously more than she appeared, and I liked the tension she brought into her dialogue. This is an educated, successful, woman, performing a dance that she very obviously despises. I loved that about her, and wanted to know more. She might be coerced by society into seeking a husband, but she does not truly need any man. She is, in a sense, the Byronic heroine.
The great challenge of writing a piece like this is that any story about marriage is inevitably going to become a story about sex, about gender. That kind of story risks falling flat without a powerful foil, so early on I realized we had to let the woman seize control of the dialogue. In doing so, it allowed her to undermine the protagonist’s biases, and thus those of the reader. She’s able to knock the man off his guard, which leads him to finally ask the questions that frighten him – the questions which, in turn, frighten her. What begins as a ritualized performance ends with two people unintentionally baring their hearts. That felt raw to me, and that’s how I usually know I’m onto something. Finally speaking as a writer, I cannot stress enough how important I think it is that we’re see more strong, diverse voices in fiction, both in terms of character and in cultivating new talent. Even speaking as a white, male writer, I think it’s important that we see lots of strong female voices in fiction, strong LGBT voices, strong voices of color. It’s good for both readers and writers, and it benefits the medium as a whole. Fiction might be constructed, sure, but it’s ultimately about empathy and revealing human truths. The real world itself isn’t homogenous, and so the more empathetic, less homogenous our own fiction is, the more truthful it will become.
Sierra: There are still countries that allow and prefer arranged marriages, (India, Pakistan, Japan, China, Israel). What is your take on this cultural tradition, and did it have any application to your piece?
Seth: I think that in the wake of the War on Terror, and the anti-Muslim sentiment that’s been ginned up as a result, it can be easy to cast aspersion on the practice as some vestige of a demonized Other. However, as you point out, it’s not an exclusively Muslim practice, nor even a non-Western practice. I think we as Westerners are very quick to forget that.
When fleshing out the world of “Metronome,” I actually took as my inspiration the European Middle Ages, when, as in many other parts of the world, the family was not merely a social unit, but a political one. As our own society lurches toward plutocracy, toward a kind of capitalist neo-feudalism, it made sense that wealthy families might bend these draconian laws to suit the furtherance of their dynasties. It was also a way to recontextualize the classic comedy of manners, in that the settings we often see from Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde, are also given rise by oppressive conditions. In this case, the oppression comes not from elderly matrons chattering over their cups of tea, but rather from people informing on their neighbors to a network of McCarthyist, latter-day Comstocks in suits.
To be clear, under no circumstances should the society in “Metronome” be seen as a critique of arranged marriage in non-Western cultures. Granted, I do think the practice poses its problems, but it’s also worth noting that the countries you mention all represent a diverse array of traditions. As both a secular feminist and a Westerner, it may not necessarily mesh well with my own values, but it also doesn’t have to. When writing this story my goal was not to interrogate any specific culture, save perhaps my own.
Sierra: All writers have a technique that comes with writing their material. Isabel Allende, who wrote the famous magical-realist novel The House of the Spirits, writes on January 8th every year. It gives her a routine to follow through writers-block, or though tragic events. Do you have any habits or routines you go through before, or while writing, that help you through your creative process?
Seth: I can’t say I have any exact routines, though I do find that certain practices are helpful. I prefer to write in the mornings, though that doesn’t always pan out with my office job. I also try to listen to music that puts me in the headspace of whatever my current story might be – lately, that’s meant a lot of Massive Attack, Purity Ring, Bonobo, MS MR – but of course that will vary by both project and by writer. I’ve also learned that I can’t always write cooped up in my study; the Internet happens, gaming happens, so occasionally I have to meet up with friends elsewhere and sit down for a quiet session. I used to think that writing in coffeehouses was the most pretentious hipster thing imaginable, until I had to start working on my own thesis.
The most important thing I do is just to think about my writing – all the time, all hours of the day. I find that the more risks one takes in fiction, the more narrative problems need to be solved. That, I find, takes reflection, takes constant brainstorming. All day as I go about things, I worry over a line, or a nagging question. I polish the thing like it’s a stone, until I know its every contour, until it feels almost smooth to the touch. When it gets to that point, I find it’s time to get it onto the page.
For much of my life, whether in the Army or as a civilian, the only constant with regard to my process has been about making the time. It’s a tough game out there for young writers – a lot of publishing gigs are volunteer-only, and the academic world is facing an adjunct crisis. So for me and a lot of the writers I’ve come up with, it’s always been about trying to make art while scraping by in jobs outside the field. Granted, that can be brutal at times, and it can definitely be hard to stay focused on why one does it. But I’ve also found that the ones who succeed are the ones who’ve kept at it, kept finding or making opportunities. Write in the mornings if you have to. Write in the evenings. Write on your lunch breaks. But above all, write. Be thinking constantly about your next poem, or your next story, and tell the kinds of stories that nourish you. Read other people’s work. I’m not saying be a slave to influence, but by all means, keep yourself steeped in the medium. Take your craft seriously, and be willing to invest the time it deserves. Your work will benefit, and so will you.
Sierra: Stephen King gave advice to Barnes & Noble on writing by stating, “Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi post office. Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the Navy, working in steel mills or doing time in America’s finer crossbar hotels. I learned the most valuable (and commercial) part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor.” What seems to be your most valuable experiences that have contributed to your writing style?
Seth: The experiences that have shaped my passion for writing aren’t always ones that have shaped my craft. My passion came from my time in Iraq, certainly – late nights or even on recovery days, I used to park in a camping chair with my laptop, while my buddies were all racked-out sleeping in their bunks. You make certain bargains with yourself in that environment, and for me, that bargain was school and a return to my writing. So the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to come back, get my MFA, and focus on telling the kinds of stories that excite me, has been all the reinforcement that I need.
As far as how those experiences have shaped my style, that’s more complicated. I don’t write much about war anymore, outside of my poetry – things got pretty political back when I was still blogging, and that just gets exhausting after a while. I also don’t like how people misuse or misconstrue the works of writers who do focus on war. Witness Tim O’Brien, obviously a brilliant guy, but also one whom I think people invoke without fully understanding. I don’t want my work to just be limited by my experiences. I’d rather be Kurt Vonnegut than Tim O’Brien, and thus be afforded the distance of other settings, other aesthetics. I’d hate if my work had to be nothing but Humvees and shifts on tower-guard for the rest of my life. I’d quit altogether.
What I think I did carry over from that period was a concern with certain themes – power, isolation, loneliness, a sense of the dystopian present. When I write, I’m very often writing about the uncanny, and between Iraq and the process of coming home, there’s a lot about our society that still feels uncanny to me, still feels unsettling. It doesn’t have to be written in giant, Orwellian scripts, and it doesn’t have to be plastered in the American flag. I just like what Kazuo Ishiguro or the Australian author James Bradley do, crafting times and places that feel largely familiar, with most of the really disturbing details just lingering in the background. That’s generally how it works, I find – we never really think about how much time has passed. We just glance up one day, and notice that the skyline has changed.
Of course, much of this is also a function of my own getting older, of my coming now into my thirties. I worry about the oceans rising, and about the slow merciless grind of consumerism. I worry about war as entertainment and fascism packaged as “traditional values.” I worry about having children, or not having children. I worry about getting old, worry about the collapse of my spirituality. I worry about dying. So often, when I write about the future, I’m writing about dying.
If I have to consider the experiences that most directly shaped my style and aesthetics, I’d probably cite the influences I encountered in school. I’ve been lucky to study under some gifted names in fiction – Brady Udall, Alan Heathcock, Sam Ligon, John Keeble – and they all provided immeasurable support, whether it was by encouraging me in my goals, or by telling me the things I most needed to hear about my work. I’m not going to say that the MFA is by any means the only way to develop one’s craft, but it was certainly helpful for me.
I will admit, during my undergrad years, it felt like the literary landscape was really dominated by a lot of Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Andre Dubus. Great writers all, don’t get me wrong, but I did struggle with that kind of post-Hemingway minimalism. It felt very confining to me. Lots of stories about unhappy couples living in brownstones, it seemed. While I’ll acknowledge that there’s definitely a hint of that here, my stories from that earlier period felt very derivative, felt lacking in a unique voice. Only later, during grad school, did I get into all these other weirder, more eclectic voices like Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Kelly Link, or Lorrie Moore. Those are the writers who have really fired my imagination, and whose prose makes me want to keep growing and challenging myself as a writer.
Ultimately, I can’t really say any one set of experiences have shaped who I am as a writer. To discount any one set would downplay the whole of my artistic journey. But I will say I definitely got my fire while still serving in the military, though it was my school and my reading that most helped shape my identity. We start in one place, and if we do it right, we hopefully end up in another. The point of art, I think is to grow, the way we as human beings all grow.