An Interview with English Department Alumnus Juan Martinez
Alumnus Juan Martinez's short story collection Best Worst American ($16, Small Beer Press) was published last year to wide acclaim. The collection was shortlisted for the Neukom Institute Literary Arts Awards at Dartmouth University, and was included in the Chicago Review of Books Best Fiction of 2017. Martinez has an incredible, artful talent for pointing out the absurdity in everyday life. His ability to inject the literary into the fantastic, and vice versa, makes for a thoughtful, beautiful, and sometimes hilarious reflection on contemporary American life. He graduated with a PhD in English with a minor in translation theory from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2011. He is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern University.
Juan is unique in the English Department, as he graduated with a purely academic degree and went on to pursue both a creative writing and an academic career. We talked to Juan about merging the academic with the creative, publishing work, academia, and how to combat writer’s block.
Q: How much does your scholarly work inform your fiction and vice versa?
Juan: My dissertation drew from the sociology of literature -- from texts that situate cultural production in the larger world -- and that’s weirdly helpful: every once in a while I remember, Oh, I’m just one of a bunch of people engaged in something that feels super mysterious but is actually grounded in a legible field.
The novel I just finished is partly about a graduate student (she does film studies, not literature, but still), so I lent her some of my reading list, and it’s since expanded. That’s pretty fun. It’s an actual case of all the scholarly work and preparation going directly into fiction.
Q: What was your experience like when you first started submitting stories for publication?
Juan: I was pretty selective. McSweeney’s was the first to publish me, and so I always sent them anything that was super short and super weird, and when I had my first solid story I shot for the moon, and submitted to Glimmer Train, and they took it. That said, I wrote for years and years before I even had the nerve to really submit.
Q: To be a working writer you have to deal with a lot of rejection alongside success. How do you cope with that?
Juan: It’s difficult. It’s still really difficult. One concrete thing you can do to cope is to read biographies of authors you admire, and to see how rejection is just woven into every phase of a writer’s life. But also: rejection is always going to happen and it’s going to make you miserable, and acceptances are few and far between and they’re not going to make you all that happy for all that long, so the important part is the time you spend reading, and writing, and trying to wrestle with a vision, to engage the best parts of you with this weird set of ideas and images and moments.
Q: Writers don’t have the straight line career trajectory as some other professions do. We all have to pay the bills while we work on that next novel, short story, poem, etc. What kind of job did you look for when you graduated with your Ph.D. from UNLV?
Juan: I was actually looking at academic positions the whole year before graduating, which you have to do because the timeline for these gigs is long. I wouldn’t have known how to do this had it not been for my mentor, Dr. Stevens, who also helped me shape the necessary materials. I actually didn’t go another route -- it was just straight-up academic -- but I almost did. I interviewed for a few technical writing positions, and it made me feel super confident, that there were options.
Q: What material were you assigned to read at UNLV was the most informative to your writing now?
Juan: I’m thinking it’s either Mark McGurl, whose book The Writing Program provides this amazing scholarly analysis of fiction against the backdrop of the MFA and the institutional setting. It’s also all the Pierre Bourdieu -- all of it, but particularly Distinction and The Field of Cultural Studies. They situate the artist in the world. They explain some of our more unexplainable behaviors. They help ground you, and make you realize how much a part of the world you really are, and how much of the world you already carry.
Q: How did your time at UNLV impact you?
Juan: I had amazing professors at UNLV, and I had a great deal of freedom to pursue a very eccentric project, and the former provided the necessary structure and rigor for the latter.
Q: What book are you reading right now?
Juan: A bunch. I’m reading fellow UNLV-alum Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love because we’re bringing her to campus [at Northwestern]. And I’m reading C.P. Cavafy’s Complete Poems. I’ve got a bunch of things in the wings, including lots of mid-century work, like Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
Q: What book (novel or otherwise) changed your life?
Juan: George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. I wrote a little thing about it in Tor.
Q: Lastly, how do you get through writer’s block?
Juan: I give myself exercises. I also allow myself to relax a little, I allow myself to have fun when writing. That usually helps. I also alternate between very long and very short projects, so there’s always something waiting that I need to finish.