WRITERS TELL ALL
TJ Martinson and THE REIGN OF THE KINGFISHER (a favorite of 2019, and all of the 2010s): "...censorship of art creates a debate where there shouldn’t be one."
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, TJ! I am so excited to get to talk to you about one of my new very favorite books, The Reign of the Kingfisher. Can you talk to me first about how you came into writing, when you started writing, and also how many novels or stories you’ve gone through before getting to this masterpiece (published or not published!)?
TJ Martinson: I began writing seriously around the age of nineteen. It was one of those things where I had always been a voracious reader but never thought that I was capable of writing something like a novel and never gave it much thought. I’m not sure what changed my mind, but as soon as I began toying around with writing stories of my own, I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life. There’s a kind of euphoria that comes with creating something, and the joy of it (along with the frustrations) never diminishes; that is to say that those early years of writing were mostly done for the sake of it, and I knew I wasn’t anywhere good enough to publish anything I’d written. It wasn’t until I’d written a few novels that I felt like I was finding my feet and ready to start thinking about the publishing process. I got an agent when I was twenty-two and we worked together on a couple novels that we both loved, but they just didn’t quite take. It’s always hard to say why, but it’s often a combination of timing, luck, and, of course, the novel itself. But when I wrote The Reign of the Kingfisher, I think that my agent and myself both knew it had a different kind of potential.
In total, I’d say there were about five unpublished novels written in the seven years leading up to my debut, and each of them was entirely necessary; the only way to really learn how to write is to write, stumble, and keep writing.
MT: What were the formative books that shaped your writing experience? What books do you read now, and given that I view The Reign of the Kingfisher as largely a crime novel, what are your favorite crime/mystery/noir (etc) books?
TJM: I’ve always been drawn to books with strong, idiosyncratic, and lyrical prose. As I was revising some of The Reign of the Kingfisher, I was simultaneously re-reading Don Delillo’s Underworld because he’s able to capture gritty textures and cityscapes with what I consider to be masterful prose (which was useful in writing about Chicago). I also fawn over Donna Tart’s writing, especially as it serves her finely tuned plots. Not only can she ratchet up suspense with ease, but she does it with a prosodic scalpel—she’s a true master. Another inspiration was, of course, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which is not only one of the best crime/mystery/noirs around, but also is invested in examining the superhero trope, which is obviously something in which The Reign of the Kingfisher is equally invested.
MT: Can you tell us a little about how this novel came into being? What was your initial idea like, and how did you come up with this fresh plot which seems to revive a lot of older mystery tropes and really revive something that may not actually be there—the nostalgia for something that didn’t exist, in a sense (which may be too close to some things of the novel!)?
I’m a long-time admirer of all-things superhero, and I was excited by the idea of writing a superhero novel that tried to avoid some of the tropes inherent to the superhero genre while also not being a total rip-off of Watchmen or any other novel that dips into the genre. What I ultimately decided to do was to tell a superhero story from the perspectives of characters who, in a traditional superhero narrative, would occupy the position of minor characters. By elevating them to major characters and backgrounding the superhero, it immediately catalyzed the central mystery element—namely, why is the superhero in the background and, for that matter, where is he? That was an important epiphany in the conceptualization of the novel.
As far as the nostalgia that permeates the novel, it’s something of a personal fascination of mine that I think subconsciously bled into the plot, which contrasts the realities of the past with the realities of the present. I find it to be a fruitful internal tension for characters to be forced to confront what they thought was true, but which now seems completely impossible (or vice versa). I think that’s an experience that everyone can empathize with to some degree, even if they aren’t necessarily confronting whether or not the actions of a supposedly dead superhero were warranted, just, or even real at all.
MT: You write from a lot of different POVs, and you make everything line up so well, even if the reader is challenged in the best way by your no bullshit storytelling. Can you tell us how you mastered this, and what the writing process was like, and how long this book took to write?
TJM: Lining up the POVs was, without question, the most difficult part of writing this novel. When you write like that, you’re constructing a delicate ecosystem where if you change or revise a detail in one character’s chapters it will likely affect the other chapters as well. That’s true for writing in general, but especially when you’re dealing with multiple characters on a similar timeline and working toward a similar goal.
I can assure you and everyone else that I am not at all a master of the POV storytelling. But I will credit myself for being a relentless reviser, and that’s honestly what it takes. I wrote the first draft of the novel without paying too much attention to lining everything up carefully; after gaining a sense of the plot, that’s when I started to think more carefully about how each character would occupy the space of the novel and interact with each other. It’s a challenge, but I think that, when done well, its immensely satisfying for a reader to see the novel’s world through multiple perspectives.
MT: You’ve already faced issues with censorship. What do you think is the main issue censorship of literature or anything is causing in our country, and why do you think this is so dangerous? I often feel censored books are sometimes the books that need to be read the most—what are your favorite censored books, and why do you feel they’re important?
TJM: I count myself lucky in that some of the issues I’ve faced aren’t nearly as consequential as others have faced. That being said, censorship is a funny thing because it often seems self-defeating. For instance, Ginsberg’s Howl is great, but I personally think that the reason it stands out as one of the landmark poems of the twentieth century is because it was brought before the Supreme Court. That is to say that, despite the glaring ills that drive artistic censorship, I take enormous comfort in society’s demonstrated tendency to absorb and grow from the very things that certain members of society once tried to outright reject.
But that’s a long-term view. In the short-term, I believe censorship of art to be extremely harmful, if only because it reinforces a deleterious binary logic of “good” and “bad” art that ultimately serves to marginalize experiences, voices, and expressions; under the guise of “concern”, it operates from an almost medieval practice of moral prescription that disallows and punishes whatever seems to challenge (however obliquely) the practice of prescription itself. It’s just ugly stuff that has the potential of stifling artistic freedoms and generating unimaginative art.
In other words, censorship of art creates a debate where there shouldn’t be one. Art is always going to challenge, because that’s in its nature. The question isn’t how to obliterate what we don’t agree with, but instead how to express that disagreement in a way that constructs; for example, if you disagree with themes in my book, feel free to take it upon yourself to convince the world I’m a dangerous fool, but erasing the work itself or demonizing its existence is just lazy.
MT: You write an incredibly diverse cast (one reason for your censorship), you write about people who aren’tyou and you do it well, and you write with both compassion and distance from the writing—distance that is necessary in order to tell something true, and compassion and empathy to believe the truth. Can you talk about how you developed these qualities, what was innate and what wasn’t for you, and what you think the most important quality for a writer might be?
TJM: This is going to sound trite, but I do think that avid readers develop a capacity for compassion and empathy simply by experiencing a world from someone else’s perspective for the duration of three-hundred pages or so. But I also acknowledge that I’m not the arbiter of experience. For The Reign of the Kingfisher, specifically, I took great care in crafting the characters that don’t look like me, but I also asked my publisher for a sensitivity reader who can speak to some experiences that I’m not able to (which my publisher allowed, because they’re great). Of course, a sensitivity reader is just one person, but its someone who I’m not and someone with knowledge I don’t have. To me, that’s invaluable, and she helped the novel a great deal. But at the end of the day, if a reader takes issue with my representation of different experiences, that falls squarely on me. That hasn’t yet been the case, but I feel it’s important for writers to bear in mind that representation is incredibly important for fostering an imagined world with bearings on our own; however, equally important to bear in mind is that just because a writer creates a more diverse cast of characters doesn’t mean that they are excluded from criticism if this representation was done poorly or, in some instances, harmfully.
MT: When we think of superheroes—or even just heroes—we usually think of these amazing, sometimes flawless people (or aliens, etc) who can do anything, be anyone, and be perfect. I found the book so timeless, but also so important now in ways I saw the novel and viewed how this might relate to our political and cultural climate. When you write, are you often unintentionally influenced, or is everything included intended purposefully? Do you ever find you write large portions of characters or stories which reflect your own life, and what do you think this means about the piece you’re writing and its quality?
TJM: When I finished my novel (especially when I revisited it after receiving edits), I began to see a lot of unintentional influences that had shaped its plot. I was writing the novel in 2015-2016, which were…tough years. I think the discourses that took shape in those years found their way into the novel without much, if any, design by myself. Lucky for me, though, the superhero figure proved to be an ideal way of navigating the complexities of a polarized cultural moment in that the superhero traditionally operates on the moral system of “good vs evil” that in recent years has proven frighteningly malleable, strategic, and dangerous.
As far as my own life goes, I do think some of it creeps in, but not very much. After all, my life is largely spent behind the computer, so there’s not much worth fictionalizing.
MT: What do you think a hero is, and do you think the idea of a hero—any idea of a hero as seen in popular movie sand book sand comic books/graphic novels—do you think any of these ideas exist? How do the other characters play a part revolving around this superhero in the novel, almost an oral history (even if the novel isn’t entirely oral/told from multiple perspectives in brief vignettes, etc) and so filled with truth as we see so many different versions of the truth. I’ve always heard there’s your truth, their truth, and the truth. What do you think was so important about having so many complicated and different characters in one novel, and why do you think they’re necessary to understanding this supposed superhero?
TJM: In the novel itself, one of the characters seems to land on the conclusion that a hero, at their own peril, does something that desperately needs to be done for the welfare of others. I tend to share in that belief, and I touch on it further in the acknowledgments of the novel. But the issue, one that I’ve not been able to resolve for myself, is when someone who does something I find horrendous can assure themselves that they are operating from the very same precept I just described. That’s where the issue with truth emerges, I guess. And in the novel, one thing that I wanted to highlight and that speaks to the inclusion of different characters is the importance of collective action. Whereas superheroes don’t necessarily need to assert themselves in tandem to combat injustice, the rest of us typically do. And with collectivity comes a more refined and capacious understanding of what we mean when we say things like “good” and “bad.”
MT: Returning to the same essential question but moving past the idea of the other characters and their roles in relation to superheroes, why do you think it’s so important these days to see the normal or average person and their view? I think in slashers of the final girl, which is very different and a complicated and sometimes divisive concept, but she’s the supposedly weak woman, the non-superhero, the one who can’t fight but outwits the killer. In your books, and in any books, why do we need to see the stories of normal people fulfilled?
TJM: I kind of touched on it earlier, but I do think that the greatest benefit of reading is the intimate empathic engagement that comes from assembling a character and their world from words on a page. That said, I think it’s always a good practice to be reminded that people inhabit and see the world differently, if only to be reminded that our sense of how things ought to be, the essence of others, and our place in the order of things is of our own devising and deserves to be challenged and expanded by others.
MT: I know one character is a lesbian (google TJM if you don’t know why I bring this up) and there are so many other characters who are, on a surface level, not you. Do you ever feel that even though the characters are so not you, they still may reflect who you are the most? Who do you feel you identified with the most in your novel?
TJM: I think that’s true. There are certainly personality traits in each of the characters that I can identify with, but the one who I identified with most strongly was that specific character—Wren. Notable differences aside, I think she shares in my own foibles. Just as she does, I tend to over-think things and justify it as anything other than a desire to postpone consequential decision-making.
MT: I’ve talked about superheroes, but why is crime fiction so important today? Why do you think it’s so necessary that women especially are taking control of the genre? This goes for so many minorities rising up inside the genre, and I’m wondering how you view this and what good it will do.
TJM: Any time you add voices, the art form is going to both expand and improve. Crime fiction, as it presently stands, covers an excitingly expansive topography and readers are coming to the genre because they can find themselves where they couldn’t find themselves before, and that is good for everyone—writer and reader alike.
MT: Say you were to give a copy of your book to every person in America. What are a few things you hope they’d take away fromt eh novel in the hopes of improving the country? What truths do you hope they’d have to face?
TJM: I wouldn’t hope that everyone who reads the book takes away the same thing from it. If that were to happen, I’d worry that I failed pretty drastically. The most I could hope for is that whatever people take away from it—if they take away anything at all—is something that resonates with them specifically and lasts beyond a day or two.
MT: What was the biggest struggle in writing this book, and what was the greatest relief? What do you feel most accomplished about—other than publishing the book itself (and to much acclaim!)?
TJM: The biggest struggle was probably just the process of trying to write a superhero novel/crime novel in a way that didn’t feel derivative—the inner critic was a constant companion. The greatest relief was typing “The End,” which was also the biggest accomplishment. Not to say I didn’t enjoy, thoroughly, the actual writing of the novel, but all good things come to an end, which is in itself a very good thing sometimes.
MT: This may be a spoiler question, so feel free to dance around this and answer however you want, but who do you feel is the true criminal (or criminals?) in the novel?
TJM: I’m not much of a dancer, but I’d say that, aside from the obvious answer, there aren’t any true criminals in the traditional sense of the word. What you have are people either acting purely out of self-preservation or, in some instances, a moral goal, and the only differences between them are the magnitude and implications of the consequences.
MT: When you think of books in the past several years, crime or not, what do you think you’d recommend alongside your own book, even if they don’t share similar plots/stories, characters, themes, etc? Even if they’re totally different?
TJM: Oh boy, I could recommend a lot of books, but what first comes to mind is Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird (2017), which is a superb work of crime fiction. Her new novel, Heaven, My Home (2019) is currently on my reading list, too, and I can’t wait to dive in.
MT: What can we expect from you next? PLEASE tell me there’s another novel on the way! Something to keep fans satisfied.
TJM: There is another novel in progress! I’m very excited about it. Admittedly, it’s been slower-going than The Reign of the Kingfisher just because I’m simultaneously trying to finish my doctoral dissertation, but hopefully I’ll be able to share the novel sooner than later!
MT: TJ, thank you so much for being interviewed by Writers Tell All. We loved the book. LOVED. And I advise all readers to pick up the book as soon as possible. I’m glad I made the choice to read it (and thank the people who recommended the book, and apologize to those who I’ve sent more than four copies to). You are an amazing writer and I can’t wait to see what’s next. Please feel free to leave any comments or anything else you feel like saying, and it’s been a delight reading your book and crafting questions for you!
TJM: Thanks so much for all the kind words and support! It’s been a pleasure chatting with you and an honor to make an appearance at Writers Tell All. Hopefully I did, in fact, tell “All.”
MT: The book feels like a book about a woman whose life—or iives, made up or real, but here seeming made up, at least at first—is breaking down. Wall shattering, the timelines coming apart, and I usually hate books like this, but even as I settled down into this book and reading it, I fell in love with the novel pretty immediately. What do you think about the type of book I already mentioned, how it’s been used in the past and today—which essentially, I suppose, boils down to a woman being crazy, gaslighting her perhaps, all depending on the book you examine—and why did you use this idea (or, this was the idea for me) to draw the reader in?
SN: Well, I guess I feel like Kate isn't crazy. I mean, in the book her version of reality is correct and she is never confused about that; she just tries to go along with the idea that she's insane in an attempt to appease other people. I guess for me it's a Cassandra narrative, where she's just seeing the world for what it is, and (like all people who see the world for what it is) being treated as if she's the problem. Of course we also get Ben's point of view, and we can see why everyone thinks she's crazy. But I think the book doesn't really have a crazy. Different people just have different experiences, all of which are real.
MT: You’re great at introducing the reader to the science fiction genre. I’ve always viewed science fiction as a pretty intense genre—yes, I love A Canticile for Leibowitz as much as I love more literary, sometimes noir plays on the genre like Station Eleven—but why do you think the genre is so hard for people to get a hold on, and what books do you think are best as introduction? Why do you think The Heavens works so well as a book to introduce people to a genre with often incredibly unique worlds?
SN: As far as why people don't get into science fiction, I guess I don't know because I never had that problem. I suspect a lot of people just find it difficult to take a completely imaginary world seriously, even though obviously all fictional worlds are imaginary. Generally I think LeGuin's books are the most effective cross-over books for people who don't already like SF. I've also had some success with M. John Harrison's Light (though I try to recommend Harrison in every interview, so you may take that with a pinch of salt. But read his books.)
I think The Heavens isn't strictly speaking science fiction, though it's definitely getting close to being "real" science fiction. My trajectory as a writer has been to write books that are more and more science fictiony. I'm working my way up to literal spaceship.
MT: There are so many things I want to ask you, but I have to remind myself to avoid spoilers, and to avoid ruining the book for new readers. The novel’s modern day (“modern day”) timeline is set in a specific number of years leading up to an essential and tragic time in American history. Can you tell me your favorite books which function around a specific time or incident in history, why they are important, and in a loose, general sense, why you chose to do this yourself?
SN: I just needed 9/11 (I care not for spoilers) so that people would be able to locate themselves in history and realize that we were finally in a completely recognizable contemporary world. And then of course it becomes a symbol for how the world is getting dramatically worse. I think all Americans who lived through 9/11 can identify with that feeling of the walls closing in, of mistakes being made that were irrevocable and obvious and yet somehow felt unavoidable.
Books that function around a specific time or incident … in a way this would be most books? I mean, I love historical fiction (I'll mention Dorothy Dunnett and the inevitable Hilary Mantel). It's tricky to use historical events, of course, because they tend to feel bigger than the story you're telling. Unless they are the story. If they're not the story, then it can be a bit like having a horse on stage during a love scene.
MT: There’s this issue in the book—again, trying to avoid spoilers—perhaps the best way is to say one might try to fix things only to constantly change things, make things worse for what one wants, and never be able to achieve the life or future one wants. There’s an extreme tragedy in this, and I feel like we see this here today. On one hand, we have people actively working to make change and this often blowing up in their faces—so many politicians, activists, etc. Perhaps their past actions (Clinton with her views on gay marriage, seen in the past, supposedly affecting her polls with queer people) or current indiscretions ruining things, and then we have people who sort of passively let change, change they don’t want, change they don’t like, all of this happen while they sit behind computer screens and sign petitions on Facebook. Where do you think Kate would fit in today’s world, and why do you think her need to make change, but also things blowing up in her face are so important to the book, but also to the reader too? Gosh, that was a long set-up and question.
SN: I'm just going to say what I want to say here, which is that a lot of the time people think that they're being virtuous if they Do Something. It's like, "I actually Did Something, I am the hero here." Generally what they did is the thing they found most emotionally satisfying. We see this with politicians (notably those who start wars) and in ourselves. We also admire people who Do Something, even if we know the thing they are doing is counter-productive and stupid, and we tend to admire them more if the thing they did is flashy, feels heroic somehow, got a lot of attention, involves them being sexy and tough—absolutely regardless of whether it was harmful or beneficial. This is a real problem.
We really can't know all the consequences of our actions. But we have a responsibility to think about the likely consequences and to try to make choices that have good consequences—even if it doesn't feel good or particularly make us look good.
MT: As I mentioned, you and I both work inside two genres—separate genres, but two very popular and I like to think important genres (and yes, I know literary is a genre too, but for now I will focus on science fiction and crime). While Attica Locke has said that all books are crime novels (she mentions Beloved as her favorite crime novel, for example), we also have to note how people limit crime and science fiction. I understand genre in itself is a way of limiting how we fit a novel in a certain place, why do you think certain critics and readers frown upon or steer clear of “genre fiction” and what do you think the danger is in only reading purely literary fiction all of the time?
SN: Obviously some people are insecure about their intelligence or class status or education level, and that plays into the phenomenon of avoiding genres or looking down on them. But generally it's just a personality thing. I have trouble with many crime novels because I don't care who did the crime and I don't really believe in punishment, so the whole ending feels kind of gratuitous and annoying to me. My tendency is to think, "Leave the poor criminal alone, you weirdos." You know, to me the detective (where there's a detective) is just being nosy. But I recognize that this is a personal quirk, and I am the one who is wrong. And of course there are plenty of crime novels I like and admire despite this quirk, but if I didn't read hundreds of books a year, I probably wouldn't have gotten that far.
I think it's fine to just read literary fiction, just as it's fine to just read crime fiction. There are some limitations to any genre, but I don't think there's anything wrong with loving whatever you love. And there are always books within a genre that break through all the limitations, so I feel like ultimately you're fine.
MT: Assuming this book was read by individuals all across America, what would you want the main takeaway from the novel be—in addition to being just an extraordinarily entertaining and interesting novel?
SN: The main takeaway in my opinion is that your life is history, and what you do affects the future. We have this trope of going back in time to change history (to kill Hitler or whatever) but we are already back in time, with the opportunity to change history. What we do matters, and if an apocalypse is coming, the mistakes we make now are the apocalypse.
MT: Sandra, I won’t keep you with many more questions, but do you have a work-in-progress or book you’ve already finished? I know we (your readers, your fans, your mega-psycho-fans) are all waiting for more from you. Eagerly awaiting more writing!
SN: I'm working on another novel now, which starts from the premise that all the men in the world disappear, and the women are left to sort it out on their own. But the book really follows the women who can't give up looking for the men—or particularly for their husbands, sons, fathers, etc.
MT: Sandra, thank you so much again for agreeing to be interviewed for Writers Tell All. This was magical—the book, the books that I later read of yours and also other books I revisited after being inspired by The Heavens—and I loved the experience so wholly. Feel free to leave us with any words, thoughts, input on the novel or writing or your writing or anything else, and thank you so much again because reading your work and interviewing you has been such an enormously delightful experience. Thank you again.