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The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories

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The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories by Valerie Martin
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May 09, 2006 | ISBN 9781400095506

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  • May 09, 2006 | ISBN 9781400095506

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  • Dec 18, 2007 | ISBN 9780307429537

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“The cool assurance of Martin’s voice, and her capacity to say surprising things about ordinary feelings—envy, rage, and despair figure prominently—makes the collection a triumph.” —The New Yorker

“Beautiful, heartbreaking stories.” —New York Times Book Review

“Each piece in this suspenseful and piercingly acute collection traces an artist’s struggles for excellence and public acclaim, and how those struggles crosscut with relationships that support and undo art…. Compulsively readable and impressively perceptive, Martin’s stories put art’s dark compromises in sharp relief.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Martin’s prose throughout the book has a cut-glass clarity, a drolly macabre humor, and a feline suppleness of insight, with perspectives ever shifting and characters always surprising you. The various settings—Brooklyn, Rome and especially Martin’s native New Orleans-play key roles too, cinching the pleasure to be had from these tales.” —Seattle Times

“[A] sharp, finely crafted collection…. At once psychologically insightful and playful, Martin here strips away the romantic notions of the artist and satirizes the art world…. [T]hese intriguing stories catch us off guard and startle us with unexpected shifts and turns of the artist’s psyche.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“What Martin shows us about the way artists behave isn’t pretty, but the quiet artistry evident on every page of The Unfinished Novel is nothing less than awe-inspiring.” —Salon

“An enrapturing and ruthless storyteller, Valerie Martin possesses a predator’s ability to mesmerize her prey…. These finely calibrated and bracing stories provide a welcome antidote to the sentimentality and half-baked spirituality that are often draped over art like bunting on a bomb. Martin’s tales of betrayal, obsession, connivance and failure put the firepower back into art.” —Chicago Tribune

“[Martin’s] writing is fierce and dead-on, skewering the pretensions and delusions of her characters—artists, writers, dancers, actors-but not without sympathy for their needs, their struggles.” —The New Orleans Times-Picayune

“Martin’s diamond-sharp sentences retain their cool even in the heat of battle.” —San Francisco Chronicle

Author Q&A

An Interview with Valerie MartinQ: Did one of the pieces in THE UNFINISHED NOVEL AND OTHER STORIES inspire the rest? Were they all written with the collection in mind?A: The last story in the collection, “The Change” was written first. This was in Rome, about ten years ago. I had nothing thematic in mind, beyond amusement at the idea that menopause was called “The Change” in some books. My own experience of that condition made me think this wasn’t entirely an exaggeration. It was an accident that my character was an artist, but as soon as I understood that she was, the thematic possibilities got richer and I understood that the story was really about art, about what it allows and what it requires. I enjoyed writing the story and some time after began the second one, “His Blue Period.” After that one was done, I consciously decided to spend some time writing other stories about art and artists. These will be cautionary tales, I thought, about how art ruins your life and saves your life.Q: Several of these stories feature tragic, unnatural deaths. Was that something you set out to explore in this collection? A: Not at all. These are long stories which often cover decades in the lives of the characters. Some of them died, as they will, in the course of things.Q: All the pieces in this collection are full of details that suggest a wealth of knowledge of artists and the arts. Do you have experience with drama and the visual arts, or a particular interest in them? How much research did you do for these pieces?A: I’ve always been drawn to the visual arts, though I have no talent for drawing, no sense of color or design, and composition is a mystery to me. What fascinates me is how the ability to draw is a gift some have and others cannot get no matter what they do. People who have this ability generally don’t value it particularly; never having not had it, they don’t think about it.This is true in all the arts, music being a particularly good example: the gift often shows itself very early and just will not be denied. Those who love art but have no gift for it often suffer: those who have a gift have no pity on those who don’t. Envy, bitterness, rancor, and self-hatred can be the result.I did some research for these stories, but not much. Over the years I’ve tinkered enough with paint, written bad plays, met actors, painters, dancers, lots of poets. Being a writer, the one gift I do have is an eye for detail and an ear for the telling twist of fate.Q: Is there an overall structure to the collection, or a reason for the order of the pieces?A: I put the stories in the order they are in after they were all done. I wanted “The Unfinished Novel” in the center because it is the longest. It was the last one I wrote. I tried to rotate the professions a bit, as well as the points of view. I knew I wanted “The Change” to be last because in that story the artist literally flies out the window. It seemed a good way to end the collection.Q: Did you have models in mind for the various works of art in your stories, or are Anspach’s paintings, Sandra and Carter’s production of “Hamlet” and Rita’s unfinished novel pieces that exist only in your own words?A: Anspach’s paintings and those of his friend John are loosely based on paintings I saw in shows when I was in graduate school. I knew that painters had a kind of competitive thing about who was representational and who wasn’t, and who had a lot of technical expertise and who was just throwing the paint at the canvas. They still do, I gather, when they use paint at all. The production of “Hamlet” and Rita’s novel came entirely out of my own head. I did see a student production of “Hamlet” many years ago, in which the lead was clearly the envy of his fellow actors. Everywhere I go I meet people who have novels they haven’t finished. I recall a conversation with a painter who told me that when his uncle died in Wisconsin his children found about twenty boxes of a novel he had been writing in secret. His heirs threw it away.Q: How did you decide on the title “The Unfinished Novel” for the novella and for the collection? A: The novella was the last story I wrote and I was clear that the title would be “The Unfinished Novel” before I wrote the first word. I love stories about manuscripts that get lost or show up at inappropriate times or places after their authors are dead, putting the burden of a lifetime of work on the living. The story of John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces is a good example. I once sat in a courtroom while the fate of his first novel Neon Bible–which he wrote when he was sixteen or seventeen–was decided. Once I’d written that story I thought the title would do for the whole collection. For a while I wanted it to stand alone, but then the idea of the novel unfinished and other stories presumably finished struck me as having just the right touch of irony.Q: Do you think creative ambition is always personally destructive?A: Let’s say it’s a mixed blessing. I can’t imagine not wanting to make up stories and I’ve been fortunate enough to be allowed to do it. I consider myself to be one of those saved by art; as the years go by I find myself continually excited and engaged by the possibilities and challenges of my profession. I’m never bored. But I’ve seen the demon of ambition bring many a fine talent to ruin. The self-destructive artist is a trope, and rather a silly one in my view, but creativity pours ultimately out of the self and is, therefore, draining. Q: Is Meyer Anspach’s route to success indicative of how you think the art world works today, and if so, are you equally skeptical of the other creative industries?A: The art world works, to some extent, the way the real world works, and it often comes right down to who you know. There’s nothing intrinsically evil about this, in fact, it’s bound to happen. But it can feel very unfair. One likes to think good work will find an audience sooner or later (usually later), but what is stunning is how often really bad work is successful. Whose fault is that? I’d prefer not to comment.

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