Friends of the Tortoise - Martin Seay (Part 1)

Our novel The Fugue was recently a finalist for the Chicago Writers Association's 2016 Book of the Year Awards, alongside Christine Maul Rice's Swarm Theory and Martin Seay's The Mirror Thief. And while we were disappointed not to win, that feeling was tempered by the privilege of being in such great company, with two wonderful authors.

Martin's book is a big book that's still very light on its feet--a compelling and thought-provoking work that calls to mind both Thomas Pynchon and Raymond Chandler as it takes readers through three iterations of Venice: the original, in 1592; Venice Beach, in 1958; and Las Vegas' Venetian in 2003. He was gracious enough to answer some questions for us about his writing and research process, and we're publishing the first part of that interview here:

Q: Each version of Venice in the story is drawn very fully and (presumably) accurately, and I think in one interview you mentioned having visited the original Venice prior to having the idea for the book. How many times did you end up visiting each one?

A: I hope they’re accurate! In a few instances I intentionally departed from geography and/or the historical record a little—for the sake of the story, or to play up a motif, or to emphasize a point—but I tried to get it right as often as I could. It’s very difficult to make up details that are better (or weirder, or more surprising) than reality.

Prior to starting The Mirror Thief in 2002, I had been to Venice—the original Venice—once, for a couple of days, while doing the typical middle-class post-collegiate backpacking-through- Europe thing. I had been to Las Vegas a couple of times. I don’t think I had ever been to Venice Beach in LA, unless maybe for a minute during a long-ago family vacation. I didn’t visit any of the three while I was actually writing the book.

In the years since I finished it—it was pretty much done by the autumn of 2007, aside from minor revisions—Kathleen and I have been fortunate to travel to all three places, and fortunately I didn’t find anything that I had obviously screwed up.


Q: Your author bio is refreshingly devoid of some of the normal small publication credits one often sees in author bios, and even devoid of a normal author-type teaching job. Did you consciously decide to avoid working on and/or shopping smaller pieces while this was taking shape? Do you feel like writers write better with a non-writing day job? (T.S. Eliot being one prime example.)

A: I’m glad you like the bio! The credit for it goes entirely to the good folks at my publisher, Melville House, who in their wisdom decided that brevity was the best approach. Left to my own devices, I avoid brevity at all costs.

The bio on the book’s flap reads in its entirety “Martin Seay is the executive secretary of the village of Wheeling, Illinois. The Mirror Thief is his first novel.” I gather that the Melville House gang was charmed—and believed that readers would be charmed—by the notion of a big, weird, ornate literary thriller being penned by a mild-mannered civil servant, maybe in furtive and/or idle moments between processing liquor license applications or whatever. This picture isn’t quite accurate; I wrote almost all of The Mirror Thief before I started working my municipal gig, during my longtime employment at a national-chain book retailer, and also during an eight-month fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I’ve done a little writing while working for Wheeling, but it’s been nonfiction pieces: essays and reviews and whatnot.

Normally I do drop a few credits in my bios mentioning places that have published my stuff; I’m grateful to those folks for their encouragement. (I actually started writing The Mirror Thief in a class taught by Richard Peabody, who also took the first short story I ever published for his journal Gargoyle; it’s hard to overstate the debt I’ve accrued to Richard.) I can’t say that I consciously avoided submitting short fiction while the Mirror Thief manuscript was making the rounds; I’ve just written very, very few stories that I’m satisfied with, and by 2011 they had all been published.

I do think there’s a value to approaching creative writing from the perspective of someone who’s employed outside the world of books and letters, but I’m wary of overstating it. It seems to me that most writers need a certain quantity of time, brainspace, and security to produce what they want to produce; any place they can find those things is probably an okay place to be. The trouble is that such circumstances seem to have become increasingly difficult to achieve, both inside and outside the academy. The pace of the workday of an average insurance executive, for instance, is almost certainly more hectic now than it was when Wallace Stevens was vice-president of Hartford Accident and Indemnity; meanwhile, as universities rely more and more on adjunct faculty (who often have to teach a horrifying number of classes at a preposterous number of institutions to earn enough to make rent), academic careers have become less and less of a compelling option for writers. I’m very fortunate that my employer has been accommodating enough to let me restructure my job to part-time in order to get back to writing fiction again.