While Michael Martin now lives in an old house by the sea in Beverly, Massachusetts, he hasn’t forgotten the rural Pennsylvania where he came from. Its people and places fill his debut short story collection, Easiest If I Had a Gun. The adjunct lecturer in rhetoric has been writing stories since he was a teenager, and he still remembers the day that his collection arrived from the printer. “When I took it out of the box,” he says, “it was like the best thing I’d ever seen.”
Where do your story ideas come from? There’s a fair amount of me and a fair amount of other people in the book. Some of the stuff that’s hardest to write is actually about people I’ve known. I became close with a couple of students when I taught at community college, and they were the kind of kids who should be looking at a future for themselves, but it’s western Pennsylvania, so instead they were focused on reproducing their parents’ postwar, working class lives, and those options aren’t there anymore. They just don’t exist. And so writing about those kids struggling and ultimately failing to work beyond that is tough.
Before becoming a teacher, you worked a bunch of jobs. Tell us about one. I got a job working for Leidy’s Pork Products. It’s every bit as glamorous and fun as it sounds. I had to get a pair of steel-toe rubber boots; they provided the white coat and apron. It was summer and I worked inside a refrigerator, so my nose was running all the time. It was awful. I did not end up a vegetarian, though. People always expect that and I’m like, no, I grew up a German boy in Pennsylvania. There’s no vegetarianism for me.
You taught Lady Gaga in a writing class for gifted teenagers. What was she like? She was a smart kid. She told stories about working with a choreographer and with a vocal coach, and she wanted to be the next Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears. She was very serious about studying the music business at 15, and she made it. She made it about as far as she could go, so I have nothing but admiration for that.
Any hobbies? Reading has always been a hobby. I like gardening. I’m a gamer. I feel like the escapist fictional worlds of video games have become part of my writing process. I write about these kids who break my heart when I think about the choices that they made and the directions their lives went in, and so I come back from the library or the cafe kind of weeping, and I escape into the Xbox and go solve imaginary problems for imaginary people.—John Crawford