By Mark McNease
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author Paula Martinac. Her latest novel, The Ada Decades, tells the story of Ada Shook, a librarian who begins the book as a child discovering a shocking postcard image in her father’s possession, and ends seven decades later as a reluctant witness to history. Told in eleven interconnected stories, the novel examines issues of race, class, and the slow climb toward LGBT equality in a pre-Stonewall world.
See Paula’s in-depth answers to ‘6 Questions’ below, and mark your calendars: I’ll be chatting with Paula on a podcast sometime in the next month or two. I’m excited to continue our conversation. For now …
MM: Let’s start with some biographical information. You’ve lived in Pittsburgh, New York City, and now Charlotte, North Carolina, where you’ve settled with your wife, Katie Hogan, also a writer and professor. Can you give us the Cliffs Notes version of that journey?
PM: And that’s not even all the places I’ve lived! I grew up in Pittsburgh and went to college there, then attended graduate school at William & Mary in Virginia. My dad was a working-class guy who dropped out of high school but loved history and books, and I inherited that from him. I majored in history and thought for several years that I wanted to be a museum curator. But the actual experience of working in a museum in West Virginia in my early 20s changed my mind. I found what I liked most about that job was the writing aspect. Plus, it was very hard to be openly lesbian there in the early 1980s. I decided to move to NYC in 1982 to “become a writer”—a risky move, considering I didn’t have a job at the time. NYC was my home for 20+ years, during which I worked in publishing and then as a freelance writer, segued into journalism and editing … anything that allowed me to make a living with words.
Ten years after I moved to the city, I met my wife, Katie. She was finishing her Ph.D. at Rutgers. If you know about academia, you know that you follow the jobs. Her first position was at CUNY, so we stayed put. But I had kind of a love/hate thing going with NYC—although the city was good to me in terms of writing opportunities and friendships, I was increasingly frustrated with our cramped apartment, and the challenge of living in the city when you don’t make much money took a toll. When Katie got a better job offer in Pittsburgh in 2003, I was ready to move. And we loved Pittsburgh—it was a different city than the one I grew up in, a place that totally supports writers. That’s where I wrote all my plays. I worked with a local theater company, and I remember those years as some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer.
We would have stayed in Pittsburgh, but Katie’s job at a small liberal arts college got precarious. Charlotte was an academic career opportunity that couldn’t be passed up, and we’ve been here since 2014. Living in a red state has had a lot of cons for sure. But the landscape and history have also had a profound impact on my work, as you can see in The Ada Decades.
MM: Your body of work includes four published novels, three nonfiction books, stories, essays, plays, a column, and a blog, ‘Queerest Places’, devoted to queer historical sites. What compelled you to be a writer, let alone such a prolific one?
PM: I’ve been writing since I was seven. My second-grade teacher gave us an assignment to write a short story, and I was off and running. I don’t remember not writing. My parents gave me a Tom Thumb typewriter, and later I used my older sisters’ Olympia portable. It was just what I did, and my family accepted it. When other kids played outside in the summer, I was in my room tapping away at the typewriter keys, writing novels.
It’s funny, though—I don’t see myself as prolific, probably because I identity foremost as a fiction writer and so many younger novelists have published more than I have. In the early 2000s, I stopped writing fiction for a while, and The Ada Decades was my first published novel in 20 years. But I have written in just about every form possible—novels, short stories, poetry, plays, screenplays, journalism, blogs, personal essays, history—so I guess that does equal productivity. I’m enjoying a spurt of fiction writing now because I’m lucky to work only part-time.
MM: The Ada Decades opens with a young girl’s discovery of a startling postcard in her father’s possession. What inspired this story, and can you talk about the research that went into writing a book dealing with pre-Stonewall racial and queer realities?
PM: As with most fiction, that part of the book came from piecing together different experiences. It probably started many years ago, when I lived in NYC and saw an exhibit of lynching photographs called “Without Sanctuary.” The images stayed with me. When I moved to Charlotte and created the character Ada Shook, a lesbian and native Charlottean, I knew I wanted her to have a searing experience with lynching that would set up the parts of the book that deal with race. I found the “Without Sanctuary” archive online, and the postcard I wrote about in the novel is based on one in that collection, of a lynching in Salisbury, NC, near Charlotte. I discovered that a white woman who grew up in Salisbury wrote a very good nonfiction book about the lynching, and I read that as part of my research.
But my story also owes a bit to a completely different experience. In 1945, my dad was stationed on Iwo Jima as an MP after the famous battle there, and he brought home an assortment of photos from that time as well as souvenirs like a “Jap tooth” (his phrase). One of his photos, which was so small you could barely make it out, was of dead Japanese soldiers heaped on top of each other. I remember seeing it as a girl and being repulsed. That image stuck with me, too, and when I created Ada, I was able to call up that childhood memory.
Writing Ada involved a lot of this kind of knitting together of experience and research. I’ve been a student of Southern history and LGBTQ history, so I had a good foundation. But then I read books about integration, newspapers from the time, oral histories of LGBTQ people in the South; I watched movies and went to exhibits, took a local history walking tour. Each chapter required some new knowledge. The novel itself was born when we moved to Charlotte and I simply started walking around our new neighborhood, which was an old cotton mill community. I’m inspired by physical history, the places where people lived and worked, so I imagined her as a mill worker’s daughter whose father worked at the mill that’s right down the street from my house (which is now loft apartments). I imagined what it would be like for her growing up in one of the little mill houses and later, as an older lesbian, living in the very neighborhood where she grew up.
Plus, even though I’m a Northerner, I could draw on my memories of growing up in Pittsburgh, which was a very segregated city, although without Jim Crow laws. There was just one black girl in my high school, for example.
MM: You expressed interest in queer historical places in part because you wanted to have a sense of our place in history—to not be invisible. Do you think that sense of invisibility has lessened as we assimilate more into the fabric of society? And, given the current political climate, do you think that sense of integration is fragile? Can we be erased?
PM: I do get concerned about losing LGBTQ history, especially the physical remnants. Physical history is precarious for any minority group. Given the political climate, I think we need to be extra vigilant about our past because, clearly, there are forces that would like to have us all go back into hiding. When 45 took office, there was a rumor going around that all the work that had been done on preserving LGBTQ national historic sites—in which I played a minor role—was about to disappear from the National Park Service site. Luckily, that hasn’t come to pass (https://www.nps.gov/subjects/tellingallamericansstories/lgbtqheritage.htm), and LGBTQ preservation activists remain fired up. But it makes sense to be concerned and wary, given that we have a president who doesn’t read and whose idol is Andrew Jackson, who committed genocide.
I do think that freedom can be easily lost, and part of keeping it—for all people— involves knowing your history. LGBTQ people have this vibrant history that’s laced with pain. I’ve channeled my energies into writing queer historical fiction because I think it can help make that history more vivid and alive. So, for example, we don’t have bookstores like Oscar Wilde or Djuna Books in New York anymore, but I tried to capture the feel of them in a chapter of Ada.
MM: Among my biggest influences was my Creative Writing teacher in high school, Mr. Monjon. He believed in me, and we reconnected decades later on Facebook. What are the most significant things you get out of teaching writing? And (part II), what do you hope your students get out of you?
PM: I enjoy teaching creative writing, although it’s probably the hardest work I’ve ever done. I stand up in front of 25 college students and I’m “on” for the next hour or two—almost like a performance. On a personal level, it helps me as a writer to think and talk so much about craft. I have a long history of being in peer critique groups and leading workshops, and that informs my writing in a big way; but explaining fiction or poetry techniques to young writers, helping them figure out how a story or a poem is constructed, is a very different thing.
And I really like the students. Oh, sometimes when they aren’t prepared for class or they quibble about their grades, I might wish I did something else for a living. But in general, I become very fond of them every single semester. On their course evaluations, they say they appreciate my passion for writing and that I treat them like “real” writers. Some students always seem to form a community of writers. My “Intro to Fiction Writing” class this past semester started out as a very sullen group, but then a few of them began congregating after class in the hallway to talk to each other about their stories, and little by little their numbers grew. That shows desire and passion on their part, and it’s very gratifying to me—students forging writing lives beyond the classroom. I hope they’ll take that with them, even if they don’t remember every technique we discussed.
MM: What’s next for you, creatively, culturally, and in your life?
PM: I have a fifth novel coming out in late 2018 from Bywater Books, called Clio Rising. The story in one sentence: In 1980s New York, a newly out young woman embarks on a job as companion to a literary giant of the “Lost Generation”—a closeted lesbian who accomplished just one great book.
I’m at work on a sixth novel, which is titled Testimony. It’s too early to say much about it, but it has an academic setting and takes place in the late 1950s in Virginia and North Carolina.
I also work as a writing teacher and coach with a great local group called Charlotte Center for the Literary Arts. Adult writers don’t get grades—hooray! So, my life is kind of “all writing, all the time,” which suits me fine. But Katie and I do plan on more trips this year.
Paula Martinac is the author of four published novels – The Ada Decades(2017); the Lambda Literary Award-winning Out of Time (1990; 2012 e-book); the Lammy-nominated Home Movies (1993); and Chicken (1997; 2001 reprint). Most recently, Paula’s short stories appeared in The Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, and Main Street Rag. For more information about these books, visit the Fiction page.
Paula’s other publications include three nonfiction books – notably, The Queerest Places: A National Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites(1997) – and numerous articles, essays and short stories on LGBT themes. She wrote the biweekly column “Lesbian Notions” on LGBT politics and culture from 1997 to 2005, and it was syndicated in the LBGT press. She blogs about queer history and historic sites at The Queerest Places.
Interviews copyright 2018 MadeMark Publishing.