I arrived at Martha Frankel’s office in Boiceville, New York, to a flurry of activity. Martha and her assistant were loading piles of paper and books into boxes to be carted away. Earlier in the week, when I called Martha to confirm our appointment, she had forgotten who I was and why I was coming. I had traveled halfway across the country to the Hudson Valley, drove thirty miles from my bed and breakfast down long winding roads that seemed to go on forever, and was now wondering if I would come away empty-handed.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “As soon as I’m done here, I’m going to give you my full attention.” Which she did. As soon as her assistant left, we settled into a cozy corner of her office, and she focused all of her attention on me and my questions. Later I understood this was the secret of her success as a writer, an interviewer, and a conference organizer. Despite the chaos around her, she was able to let everything drop and focus on the person or task in front of her.
The walls of Martha’s office are hung with portraits of the celebrities she’s interviewed, framed dust jackets of her books, and posters from the Woodstock Writers Festival, which she has organized and produced since its inception. Stuffed arm chairs and sofas line the room. To-do lists and post-it notes are everywhere — tucked into corners and tacked onto bulletin boards. Everything in her space supports her work.
While Martha’s many accomplishments and high-profile interview subjects are impressive, over the course of our interview, what struck me most was her spirit. Underneath her confident exterior and straightforward speech, she is as intimated and scared as the rest of us. But she gets the work done anyway, acquiring the skills she needs as she goes, seeming to thrill in the learning curves that move her life and work forward.
Saundra: Let’s start with the various roles you play—writer, teacher, organizer. You know them. I don’t have to list them for you.
Martha: I’m a writer and have written a couple of books—a memoir about my family and gambling called, Hats & Eyeglasses, and Brazilian Sexy, which I wrote with a woman who claims to have brought the Brazilian wax to America. Who am I to argue with her? That was a fun book to write, but Hats & Eyeglasses was hard, about my family and an addiction I had that nobody knew about. I also have some pieces in big anthologies, Knitting Yarns, and Eating Delancey: A Celebration of Jewish Food.
I started teaching, because people would always tell me that writing is so terrible. I thought, “Really? I think writing’s easy. I think it’s fun.” So I started teaching, which was a nice change. My Thursday classes are ongoing, a day class for newer writers and a night class, which is made up of people who publish a lot.
I have only one rule: You cannot complain. No self-deprecating stuff. They don’t believe me, but it’s like squid ink. It starts to color the water, and everybody’s work gets worse instead of better.
Saundra: When people start complaining?
Martha: Yeah, when people are saying, “Oh, I’m not as good as everybody else,” or, “My work’s not good,” it’s detrimental to everybody’s work, including my own. So I don’t let them. And it’s very hard.
But the classes are great. We’re on a bit of a hiatus now and someone just wrote and said, “You have to teach. You have to come back and teach for a month because it’s too crazy.” And I understand because when they’re here, they write every week. And when they’re not here, they don’t.
Saundra: You provide structure.
Martha: Yeah, and I get it. It’s good for me, too.
Saundra: I’m not surprised that writing is fun for you – although other writers probably want to kill you when you say that – because your writing is fun. You seem to be enjoying yourself.
Martha: Thank you. That’s nice to hear.
In 2009, a group of writers – Abigail Thomas, who wrote A Three Dog Life, and some other writers in Woodstock – got together to plan a writers’ festival. I was approached to help, and it was really successful, really great. Afterward, everyone was asking, “Well who’s going to take it over? You should take it over.” But I’m a terrible administrator. I told them, “No, I’m not good at this.” But I did, and it grew, and it really has its own life now.
I have a great team around me, a great web designer, Nan Tepper, and the woman who owns the bookstore, my friend, Kitty Sheehan, and my publicist Abbe Aronson. I can run ideas by them, although in the end I make all the decisions because I am a control freak. I get to decide who’s coming and who’s good with who, and I like that part. One of the things I like is that I am the liaison to the sponsors and to the writers. Usually people divide that up. I don’t. I like it. And it’s going well. This is our sixth year this year and that’s big, getting past five years.
Saundra: When you say you’re the liaison to the sponsors—
Martha: I’m the one who reaches out and gets sponsors.
Saundra: You get the event underwritten?
Martha: Yeah, and I like it. For example – and this is a little thing – there are people in this town who have money, who are very generous and who write checks. But when the writers come, I want to give them a bag with some cool stuff that’s reminiscent of Woodstock, right?
Martha: There’s a company here called Woodstock Chimes, and I went to the guy who owns it and said, “Come on, give me X number of dollars worth of stuff. Let me come to your warehouse and pick it out.” And so this year the writers are going to get some beautiful things.
People ask, “That’s what you’re doing today? You’re going to go up to the warehouse to pick up that stuff?” But that’s who I am, and it happens because of me.
Saundra: You treat the writers well.
Martha: Also, you’re saying to somebody, “Here’s what I’ll do for you and here is what I’d like you to do.” And it’s funny, because Amanda Palmer, who’s married to Neil Gaiman, and certainly is well-respected on her own, just wrote a book called The Art of Asking. She did a TED talk about it, and I didn’t want to like it, because that’s what I’m like. But I get what she’s talking about. The Woodstock Writers Festival exists because I am good at the art of asking. I’m not embarrassed because I feel like I’m offering a fabulous product and I’m going to give it to you, and here’s what I need in exchange. In the beginning, I was like, “Oh, mister, can you spare a dime?” Now I say, “Hey, come on in. Here’s this great thing we’re doing and we want you to be part of it. But here’s what I expect from you.”
I will start sending the writers copy on January 5th and say, “Put this on your website, put this in your Twitter feed, send this out to your lists and help us make your event a success, because we can’t do it on our own.” And every once in a while you get somebody who gets it. Last year we had this kid, M.K. Asante, who wrote Buck. I could have turned the entire festival over to M.K. He was a miracle worker, incredible.
Every year I learn, and I keep copious notes. My husband and I took a ride to South Carolina the day it ended last year. I spent the first 48 hours going over every detail. How many cookies were at that event? Who should I get to do that next year? Who’s the person that seemed comfortable taking the big writers from one event to the other? Because some people are uncomfortable with that and some aren’t, and who’s okay pouring endless amounts of booze backstage?
Saundra: It’s like a debriefing for yourself afterwards.
Martha: With myself and nobody else around. It’s crazy.
A little over a year ago, Jimmy Buff, the program director at WDST, which is a fabulous, fabulous radio station in Woodstock, called and said, “Hey, do you want to come in Wednesday morning and be on air with me for an hour?”
I went in, and we played music and talked, I and mentioned a couple of books. I loved it. I’d done a little bit of radio in the past, but there was something about this. Buff is a great guy and trained at WNEW in New York. He always says, “I learned the Bible from the people who wrote it.” Anyway, I did that for about a year and I barely talked books. Every once in a while I’d say, “Hey, I’m reading something cool,” or, “Somebody’s in town that you should go see.” But mostly we talked music or life and played a lot of music.
And then in September he said, “Listen, I have some good news and bad news. I can’t have you in anymore, because they want me to play more music.” And I remember, my lip was trembling. Tears came to my eyes, but I said, “That’s okay. And he said, “No, it’s not okay.”
I’m crying now telling you this because I remember feeling like the rug had been pulled out from under me, and I couldn’t even explain why. I don’t love music all that much. It wasn’t that.
I got up to go and he said, “Aren’t you even going to ask me what the good news is?” And I said, “Oh yeah, what could the good news be?” And he said, “I’m going to give you your own show, one hour a week. It’ll be on at a weird time, but we’ll run it online all the time.”
I didn’t know how to feel. I went home and told my husband. “I don’t think I’m ready for this,” I said. “It’s too much.” But he reassured me I was ready. So I wrote Buff this long list of what I might call it. “A Page a Day” was one idea.
“I just thought we’d call Woodstock Writers Radio,” he said. And I thought, “Of course that’s what it would be called.”
I worked on it for a couple of months to try and figure it out. September 28th was my first show, and I’ve been doing it since then. To have something that happens every week, it’s like being on the beach. The wave is coming in and then the next one, and you can’t stop it. In the beginning I reached out to people I knew. And I’ve been around for a long time as a writer and book reviewer, so for my first show we had Jane Smiley and Ann Hood.
Saundra: That’s impressive.
Martha: Yeah, but I was still saying to myself, “What’s going to happen next?” For this week’s show, I’ve got Richard Ford, Walter Mosley and Neil Gaiman. And it’s only my tenth show
Saundra: Oh my goodness.
Martha: I never had a learning curve like this. It’s huge, what I didn’t know. Also, I had to go out and get sponsors so I could get paid. I didn’t ask other DJs or talk show hosts what they did. I just decided what I wanted and I went out and got it.
Saundra: Who did you go after?
Martha: I went after local businesses that I love. I went after people I love. And I said, “I will sell your shit and I will do it honestly and in a great way, and I want to get paid for it, and I will in turn eat in your restaurants and shop in your stores, but I don’t want to trade with you. I don’t want to be beholden to you. I want you to commit to me.”
Martha: I told them I was going to do this radio show and it was going to be killer. It may take ten weeks for it to be killer, but if you stay with me from the beginning, I’ll make sure that you come along with me in a great way. It’s crazy now and when my sponsors call me they’re like, “Holy shit.” I’ve had some very well-known writers in.
Saundra: It sounds like a lot of your work is about the relationships you’ve built and mutual respect and support. You’re asking asking people for things that you appreciate for a cause that you believe in. That’s your world.
Martha: Yes, and I don’t feel embarrassed about it.
I am not an overnight success. I’ve been working my ass off for many, many years. I want to get ahead, but I don’t feel like I have to step on your head to do it. And I’ve been aware of that from the time I was a kid. My mother and father were great believers in helping other people.
When I first got paid for writing at the original Details magazine, I started getting wooed by other magazines fairly quickly. And sometimes I couldn’t do it because I was too busy and I would say, “You know, I know this guy,” or, “I know this woman.” Writers have always said to me, “You’re so generous.” But I didn’t see it that way. I think when you’re not generous, that’s a lot of shit to hold tight. I don’t believe in that.
I don’t believe that life is a pie, and if you have too much, I don’t get mine. I believe it’s like the ocean, that it just keeps coming in and going out and coming in and going out. When you make sure somebody’s not falling into the surf, you stand up better. I’ve been working on that for a long time.
Yesterday I wrote to my sponsors to make sure they were along for the ride next year. But since it’s right before the holidays, I wrote and said, “I don’t need your check today, but I need your commitment.” And it was fascinating what I got back. Everybody said, “Of course. I’ll give you more and if you need it now, why don’t I write it now?”
Saundra: Do you think people come to feel a part of it over time? That it belongs to them, too?
Martha: Yes, but also writers and readers spend a lot of money. They see it in the dress stores and the bookstore. They tell me it’s one of the best weekends of the year.
I like to travel to the other book fairs to see how it’s done. When I came back from Miami last year, I said, “Okay, we have to have an author’s lounge. We have to make it so.” A lot of people who had been at the festival disagreed. One of the cool things about Woodstock is there is no VIP tent and people have to walk around. Really what I’m talking about is a place where you can go charge your phone. “Let’s just make it upstairs at the bookstore,” I said. “We’ll put in tables and chairs and plugs, and we’ll put my iPad there and some booze if people want it, and we’ll bring food in for lunch.” And it was fabulous.
SoI went to a couple of restaurants and said, “I’m going to have 23 people for lunch. Would you be interested in taking care of that? And they all agreed. No problem.
Saundra: So you created a place for the writers to go and chill?
Martha: The festival is at a weird time—early, early spring. This year we’re doing it in the middle of March and it’s cold here so they can’t just schlep around town. They have to get warm, so I wanted to do that. But I understood what people were saying. Don’t make it so that they don’t have to go into town. John Berendt is a friend of mine, and he came up for the festival last year and he was out having lunch and dinner and people were like, “Is that John Berendt? It was really cool, really great.
Saundra: So obviously you are not intimidated by celebrity.
Martha: Sometimes I am. Of course I am. But my mother always told me to whistle a happy tune louder than everybody else. You can’t tell how intimidated I am. My husband knows. I’ll call him before an event, and say “I’m so fucking scared, I can’t stand up.” He used to say, “Don’t be scared.” Now he says, “Scared is good.”
Saundra: Scared is good, because—
Martha: Because I’m going to walk in there with my senses heightened. I’m going to do a good job because I want to. Neil Gaiman came in to do an interview recently. Usually I do my interviews on my own and then we put them together later. But this was Neil Gaiman, so my producer said, “Let me come in and do it with you in the big studio.”
At one point he went out and brought Buff back in, and they both gave me a thumb’s up. When we listened to it the other day, you literally can hear me shaking. “That’s why I went to get Buff,” he said, “to show him. You were so scared it was adorable, but then it ended and you were you.”
I remember that feeling of, “Oh my god, it’s Neil Gaiman.” But then he said, “I’m so thrilled to be here.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m so thrilled to have you.” And then I was myself and I was fine. But people will hear me shaking on Sunday and my friends who listen will be laughing.
Saundra: It’s great though, because it’s normal to be intimidated, or nervous around a celebrity or someone who’s a role model.
Martha: About ten years ago Steve says to me one day, “Go get me a cup of coffee.” It was about 3:00. “Please, please go,” he says. Bread Alone is next door, so I drive down. I walk in and it’s mostly empty. But there’s this beautiful woman paying, and in the corner two teenage girls whispering. I love teenage girls, so I was looking at them and saw they were twins. I said to the woman paying, “Ugh, you are fucked.” And she said, “Oh, you don’t even know the half of it.”
We were laughing and she said, “They don’t even see me. They hate me.” I get the coffee and turn around and there’s Keith Richards. And then I get it. This is Patty and those are the twins, right? I bolted. I just ran out of there and went home.
I got home and Steve says, “Where’s my coffee?”
“Keith Richards and Patty and the girls are there.”
“That’s nice,” he says. “Where’s my coffee?”
“I don’t know. I think I left it.”
“You got freaked out by Keith Richards?” he said. I was unhinged. I can’t even imagine what she thought. We were having just the nicest chat and then I turn around and run away.
Saundra: That’s hilarious.
Martha: So I’m normal. But I did a lot of celebrity interviews. For ten years that’s all I did. I met everyone and saw how complicated and fucked up their lives were. No different than mine. People will say, “Oh, that guy, he has everything.” I don’t feel that way.
A lot of rich and successful celebrities have children who are at dire risk for one thing or another. I never ever imagined what anybody else’s life was like, and I think that that’s the most important thing I learned from the celebrity work. That it’s just their job. They’re good at their job, but I’m good at my job, too.
One of our best friends has a severely autistic daughter. He’s quite famous and people are always saying, “That guy has nothing to worry about.” But I know the truth. I know about the nights of crying, the horrible things that have happened. It was a humbling experience working with celebrities.
Saundra: Almost anyone with children is open for suffering.
Martha: Exactly. And you know what? I live in a very small town. I wrote for Redbook and Cosmo and did cover stories, so it wasn’t a secret. My writing was in the supermarket. And I would travel for ten days at time, doing interviews and staying in a hotel in strange cities. When I came home, I would be so happy. People would say, “Oh, you have the best life. You must hate it here.” And I’d say, “No, I love it here.”
People thought that the interviewing and traveling was my real life and this was my bullshit life. I felt the complete opposite. I was so happy to come home. When you drive up the thruway near Kingston, you can see the Catskill Mountains. It never stops thrilling me.
Saundra: It’s stunning here.
Martha: It is stunning, and I am so happy to get up in the morning and have coffee with the same four people and go to the supermarket. It’s perfect. When my book came out, I did a lot of local events – a reading at the library and a reading at the bar – because these were my people, and that hasn’t changed.
Saundra: It makes sense, though, to have a small town life to hold this big thing that you’re doing, talking so many celebrities. It seems like it would keep you grounded, so you don’t get caught up in all that crazy.
Martha: I am grounded here. This local photographer wanted to take my photograph and the day of the shoot, I set my hair.
“Let’s go to the reservoir,” he said. He wanted to get an outdoor shot.
“I hate the outdoors,” I said.
“What do you mean?” he said. “What should we do?”
I said we should go to the supermarket.
So we go to the market and I fill up an entire basket full of Oreos. Sweets aren’t really my thing, but food is clearly my thing, and so he’s snapping away. We’re laughing, and almost nobody is in the supermarket. It’s a Tuesday morning, and this woman walks by and says, “Did my son call you? He wants to talk to you about a job.” And I said, “No, but he should.” And then somebody else comes up and says, “Did you get a puppy?” And I said, “Yeah, I did. It’s at work with Steve at Fabulous Furniture. You should go see it.” “Right now?” she says, “Yeah, you should go,” I said.
Those were the only two people in the supermarket and those were my conversations with them. And my hair was in rollers, my cart overflowing with Oreos, and not one person says, “What’s with the rollers? What’s with the photographer? What’s with the cookies?” Nobody.
Saundra: So how do you manage all these things? How do you handle them on a daily and weekly basis?
Martha: I have an unbelievable calendar. This is the only way I exist. I have a calendar with unbelievable amounts of writing on it, and that’s the way I do it.
Saundra: Do you keep a list of what you need to do and schedule it onto your calendar?
Martha: I have a to-do list that I look at every day, and I have notes. But here’s the other thing. I get up at 5:30 now. I used to stay up late and wake up late, but I can’t do that anymore. I set an alarm for 5:30 most days. Today I got up at 7:00 and my husband was like, “Holy shit, it’s a busman’s holiday. We can stay in bed until 7:00!”
I get up early and sometimes it’s just to do nothing, to knit and read.
Saundra: You create a little space for yourself that way.
Martha: When you get up at 5:30 in the morning, let me tell you, by 10:00 you’ve done a day’s work. Because there’s nobody to bother you. Nobody else is up. It’s fabulous. That’s been a huge difference in my life these last couple of years. I stopped drinking, happy to say, and that’s had a big effect. It’s the domino that started everything else in motion.
Saundra: It’s a healthier lifestyle. Did you train yourself to go to bed early?
Martha: I go to sleep whenever I’m tired and I sleep until I’m awake. If you get up at 5:30, by 10:30 at night, you’ve had it. I also come in here and take naps. That’s a new thing.
Saundra: If you wake up early and you need to work in the afternoon, that’s one way to manage it.
Martha: My whole life people would talk about if they were a morning person or a night person. I would say I was a night person, but it wasn’t true. I stayed up late, but I couldn’t get anything done at night. So now it’s clear I’m a morning person.
Also, I have a husband in the retail business and I spend a lot of time there.
Saundra: That’s his business down the road, Fabulous Furniture?
Martha: Yeah. I spend a lot of time on the weekends there if he’s busy, like this time of year. He likes talking to clients, but be hates the retail part. So I go up there to help. It’s insane how much I get done for somebody who’s so unorganized.
Saundra: What are you working on now?
Martha: I’m working on several things right now: a story about depression for an anthology, a story about desire for a magazine, and a story about summer. I do these story slam events every other month, and I close out the evening. I’m working on the next one, which is in January. The theme is “Every summer has a story”.
My husband had amnesia a few months ago. Just that sentence is so fabulous, but he had a very specific kind of amnesia, and it’s the only medical thing I know about. I’m not kidding, I knew about it before I knew what was happening.
We play poker across the hall and one night one of my poker buddies went out to have a cigarette and came running back up the stairs. It was December and freezing.
“Why’s everybody wearing sweaters?” he asked.
“Because it’s December,” we told him.
”It is?” he said. We took him to the hospital and the neurologist who came in to treat him said, “Oh, he’s having TGA, transient global amnesia. I had it, too.” Which was hard to believe.
It only takes like six or seven hours to play itself out. Once he was okay, I said to the doctor, “Could I come in and pick your brain because this is a great character flaw for a writer.” So I went in twice and talked to the doctor. Anyway, then another poker buddy had it again four years later and this time we knew what was going on, but went to go to the hospital anyway. And it was the same thing.
So, one day my husband came out of the shower and said, “Can I ask you something?”
“What?” I said.
“What day is it?”
“You know what day it is, silly rabbit. It’s Tuesday, your day off.”
“Oh,” he said and sort of stared into space.
“What month is it?” I asked.
“August? December. March?”
“Squeeze my hand,” I said. “Let me make sure you’re not having a stroke,” which he wasn’t.
“You’re not going to believe it,” I said, “but I think you’re having transient global amnesia.”
I had the story slam ten days later and I said to my husband, “I am so sorry, but I have to tell it. I’m a writer. But the weird thing was I did the story and afterwards three people came up to me and said, “I had that, too.” It’s not that rare. One of them was Brad Dourif who played Billy Bibbitt in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I think I’ve answered every question you could possibly have, haven’t I?
Saundra: Let me see. Did you have any role models or mentors?
Martha: My mentor was Annie Flanders, the editor of the original Details Magazine. She always said, “If there’s something you want to write about, you can, but you need to be passionate about it. You need to come into an editorial meeting and convince me.” Details was a real downtown, hip, fashion magazine, and I’m none of those things. I wrote about books and about people I loved. But I’d have to go into editorial meetings with people who had never read a book by that person.
Annie was my mentor for a long, long time. It was a great relationship. She read everything I ever wrote, even when she was really busy. But then she retired when her husband had a heart transplant. She was my first reader for Hats & Eyeglasses, and had unbelievable things to say about it. I was writing this section about my parents. My father died when I was 14, and it was cataclysmic for my family. I was telling this story and I said, “My mother and I looked at each other blankly from the other side of his coffin.” Annie said, “What am I missing?” And I said, “Well, you know he was only 49.” And she said, “Oh yeah, that’s a good thing to keep a secret.”
I remember unknotting that whole thing that day. When do you have too much information? When don’t you have enough information? How to tell it? Annie was a great sounding board. She would often say, “Tell me the story.” And in telling her the story, I would hear it. I would know what the story was.
Later, I went to other magazines and started doing another kind of writing for Cosmo and Redbook. At Details whatever happened, happened. If the guy was a jerk you wrote about that. If you got drunk and made out with him, you wrote about that. We had a lot of freedom. Then I went to work for other magazines where there was an agenda. They wanted you to write a story that had five parts and in the last part everything gets sewn up nicely. And truthfully, I didn’t have that kind of training. I didn’t know how to do that. I would say to Annie, “Oh my god, they want me to do this.” And she’d say, “Well, tell me the story.” And in doing so I would hear the five parts.
So she was my mentor. She would listen to me talk about people and things she had no interest in and made me make it exciting for her. I could hear whatever she was interested in and know I should go into it. And when her eyes glazed over, I would stop and say, “Nobody cares about this shit.” It was a great learning experience, a great gift.
I mentor a lot of young writers now and I am very clear with them. Wow me. Make me interested. If you can do that, you’ve got a story.
Saundra: It seems your work and life have developed organically, one thing building upon the next.
Martha: Yeah. I feel like that, too. I wrote when magazines were successful and you could get paid a lot of money. You could write a 3,500 word think piece about Michelle Pfeiffer and mean it. And then the business changed. The PR people got too involved and they started making the rules. The magazines decided that people only wanted to read 700 words and already it was online. That changed everything.
Saundra:. That changed the industry completely. I was going to ask you what obstacles you faced that—that’s usually a question, but I feel like that’s in your book.
Martha: No, I faced obstacles as a writer, too. When the magazine business fell apart, I wasn’t trained for anything else.
I sold Hats & Eyeglasses without writing it, which was crazy, and I didn’t tell anybody. My agent was the only person who knew I had been gambling. It was a nightmare. It told her I didn’t know if I could write a book. She said, “ You have to think of it as 15 magazine stories.”
Saundra: That helps.
Martha: “And just stop worrying about that.” But I was like, “60,000 words? Are you crazy?” That was way beyond me.
Saundra: That’s a long haul. It’s hard to move from writing short pieces to finishing a book.
Martha: I often tell my students to either slow down and make it longer or hurry up and make it shorter. I feel like those are the only two options you have as a writer.
I have faced many obstacles as a professional. Money obstacles, emotional stuff, all of it. Two years ago I was ready to give up the office. What did I need it for? It was too much money. I could work at home.” But then I sold something big.
And you know what? Teaching has changed my life because it’s constant income. My students pay my rent. That’s the way I look at it. That never waivers. I teach almost every Thursday. It’s constant money and it’s not that expensive for them. My rent’s not that expensive either.
Saundra:. Do you teach in sessions or do you have an open class.
Martha: I teach in sessions, but it just goes on. I teach in eight-week blocks and when we’re about two weeks away they start saying, “When are you going to start again?” I used to take big breaks in the middle, but I don’t need it anymore. I don’t need the breaks, because I write all the time. I write like every other writer I know. I have a deadline on the 6th of December and I wait until the 5th. Isn’t that the way writers work?
It drives my husband crazy because he’s a woodworker and he works really, really hard. In order for him to make X number of thousands of dollars, he has a certain amount of physical work to do. Where I go like this (stares off into space) for days. He’ll ask what I’m doing, and I say, “I’m working.” I’m thinking and dreaming. I used to fight that, too. I would think, “People are going to find out that I sit in my office, and I nap and daydream and watch Homeland.”
But when I sit down to write, I’m like a train, from the beginning to the end. But I’ve already done the work, sitting here and figuring things out, questioning if this is a good opening line. Will people understand where I’m going? Am I wowing somebody or are they bored? Are their eyes glazing over? I’ve already done it by the time I turn on that computer.
Saundra: You let everything build up inside and you’re ready to pour it out.
Martha: Exactly. I just interviewed Walter Mosley, who I love. I love Easy Rawlins, and Walter’s way of writing. He was telling me about his new book and I said, “It seems like it comes to you fully formed or something.”
“What are you talking about?” he said.
“A lot of people don’t know what I’m talking about,” I told him.
I’m writing this piece about desire. I haven’t put one word on the page yet, but this morning on my way here, I remembered what it was like when I was gambling. I remembered it the way you would remember a lover’s kiss. I remembered it fully formed. And I realized that’s what I want to write about.
I try to stay away from that. People often ask me to play games online, and I say, “Honey, I was an internet gambler. I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t think you want me to be playing anything online.” But this morning it just hit me what I want to write about.
Saundra: But you make space for it to come. You leave the open time and space, and let it build.
Martha: I’m here at 5:30 in the morning and sometimes by 8:00 I’ve written a piece.
Saundra: That’s pretty good. Any advice for someone who wants to organize a conference or major event?
Martha: No advice, I’m embarrassed to say. I wish somebody would take that part away.
Saundra: It’s hard for you.
Martha: Oh, I’m just awful at it.
Saundra: But you keep doing it anyway.
Martha: Well, I don’t see anybody else stepping in. But you know what? This is the first year I didn’t say, I’m done. Last year was so great, I though, “Now I know what to do.”
Recently, some folks Pennsylvania called and said, “We’d like to pick your brain.”
“You’d be very disappointed,” I said. “It looks like a turkey carcass in there. I don’t know what I’m doing.”
I still don’t understand why we have to print tickets. Can’t people just print out their PayPal thing? It seems so easy. But no. And it’s a huge expense. I used to be very uptight about filling the seats, but I now realize the event should be paid for by the sponsors.
Martha: The seats should be like gravy. I have a completely different attitude now. I give the authors lots of seats for their friends. I want the seats full, but I can’t make money that way. I need sponsors, and I need them to be generous. So once I got that, everything changed.
Saundra: It’s actually not unlike the way you’re making your living now. You know where the bread and butter are.
Martha: But it took me a long time figure that out, and I don’t have anybody else’s brain to pick. The film festival is a different animal. It’s way bigger and a lot more people. I don’t want this to get much bigger. I like it being in one place with one venue and the bookstore across the street.
Saundra: But you did figure it out and now other people can use that as a model.
Martha: Yes, and I’m generous in my knowledge.
Saundra: One last question. You’ve had a lot of experience interviewing people. I’ve had maybe ten minutes of it. Any words of advice for people like me?
Martha: Short would be better for you, because now you’ve got to go through all of this. I’d kill myself if I ever had to go through this. I’m not kidding. I have an hour of airtime to fill every week, and in the beginning I was doing twenty-two minute interviews. Last week I said, “I am so over the 22 minute interview.” My producers wanted me to cut, so I cut to 11 minutes.
More people, more interviews. I would say short is good.
Saundra: How do you narrow things down? How do you zoom in on what you think is going to get you where you want to go?
Martha: I will say you’ve done your homework and that’s always my advice for anyone. I hate when people come to interview me and they say, “What have you done?” I’m like, “Oh, come on.” When I do an interview, I read your stuff.
So I have no advice for you. You’re doing well. You know do what you’ve got to do. If you need to listen to an hour and a half worth of tape to get what you need out of it, then do that. I’m just too busy now.
After you turn off the tape I’m going to tell you the best story.
Saundra: Alright. Then let’s be done. Thank you so much.