Martin Monahan is a British writer with stories and poems in the London Review of Books, Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. Editor Carolyn Kuebler spoke to Martin about his new story, “Reproduction,” which appears in NER 37.1.
CK: I was struck by the way the dry, declarative tone of this story gives way, eventually, to a sense of both the brutality of the passage of time and the delicateness of human life. The cumulative effect is very poignant. Can you tell us a little about the form and how you came to it?
MM: It was the result of a few ideas that I’ve wanted to work with. How to tell a single life in as few sentences as possible, but for it still to be moving. How to tell as many stories as possible within one story. How to cover a vast period of time in one story. The form has a touch of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle about it. Where you zip through history at a quick pace, but I wanted to add the private sphere to this public account.
CK: At first I assumed it was all based on factual documents, and I was impressed by the erudition. Then I began to doubt its historical truth and was impressed by the imagination. Still, I can’t help but to wonder: is any of this historically accurate, or did you make this all up?
MM: I’d say it’s historically plausible (up to when it goes into the future!). That is to say, almost all of the people, places, and companies are made up, with a few sprinklings of fact, but the whole story is linked to the real passage of history. The “Reproduction” of the title refers to biological reproduction of course, but also the reproduction of capital since primitive accumulation: and that again is shown plausibly, though it’s made up. This economic reproduction then facilitates the reproduction of cultural and social capital (perhaps an inescapable link, unfortunately).
CK: In this story, what people leave behind does allow one generation to connect to the next, and not just in the obvious manner of beget and begot. It’s populated by both merchants and poets. In fact the “excerpts” that you present from your various characters’ poetry are some of my favorite parts, the way they reveal the time and place and character. Can you tell us a little about the poetry in the story?
MM: The poets in the story are the ironic points of light. And yet they are facilitated by money that has been got in horrific ways: through the stealing of land in England, the slave trade, and industrialization. So, there’s that moral quandary there. In part, the poems are an exercise in mimicry. I do write poetry. And, of course, even when writing, say, a dramatic monologue, I am stuck with “me” as the writer of the poem. So I did like the idea of hiding behind another writer, getting to write words and lines and on subjects I could not otherwise do.
CK: You seem to have a great facility with the past, especially the names and titles and occupations of history. Do you spend a lot of time in history books?
MM: My background is political science, having done a doctorate in institutional theory. So in particular I’m interested in the structural mechanisms of history, large processes, and material forces. But always with individuals at the center. And it is the literature of the past that gets you closest to that individual experience. The details of individual lives. To me the story is an exercise in artifice more than in history. So there is more similitude than verisimilitude (this might be a forced semantic distinction, but it works in my head at least). Though I’m interested in putting in real history, I like making things up whenever possible: names of books, places, companies, poems, songs, and so on. That said, I do listen to “The History of English” podcast. Which is brilliant. And probably influenced the story, when I come to think of it.
CK: What did you enjoy most about writing this particular story?
MM: Going into the future! I had made that decision right at the start. But it took so long to get there, and when I did it felt like taking off, uncoupled and free to make up a few strange things. Originally it was to go a thousand years into the future (to equal the story beginning a thousand years ago) but I realized that it really needed only a touch of future stuff to get the idea across. That and the poetry. Poetry, for me, is more difficult to write than prose, but word for word the smile is wider.
CK: You mentioned you were working on a novel. Does it involve any of the figures you invented for this story?
MM: None of the same characters but a lot of the same themes. It’s called Car Park (I don’t know if that name is known in the US; in US English the title would be Parking Garage). It concerns the building of a multistory car park and shopping mall in a fictional post-industrial city in the English Midlands. The city is called Lowhampton: this would be, by way of reference, like a small scale version of Detroit, perhaps. In that it used to be a successful car manufacturing center, as well as lots of other industries, coal mining and so forth, but now is struggling. The story is more than just the car park. It brings in the preying of London speculators on deprived areas, selling the council cheap shops and exorbitant payday loans to the locals; the aristocratic ownership of capital (which has moved from manufacturing to property in a lot of English cities); the place of art outside of this, yet tied to it; and people just trying to live their lives by marrying, having sex, going out with family and friends, eating ice cream.
Like the story in NER, the novel tries to cram as many stories into one story as possible. And anything that is stated has to be shown. There’s a bit at the end of Ian McEwan’s Saturday that I don’t like. The daughter is said to be a poet, and the plot requires her to read out one of her poems that will have the power of calming a violent man. Now, McEwan doesn’t go ahead and write a poem for her, but rather has her recite Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” which I’ve always felt was not rising to the conditions he had set himself. In Car Park, I follow the rule that anything suggested has to be written out. So, there’s lots of poetry, songs, advertisements, inventions, tweets, business ideas, art shows, TV shows, film scripts, histories of car parks, stand-up comedy, maps, toponyms, that are made up and shown to the reader. A kind of whirring engine of texts and stories.
CK: To me that sounds a lot like “Reproduction,” but on a much larger canvas. Dare I ask: have you finished writing it?
MM: Yes, it is finished. Though I’m planning on redrafting some parts of it, I think.