Andrew Martin on the Coming-of-Age Story

“There’s an urgency when you’re a teenager, experiencing things for the first time, that you can’t really get back.”

Caroline Martin / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read “Deep Cut,” new fiction from Andrew Martin.

“Deep Cut,” a new story by Andrew Martin, which is adapted from the author’s upcoming story collection, Cool for America (available July 7), will appear in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. To mark the story’s publication, Martin and Thomas Gebremedhin, a senior editor at the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Thomas Gebremedhin: “Deep Cut” concerns the exploits of Paul and Thomas, teenage best friends, at a punk concert gone wild. The story takes place over the course of a single night. Why did you elect to limit the narrative scope in this way?

Andrew Martin: Well, there are a couple of answers to this. The prosaic one is that the earliest version of this story was a long scene from an abandoned novel about prep school and romance in suburban New Jersey in the months after 9/11. It was pretty bad. It was an accidental young-adult novel by someone who’d never read a young-adult novel. But the episode at the punk show stuck with me. It captured something about that time in my life that I hadn’t seen written about in quite this way, and, more important, I was reluctant to consign all these bands I’d made up to the fate of continued nonexistence. So I kept coming back to it, and a few years after abandoning the novel, I rewrote it as a short story.

The “one night of glory” model has a really strong tradition in stories about teenagers. I thought about movies like Dazed and Confused and Can’t Hardly Wait and Detroit Rock City, where the narrowed scope of the narrative reflects the compressed horizon and pressurized emotion of the characters. As a 15-year-old—and, okay, as a 20-something, and beyond—I often couldn’t see past my immediate circumstances, and the structure of the story reflects that blinkered outlook. There’s an urgency when you’re a teenager, experiencing things for the first time, that you can’t really get back, and I wanted to capture that.

Gebremedhin: Right, this is a coming-of-age story. Paul, the narrator, describes his efforts to “have the best night of my life, to do whatever thing would change me forever.” He understands that he is standing at the brink of some great shift, from which there will be no return. How does punk music inform this theme?

Martin: Punk can be about a lot of things, and the bands in the story—ranging in approach from Clash-inspired political agitprop to the romantic angst of emo to the nihilism of New York hardcore—reflect a small segment of what the music can represent. But they all share a common goal of catharsis, of moving the listener to transcend his or her malaise, anger, whatever through movement and action. Like most teenagers, Paul doesn’t really know what he wants to change into; he just knows that he wants to change. Punk provides a kind of perfect buffet of opportunities to imagine yourself different than you really are—more engaged, more angry, more heartbroken. And it also gives you this sort of vision of utopia, where violence can be channeled into community in this unexpected way.

Gebremedhin: Are there any inherent challenges when writing about music? For instance, what’s it like to try to describe a song? Who are the great practitioners of fiction when it comes to music writing?

Martin: I do think it’s hard to convey what a song—or a painting, or a film—is like without having any direct experience of it. But I think what fiction or criticism can do is create an alternative version of the thing being described, one that is filtered through the sensibility of the writer to become something else. The story name-checks the critic Greil Marcus, whose books introduced me to a lot of the music I loved in high school. (I realize this makes me sound like I’m 100 years old, or from another planet, but it’s true!) There’s an incredible description Marcus wrote of “Every Picture Tells a Story,” by Rod Stewart, that made me a huge Stewart fan (I mean, of his stuff up until, like, 1973). I think if you can make a punk-obsessed teen in 2001 love Rod Stewart, you’re doing something pretty impressive.

As far as fiction writers go, Proust is probably the world champion in describing musical performances (and paintings, and sexual jealousy, and …). David Gates is no slouch, either. You haven’t really heard “Straight Outta Compton” until you’ve heard it through the ears of his character Willis in Preston Falls, blazing down the road in his truck toward another terrible decision.

Gebremedhin: Toward the end of “Deep Cut,” we get a 200-word parenthetical, in which the narrative jumps forward a decade, to a time when Paul and Thomas are in their late 20s, their lives having taken dramatically different paths. It’s a remarkable turn for many reasons, but I’m curious how that decision came to you. Did you know you would attempt something like that before you started writing the story?

Martin: I think that’s the key moment in the story, and I think the realization that the story was about that gap in time—about how time changes everything, in the words of Bob Wills—is what allowed me to see it as a complete work rather than just an episode or an anecdote. It happened organically while I was working on it, probably wondering to myself, as anyone who has survived an M.F.A. workshop has been trained to, Why am I telling this particular story? I might have had Deborah Eisenberg’s “Flotsam” in the back of my head, a story that is mostly about the main character’s first year in New York in her 20s, but begins, briefly, many years later, with the narrator observing some younger people in a bar who “radiated a self-conscious, helpless daring” that reminds her of her past. You don’t want to be flippant or glib about that kind of shift, because it can seem gimmicky, but I think that when it’s done thoughtfully, it can add depth and perspective.

In this case, it’s not necessarily that this particular night changed the characters’ lives, or led them to the futures briefly described in that parenthetical. Rather, the concert serves as a kind of symbol for this period of their lives, when they had these particular concerns and desires and weren’t yet burdened by the expectations of adulthood.

Gebremedhin: Our narrator is bright, funny, and deeply referential. At times, he lovingly skewers the punk scene around him, but there’s a way in which the narrator is also skewering his younger self from a distance of many years. Do you like to inhabit that teenage voice?

Martin: I do think writing from the voice of (a version of) one’s younger self is freeing, in that some of the hang-ups one might have about being corny or pretentious or whatever else can be put aside. “He’s 16—of course he’s ridiculous! Of course I know better now, but he doesn’t.” It’s a fairly gentle skewering, I think—more of an ironizing, maybe. Just like it’s hard to write about a place when you’re living there (I’ve found), I think it’s hard to write about a time of life without having a good amount of distance from it. I think this story needed its especially long gestation process in order for me to have the perspective I needed to finish it.

Gebremedhin: This story will appear in your forthcoming collection, Cool for America. How does it fit into the larger puzzle that is the collection?

Martin: The collection is a deliberate attempt to capture the lives of a particular milieu, a ragtag bunch of would-be artists and malcontents struggling through their 20s and early 30s. This piece serves as kind of an origin story for the protagonist types who populate the book. (He’s named Paul, which isn’t too far removed from Peter, the protagonist of my novel, Early Work, and a character in Cool for America as well.) The goal is to create a Marvel cinematic universe—with similar world-dominating profit margins!—but full of overeducated weirdos instead of superheroes.