T.J. Martinson’s debut novel, The Reign of the Kingfisher (Flatiron Books) came out March 5. Born in Kankakee, IL, and a current Bloomington, IN resident, he is currently pursuing a PhD in English at Indiana University. Martinson’s research interests include 20th/21st century literature, history and philosophy of science, new materialisms, and posthumanism. His dissertation, Genealogies of the Postmodern: Reflexive Embodiment in the Age of the Gene, investigates the philosophical dimensions of the Human Genome Project alongside and through contemporary postmodern metafiction.
Caution: this interview contains spoilers!
This book felt like a love letter to Chicago. How did your relationship develop with Chicago and how did you come to write this book?
I grew up in Kankakee, just south enough where you can’t honestly say you’re from Chicago. People try, very desperately, but they can’t quite say it.
But the nice thing about growing up in there was how close it was to the train to Chicago. My initial experience of Chicago was going with my family to the art museum, the aquarium, and Navy Pier when I was a little kid. In high school I started going there by myself, taking the train and staying with a friends who lived up there. It was really transformative experience for me and helped me feel autonomous.
Chicago, to me, is this fantastical place, like a dream. One moment I’d be in this really tiny run-down small town and then the next moment I’m in this bustling metropolis. That sense of awe and wonderment that I still very much possess is reflected in the way I write.
Some characters in your novel talk about feeling “like a tourist in their own city.” Is that where it comes from?
I think so. I certainly felt that way. I could never call Chicago my own city per se. There’s no shortage of kids who want to get out of small-town Kankakee and go to Chicago, and some are really desperate to claim ownership or citizenship there. In a way, it denotes the insecurity of place. It’s like they want Chicago to recognize them as one of its own. It happens with a lot of big cities—with Chicago you get a lot of Midwesterners from small towns coming up there, trying to stake their place, and feel like a regular old citizen.
The characters in your novel are all native Chicagoans. Did that have to do with the romance of being a native Chicagoan?
In some ways yes. Wren, the hacker character, embodied my perspective in that sense. She’s from a small town in downstate Illinois, and Chicago to her is this unprecedented, fantastical place. Meanwhile Marcus, the journalist character, was born in Englewood and later moved to the north suburbs. He feels like he lost communication with the city and doesn’t really belong anymore, so he struggles with feeling like an imposter.
Part of the romance and the magic of the Chicago speak to in this book include its grittiness, its dark sides, its underbelly, and the true-crime aspects. You mentioned gentrification, which is eroding at this aspect of some of your Chicago settings. For example, the apartment buildings where the Kingfisher was living and working I suspect have been ripped down by now.
People are familiar enough with gentrification to know it’s inevitably sad. You’re losing something that’s integral to the way this place is understood and experienced. But at the same time it’s making it—quote on quote—“safer” or “more experienceable.” Ha! But it’s uprooting the fabric of the city. Not to mention all the ethical, socio-economic disparity issues that are inherent to gentrification.
Gentrification is a way to think through some of the themes in the novel, in which people are dealing with the past and how much moves on or doesn’t move on, and how Chicago can be a hard place to understand. Wren for example experiences Chicago in its present state. She didn’t know Chicago in the 1980s, when the Kingfisher was around. He represents the Chicago that’s being bulldozed, for lack of a better word. And it raises the question, given this new vision of Chicago that’s been popping up with gentrification: is the Kingfisher’s idea of justice still relevant to Chicago in any way?
And the book comes to the conclusion that it’s relevant but dated.
Yeah. Society has evolved over 30 years, which we’ve seen on so many different levels lately, with the #MeToo Movement and #BlackLivesMatter and so on. Women and people of color have brought these issues to the forefront, saying, “This was bad. This has always been bad, and now we are going to talk about it.” We’re questioning these otherwise stable ideas of justice or “just behavior,” how we relate to each other, and how we define acceptable behavior. Things that were presented as black and white are now becoming more grey. We debate over them, we think through them, and we struggle to codify or define them.
This is not an era in which a “superhero” has any relevance. The superhero only is seen in that black and white, good and evil, justice versus injustice paradigm. The book suggests that the model of someone in power is still helpful, but it has to be someone who can deal with 21st century cautiousness, deliberateness and ability to read nuance.
It was pretty clear that the Kingfisher was incapable of reading nuance.
Yes. He has two buttons, which are “act” or “do not act.” Most of the time, he acted.
The only exception to that, at least in my own reading, was Miss May, who represents the only nuance that he was capable of. How did you design those two characters together?
Without a doubt, Miss May is my favorite character. She embodies the old Chicago, but she’s pretty accepting of the way things change. She’s along for the ride, but she keeps her memories and has moments of nostalgia. She’s really strong, but she lets things change and evolve all around her and doesn’t get too up-in-arms about it.
When you think about a super hero and his love interest, it’s usually a pretty active-passive relationship. Lois Lane and Gwen Stacy don’t have a lot of agency in Superman and Spiderman respectively. Miss Mae has a strong voice in their relationship and matches him. She never falls into this damsel-like position. I liked putting them together because I liked seeing them as parallel figures to some extent. They’re equal matches for each other.
What’s your relationship with these mainstream superheroes, and why did you pick that trope to critique?
Everyone in our culture is a de-facto superhero expert. It’s in the air. You breathe it every day, you can’t help it. I could ask my grandma about what Infinity War is about, and she will know, which I never thought I’d see.
I started writing this book in about 2015, when Marvel started mass producing those screen adaptations, and it became evident that it was going to be a thing. Each movie was pretty much the same story, but then inevitably I’m buying another ticket to the next one.
My goal was to write a superhero story without using the hero’s journey for the superhero himself. I didn’t want to touch that. So I took the super hero out of the story for the most part, and wrote the characters who would otherwise be minor characters: the journalist, the hacker, the cool cop. I made them the main characters, with the superhero in the periphery.
Chicago certainly has its fair share of superhero movies set and filmed here. What’s your take on the some of these quintessential Chicago superhero associations, like Batman?
I thought the way Christopher Nolan did Chicago was oppressively bleak–one dimensional and uninteresting. Those movies deal with Chicago in an exploitative way. The word that comes to mind is “tragedy porn.”
In 2015, when I started writing this, Donald Trump was announcing his candidacy. He was talking about Chicago being the most violent city in the world and using that as a platform, buying into that one-dimensional caricature of the city. I wanted to get in there and show like that Chicago’s not really like that. Everyone there is like pretty nice, just going about their lives. It’s not this place of hidden violence.
Batman’s my favorite superhero because he’s a detective, but also a bad ass. There’s a lot of thinking about Batman in this book, in terms of aesthetic and the story itself. I didn’t want him to just be bad. I took away his wealthy privilege, but also gave him more super powers than Batman ever got.
Frank Miller’s Batman played a role too. He was the first one to make Batman dark–before that, Batman was like POW KAPLOOM, the Adam West Batman. Then Frank Miller came in and said, “No, Batman is a brooding, bruised soul.” The Batman we pretty much all know and love today is because he got in there and did something really weird with it.
Was that a risky thing to do at the time that he did it?
Yeah I do think so. People who invest in superheroes are touchy and a very specific vision of their superhero. For example, how many people said Captain Marvel couldn’t be a girl ‘cause in the comic books it was a guy. Unfortunately that instance is more related to misogyny.
Frank Miller’s Batman was probably pound for pound one of the most influential moments in comic book history I would say. Before that, Batman was really a one dimensional hero, pursuing good, trying to get to the truth. Frank Miller’s Batman didn’t really have a motivation of truth or justice. It was like, “this guy’s got a really dark past, he’s haunted by some demons.”
Miller’s decision caused some backlash, but it obviously took root in a very powerful way. It spawned a whole new generation of superheroes with this dark aesthetic, like Watchmen and this whole new paradigm shift of how we think of superheroes.
Why aren’t you doing your dissertation on comic book history?
I ask myself that question every day. I’d be saving myself so much unnecessary pain!
Then again, it is nice to have a place to return to at the end of the academic day. Getting an English PhD makes it hard to have fun reading a book. Your brain is just wired—soldered and messed up, and you can’t read non-critically.
I’ve found that graphic novels I’m still able to fully enjoy. I’ve been buying a ton of them and renting them from the library. My ideal way to end the day is to have a seltzer water and read a graphic novel. I’m like reverting back to childhood with the survival mechanism of reading comic books!
When I saw that you were a PhD candidate in English, I was worried this book would be dense and difficult to read—but it actually felt like a comic book. How move from the literary, theoretical study of your dissertation and then come home and crank out a fun, easy read?
It’s easier than it might seem. While I definitely have a bias towards, like, literary fiction–that’s ingrained in the PhD territory—I have a distinct philosophy of writing.
Something that drives me nuts is that some areas of literature, the value is in how hard it is to read. My philosophy is to write books with the literary voice and attention to detail, but be fun. Every book should be fun, I don’t care what the subject matter is. That’s the whole point of reading, and sometimes we lose that. Even when it’s a dark or a sad book, you read to enjoy it.
Working on the articles and the dissertation exhausts a portion of me, probably half of me. But when I write, it activates that other part of me and I’m still at one-hundred percent there.
So your creative energy is in a completely different silo?
A hundred percent. Which is great! My academic stuff doesn’t tap into that reserve. It actually just feels refreshing to be able to turn on the creative-writer side of me at the end of the day.
After my mom read it, she was like, “TJ, I was really worried this book would be, like, really smart and I wouldn’t understand, but I understood all of it.” I’m not sure if that’s a compliment, but I said “Thanks, Mom” and did not question it!
You’re the first person I’ve heard say, “I am a literary fiction person, but I don’t want to write it.”
It’s something that I’ve come into. When I first started writing at eighteen, my model of writing was John Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner—these canonical, mostly white men writers. That’s what I thought a book had to be.
I was trying to do that for several years, and then one day in one of my creative writing classes this girl pulled up a picture of a literary journal to present on. It was like a pulpy science fiction journal with like a robot on it. Some of the lit-fic people were appalled, but it awoke in me this existential moment of realizing I don’t actually enjoy writing literary fiction. It just feels like torture, like I’m trying to be someone else.
Literary fiction has done itself a serious disservice in being exclusive. Given the state of the industry, it’s mind-blowing. In the 50s, 60s, 70s, people liked the fact that it was exclusive, but it’s irresponsible to continue like that. There’s a way of writing really accessible, commercially viable fun books in a smart, literary way, and that’s got to be the future of the industry to some extent.
Where do you think the industry or academy…is going if not where those people are insisting it go?
There’s a lot of hope on the industry side of things. It’s hard to say who dictates what and who’s driving, whether it’s the industry or the academy. Historically the academy has an enormous role in taste-making, but I’m not too sure that’s still the case. In publishing they rightfully look towards what readers like. I’ve been really heartened lately with some new books coming out in this trend of really smart, well-written, thoughtful, careful, literary execution, with imaginative and accessible plots, and that are a lot of fun. If Then by Kate Hope Day comes to mind.
My book also falls into the category of speculative fiction, trying to inject some of the fantastical elements of sci-fi into literary fiction. That’s something that people grasp onto. I’m seeing more and more of these books that deal with the fantastical, while bringing literary elements, which is phenomenal.
As a result, in the university settings we’re seeing a little bit more recognition and critical analysis of those speculative fictions. Like the one that comes to mind that I just saw the other day, there’s this edited collection that came out on the works of Jeff Vandermeer. Which is super cool. I mean, I can’t wait to read that book. So I think that’s gonna be becoming more and more of a thing especially when the university and the publishing scene is pulling on the same side of the rope.
Latinx writers have said the genre vs. lit-fic divide damages them disproportionately because their family dramas and daily lives are inseparable from the magical components. Hopefully the diversification will help with that too, [which] is my thought anyway.
Well, I hope so too, but I also have a worry about that. I see a lot of white writers describing their work as magical realism, but to me that genre is culturally located as belonging to Latinx writers, and also like South Pacific writers. I can see like a bunch of white writers flocking to the magic realist model and erasing those voices.
Yes, writers of color have mentioned how white writers can publish work set in a world inspired by a nonwhite home culture, but the writers of color struggle to sell their own work set in their own culture.
That’s exactly true and that’s one area where I think the responsibility falls more on the university. That’s their ethical imperative, because it doesn’t really affect them economically. They can make these boundaries plain and very easily educate about them. Meanwhile, publishers have a history of playing dumb—they’ll put out an ambiguous statement about “recognizing all writers,” but they’re in it for the money. There are some publishers that run with a lot of integrity and editors who are really cautious, but as a whole I wouldn’t trust the industry to put a stop that trend.
It’s like what happened to jazz. You had this really rich black tradition— and then it’s the story of white people, coming and colonizing it, and the systems of power perpetuate and justify it. Then record labels see this desire among a white community for this art, but only if it’s made by other white people, and then they’re bringing white musicians and essentially teaching them jazz so they can record it.
The university really needs to be more vocal about this because it affects what’s going on with the publishing industry and the humanities, and they need to be cognizant of that.
One of my dissertation committee members studies Latinx writers, specifically metafiction, which is a rich territory. I’ve had conversations with him where someone’s work is just trying to preserve the tradition by marking what did Latinx writers do and what is theirs for future records of where their traditions began.
I wish I could say that history will not repeat itself with that genre, but I don’t have a lot of hope.
This is what I get for interviewing you while you’re mid-dissertation.
[Laughs] It’s one existential crisis after another, so it’s easy to be pretty bleak and despairing. But at the same time, on a more optimistic note, the publishing industry has gotten better. It still has a ton of work to be done, obviously, but it’s exciting to see a lot of debut minority writers in the news, and they’re doing phenomenal. Like Where the Crawdads Sing is doing cuckoo numbers, and selling really well.
I think the publishing world is going to start realizing that people will read those books, they just haven’t been given much opportunity. I can’t say I’ve seen the same success with Latinx writers unfortunately, but I might be missing something. Hopefully we’ll see a renaissance, of, say, Latinx magical realism—that would be so awesome.
It’s so tempting to think of writers and writing books as this refuge away from the trend of the world at large. But sadly more often than not you just see it reflected in that industry
Readers have an enormous stake in this and I don’t think they know how powerful they are. I only learned when my book came out how important it is for readers to leave reviews and be vocal on Twitter. All publishers care about is readers because readers are human cash lines. Publishers care more about what’s going in the library and in independent bookstores and with Amazon rankings. Readers have a lot of agency, and that part of that comes from dialogue between authors and readers on social media.
If the university won’t educate people on some of those really important cultural differences those writers are more than equipped to do that, and it sounds like they are doing that. If no one else is gonna fight for it, you gotta fight for yourself. And to me that’s really hopeful.
Michael and I will be talking about our favorite superheroes, expanding out to talk about what superheroes represent in culture, getting a little theoretical and involving the audience in a fun way. Anyone coming to a talk like that has opinions, and I want to hear them.
Michael also embodies this hopeful attitude of writing super-fun books involving science fiction, I’ll also talk with him about navigating that in writing.
You seem pretty in love with the Midwest and with Chicago. Are you trying to get a job here after you finish you PhD?
Yeah! I think I’ve had the experience of a lot of Midwesterners—in high school years thinking “I’ve gotta get out of the Midwest.” But the older I get I’m like “no, if I were to move out of the Midwest, I would literally, like, explode.” I don’t think I could exist elsewhere. It’s far too ingrained in me at this point. And I’m hoping to be relocating closer to Chicago.
It seems like you have a good relationship with your publisher.
I was blown away with how well Flatiron did. When I finished the manuscript, I asked them if we could have a sensitivity reader. Not only were they were totally cool with that, but they also they hired one. I’m a big proponent of that. I think every writer should be having some sensitivity readers, and the fact that they were so supportive of that really made me know that I found the right place for my book.
Tell me more about that experience with the sensitivity reader.
Ashley Woodfolk was the sensitivity reader. She’s a writer in her own right—she’s done some great YA stuff. She provided feedback from the perspective of both a reader and a writer. She helped with specific grounding details to stay true to the characters, and I was so appreciative of her insight. At one point she pointed out, “The character Lucinda Tillman—you said she’d recently gotten her hair braided, but she’s running around in the rain. No self-respecting black woman would ever do that.” Due to my position, I never would have thought about that in a million years.
Every writer—I don’t care what they’re writing—can benefit from sensitivity readers. It made me feel not just more comfortable, but also she added invaluable experience that I just don’t have. It’s hard for me to imagine an experience that wouldn’t be positive, unless someone’s written something that’s just blatantly not okay, in which case they’d save you heartbreak
Finally, what other novels or projects do you have in the works?
I can never not be writing! While the dissertation is definitely there, I’m also currently working on a literary crime novel. It’s an art heist, a mix of the like The Goldfinch and like Sound of the Fury and Oceans Eleven.
T.J. Martinson’s debut novel, The Reign of the Kingfisher is available for purchase here and in most bookstores. As mentioned above, he will be appearing at Volumes Bookcafe (1474 N Milwaukee Ave.), Saturday, May 4, at 7 p.m.
Chicago’s complex social landscape inspires guest interviewer Terry Galvan’s writing, from the realistic to the fantastic to the downright horrifying. A former anthropologist and Fulbright grantee, Terry spends nights performing at literary events throughout the city, shopping their novel, and nursing their Catholic guilt with a good deal of whiskey. Follow Terry on Twitter @TerryGalvanChi and terrygalvan.com