Yemassee Interview: 7 Questions with Derrick Martin-Campbell

Derrick Martin-Campell's “Space Heaters,” selected by Claire Vaye Watkins as the winner of the 2016 Fiction Contest, appears in Issue 23.2.

1. Where are you from and where are you now? How does (or doesn’t) place influence your work?

I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon and, after a few years on the east and middle coasts in my twenties, I came back in 2004. My wife and I just had our first kid here and our families both live close by so we aren’t planning on leaving any time soon.

Most of the writers I admire prominently showcase place in their work and it’s something I’ve always tried to copy. Reading and rereading Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories and Faulkner and even the way Claire Vaye Watkins writes about Death Valley -- when my writer friends and I sit around drinking and talking shop, we talk a lot about how one might do that for the Pacific NW. My family has roots in central Oregon, where “Space Heaters” is implied to take place, and I’m proud of how this story evokes the early-spring high desert and the communities that persist there.

2. What’s your number one rule of writing?

I’m actually really snotty about showily disregarding writing “tips” like “cut all the adverbs!” and stuff like that. Not to imply that I don’t need advice, I’m just really contrary and stubborn. Most advice is great, maybe even all advice. In fact, yes, let’s go there: all advice is good, and likely true. But it’s hard to hear.

3. What is strangest about your writing process?

Is it strange not to write enough? I don’t write enough. It’s amazing that anything I start gets enough time and attention invested in it to arrive finally at its best self. I started writing “Space Heaters” six years ago and, since the first draft, it really hasn’t changed that much. I appreciate when my writing is patient and willing to wait on my schedule.

4. Describe the lifespan of this piece: how did it start, how was it revised, how drastically did it change? What was the most difficult part of writing it?

Frankly, the most difficult part of writing “Space Heaters” was resisting the urge to publish a different, more straight-forward version of it, without all the flashbacks and flash-forwards. Twice, editors I really respect had some great ideas for how to rearrange the piece and offered to work with me to make those changes. I’m proud of myself for sticking with my original version even when other (smart) folks suggested (very politely) that I might be making things needlessly complicated. I was pretty sure everything was just barely complicated enough.

5. How does (or doesn’t) this piece fit in with your larger body of work?

I think, in addition to place, I write a lot disjointed, non-linear stories about family and identity, all themes that “Space Heaters” goes deep on. My favorite parts in “Space Heaters” remain the two big, yelling family scenes in the garage.

I also really like vivid descriptions of injuries so, again, “Space Heaters” feels right at home to me.

6. One of the things the Yemassee crew especially admired in this piece was the treatment of the father. He is introduced as Maybe Not A Good Person, and the story interrogates and chips away at this position with admirable restraint before resolving the question with the gut-wrenching ending. Can you speak a little to the challenges of writing difficult characters?

It’s interesting to me how, beyond the cliché of the Abusive Estranged Dad, there is now the slightly fresher cliché of the Abusive Estranged Dad Who is Redeemed. One of the things I really value about Caroline in this story (and, to a lesser extent, Caroline’s mother), is that Caroline refuses to lean on either of those clichés when attempting to understand the truth of her relationship to her father and her family; she is doing her best to tell her own story, and tell it truthfully. Do you know how to do that, without resorting to sentiment or cliché? I don’t. Caroline doesn’t seem to know how either, but she tries the whole story. And I’m proud that I was able to give her the space to try.

7. What’s your procrastination of choice?

Twitter. And pushing my busted-ass novel manuscript up the hill again. And also Twitter.

Derrick Martin-Campbell is a writer living in Portland, OR. His work has appeared in PANK, Blunderbuss, Go Read Your Lunch, Nailed Magazine, and New Dead Families, among other places. You can read more of his writing on his Tumblr and follow him on Twitter at @dmartincampbell.