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"Mapping in the Air a Woven Net of Clouds: An Interview with Michael Martone

Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he learned at a very early age, about flight. His mother, a high school English teacher, read to him of the adventures of Daedalus and Icarus from the book Mythology written by Edith Hamilton, who was born in Dresden, Germany, but who also grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Martone remembers being taken by his father to Baer Field, the commercial airport and Air National Guard base, to watch the air traffic there. He was blown backward on the observation deck by the prop-wash of the four-engine, aluminum-skinned Lockheed Constellation with its elegant three-tailed rudder turning away from the gates. At the same time, the jungle-camouflaged Phantom F-4s did touch-and-goes on the long runway, the ignition of their after-burners sounding as if the sky was being torn like blue silk. As a child growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Martone heard many stories about Art Smith, "The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne," and the adventures of this early aviation pioneer. In the air above the city, Martone, as a boy, imagined, "The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne" accomplishing, for the first time, the nearly impossible outside loop and then a barrel-roll back into a loop-to-loop in his fragile cotton canvas and baling wire flying machine he built in his own backyard in Fort Wayne, Indiana, whose sky above was the first sky, anywhere, to be written on, written on by Art Smith, "The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne," the letters hanging there long enough to be read but then smeared, erased by the high altitude wind, turning into a dissipating front of fogged memories, cloudy recollection.

His story, "From the Collected Writings of Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne," appeared in Issue Fifty of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about skywriting, myths, and the origins of SKYBARs.

Could you tell us about the genesis of “From the Collected Writings of Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne”?

Having written short stories for thirty years and short short stories for almost as long and micro fiction and flash fiction and even prose poetry, I was thinking just how short can short fiction be.  What would it look like? I wasn’t having much luck. Then when my book, Four for a Quarter, came out, I arranged for a launch party. I hired a photo booth and a barbershop quartet. I made up a mixed tape of songs sung by the Fab Four. Then I remembered a candy bar from my youth called SKYBAR made by Necco. It is a chocolate bar with four different fillings.  I ordered boxes for the party. When I got the order, there was a little history of the confection attached. The name SKYBAR came from the initial ad campaign back in the 30’s when the confection was launched. They used skywriting! I didn’t know that. But finding this out reminded me of Art Smith, a real aviation pioneer from my hometown of Fort Wayne, who was an innovator of many things having to do with aviation and, it is said, that he was the first to write in the sky. And suddenly the answer to my earlier question was there.  Skywriting = 1 or 2 word “stories” in the air.

I did some (very shallow) research, and Art Smith was a real guy who flew planes as a stunt pilot. How do you go about writing fiction about real people? What’s most important for you to maintain? Or, perhaps, do you see it only as a starting point?

Also from my hometown was the great interpreter of Greek Mythology, Edith Hamilton. I became very interested in mythologies then not of Greece but of Indiana and my home city of Fort Wayne. In Greece you know they study with in their history classes. I liked immediately the idea of this in-between realm where fiction and nonfiction mingled in narrative.  Myths are shared stories. They do not have authors and everyone in the culture is the author. One may add to or deflect the story, but one gives up originality. Perhaps for me it goes back too to the great essay by John Barth called “The Literature of Exhaustion” that explores the notion of reusing narrative, its repurposing through the years, and the demoting of originality as a goal of artistry. It is not about making new stories. It is about having new ideas about the stories we already have.

The subtitles in this text take on their own life. Could you talk about the process of writing these subtitles? Did they come late in the process? How do you think these punctuation subtitles function differently then numbers, letters, or even white space?

All of the titles in this work are meant to represent an actual picture of the skywriting. If and when this book every gets published, I imagine it to be a book of postcards with what now seem to be titles as the actual “writing” of Art Smith pictured on the front. The text beneath then is to be read as a gloss, a footnote, a critique written by an amateur scholar named Michael Martone.  The book will be called The Collected Writings of Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, edited by Michael Martone. So I need to find a designer to help me create the “photographs” of the skywriting.

What have you been reading recently?

I have been reading about wabi sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of imperfection and impermanence

What other writing can we expect from you?

I continue to work on my science fiction collection, Indiana science fiction, called Amish in Space. Also I am trying to find a place that will publish a completed book called Winesburg, Indiana, a collection of my short stories and an anthology of other people’s short stories all set in this town named Winesburg. I have another book of very short stories I call Memos. Also I am starting a book called simply Fort Wayne.

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