Dani Shapiro: Break the Skin is set in two small towns, but they are very different kinds of small towns. Your evocation of small town life is so vivid and beautiful. Where does your knowledge come from? How does small town life inspire your writing? And how did these particular small towns in Illinois and Texas come into being in your imagination? Was this a novel that began, for you, more with character, or with place?
Lee Martin: I was born in Lawrence County, Illinois, where the largest town had a population of just over five thousand people. I lived on a farm with my mother and father, and I attended a two-room country school until I was in the third grade. Although it’s been a number of years since I lived there, that place is always with me. I’m connected to the rhythm of its seasons, the stark beauty of its landscape, the come-and-go of its people.
I lived in Denton, Texas, for five years when I taught at the University of North Texas, and it was my memory of the area around the university--its bars and tattoo parlors, its head shops and drum circles--that produced Miss Baby and first brought me to the story that would become Break the Skin. Place and character are always inextricable for me. The details of Denton and those of New Hope produced Miss Baby and Laney for me, and I let them tell their stories.
Shapiro: Break the Skin is very much a novel about the deep-rooted hunger to be truly accepted and understood by another person. Laney shows the fierce loyalty and submissive qualities of youth, whereas Miss Baby, who has been through so much hurt, is willing to put it all on the line all over again. How do you dig so deeply into the emotional, internal lives of your characters? I noticed that the novel is dedicated to Miss Baby, and found that really interesting. Can you say a bit about that?
Martin: The novel, as you say, is very much about the desire for human connection and validation, which is a universal desire, of course. We all want to be loved. We all want to feel that we matter to others, that our lives have significance. With Laney, I had to investigate and dramatize the sources of her need--a loving father who died too young, a mother whom she disappoints by refusing to put her extraordinary singing voice to good use, the nearly invisible life she’s lived up to the point where she becomes friends with the older Delilah Dade. Creating Delilah, who is so different from Laney--bold, experienced, hard-edged--allowed me to put pressure on Laney until the more hidden aspects of her character emerged.
When creating characters, I like to think in terms of establishing who they think they are and then providing the right pairing with other people and the right sequence of narrative events to bring out who they really are beneath whatever facades they’ve constructed or whatever lies they’ve told themselves. I do this same thing with Miss Baby, who tells herself she’s fine with not having a man in her life and then takes a drastic action to claim one.
I dedicated the novel to Miss Baby, the only time I’ve dedicated a book to a character, because she spoke to me first when I began writing. I dedicated the book to her because without her voice, I’m not sure I would have found the shape of the novel. I also think she deserves the dedication because she’s the character who closes the novel, still believing, even after all she’s gone through, in the power and truth of a love story. She endures with grace and faith, and for all these reasons, she gets the dedication.
Shapiro: Miss Baby works as a tattoo artist, a profession which I imagine you didn’t know much about at the outset. Did you know you were going to write about a tattoo artist when you were first beginning the book? How did you go about your research? (Any tattoos?) Why did it seem important that Miss Baby be in this line of work?
Martin: Well now, what makes you think that I didn’t at some point work as a tattoo artist? In between the years when I cooked crystal meth, robbed banks, and worked as a hit man, maybe I was pounding ink. (Nah, that sentence was just a feeble attempt to establish my street cred.) After all, as one review of the novel says, I’m “crackling with dark deeds and bad intentions...” I love that line! I want it to be part of my introduction at future readings and events: “Here he is, crackling with dark deeds and bad intentions, Lee Martin.” Ha! I told my students that and they laughed so hard you could see how far from the truth of me such a description actually is...or is it? Hmmm...I’ll never tell, nor will I reveal my tattoos, not even the ones that glow in the dark.
My research involved a conversation here, a visit there, some things read, some things watched--just the usual methods of immersing oneself in an unfamiliar world. I’m always fascinated with the details and the lingo of someone else’s job, and as soon as Miss Baby stepped onto the corner of Fry and Oak Street in Denton, Texas, I knew she had to be coming from a tattoo parlor. Don’t ask me how I knew that. I just did. I like to think that my subconscious mind had already started to sense the rich possibilities with metaphor in this practice of drilling into the skin and leaving something to live in scar tissue.
Shapiro: You’ve written novels, memoirs, a story collection. Can you tell me a bit about how each form differs for you? Did working on Break the Skin feel different to you than your other books--and if so, in what ways?
Martin: A short story is a burst, a compressed narrative under so much pressure it explodes at the end, often quietly so with a moment that subtly but irrevocably changes people’s lives forever. It’s a form I still practice when I have the material that calls for it. More often, as I get older, I’m drawn to the reach of a novel and the texture of lives that stretch back into time and forward into the future. A story made up of so many layers of characters, places, and time periods. A novel is a daily march for me. I make myself curious about characters and their situations, and I set out each day to complicate my curiosity. That’s what keeps me writing. I’m trying to deepen my understanding of characters and the events of their lives. I’m trying to discover how they came to be who they are and who they’ll be after the last page of the novel. It’s not so different when I write memoir, only then the subject is me and there are perhaps some things that I do with voice that I don’t necessarily need to do in a novel.
Working on Break the Skin challenged me to hold two different narratives in balance and to bring them to a point where each was necessary to the other. So Miss Baby and the man she’s claimed go on with their lives in Texas while Laney’s narration lets us see the place this man had in her life in Illinois and the plot for revenge gone terribly wrong. Those two storylines are on a collision course, and once they meet lives change in ways that can’t be reversed. Along the way, I hope readers feel the hearts of these two women beating with all their complications and all their layers of fear and desire and courage. That’s what I felt every day when I sat down to write more of their stories--Laney and Miss Baby, noble and loving and confused and misguided and brave and full of want and fear and uncertainty, just like all of us, even the people in those small towns of the Midwest that I dearly love.
“I was worried for these characters as I'd worry for my own friends. The women want normal things--connection, stability--but get in their own way of finding peaceful lives. This is a suspenseful, engaging book.”--Alice Elliott Dark
“Mr. Martin is a top-notch craftsman…what is most remarkable about BREAK THE SKIN is its restrained tone and the author’s generosity toward his very needy characters. His sympathies for them rarely seem to wane, even when they are harboring criminals, conjuring hexes or plotting murder.”- The New York Times
“South of Scandinavia, there are fewer icicles and serial killers, but no lack of sinister intrigue. Pulitzer Prize finalist Lee Martin’s latest, Break the Skin, is a Lucinda Williams ballad of a small-town love affair—a teenage dropout, a nameless stranger—gone horribly wrong.” – Vogue.com
“Martin…gets the claustrophobia of small town life just right. With their oh-what-might-have-been voices, these women win our hearts.”- The Plain Dealer
“Martin, whose kidnap novel The Bright Forever (2005) was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, expertly applies shades of James Cain–like noir to
modern story that might have been inspired by one of the Lucinda Williams songs on this book's soundtrack. Black magic, daughters cursed by the loss or absence of their fathers, post traumatic stress syndrome, small-town secrecy and lies, pre-teen voyeurism: Welcome to life 'on the other side of right thinking.' An intoxicating small-town thriller that quickly gets under your skin.”--Kirkus Reviews
"What we really want from our summer reading is a chance to escape ourselves, to disappear for a while into the lives of other people. Break the Skin allows us to do that, while delivering a fast, suspenseful read." – Blogcritics.com
"Disaffected teenager Laney has no one in the world but the older Delilah, whom she clings to like a raft. Then the police start asking Laney questions that link her to the sadder-but-wiser Miss Baby, who thinks she’s finally found true love with a gentle man who can’t remember his own name, and the story of a wrenching crime emerges."--Library Journal
“Provocative… Crackling with dark deeds and bad intentions, Martin snakes through the lives of the desperate without casting pity.”--Publishers Weekly
“Carrying an almost archetypal resonance, this well-crafted tale of romantic desperation feels as sad and inevitable as an old murder ballad and should have an appeal beyond readers of serious fiction.” – Library Journal