by Caitlin Hamilton Summie
In the spirit of helping of a new writer, recently I went in search of a compelling new voice whose work was also new to me. It didn’t take long to discover Cynthia Newberry Martin, author of Tidal Flats. One of the reasons that I thought it would be special to interview Cynthia is that she herself advocates for and celebrates so many writers. She values literary community. It seemed approprriate, therefore, to celebrate her voice as well as her generosity of spirit by shining light on her own debut. I interviewed Cynthia by email.
Caitlin Hamilton Summie: Tell us briefly about Tidal Flats.
Cynthia Newberry Martin: Tidal Flats is about two people who want different things from life but want a life together. Cass wants a husband who comes home at night, but Ethan’s work takes him to Afghanistan for weeks at a time. And Ethan wants children, but Cass does not. They come up with an agreement—Ethan will continue going back and forth to Afghanistan for 3 years, and then he will come home for good whether Cass wants children or not. The novel opens 9 weeks before he’s supposed to be home for good. And it’s unclear almost immediately whether he will be able to give up the work he loves.
CHS: What inspired the book?
CNM: The initial inspiration came by way of 3 thoughts repeatedly intruding into my brain when I was taking a month off from writing after finishing another novel—1) the new novel would be about a marriage (which it is); 2) the title would be All’s Fair (which it is not); and 3) one of the main characters would have something to do with Vietnam or Afghanistan. Flying to Provincetown in January of 2013 to begin work on the new novel, I found myself sitting next to a documentary filmmaker who had just spent 3 months in Afghanistan. So that settled that. Finally, I was entering a new phase in my life—my youngest child had just left for college, and I would be spending a week a month in Provincetown to write and enjoy living somewhere else. My husband’s work is tied to Columbus, Georgia. So, my head was full of thoughts about whether our marriage had enough elasticity to contain this new arrangement.
CHS: Marriage is an important subject in your work. What about this specific type of relationship interests you and drives your fiction?
CNM: Well, it has been said that story needs conflict, and there’s certainly no end to conflict in marriage. Plus, I had an early, easy marriage that didn’t work out, and now I’ve been in a “harder” one that has lasted 34 years and counting. So, I’m fascinated by what makes one marriage work and not another, and how fixed or malleable a container marriage is, whether it’s limiting or whether it can be freeing. Is it just “a happy chance” as Somerset Maugham wrote, “if we, changing, continue to love a changed person?”
CHS: You write over at Catching Days, where you feature other writers in the How We Spend Our Days series. What do you most value about creating a literary community? How does your connection to such a community sustain you as a writer?
CNM: I’m a big believer in literary citizenship and love featuring other writers and their work. It’s the different voices of the community that I most value. There’s no one way to spend a day or have a life, and this is abundantly clear in the essays in this series. We all make our own way. The fact that how we spend our day—whether it’s good or bad or easy or difficult—may inspire or encourage another writer is magic.
When you’re working on a novel or anything that takes years and years before you have a finished product that validates your work, community is everything. It’s a way to be seen and heard during the years of wandering the desert.
CHS: You are debuting as a novelist at age 62. Welcome to being a Bloomie! Talk about how a later-in-life debut informed your writing or perspective as an author.
CNM: Thank you! I came to writing through a love of reading, but I didn’t know anything about how to craft fiction. In the early days, in my head, I heard both the writer part and the reader part, so I put both on the page, not giving the reader anything to do. These extra years gave me the time to learn how to separate the story from the response. A late-in-life debut also gave me a much bigger worldview, which gives me more confidence as I talk to audiences. The main thing, though, is that it’s quite empowering to set out on a new adventure at age 62, and so I think that magnifies the appreciation and the fun and makes the debut all the sweeter.
CHS: Did writing reviews teach you things about craft and writing fiction? If so, what did you learn?
CNM: When I was writing reviews for Contrary, a journal I love, what became clear immediately is that there is something good to say about, and something to learn from, every book. One craft point that comes immediately to mind, which I learned from one of my reviews, is that if you include two time periods in a novel, each one has to push the narrative forward in some real way. I also discovered that language is almost always my way into a book, and that I care every bit as much how I say something as what I’m saying. Specific to writing reviews, I learned that the best reviews reach out to a wider world than the book and are not at all a summary of the plot, as so many reviews are.
CHS: How did you find your publisher?
CNM: I was working with Jay Schaefer, an independent editor in San Francisco, to get my manuscript in the best possible shape. He knew of Yellow Pear Press and thought the editor there would like my work. He connected us.
CHS: Why do you write?
CNM: To make the days matter, to make them last. And to find out who I am, to get my insides out.
CHS: What is something you would like to share with other writers still hoping to debut, writers of any age?
CNM: Keep your head down and get the writing done. Find a community so you can feel seen and heard while the writing takes the time it takes. And it really is never too late.
Cynthia Newberry Martin holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has served as the Review Editor for Contrary Magazine and the Writing Life Editor for Hunger Mountain. Her website features the How We Spend Our Days series, over a decade of essays by writers on their lives. Tidal Flats is her first novel.
Photo by M & D Images