Face to Face – An interview with William Martin

Making His Mark

Diane Speare Triant writer
Brian Smith photographer

Looking trim in a green flannel shirt, chinos, and running shoes, William Martin reflects on his writing career while relaxing in the place he enjoys most: the cozy writer’s garret of his Weston colonial. Recently returned from Fiji (to tutor an aspiring writer he first mentored at the Maui Writers Conference), the New York Times best-selling author is happy to be home climbing the winding attic stairs to his inviting hideaway with its glowing honey floors, sun-drenched skylights, and bookcases overflowing with his personal library. Framed covers of his novels—including such classics as Back Bay, Cape Cod, and Harvard Yard—decorate the walls, speaking to Martin’s Boston roots.

The 2005 New-England-Book-Award winner grew up in the neighborhoods of West Roxbury and Roslindale, graduated from Harvard, and then jumped coasts to earn an MFA in Motion Picture Production at the University of Southern California. Returning to Weston, he and his wife, Chris, raised their three children here, while he served for many years as president of the Historical Society.

A master storyteller with eight published novels and three million copies in print, Martin—known for his hands-on book research—has sailed on the oldest three-masted schooner still afloat, taken the helm of a nuclear submarine, and flown from an aircraft carrier. His trademark style alternates back and forth between time periods, intertwines historical with fictional characters (rare-book dealer Peter Fallon is a favorite repeating protagonist), and employs deft literary touches. One such recurring motif in The Lost Constitution—the circling hawk image—sets the overall scene in Maine’s majestic landscape as it simultaneously characterizes the young man watching the hawk as a dreamer straining against his family-farm roots.

“Will Pike was watching a hawk ride the updrafts west of Lake Sebago, and he imagined that he could see what the hawk could see—hundreds of lakes and ponds reflecting the sunlight, so many that it seemed the land was afloat on a sea of fresh water…and the endless green forests rolling back from the coast like a blanket pulled up and over those sleeping mountains.”

WellesleyWeston Magazine: What early influences led you
to a writing career?

William Martin: I came from a long line of Boston Irish family storytellers who could turn the days of the Depression into a Homeric epic…I grew up an only child and what I did as a kid was go up into the attic and entertain myself. And what I do every day now is come up into the attic here and entertain myself.

I would read C.S. Forester who wrote the Admiral Horatio Hornblower books and the authors of the books that fed into movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Mutiny on the Bounty. It seemed like such fun to travel to those places in your imagination.

By the time I got to college, I wanted to get into this business of storytelling in some way. That led to going to film school, and in Hollywood I wrote screen plays that no one wanted to produce until I decided to write a novel, which was Back Bay [a New York Times 14-week bestseller].

WWM: What has kept you writing for 30 years?

WM: Well, here is a book that my father gave me when I was a kid called No Survivors. It’s about a scout who rides with Custer. There comes a moment in that novel where the scout is sitting on a hilltop with Custer and they look down into the valley below and the scout says, “I wouldn’t ride down there if I were you, General!”

In reading that novel, I was in love with the idea that the fictional scout in the story was giving us the opportunity to look Custer in the eye. He was standing in for us.

So the opportunity to collect a series of fictional or historical characters and bring them to life in whatever setting interests me and is a way for me to understand the world. I don’t believe that you sit down to write what you know. You sit down to write what you want to find out about.

WWM: What is the most important element in making a novel a success with a reader?

WM: A sense of getting somewhere. Every good story is a journey, and if it is to be compelling it must be fraught with peril, challenges, and dangers. At the end we should have the satisfaction of knowing that we have lived through this experience with the main characters and gained some new knowledge or insight.

WWM: Your most recent novel, The Lost Constitution, revolves around an early draft of the document. Is it true that you were able to view an original first draft of the constitution?

WM: My New England books all revolve around a lost artifact: Back Bay has the lost tea set, Cape Cod has the lost log of the Mayflower, Harvard Yard has a lost Shakespeare manuscript. The lost artifact is like a hook that you drive into a tree in the backyard and you tie the clothesline to it and then you hang the plot and characters on that.

For the next book my agent suggested a lost first draft of the constitution—one that had been annotated by all the delegates. I called a friend of mine at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Peter Drummey, and I said, “Have you ever heard of a first draft of the constitution that has been annotated?” He said, “We have one!” [an August 1787 draft belonging to Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry] I said, ­“I’ll be right in.”

I was able to look over the annotations that Gerry had made, changing a period to a comma and adding or deleting phrases, just as a lawyer would when going over a contract. It reminded me of something that Madison had said about the constitution, which is that every word, every punctuation mark in that document decides a question between liberty and power. …

It became important to me to tell the overarching story of the American constitution and how it has affected generation after

WWM: How do you mix fact and fiction without distorting history?

WM: I used this line from Gore Vidal in a review that I wrote of a novel recently: “Any reader who gets his history from historical fiction gets the history he deserves.”

I try never to have historical figures act as they would not (or did not) act, and I try never to put words in their mouths if I can find in the historical record words that will work instead. I always carry in my head the rule that I should at least be true to the spirit of history, if not to the letter.

WWM: A reporter once wrote, “William Martin’s literary heart beats strongest on native ground.” Will it be a problem taking your next novel to Manhattan?

WM: No. The books that have been the most popular have been the New England-related books, but I’ve always been proud of the novels that have taken us into wider circles of experience. I’ve written a novel that was set fifty percent in Ireland, and Annapolis is set all over the world.

The New York book [working title: Full Faith and Credit] does star Peter Fallon. As it begins, Peter and Evangeline are disputing as to whether they’ll live in Boston or New York once they get married. It begins with conflict. Every good story should begin with conflict.

WWM: The details of your characters’ lives hundreds of years ago have a very believable quality. How do you achieve this effect?

WM: When I wanted to find out what life was like in the 19th century mills, I drove around the Blackstone River valley and found an old mill building down there, the Stanley Woolen Mill in Uxbridge. I began to think this would make a nice template for my fictional mill. Then I went to the Lowell Mills where they demonstrate textile weaving and run a whole floor of looms for you; so all of a sudden you are overwhelmed by the sound of the looms—that click-cla-clack sound [heard in The Lost Constitution]. I call it “walking the ground.” If I can get there and see it, it will help me to bring it to life more vividly.

WWM: Do you have a disciplined or a flexible writing routine?

WM: I come up every day and sit here all day. Some days I may write five sentences and some days 15 pages. But if I’m not here, I’m generally not creating. I’m not one of those people having all sorts of epiphanies behind the wheel. Most problems get solved right here.

WWM: How do you cope with criticism?

WM: It’s hard enough to get reviewed today that you should just be happy if they spell your name right and put the book in the newspaper!

You can’t please everyone. That’s why they make chocolate and vanilla. There’s always going to be somebody out there who completely misreads your book. I had a review published in The Los Angeles Times that started off, “This is a book about all that history that we’ve been trying to forget since the eighth grade.” The review went “poom,” right in the wastebasket. And the book became a bestseller.

WWM: What are some marketing techniques for your books?

WM: My new publisher, Forge Books, took advantage of The New York Times online. They ran a little icon in the upper right corner of that page that a couple of million people get every day. Click on The Lost Constitution icon and you’d get carried through to the Forge Web site.

WWM: Has the passage of years changed your writing?

WM: At the beginning of your career, you’re just trying to get the story out. Then you begin to develop a sense of a narrative voice, a style that becomes richer, more mature, so that you set the scene more effectively, with shadings and nuances.

The readership of today has been trained as much by television how to think as by 18th century novelists like Fielding and Defoe. So when you read one of my later books you’ll see shorter paragraphs, more white space, more page breaks, so that the reader is not overwhelmed by vast blocks of type.

WWM: What do you do for fun and fulfillment outside of writing?

WM: Less and less. Mostly because this is fun and fulfilling!

WWM: Your recent article for Boston Magazine highlighted efforts to save John Adams’ “marginalia”—margin notes written in a 1786 volume. Are we losing a valuable historical component today by substituting digital for hand-written communication?

WM: I don’t know. I think that for a lot of people there’s more written record now than there was 20 years ago when you’d talk on the telephone…I put more down in print now when I write e-mails—and I save all my e-mails. I have a pretty good running record of the last ten years.

WWM: Is the printed book endangered?

WM: Every effort that has been made to move fiction-reading into computers has met with failure. The novel has existed as the best form of virtual reality that has ever been invented. And you can take it to the beach with you.

WWM: What is an interesting or little-known fact about yourself?

WM: That my first job was as a bicycle messenger for the Western Union. One day I delivered two death messages from Vietnam on the same street.

WWM: Your character, Will Pike, has a dream in life “to make a mark among men who matter.” Is that also your dream?

WM: Sure—and I think I’ve fulfilled it.

WWM: Indeed!

Spring 2024