One Player’s Guide, Act II: A Conversation with Sam Martone

This is the second half in a two-part conversation with Sam Martone, author of the chapbook An Object You Cannot Lose. Check out the first half before descending here.

Joel Hans: In Smash, every playable character is a kind of archetype, right? You step into their body are allowed to live through them for a few moments, as you say, which is a thrilling experience. An Object You Cannot Lose exists very much within that space—our narrator is more a vacancy that begs us to jump inside. Do you tend to prefer archetype more in your work?

Sam Martone: I don’t know if I prefer it so much as I’m just not very good with character, or at least, with the complex characters that are often sought after in workshop. I don’t think I really understand how to write characters like that, even though as a reader I feel like I can distinguish between archetypal characters and more realistic ones. I’d say what I hope happens with my stories is something in between—I don’t really want to write purely realistic stories, but I also don’t want the characters to simply be a vehicle for fantastical plot elements. I want real-feeling characters who have weird, otherworldly stuff happen to them—I’m still figuring out how to pull that off, though.

Justin Daugherty: Speaking of immersion, your writing here is also so immersive, creating a trance of sorts as I read. Is this something that occurs to you as you write? Is great writing atmospheric in this way, creating a sense that the reader is a part of what’s happening? 

SM: That’s really nice to hear! The events of the game and the stories aren’t particularly unusual, so I wanted the prose itself hypnotic and absorbing. Various images and ideas repeat themselves over and over again. I like to think of these pieces as both game and guide, so I tried to capture the weird ways the game it’s based on (Dragon Quest V) pushes you along and makes sure the story keeps going. Unlike today’s sandbox games, DQV keeps you on such a particular path that some of your interactions with the world amount to nonsense. At other times, as when you know someone’s going to die but have to let it happen to move the story forward, it can be pretty devastating—you feel culpable, because sure, you could simply stay on this screen and not progress forever, thus saving your father, but you want to continue, to see what happens.

JH: The difference between sandbox games and games “on rails” is such a controversial thing in the gaming world right now—I’m curious about which you, at this point, prefer. Or perhaps something in the middle. Does that preference come down to the sheer mechanics of it (the relative ease of playing), or is it because of the engagement with character/story?

SM: I’m not sure actually. Maybe due to a combination of what systems I’ve had and my comfort with more directive games, I haven’t actually spent much time playing open-world games. I’m sure I’d probably get really into them, but I also feel content playing simple top-down RPGs. I’m still a pretty avid Pokémon player, and the story in those games is basically the same with every installment, fun but forgettable. The depth of that game comes more from the mechanics of breeding and training Pokémon—the possibilities here are pretty endless. Maybe what I’m drawn to is simply a wide variety of complex ways to play an on-the-surface easy game (Smash Bros. falls into this category too). Also, games I like usually have big collecting components, and I’m basically just a sucker for collecting things.

JD: What are you obsessions in your writing? What sorts of themes or subjects are you most interested in? 

SM: Good question. I guess I’m pretty obsessed with obsession. Generally in my fiction the characters are collectors or creators of some kind and totally driven by that, or they’re hung up on a particular idea, trying to figure out how to deal with it or escape from it—now that I say this, it kind of sounds like I’m describing fiction in general. My stories also tend to wear disguises, solve mysteries, hang around with monsters.

JH: Obsession is a distressed version of the most basic need in traditional storytelling, which generally equates to: the hero needs a particular something—an object, a talisman—in order to survive, whereas in strict literary fiction, they wants seem more intangible, right? Role-playing games and traditional storytelling tend toward the object, I think. So I’m really curious about how you take a journey that leads toward an object, or objects—as referenced in your title—and skew or complicate them in a way that makes it seem more literary? 

SM: Huh, that’s a great way of distinguishing literary fiction and genre fiction that I’ve never really thought of before. While there are definitely sought-after tangible objects in An Object You Cannot Lose and the pieces that follow, I hope the intangible wants take precedence when reading—they are, after all, more interesting and probably more relevant to the reader than a legendary sword or a magic ring. What happens as the story progresses is the logic of the game world becomes that intangible object of desire—to be able to save multiple files so you don’t make a wrong decision, to bring people back from the dead and so on—and what the story is leading to, instead of the magical items you obtain for beating the final boss, is the end of the game, which is also the return to the real world: you can’t correct wrong decisions without consequences. Dead people stay dead. That’s the tension I hope becomes the driving force.

JD: Where are you at in the stages of this project? What else are you working on or what are you planning on working on next? 

SM: Still trucking along. I got sidetracked by my thesis but I’ve been picking this project up again lately. I have, I think, three more sections completed, but quite a bit more to go. As for other stuff, I think one of my biggest weaknesses as a writer is I have a difficult time deciding what to work on, so I have a lot of projects at various stages of completion, and who knows which (if any) I’ll actually finish, but some of them include: a family of hoaxers, summer camp, shape shifters, laughter removal, and Kesha.

JD: You and Rebecca King are Origami Zoo Press. Your books are so wonderfully and thoughtfully made. What do you hope to accomplish as you all set out in the publishing arena? 

SM: After the first couple Origami Zoo chapbooks, we really wanted to figure out how to set our press apart, and the phrase we arrived at was “obsessively beautiful books.” Rebecca and I are both obsessives in our own writing, and we wanted to give the same treatment to these lovely words we were putting out into the world. That meant everything from design and layout to deluxe editions loaded with bonus material. We also strived to make all the design work a collaborative process with the authors. I don’t know that we have any high-minded or ambitious goals beyond just that—wrapping stories and essays we love in beautiful packages to match.

J: What writing are you most hyped about these days? Who’s really lighting fires for you? 

SM: I just received No Shape Bends the River So Long by Monica Berlin & Beth Marzoni in the mail and I’m so excited to read it—I’ve read some of these collaborative poems in journals and they’re absolutely captivating. I also got James Brubaker’s Liner Notes for Christmas—I think he shares a lot of similar concerns as I do, so pretty much anytime I see one of his stories show up, I’m usually mad I didn’t think of it first, but then they’re always so much better than anything I would’ve done with the same topic. He’s obsessive, too, and I find his encyclopedic prose really enviable—he manages to launch really thoughtful (and funny) ideas about art and music all while doing really heavy lifting in regards to character. Most anticipated for 2015: Kelly Link’s Get In Trouble and Adrienne Celt’s Daughters.

JD: If you could design a video game and be the creative director on it, what would the game be?

SM: I think I’d want to create a game with a compelling story and complex characters, but that was also hyperaware it was a game (so I guessMetal Gear Solid but tonally more like Community?). It’d probably be a turn-based RPG so I could actually beat it, but with all the classes being contemporary archetypes: Jock, Goth, etc. Yeah maybe an RPG set in a high school. You go through all four years! And you can, you know, become valedictorian or be a bully or both! Final boss is Prom. Has anyone done this? I want someone to now. I’ll help.

JD: What are you playing right now? 

SM: I forced myself to stop playing video games on weekdays because of how addicted I got to Fire Emblem Awakening. That hasn’t happened to me with a game in a long time—it’s a pretty familiar turn-based strategy game, but more interesting is all the relationship building you can do among the massive cast of characters, leading to marriage and, sometimes, kids, who you can then recruit to fight as adults through some convoluted time travel narrative. Also the new Smash Bros. of course, and dipping my toes into Hyrule Warriors, but the amount of content in that game is kind of overwhelming.

JH: Interesting you say “addicted” here, rather than obsessed. Can you talk about that a little, what you might think the difference between addicted an obsessed is? Do you tend to weight one way, and your characters another?

SM: Now that you mention it, I don’t really think of myself as an addictive person and as a result I never really write characters who are. Most of the time, with games I’m really obsessed with like Pokémon and Smash Bros., playing the one-player mode gets old pretty fast. I usually play an hour and feel set. With Fire Emblem, I was leaving social events just to go home and play, staying up until 4 a.m., etc. I’m already mapping out my next playthrough, who’ll marry who, etc. It was great fun, but with classes starting it would’ve gotten to be a problem, though I think my use of “addiction” here is still an exaggeration, whereas I never really see obsession as a problem. Obsession is necessary, even. I think my life would be very boring if I weren’t obsessed with all that I’m obsessed with.