Richard Martin Interview (“Oranges for Magellan”)

It is a real treat for me to interview Richard Martin. He has just written a really wonderful novel, “Oranges for Magellan” which is about the exploits of Joseph Magellan and his quest to break the world record for flagpole sitting. What make this even more special is that this is Mr. Martin’s first novel and he is over 75 years of age! 

You can buy his book, Oranges for Magellan, here:

Mr. Martin, before we get into the book, could you please tell us a little about yourself, your education and background?

Thanks for the interview, Blaine. I’m happy you enjoyed the novel. 

I had a normal middle-class 1950s suburban childhood, my three sisters and I, until I was 13 and my beloved father died suddenly of a heart condition at 44. His death devastated me and more than anything else in my life made me whoever and whatever I am today. 

As a writer, I’m mostly self-taught, just wrote and read and wrote and read. 

Most of my jobs have been solitary and isolated—mail carrier, gardening, ghost writing, warehouse clerk—calling to mind the isolation of Joe Magellan, the long distance flagpole-sitter of Oranges for Magellan.

It was through letters home that I came to writing, when I was away first at college and later in the Army in Germany. Letters taught me to say what I had to say, truth or lie, thoughtful or comic, and to develop and express contradictory parts of my character and personality. The person I was when I wrote my sisters was not the same person who wrote my mother or my rowdy cynical friends or my sweetheart back home in West Covina, California. The thread running through those letters was loneliness, expressed or hidden, often in the humor of the absurd (a frequent guest in all my fiction).

I drank and used drugs for twenty years, until I was 40. Of the numerous acid trips I found myself on, four wound up with me alone in various wildernesses, including the first one deep in the woods of Big Sur where I spent a frantic night scrawling in a journal in a teepee in a moonlit clearing. Again, solitary adventures.

Alcohol brought out both helpful and harmful storms of emotion dammed up from my father’s death. (What saves us in one circumstance can kill us in another.) When I left the army I vowed never to belong to another organization again, and that held until at 40 I walked of my own free will through the open doors of AA. I’ve been sober for 36 years.

I was married for the first time at 57. My ad in the LA Weekly, which my wonderful wife-to-be answered in 1995, began, “Hermit Seeks Lone Wolf” (which would become the title of another novel of mine, a ghost/love story).

I have three other as-yet-unpublished novels.

You are an inspiration to many people since you turned 75 back in 2020, and have just written your first novel. What is your typical day like in terms of writing? Do you have a set schedule or do you write “as the spirit moves you”?

I’m afraid there’s nothing typical about my writing day. I wish I had been more disciplined, but I wasn’t, and still am not. I don’t recommend my way to any other writer, but it has worked for me. I’ve never been ambitious much, never been in a hurry. So, yes, “as the spirit moves me.” Although Oranges for Magellan is not my first novel, only my first published novel. 

What was the inspiration behind “Oranges for Magellan”?

An article in the LA Times many years ago, about a man in Los Angeles, a preacher without a church who had gone up on a pole to sit and minister to passersby. The man’s wife ran a small restaurant at the foot of the pole. After only a few days, tremendous Santa Ana winds arose, knocked down the pole and put the man in the hospital with a broken leg. I looked up the restaurant and called the man’s wife. All I remember of our conversation was asking if her husband was going to go back up and try it again, and her response, “Not if I have anything to say about it.” And my imagination was off to the races.

You have written articles and essays throughout your life, why did you decide to switch from that style of writing to working on a novel?

Not sure what you mean about articles and essays. I started with dense unreadable poetry (I loved Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins), then went to short stories, which brought me down to earth after the high-falutin’ poetry, then to novels. One reason I love writing novels is that I can completely lose myself in the timeless abundance of the form, as in a forest where you don’t know where you came in and you’re not sure where you are and you don’t know how you’re going to get out.

Were your characters Joe, Clover and Nate based upon anyone you knew, or were they characters that you created?

Well, I’m sure there’s plenty of me in Joe, both the younger me and the current me. Nate is mostly imagination, as I don’t have any children. Clover is an amalgamation of the women in my life (more the best of them than the worst). Her character is forged by having to navigate marriage and parenthood with her self-centered and obstinate husband.

Flagpole sitting, not your typical subject to pop up in a book, did you do any research into those in the flagpole sitting community, and is anyone doing this any longer?

I see now and then a news story about somebody going up on some kind of a pole, although the reason behind it seems to usually be financial. I did a moderate amount of research, focusing on individuals, particularly Saint Simeon (and Tennyson’s poem), more than community. Although in the book a little pole-sitting community does arise, doesn’t it? But I definitely rely more on imagination than research. I’m after truth more than fact. 

I was impressed that you chose multiple narrators for this book. Was this something you set out to do, or did you feel it was required due to the remoteness of Joe, sitting up there on the flagpole?

No, it wasn’t something I set out to do. This was originally a short story; it was just too condensed. Then a screenplay, which allowed me to expand everything, and finally the novel, which was originally more than a hundred pages longer than it is now. Yes, I cut over a hundred pages. With a novel, I just could not keep the reader (or myself) confined up there with Joe for the duration. So, yes, very perceptive of you–I felt it required multiple narrators and I believe that requirement made the book far more compelling. 

While on the topic of flagpole sitting, did you personally ever climb trees and sit in them, as Joe did during his childhood? I ask this because you really seem to have a wonderful insight into his character and the family dynamic.

I did love to climb trees. An old woman on the corner had a mammoth walnut tree (at least I remember it as mammoth) and she had no objections, as I recall, to us neighborhood kids climbing around in it. I think the utter weirdness of the Magellans’ situation unleashed my imagination and let me put myself in their shoes. The absurdity, the comic aspects, and the underlying mystery of it all just tuned right into my creative wavelength.  

As for the family dynamic, as I read this book I found that Joe and Clover were both doing what they wanted to do and what gave them fulfillment, but Nate seemed to be struggling with neither parent really involved In his life.  Am I reading too much into that?

Hmmm. I think Nate felt a rebellious connection to Joe, which means there was a push/pull dynamic going on between them, not necessarily a bad thing for a son. I see Clover as the better parent, even with her well-earned resentments about being a sort of single mother.  But yes, she has her own self-centered concerns, which are human. Considering their totally strange circumstances, I think together Joe and Clover are providing Nate with the possibility of some kind of creative and healthy adulthood, all in all. 

And I found it interesting that the longer Joe stayed up there the worse things got for everyone. Joe got upset and took drastic actions, Clover became an alcoholic and Nate had multiple school issues. Had you always intended for Nate to have struggles?

Well, a character isn’t of much interest if they don’t have struggles. Those struggles in Nate’s case were pretty well built-in to the circumstances. And a novel won’t be interesting unless things get worse for everybody in there. And until things get worse, they can’t get better. At least that’s my experience. I think Joe’s drastic action was a natural part of his evolution up there. At heart he’s seeking some deeper reality, and it was just too damn crowded up there for a deeper reality. Then the death of a major character lights the fuse for Joe’s sudden and violent reaction.  

As for Clover’s becoming an alcoholic, I think she was probably always an alcoholic but simply stopped drinking for a number of years because of the accident and prison. 

Did you have a favorite character? I really like some of  your supporting characters, the transvestite theater owner, the discontented school principal, the first Channel 4 reporter and then the lady reporter who did a hatchet job on Joe, only to end up in Fresno. What a hoot!!!! I loved how you developed them.

Thank you, Blaine. I tend to love all my characters, although “my” is not quite right. We’re companions on a journey. I mean that. They help me. The book itself as I write it helps me, guides me. The only time there is a completely blank page is at the very beginning. After that, what I have already written helps me to write what I am about to write. Although if some of the characters were in my actual life I would likely feel differently! I identify with all of them. Writing a novel in that sense to me is like having a dream—every character comes from me, is a part of me, an expression of a part of me. I will pick one very minor character as a sort of favorite—the little girl who called up, “Cuckoo! Come out! It’s o’clock!”

The fleetingness of fame, another issue, as Joe goes from a nobody to a bit celebrity, back to being nobody and then a pitchman for many products. So did his fame and endorsements really help and do you think celebrity endorsements really make anyone want to buy something?

Another fascinating question! I think every commercial is selling home, some form of going home or being home. Joe seeks the home he had before his father died, but that home is gone. He’s not at home teaching, he’s not at home as husband or father. He’s after something on that damn pole, and I think one possibility is that he simply wants to go home, to be home again. I’m sure celebrity endorsements help sell stuff, or they wouldn’t make them. The whole commercial thread for me is to show Joe’s vulnerability to temptation, to corruption, to greed, to the illusion of security that money and some measure of fame promise. He claims to be spiritual, to yearn for higher values, claims to be against all that crap he advertises, and he does resist, but he can’t really get beyond all that until he tastes it, revels in it, suffers because of it, and only then he can authentically cast it off. Adam and Eve were told “Don’t eat that apple!” But it was foreordained that they would eat it. We continuously want, we continuously get, we continuously realize that acquiring what we desire will not restore us to the Garden of Eden as we were teased into believing it would. 

Just one or two more questions, if you please. How were you affected by Covid and the Pandemic? Did it affect your writing, give you some ideas for future books or essays? 

I have to tell you, Blaine, I just got a chill because your question right there just provided me with the perfect ending to the novel I’m currently writing. I’m laughing because it is just so perfect. Thank you mightily! As for Covid, my wife and I were essentially married hermits before the pandemic struck, so our lives personally were not much altered by the isolation. Although I did miss live AA meetings a lot. 

Finally, have we seen the last of Joe Magellan? Are you planning a sequel and, if not, what project are you working on next?

I don’t think I have another Joe novel in me. I think he and Nate and Clover are on their own now, and I wish them all the best. I’m working on that novel I mentioned for which you just supplied the ending! I’ll only say that the first-person narrator of the new book is a 6-foot-tall 21-year-old female writer of anti-love poems, she is on parole, and her hair has just turned white overnight.  

Richard, thanks for taking the time to respond to these interview questions, you can probably tell that I really enjoyed your book and, at least for me, I found it to be filled with many fascinating people and topics. Best of luck in all your future endeavors.

Thank you so much for that, Blaine, and thank you for reading the book and giving it such an enthusiastic review. And for the fun interview. Great inspiring questions!

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