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When Martha began writing Sentinel stories as a way to contribute to a discussion list, she probably didn't know that she would become one of our fandom's most lauded authors. Martha began watching The Sentinel during second season and discovered the world of online fanfic shortly afterwards. Her specialties are horror and smarm stories, and several of her pieces have received nominations and awards for best novel and best drama in Sentinel fan fiction, including Snake Oil and Plank. Martha's writing is often cited as among the best examples of the smarm genre, with the serial Beach (which she is co-writing with another author, Kitty) often mentioned by readers. Not surprisingly, she has received numerous nominations for a Library author interview! Martha's Cascade Library story listing currently includes four of her 12 stories. Her stories can be found at her webpage, Good Morning Sunshine.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Martha!
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I seem to fit a certain type of fannish profile all too well ... SWF w/ two cats & a tedious clerical day job. My office is a shrine to Jim and Blair, and the morning after the first part of Sentinel Two aired, I kept breaking down and finally had to give up and go home. No, I didn't tell my coworkers what the problem was. I hope they imagined some mysterious, unexpected tragedy -- they would be right, come to think of it.
How did you become a Sentinel fan?
I caught the preview for Second Chance while waiting for Voyager to come on one night -- it was a h/c fan's dream -- scenes of poor Blair getting bonked repeatedly, with a voice-over about all the trials this graduate student has suffered as Jim's partner -- ending with a shot of Blair bound and gagged in the greenhouse from Love and Guns. Well, I was sold -- even though I was bitterly disappointed when that particular scene turned out not to be in the episode I watched next week at all. Yes, Blair being threatened by a blowtorch was *pretty* cool but it wasn't what I'd been led to expect.
Still, in the week waiting for the episode, while looking online for more information about that long-haired actor who seemed to suffer so beautifully, I found Kris Williams' TS fic, and I was lost.
How did you start writing Sentinel fan fiction?
I joined a now long-defunct discussion and fic list that wanted everyone who joined to post ... I was too shy to say much in my own voice, (obviously a problem I've long since gotten over) but I thought I could write a story. So I began writing and posting Ordeal ... it was my way of saying hello, my name's Martha, and I'm obsessed with TS, too.
If you could see any of your stories made into a real episode, which one would you choose?
Beach obviously. (A story I am co-writing with Kitty). Filmed in black and white at Ingmar Bergman-esque detailing and pace. I guess it would probably take a couple of episodes to do it right. Or a couple of seasons.
Which story are you most proud of?
Cake was the most difficult to write, so I'm pretty proud of myself for finishing it at last. The more I read about the shamanistic experience, the more difficult it was for me to understand how a responsible anthropologist like Blair could find a way to accept the mantle of shaman. Cake was one way of working that problem out for myself. Whether that makes for good story or not -- or even a readable one -- is another matter. But I finished it, by God, so I'm proud of it.
Which character do you most enjoy writing?
Blair has always been easiest for me to write -- I spent too long in grad school, so I already know the mundane details of his life at the university, whereas for Jim, everything about his background is as alien as the far side of the moon. I enjoy research, but it's no substitute for experience (at least when I'm trying to write). Scenes written from Jim's POV always seem a little brittle and fragile to me. Jim and cop-procedure scenes feel like such a balancing act -- like I'm walking along Blair's rope bridge in Nepal, hoping anyone reading the story won't look down at the vast abyss of my ignorance.
That's another reason Cake was so difficult to write. Having never been any further south than Daytona Beach, all the Brazil sequences were completely dependent on research. Sort of makes me wonder why I decided to write the story at all ... it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
What are your thoughts about smarm as a genre in Sentinel fan fiction?
It *is* a funny little genre. In fact, it's difficult to talk about as a genre at all, because with some notable (all right, notorious) exceptions, smarm is most effective as a single moment or a scene in a longer piece. For me, smarm is that instant when, pressed by circumstances -- in this fandom, as in most, usually a nasty bonk -- two men who love each other but who don't happen to be lovers -- are driven to touch, or speak, as intimately and gently to each other as lovers would. So it's not merely an expression of friendship, or even a nice buddy moment. Which doesn't mean I don't I treasure those friendship moments all on their own, because I do, and I know how difficult they are to write well. It's just that they're not smarm.
Smarm, on the other hand, is that extraordinary moment when all considerations of personal dignity, pride, and societal expectations are cast aside, and two friends express their love for each other in a way that society-- especially late 20th Century, homophobic, American society -- doesn't sanction as fitting within the approved and narrow boundaries of male friendship. Jim cradling Blair on the floor of the parking garage in Blind's Man Bluff, in the midst of all his colleagues and superiors, stroking Blair's hair and whispering that everything is going to be all right is a hell of a smarmy moment -- whereas Jim grabbing Blair into a headlock and giving him a noogie at the end of The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg isn't smarm at all. Of course rough-housing is one way men express friendship -- and it can be sweet and endearing, but itt's a socially acceptable expression -- it's "safe," i.e., not smarmy.
I think the fact that smarmy expressions aren't "safe" and by definition fall outside accepted norms of het male behavior is the reason some fans despise the genre so much. Fine, to each his own. All the same, I never quite know what to say in response to the criticism most often leveled at smarm -- that real men "just don't act that way." (Leaving aside the unexamined heterosexism of a remark like that in the first place) The observation is usually bolstered by the incontrovertible proof that the person objecting to smarm is married, has five brothers, sixteen uncles and untold thousands of nephews, and none of THEM act the way Jim and Blair act in, say, one of Ann Brown's Moonglow stories, or Michalina Pilcher's Cypher missing scene. But the whole point of smarm is that American men at this point in the millennium don't often express their friendship with other men with a noticeable degree of tenderness. That's why a smarm aficionado is driven to seek it out -- or write it herself, if none is forthcoming.
In your opinion, what separates gen smarm from slash?
There *are* a lot of similarities, since both genres exist primarily -- I think -- because writers and readers waant to see characters express love more openly than they're allowed to do in the aired episodes. (At least TS slash, which tends to be more tender than some other fandoms.)
All the same, even though both genres are writing primarily about love, I really would argue that there's a difference between smarm and slash, and I think it has something to do with the surprise of smarm. Take smarm's favorite chestnut, Jim and Blair sharing a bed. Well, if Jim and Blair are lovers, then there's nothing very unexpected going on when they crawl in bed together. It's sort of the whole point. But when two straight men share a bed, and are comfortable with that degree of intimacy and that degree of trust -- you're never more vulnerable than when you're asleep, after all -- then that is something unexpected. And that's the kick of smarm for me. That "oh, my" moment when the walls come down, and two friends nakedly express their love for each other without reservation or fear, even though they're "just friends."
Why I crave that moment, and obsessively look for it, and try to write it, I can't imagine, anymore than I understand why seeing that preview for Second Chance with all the Blair bonks (I didn't even know the character's name at that point!) was absolutely riveting. It's a kink, a sick fetish. Maybe something in the water?
What are your feelings regarding feedback and story critiquing?
Feedback is the whole reason I keep writing about Jim and Blair. I think in other forums I've probably bleated on about "having to write", but the truth, obviously, is that after years and years of no feedback but rejection letters, the response to posting fan fiction is intoxicating. Addicting. And I'm just as lovely as a junkie without her fix when the feedback tapers off. So, as desperate as I am to be noticed (pathetic, isn't it?) I try to be accepting of critiques, too. Hey, at least it means someone *noticed* I wrote something, right? In private correspondence, it really is flattering that someone was interested enough in something I wrote to offer her opinion as to what I could have done better.
The situation is a little different in a public forum. Obviously, public criticism of fiction on the lists and on web sites is a topic that stirs up pretty violent passions. What do I think about it? When the critic is saying something nice about my stories, I'm thrilled. When it's not so nice, I get moody and depressed for days. Duh. :)
I do think criticism of fan fiction is still struggling to find a voice for itself. Defenses of criticism seem to draw on academic literary criticism as justification and model for the critic's project (I'm not the only one who spent too much time in grad school). In practice, however, criticism of fan fiction doesn't seem to have much to do with current styles of lit crit, and with a couple of notable exceptions -- torch's "buttons" spring to mind -- even less to do with meaningful analysis. Critical essays about fan fiction are more like book reviews in the New York Times -- highly personal, even autobiographical gut level responses to a work or a genre that usually say more about the critic than the story being critiqued. And, like a review in the Times, even a blistering one is likely to increase sales -- or hits on the author's site.
I still hate the negative ones though. And probably the most frustrating thing about them is the illusion of impartiality bestowed by the title of critic. The author can only look like a frothing madwoman when she protests. Oh well. (wiping the spittle off the screen)
Snake Oil is one of the most-mentioned Sentinel fanfic horror pieces by readers and was the winner of the 1999 Cascade Award for best novel. What inspired this piece?
In retrospect, I'm sure it was Kris Williams' Test, the very first TS story I ever read. Obviously, it made a huge impression. In all the most important ways, Snake Oil is just a retelling of Kris's story with different room decorations. Jim hurts Blair and doesn't realize he's done it. Blair has to help Jim and protect himself at the same time. That's a *great* beginning for a story. I only wish I could figure out how to tell it again.
You've written a number of stories that can be classified as horror. What attracts you to this genre?
I have no idea, any more than I know why I'm attracted to h/c and smarm. A fine moment in horror, whether subtle -- like in The Haunting of Hill House when our heroine realizes she doesn't know whose hand she has been holding under the covers in the dark -- or totally over the top, like the moment when the zombies first appear in the graveyard in Night of the Living Dead, just thrills me. I can't imagine why. It *must* be something in the water.
What is the hardest part about writing for you?
Sitting still long enough at the computer to get anything done.
What is the most satisfying part of writing for you?
FINISHING a story. Means I finally sat still long enough to do it.
What one story do you think people will always remember you for?
I'm sure most people have lives that are too full to remember fanfic authors for long after they turn off their computers -- but Snake Oil has cast a shadow over everything I've written since then.
Can you tell us what stories you have in the works right now?
I'm working on a Halloween story, Unsleeping, undaunted by the fact that I've missed the holiday by a couple -- oop -- three months by now. I'm pretty sure I'll have it finished before Halloween next year.
Last updated 12/27/99 clc