Chelsea Martin mines her art school experience for her novel ‘Tell Me I’m an Artist’
Chelsea Martin knows being a writer is a weird job. Especially being a novelist.
It’s years of work, followed by a few months of frenetic activity doing interviews, giving readings and then… nothing.
“It feels like it should have lasted longer,” she said with a laugh.
So Martin is happy to talk about her book, “Tell Me I’m An Artist,” on a dull gray January day four months after its release.
“I need to pick me up,” she said.
Martin, who has lived in Spokane for roughly six years, is the author of the essay collection “Caca Dolce,” and the novella “Mickey,” which she also illustrated. “Tell Me I’m an Artist” is the story of Joey, who grew up poor in Lodi, California, and who attends art school in San Francisco, where she struggles to pay rent and deals with broken family relationships as her friends and peers. Seem to breeze through life. The book is an examination of class, female friendships, the commerce of art and escaping our own pasts.
“I came into this book wanting to explore the class stuff, and the family background being like a wound that she’s hiding,” which makes it difficult for Joey to open up to others out of fear of seeming too different, Martin said. “I wanted a character who I could talk to about those things with. She’s in a really vulnerable spot. Ella she’s leaving home and starting school and meeting people who she actually wants to meet, but it’s very overwhelming to her. Ella she’s stuck a little bit in her past and wanting to break out of that without really knowing how.”
Joey’s family stuff is complicated. Her mother de ella works as a waitress and is barely getting by. Her sister Jenny, who struggles with drug addiction, disappears, abandoning her young son with her mom. When Jenny turns up, in jail, mom browbeats Joey into handing over some of her student loan disbursement from ella to bail her out of ella, leaving Joey with the real possibility of losing her apartment from ella.
Joey’s mom and sister both seem resentful that Joey has chosen art school over her dysfunctional life in Lodi.
“It’s a very toxic situation,” Martin said. “I care for the family too, and I feel like they’re in a tough spot, and I feel it would be very painful to be in this endless loop of toxicity and then see someone getting out of it. That would be really hard to watch when you’re stuck and you don’t know how to get out.”
“Tell Me I’m an Artist” is fiction, not memoir, but parts of it were inspired by her own life. Like Joey, Martin grew up in a poorer community in Northern California. And like Joey, Martin sought to grow beyond that background by attending art school in San Francisco.
“I always wanted to write a book set at art school because it’s such a unique place and I met so many weird people,” she said. “I was definitely inspired by my art school experiences. I wanted to make it feel really authentic to what I experienced and the people I was around, without making it hokey or satire.”
Part of that experience was bumping up against the class divide.
“All these people were so rich, even beyond what I understood,” Martin said. “That’s definitely a part of my coming-of-age story personally.”
While Martin studied several disciplines at the California College of the Arts – painting, illustration, textiles and writing – Joey is a talented portraitist. But she feels dissatisfied with that, given that her friends of hers are all making art that is more edgy and conceptual.
This desire to stretch herself is reflected in Joey’s final project for one of her classes, a self portrait. And rather than paint a literal self-portrait, she decides to do a remake of the 1998 Wes Anderson comedy “Rushmore,” with Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray.
There is one catch. She’s never seen “Rushmore.” And her concept of interviewing people who have seen it and then basing a remake of the film based solely on their collections is, well, as terrible as it sounds. And rather than coming up with a new idea, she sticks with “Rushmore,” and it becomes yet another big hairy thing staring her in the face.
For the record, Martin has never seen “Rushmore,” either.
“I thought I had to pick something that I hadn’t seen so that I wouldn’t have the themes overlap, although I’ve heard they have similar themes, so that’s kind of weird,” she said.
She worked on “Tell Me I’m an Artist” for about five years, but she also managed to live a full life in that half-decade. She got married and had a child, and moved to Spokane to be closer to her husband’s parents in Post Falls.
Now she’s at work on a new novel when she’s not keeping up with her 3-year-old.
“It’s one of those things where I have to work on it when I have the inspiration,” she said. “I don’t have regular writing hours right now, which is crummy. But it’s fine.
“I’m also happy to just be living my life and let it flow.”