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Interview With an Author: T.J. Martinson

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
T.J. Martinson and his debut novel, The Reign of the Kingfisher

T.J. Martinson grew up just outside Chicago. He received his MA in literary studies from Eastern Illinois University and is currently working toward a Ph.D. at Indiana University Bloomington. The Reign of the Kingfisher is his debut novel, and he recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell about it for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Reign of the Kingfisher?

I’m a lifelong fan of all things related to superheroes, but it wasn’t until Marvel and D.C. began flooding movie theaters with adaptations that I knew I wanted to write my own. My initial inspiration was to get into the genre and do something slightly different with it—to question some of the tropes and themes while also celebrating what superheroes ultimately represent. In order to find my way into what’s typically a pretty formulaic narrative arc, I wanted to elevate characters who would ordinarily be relatively minor in a typical superhero story, all the while keeping the superhero lurking in the novel’s periphery. I liked the idea of having these comparatively “ordinary” characters guide the novel’s central questions about twenty-first-century understandings of justice while they are inhabiting a reality, like ours, where understandings of justice are not nearly as clean-cut as superhero narratives typically portray.

Some of the characters seem to reference a Dark Knight and some of his compatriots, others are completely new. Are any of those new characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?

One way that I wanted to pay homage to the superhero genre was by including certain recognizable archetypes. But by centering the plot around them instead of having them merely serve the superhero, they take on a much more dynamic role in the narrative. I wanted all of my main characters to be familiar to the superhero genre, but to possess the dimensions of real people with complicated motivations, desires, and foibles. For example, Marcus Waters, the retired journalist who used to cover the Kingfisher’s exploits, is reminiscent of Ben Urich from Daredevil; however, unlike Ben Urich, Marcus is given a lot of space in the story to reflect on his own motivations that ultimately lead him to investigate whether or not the Kingfisher could really still be alive after all these years.

Why did you choose to set The Reign of the Kingfisher in Chicago, rather than a fictional city as so many comic book/superhero fiction does?

I grew up just outside of Chicago, so it has a very special place in my heart. But more importantly, the city itself possesses a unique character that was attractive to me when imagining a superhero. Not to mention, it’s no secret that Gotham City, particularly in Christopher Nolan’s movies, is an exaggerated version of Chicago—oppressively bleak, dangerous, and tumultuous. But the real Chicago, while it does have its issues with crime, is also a place of beauty, fascination, tough-as-steel citizens, diversity, and fantastical dimensions—the ideal ecosystem for a superhero.

Who is your favorite superhero (because it may not be Batman)?

As someone who grew up on superheroes and detective novels, Batman was always my go-to, but I also really like The Hulk. In most of his iterations, Bruce Banner is someone extremely at-odds with his superpowers, which provides pretty delectable tension.

Do you have a favorite version/era/iteration of Batman? Your favorite superhero (if it isn’t Batman)?

My mother and I used to watch re-runs of Adam West’s Batman together, so I’m fond of that rendition for primarily nostalgic reasons, but Frank Miller’s version of Batman is, in my mind, the finest. Miller gave Batman that incredibly gritty and dark aesthetic, and yet also gave him very human dimensions, which was really influential to me as I began working on this novel.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

I’m relatively practical, so I suppose I’d say flight? But then again, I’m terrified of heights, so maybe I’d opt for teleportation, which is actually also very terrifying to me—atomizing and reassembling elsewhere. So, considering my cowardly disposition, just about any superpower would be wasted on me.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Aside from a dirty coffee mug, earbuds, and misplaced Post-Its? I just finished Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which was a joy, and I recently picked up Kate Hope Day’s If, Then, which is really incredible so far. She’s phenomenal, and I’m a big fan.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. It remains one of my favorites.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Thankfully, no—my parents were really supportive of my reading. As long as I was reading something, they were happy about it.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I just know that as soon as I answer this, I’m going to want to change my mind a thousand times, so I’ll just go with my gut and list five in no particular order: Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Alan Moore.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Ulysses by James Joyce. I’ve faked reading it enough that I feel like I actually have read it. And frankly, that’s good enough for me.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Great cover, even greater book.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Wuthering Heights was the first book I read where I felt emotionally attached to the story and the characters. As soon as I finished it, I knew that I wanted to learn how to wield the same sort of magic with words.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I am a devout and zealous evangelist for Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Even if you don’t like graphic novels, you’ll love that book. It is an incredible amount of fun. And lately, I’ve been pushing another cool book called The Reign of the Kingfisher.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I read that book with my jaw hanging open in awe the entire time. What Woolf could do with a single sentence is its own sort of superpower.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I really, really wish I had a better answer for this question, but I’m a very boring creature of habit. So, I’d sleep in, get breakfast or brunch with a friend, take my dog on a nice long walk, read for a bit, write for a bit, watch a movie from the comfort of my couch, and then go to bed. Maybe I’d order Indian food somewhere in there, too, chicken vindaloo, with an extra order of garlic naan and samosas. Because, as you well know, calories don’t exist on perfect days.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

“If you could have a few months to write from anywhere in the world, where would it be?” To which I’d say somewhere in Switzerland. I’ve never been and know next to nothing about its geography, but on days when I’m feeling stressed and panicky and just generally despairing, I’ll Google search images of Switzerland’s countryside and it relaxes me. The bounty of Swiss chocolate would be a bonus, too.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on finishing up my doctoral dissertation, but I’m also working on another novel. I don’t want to say too much about it just yet, it’s still very much in progress, but I’m excited about it and hopefully, it won’t be too terribly long before it’s out in the world!

Martinson, T. J.

30 years ago, the Kingfisher prowled the streets of Chicago, dispensing his own brand of vigilante justice. When found by the Chicago Police Department, the criminals were battered and near death or dead. Some saw him as a crime-fighting avenger, others see him as a renegade menace dispensing lethal, or near lethal, retribution. And, then, suddenly, he was gone. The CPD declared him dead and the city held a funeral that was attended by thousands.

Today, a masked terrorist claims that the CPD faked the Kingfisher’s death and demands that they release proof that the Kingfisher is still alive. Unless they do that, the hostages that he has taken will die, one by one. Debut author T.J. Martinson takes the basic elements of Batman’s mythos and spins from them a markedly more realistic and darker crime thriller and a tremendous debut novel.

Book Review: Reign of the Kingfisher