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It took him 3 rewrites and his brother's death to release memoir about addiction, grief

David Martinez, author of “Bones Worth Breaking”
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Veronica Martinez
David Martinez, author of “Bones Worth Breaking”

Not long ago, author David Martinez went to the bookstore to see where they’d shelved his new book, “Bones Worth Breaking.”

At one store, he found it shelved under “Religion.” At another, it was in the “Memoir” section.

He wasn’t necessarily surprised. Martinez knows that his book — which moves back and forth between recollections of his youth as a multi-racial Mormon kid, his family’s frequent moves, and he and his brother’s struggles with substance abuse — is hard to categorize.

But as he told The Show recently, so is life. And he wanted to write a book that reflected that. The Show began by asking him to read one of the passages from “Bones Worth Breaking.”

Full conversation

DAVID MARTINEZ: I drive somewhere I don't really need to go just to travel, to hear the music so loud. I can do nothing but sing along with all my saudades. I'm never satisfied with where I am because I keep feeling the lack of where I'm not. There's always something else, there's always more people and yet there's never enough to fill the space of everything left behind.

SAM DINGMAN: Thank you. That word, saudades, tell us what that word means.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. So saudades. It's, it's Portuguese. It doesn't really have a direct translation into English. I mean, you can say you miss somebody but it's not exactly the same thing. It's really more like feeling the absence of somebody.

And I use this in my class a lot and it comes from Joan Didion. But I write to figure out what I'm thinking, and especially for this book, I think I was writing to figure out: Why did my little brother die in prison? Why is it that my family especially won't examine it?

DINGMAN: So tell me about you and Mike.

MARTINEZ: We were extremely close. He died in prison in Tucson about three years ago of septic shock. You know, he was three years younger than me and he was one of those kids that would follow me around all over the place.

And when he was like 8 and I was like I say 11, something like that. When he bought shoes, he wanted to have the same size shoes as me, even though they made him look like a clown, he wanted to have the same size shoes as me. So as we grew older and as we fell more into destructive behaviors, we were even closer, you know.

DINGMAN: So can I ask you about that? Because this is one of the most heartbreaking and fascinating elements of the book, is you both fall into various kinds of substance abuse and addiction. But you, as you make your way through your life, seem to carry it in tandem with going to grad school, becoming a teacher, getting married, all these things. And it seems like he carries it differently.

MARTINEZ: Mike was very different than me in that he liked the life, he liked, you know, the, the chaos and the adventures of living in that world of dope, you know, and I didn't. I used so that I could be OK.

DINGMAN: Was it a way of spending time with him, too?

MARTINEZ: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

DINGMAN: Well, to that end, I know the original goal with the book was for it to be something you co-wrote with him. So, tell me about how that process started.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. So, I'll even take it way back and talk about how the book started in general because it, it, it does, it does tie together. So once upon a time …

DINGMAN: First line of the book.

MARTINEZ: Right. I was doing my master of fine art and creative writing at University of California Riverside, the low residency program and to earn your master's degree, you have to write a thesis, which at the time was a novel for me.

And I was like, OK, this has to be it. This is, I have to do this to be a writer. And I'd written this book and I sent it out to a bunch of different agents and there were a couple of people who got back to me. And I was like, oh, we like the full manuscript but nothing really serious.

While that was going on, I got really, really angry. And so I started writing about that and that kind of snowballed into the whole first chapter of this book. So I just kept writing and I kept writing all these, you know, I wrote about the saudades piece in there. I wrote all these different things. And all the while Mike used to call me about twice a day from prison and we would talk about the things that I was writing, you know.

And so from 2017 to about 2020, I was working on this and I'd given up on the novel, I'd shelved it, because a lot of what was in the novel was a fictionalized version of what's in the book. And so this was, it was better, it was better than the novel was going to be.

And so February 2021, I sent it out to a bunch of agents and March 1st, it was the day after I sent it out to agents, Mike died. That same day, I withdrew all my, my submissions to agents and started rewriting the book.

DINGMAN: So let me get this straight. This journey of this book is first, there was a novel that was a fictionalized version of many of the events in the book. The second version was a version where you decided to write from a place of truth and memory about these events and to incorporate Mike. You send that. So you've sent the first version out. Gotten Crickets, you sent the second version out. Then Mike dies, you start the book over a third time. And that is this book.

You know, I just have to say that I didn't know the backstory of how many times you had sat down to write this book until this conversation. But it makes me think of another quote from the book, which is where your grandmother is talking about a, her thumb, like she cut the top of it off, I think.

MARTINEZ: She did.

DINGMAN: And she says it was already hurting. I just had to figure out what to do with the pain.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, we talk about saudades and I think I was just writing my saudades.

DINGMAN: So one could imagine a person writing a memoir about the loss of their brother. One could imagine a person writing a memoir about growing up Mormon and never necessarily feeling like you fit in, which is another element in this book. All of these individual things, writers have turned into full length books.

But your approach in this book is to not anchor the book in any one of those narratives, but to move organically and intuitively kind of back and forth between all of them. How did you arrive at that approach?

MARTINEZ: Yeah, that, I think it's really sad when we boil ourselves down to one aspect, you know, to, oh, I'm ex-Mormon or whatever. And that's it. That's your personality. Or I'm, you know, in recovery and that's my whole personality, you know. And I'm not dissing people who go that route.

That's not what I'm saying. I'm talking about me personally, you know, my mother is Black and Indigenous, my dad's white, that makes me very mixed and I would feel wrong, dismissing any of those sides of myself.

DINGMAN: Well, I can't help thinking also that when you grow up in an extreme church culture like that, there is one narrative that's being forced on you to define you. And so in a way leaning into the kind of river of identities that you're constantly moving through is a refutation of that culture.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. Yeah. It absolutely is. And from the time that we were very young, we were, we were pushing against that because as a child, you know, you're being lied to, you know, and I didn't like that. I wanted something real, something, and I know that's why Mike got into drugs and that's why I did, too.

It, it wasn't a good idea. But when you're 9 and, 8 and 11 or 9 and 12, you don't have good ideas.

DINGMAN: The idea was, this is a grown up thing?

MARTINEZ: Yeah, this is a grown up thing. But even more like it wasn't even that it was, this is something that wounded people do. And we are wounded.

DINGMAN: Wow.

MARTINEZ: I know that was in my mindset even then is that I didn't know why I was wounded. I didn't know why I felt the way that I did, but I know that I was.

DINGMAN: It was already hurting, you just had to figure out what to do with the pain.

MARTINEZ: Exactly. That's exactly it.

DINGMAN: I can't help noticing … your phone case. Can you tell us what's on the back of your phone case?

MARTINEZ: So I do, I do love Joan Didion and it is the first line from “The White Album.” We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

DINGMAN: There you go.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.
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