KAYLA MARTINEZ IS a writer, filmmaker, and Fulbright fellow teaching English in Madrid. In Kayla’s final undergraduate year at the University of Chicago, LIBER published their debut short story, “Gratification.” Noelle McManus and Jennifer Baumgardner talked with Kayla about Gen Z humor, hybrid storytelling, and the strangely enduring appeal of Legally Blonde.
Noelle McManus: Could you tell us a bit about your background?
Kayla Martinez: I was raised in Mandeville, Louisiana, which is an hour or so from New Orleans. I spend a lot of time thinking about all of the insane contradictions that are true of the South, and how you can love a place and still see its flaws.
I have a brother, my mom, my dad, and a dog. My family’s really close. They’re all huge characters, very sitcom-y. My mom is a teacher, and my dad is a nurse. My dad has always made elaborate home movies, before we had iPhones, using editing software. His family is made up of Central American immigrants.
Jennifer Baumgardner: Can you talk a bit about how you came up with the piece that we published? I came across it through your teacher, Rachel DeWoskin, who’s a friend and an author of mine through Dottir Press. She’s had a million students, many of whom she thinks are brilliant, but she’s never sent me a student’s piece before this. It was wonderful getting to publish your debut.
KM: Thank you! The piece is autofiction. It’s not all true, but it’s like 85% true and 15% things that I thought sounded better. I wrote “Gratification” for a class as a throwaway assignment, just something to show that I’d written that week. I’d been watching a lot of TV about sex and womanhood. Fleabag was a big part of this piece.
I read it over and really liked it, so I brought it to Professor DeWoskin. I said, “I want to do something with this. I don’t know how to publish things. I don’t even know where to start,” and she edited it a little bit and put me in touch with you, which was literally crazy.
I was writing a screenplay at the same time I wrote this piece, and I think it bleeds through. It’s sparsely written, which comes from working on television projects and having limited space.
JB: I really liked the immediacy of that. It was powerful. Did the piece have several iterations? It sounds like you wrote it really fast, but did it develop a lot?
KM: It was a fine-toothed editing process, but not overhauling. I wanted to keep it all in one scene because it was so short, but I spent a lot of time picking words and changing small things. Editing the text messages that the characters send seemed very important, like so much relied on those few words.
NM: Could you talk a bit about how filmmaking impacts your writing?
KM: I want to be a screenwriter for my career. I want to write for television. I’ve done a lot of directing this school year, and there’s something about knowing something is going to be translated into a visual medium: words matter so much, and you can write things as you see them rather than as you feel them. There’s something so jarring about limited interiority.
There’s a section in “Gratification” where it says, “Beat. Beat. Beat.” That’s actually just playwriting. That section is very peeled-back, and you don’t get anything at all except, functionally, silence. My interest in playing with format comes from scriptwriting, and I also write poetry, so that comes into play as well.
NM: I found the piece really funny, but in a gross, fucked-up, David Lynch kind of way.
KM: I think that everything is funny. Not to be so this generation, but I think Gen Z has a lot of end-of-the-world humor. We grew up with the internet, and everything on Twitter is just like, The world is ending, but no big deal, whatever. Covid really heightened that. Obviously, everything that happens in the piece is so annoying. But what are you supposed to do except deal with it, and it’s kind of a funny story to tell people?
NM: The story is set on a college campus, and I feel like there is something inherently absurd about those spaces.
KM: The events that happened in this piece, and, loosely, in my life, were before Covid, when I was an RA. It was so strange. I had to go past a doorman to have a hookup. So many funny situations didn’t make it into the piece. Like, I went to this guy’s dorm, and the doorman looked at me because I was going in with this guy, and he probably knew what was up. I left the building afterwards, but then my friend, who lived in the same dorm, called me, and I went back in and had to be signed in again. I think the doorman thought I was hooking up with my friend, too, and said, out loud, “To each their own.” On college campuses, there are always so many people, and they’re always watching you.
NM: Are there any writers that inspire or influence you?
KM: Nineties and 2000s rom-coms have been very important to me. Also, all of those girlboss empowerment movies, like Legally Blonde. Legally Blonde is the best thing that has ever happened.
I’ve also been reading a lot of memoir-adjacent books. I read Heavy by Kiese Laymon, which I adored because it deals with vulnerability in a very interesting way. Sometimes, when writers are sharing something, it feels like they’re exploiting their own experiences. I also just read The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, a collection of short stories that’s inspired me to experiment with short pieces. Also, like I said, Fleabag is a big influence.
NM: Right, and Fleabag makes use of theater elements as well.
KM: Yeah, because Fleabag was a one-woman show before it was a TV show. She looks right at the camera, and you’re like, “Hey!”
NM: Your interest in formal experimentation, is that something that was fostered by the creative writing program at the University of Chicago, or did it come more from lived experience?
KM: It’s a great program for prose writing, but I wouldn’t say it pushed me to experiment.
I did a minor in something called “Inequality, Social Problems, and Change,” which is, like, just a bunch of words they put together. Still, through that, I was able to read a wider variety of texts, including fiction, and I was able to take theater, screenwriting, and playwriting classes. I think all that made it easier to experiment.
NM: Do you consider yourself more of a filmmaker than a writer?
KM: I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m directing a project right now that I didn’t write, and it’s a totally different experience. It’s a project written by another one of Professor DeWoskin’s students. I’m adapting his thesis, which is a pilot episode. The adaptation is a ten- or fifteen-minute short film called Man Enough. It’s about a queer college sophomore who’s kind of a loser, and he’s in love with this frat guy. They’re working on a project together for class, so he’s invited back to the frat house and ends up having weird exchanges with some of the brothers. Then, he witnesses a sexual assault. The story is told through flashbacks at the hearing. The question is, will he tell the truth or lie to protect his friend-slash-crush?
The movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. I’ve never worked on a project that’s so about men. But I think that we—as in, “the media”—reduce gay white men to girls’ best friends, and that’s it. There’s so much more than that. Masculinity and queerness intersect in strange ways, and I think we should talk about them. We should be able to discuss toxic masculinity in gay men without treating them as a monolith.
Gen Z has a lot of end-of-the-world humor. We grew up with the internet, and everything on Twitter is just like, The world is ending, but no big deal, whatever.
NM: Do you personally identify as a woman?
KM: I don’t identify as anything. I don’t know what I identify as.
NM: You mentioned earlier that your family is kind of a sitcom family. Do you think a lot of the humor in your writing has come from them?
KM: Yes, less so in this piece. They can’t read this. I’m like, “Mom, I’m getting published! I will never, ever show you!” I already told them what it’s about, but I don’t know—there are some things I don’t need my parents to see. My family is generally very supportive of whatever choices I make. I’d show my parents pieces where sex is important but not the whole point. “Gratification,” though, is just about sex.
NM: Yeah. Parental support doesn’t always save you from embarrassment, no matter how much they love you.
KM: Yeah, and, okay, this is maybe problematic, but I don’t feel super inclined to tell my parents that I was involved at any point with a man. It took them quite a long time to accept the fact that I was involved with people who weren’t men, so after reading this, they’d be like, “What does this mean for you?”
NM: That’s so funny. I had a boyfriend recently, and my dad asked me, “Are you into women anymore?”
KM: No, literally!
NM: Like, I don’t want to sit down and have these conversations. I’m tired.
NM: One thing I’ve noticed about Gen Z humor—and you can tell me if you agree—is that it tends to be very observational, mostly based on things that aren’t funny at all on their own.
KM: Yeah! In so much Gen Z humor the joke is the fact that the world is the way the world is. It always comes back to the internet, but taken entirely out of context. You say one quote from a TikTok or something, and then you say another quote from another TikTok, and they aren’t related, but it’s funny. We’re all just laughing because we know the same things.
NM: As a young writer, how do you see screenwriting, filmmaking, and literature changing as people our age enter the industry? Do you think there’s a fresh perspective to be had?
KM: I definitely do. I think that’s true of every generation. Every generation thinks that they’re doing doomsday. I think we really think we’re doing doomsday, and I think that we’ve convinced ourselves—in my opinion, correctly—that we’re right this time. Also, I’m assuming everyone throughout history has had mental problems, but our generation loves to make it a joke. Everyone on the internet is like, Blah, blah, blah, Lexapro. I think we have an awareness of our anxiety, which interacts with our living in a time where anxiety is the norm, and, with Covid, might even be safer. There’s a sense of impending doom and a sense of “I was right! I told you so!” that is going to lead to some really interesting work.
NM: Your story centers around Tinder—another thing that’s absurd.
KM: Online dating sucks, but it’s also simply just dating now. Everyone does it. Though, I went on a date recently that was not a Tinder date, and it was so weird. It was so insane, and the person was so strange. They were nice but really so weird. If we’d met on Tinder, I might not have gone out with them.
But Tinder is bad in a lot of ways. I think there’s a lot of emotional stuff tied up with feeling that your desirability is being quantified. I also really don’t turn on men on dating apps anymore. All the weird experiences I’ve had with non-men have been weird in a way that was funny, but the weird experiences I’ve had with men have just been plain bad. There’s been a huge shift in how I think about dating apps since I stopped dating men, but it’s also much harder. Non-men are much more reticent, myself included. I think, because of the way boys are brought up, they have a willingness to message people freely. Queer people who are not men—we’re just nervous all the time. Even if we message one another, we’ll be like, “Wow, you’re so beautiful! Love your outfit! Where’d you get it?” That’s not even flirting. That’s just talking.
NM: You’re definitely not the first person I’ve heard who just straight up doesn’t view men on dating apps despite being attracted to them. I’ve also done that.
KM: Right. And I usually call myself queer because I think sexuality is fluid, but I don’t know what it would mean for me to be with a man. I don’t know if it’s something I’d want. If it happened “organically”—which nothing does, but if it did—I’d probably accept it, but I’m not going to seek it out. It’s not something I want enough to look for.
JB: This may be a trivial ending, but I’d like to talk about Legally Blonde. It was a big influence on me as well, even though I’m thirty years older than you.
KM: I think Legally Blonde is a great feminist movie. It’s camp for straight, blonde women from Malibu. I love it, and I love pink, and I love imagining that I could be a girlboss lawyer. I love that.
JB: The feminine drag, but also the brilliance.
KM: Exactly. I loved that movie when I was much younger, and I love it now, even though I’m not a blonde girly going to Harvard Law. It’s so great to see femininity done in a way that’s powerful without undermining it. I think Legally Blonde also has a lot of problems. I watched it with my roommates recently, and we realized that there are no people of color besides a Latino gay man who’s the butt of a joke. And yet, I love it. I think it’s feminist. I think it set the stage for a lot of consideration about how someone can be feminine and be successful through that identity, rather than in spite of it.