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The DX Diabetes Dish: Marlin Barton

Southern author, novelist & teacher on life with type 1 diabetes

Marlin Barton’s Pasture Art, a collection of short stories set in the Alabama Black Belt, was recently published by Hub City Press. Marlin, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 16 years ago when he was 37, writes and teaches in Montgomery – the state capital and the Black Belt’s largest city. He’s the author of two earlier collections, The Dry Well and Dancing by the River, and two novels, A Broken Thing and The Cross Garden. Marlin teaches creative writing in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College and to juvenile offenders in a program called Writing Our Stories.

What is your state of mind today?

My overall health is excellent. I enjoy the teaching I do, and I’m excited about having a new book of short stories out.

What three words would you use to describe who you are?

Husband, writer, teacher.

How does diabetes change – or not change – who you are?

I don’t think it has changed me greatly. There was certainly an adjustment period where I realized I am now a person with a disease that has to be carefully managed, but I’d never been a person who worried about his health, and now that testing my blood and administering insulin has become so routine, I don’t give my diabetes more thought than it needs.

What inspires you to do what you do?

I’ve always had a love of stories and a love of reading. I grew up around a lot of great storytellers, including people in my family, and both my parents were readers who read to me as a child, which is terribly important. So when I was in college it seemed like a natural enough thing for me to try to write a story myself. What’s most important to me in my writing is to explore human nature in an honest and engaging way.

What do you appreciate most in your friends?

Loyalty, and an ability to offer a kind word when it’s needed, which I hope I do in return.

What would you pack for your favorite vacation?

I love the mountainsI lived in western South Carolina when I taught at Clemson University. So, I was very close to the mountains and used to drive up and go on short hikes to lookout points and waterfalls. I suppose I’d want to pack some good hiking boots and maybe some binoculars.

What’s in your refrigerator right now?

Insulin, for one thing. My wife, Rhonda, has a nice bottle of white wine. And there’s some good leftover barbeque, though I’m not a true aficionado of it the way some people are, particularly in the South.

What is your favorite way to relieve stress?

To sit in a quiet place and read good fiction.

What is your idea of happiness?

 I’m pretty easy to please. Small things make me happy. Something as simple as going out with my wife and a small group of friends, maybe sitting outside at a restaurant that overlooks the Alabama River and enjoying each other’s companythat makes me happy. And on days when I feel like my writing has gone well, those are happy moments.

What do you most dislike?

This one is easy. I hate when the telephone rings while I’m trying to write.

What’s your favorite diabetes management tip?

I’m afraid I don’t have any sort of magic tip that will truly make someone’s management of diabetes easier. All I’ll say is be diligent and test your blood sugar multiple times a day. Care about yourself as much as the people around you care about you.

People living with diabetes may sometimes blame themselves. What words of encouragement would you give them so they can let go of the blame?

Sometimes we have to stop those irrational thoughts we have, like blaming ourselves for something we have no control over, by talking to ourselves, reminding ourselves that we didn’t give ourselves diabetes because we used to eat a candy bar every once in a while. Simply accept that you’ve been given a task that will ask you to be your best self so that you can remain healthy for your own sake and for those who love you.

What words do you try to live by?

Do something with your life that will help heal, and not hurt, the world.

What is your greatest fear?

Other than my concerns for the health and welfare of those I love, I suppose my greatest fear is not being able to complete a novel once I’ve begun one. A novel is such a major undertaking, can take years to complete, and just because you’ve written one novel doesn’t mean you can write and finish the next one. Each novel has its own unique characters and story, and you have to find your way through without a map.

What is your greatest extravagance?

 My wife would probably say buying books.

On what occasion do you lie?

To spare someone’s feelings, of course. Anyone with a heart does that.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

My brother and father both have health issues, though not life-threatening. I wish I could change their conditions for the better and lessen the pain they deal with on a daily basis.

Who are your heroes in real life?

I could try to name someone famous here, some scientist who’s created a cure for a disease, or some sports figure who exemplifies true sportsmanship, but I think the real heroes in this world are those people who go about quietly living their lives and doing good for other people, and don’t look for anything in return. We can all be heroic.

What would you choose for your last meal?

I’m not really a foodie, to use a somewhat recent term. So I can’t name any particularly fancy dish. I’ll answer more simply. My grandmother recently died at 104 years of age, after a long illness. I miss many things about her, including the meals she cooked when I was growing up. I would love to have a meal of her fried chicken, snap beans, crackling bread and fried squash. And yes, I know there are two fried items there, which isn’t all that healthybut, then, we are talking about a last meal.

What are you looking forward to right now?

Seeing the house built on the Alabama River that my wife and I are about to begin, and finishing the book I’m working on.

Jessica Apple is the co-founder and editor in chief of the online diabetes lifestyle magazine A Sweet Life. Her writing has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, The Financial Times Magazine, The Southern Review, The Bellevue Literary Review and Tablet Magazine. Apple is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewees, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates. 

© 2015 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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