Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum Mark Mayer takes readers to a metaphorical circus in “Aerialists,” his debut collection. Filled with beautiful and beautifully crafted tales, the book is emotionally engaging from the first story through the last.
In this e-interview, Mayer, who lives in Denver, discusses the roll of circus themes in the work, his time at the Writers’ Workshop and more. He also offers a glimpse of his next project.
Q: Tell me about the origin of the organizing concept of “Aerialists.” How and when did the notion of circus acts transformed into stories of outsiders come into being? What sort of challenges and opportunities did the concept provide?
A: Part of what’s fascinating about our fascinations is the mysteriousness of their appeal. If we’re truly fascinated with something, we probably don’t know why we’re fascinated. When I first started writing fiction, I found myself telling stories about aerialists and animal trainers, even though in real life, I never went out of my way to go to the circus or tried to learn to juggle and my favorite literature wasn’t circus literature. But I sensed there was something there for me if I kept my eyes on the circus. I was figuring out what I could and couldn’t do with language, and the outsize, spectacular nature of the circus invited lyrical language and grand descriptions. That was part of it.
I learned, though, as I described the strongmen and acrobats of my early drafts that what was meaningful for me about the circus was not the spectacle it presented — it was how the circus saw us. Together, the various acts of the circus present a definition of humanity. They show us who we are by showing our extremes. Whether they’re the bravest, nimblest, strongest, biggest, or they’re freaks and sideshows, circus people mark out the limits of the human. Circus people are outsiders but also paragons of some aspect of humanity. I became very interested in thinking about how these archetypes live in our society and in how we might use the zodiac of the circus to interpret and understand unspectacular lives. So that’s how I found myself writing not about bar-bending strongmen but about a boy trained into toxic concepts of “strength,” not about acrobat families literally catching each other but about two military brothers trying to support each other, not about a lion tamer but a would-be mountain man obsessed with his own wild nature.
The jacket copy and cover art are going to determine how people approach the stories, but in truth, I don’t think you need to read them as circus stories at all. That was how I organized and approached the work, but the mythology of the circus is pretty well submerged. You don’t need to be thinking about the circus to “get” the book.
Q: These stories are beautifully character-driven, but each of the stories, it seems to me, is also an impressive feat of story architecture. How did you balance the formal aspects of the stories — I’m thinking in particular here of the perspective and dialogue in “Twin” — with fully exploring the emotional lives of the characters?
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A: I try to remind myself that plot is a way of thinking about emotion and character. The story architectures to which you refer are only worth anything if they let us deeper into the experience the story is trying to relate. And you can’t always know right away whether a narrative approach will deepen our experience of character or whether it will be just a clever device until you run the experiment. Before I wrote the clown story that’s in the book, I wrote a very elaborate clown story in which the first section was a play script written by a grandson, the second a screenplay written by his father, a TV clown, and the third a long poem written by the grandfather — all telling the family’s violent history.
I liked a lot about it, but ultimately it was too much architecture and not enough room of the characters themselves. I could sense them hiding, evading themselves and their real struggles, in the devices of the play and screenplay and poem. At the end of the day, the architecture of a story is the architecture of a trap: as the character runs to and fro, trying to avoid what they need to confront, the story slowly narrows on them until finally they have to face the day. In “Twin,” the young Maple has to face her father’s depression and has to face the reality of her “telepathy” with Sasha; the older Maple has to face her loneliness and has to face that abandoned Sasha. If the architecture works, it works by slowly but surely making these confrontations inevitable and putting them in sync with each other.
Q: I know this question is akin to asking a child to pick a favorite act from the circus, but do you have a favorite among the stories in “Aerialists” or, perhaps, a story which you are particularly proud to have crafted?
A: Oh geez. Maybe it’s “Solidarity Forever.” I’m not prouder of it than the others, but there’s so much of me, my way of thinking, in that story. The “There,” the patterns in the linoleum, the metaphysical obsession with numbers and infinity, the political guilt. The story is based (in some ways) on my dear uncle, who uses a far more subtle and sophisticated math to model history and who did skip meals to lengthen his workday. It’s one of the older stories — though I revised them all so many times it’s impossible to really put them in order — and I learned a lot while writing it. It taught me how to let a character’s obsessive logic overtake the story while keeping the narrative moving and the scenes alive. I don’t know that it will be anyone else’s favorite from the collection, but it’s dear to me.
Q: Tell me about your time in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. How would you describe your experience and in what ways, if any, did your time in the Workshop shape you as a writer or change your thinking about your own work? How many of the stories in the collection were workshopped in Iowa City?
A: It was a very happy and productive time for me. I met my wife there, I wrote and workshopped early versions of many of these stories there, I got to work with so many incredible — and incredibly different — writers. It wasn’t, as talk of the Workshop sometimes suggests, some experience of being “disciplined into the proper craft of fiction” or anything like that. I left every workshop feeling encouraged, amazed really, that my experiments had, in some degree, worked and eager to experiment some more.
Iowa City, as you know, is swarming with writers, and there’s a high risk of running into a friend if you try writing at a coffee shop, so my secret workspace, when I had to get out of my house, was the cafeteria at Mercy hospital, right across the street from my house. Cheap coffee, cheap soft serve, long hours, and no writers. A fair bit of this book was written there.
Q: What’s your next project? Is it underway? And what can you tell me about it?
A: I should probably be cagey about it, but I’ll tell you a little. I’m working on a kind of multiverse novel, a novel set across a few adjoining realities. It may not work at all — I’m too deep in it right now to have any perspective — but it’s keeping me occupied at the very least. It’s literary and maybe a little tear-jerky but there are also magic spells and addictive spider bites and fun stuff like that.
IF YOU GO
l What: Mark Mayer will read from his book “Aerialists: Stories”
l When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
l Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
l Cost: Free