Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Mark Mayer will be at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City on Wednesday, February 27, 7 p.m., to read from Aerialists, his inventive short story collection in which classic circus figures become ordinary misfits in a lonely world.
Winner of the Michener-Copernicus award, Aerialists features an unforgettable caravan of characters—the bold, the beautiful, the freakish, the huge. Mayer renders his characters’ attempted acts of daring and feats of strength with humor, generosity, and uncommon grace.
As Merritt Tierce, author of Love Me Back, observes, “Mark Mayer has built a circus of the normal, [and] somehow infiltrated the ordinary to reveal the freak inside.”
Bloomsbury Publishing kindly supplied this interview with Mark Mayer.
The stories in Aerialists all use the idea of the circus as a jumping-off point: a source for misfit or mythic characters, versions of which we can find in everyday contemporary life. How did this theme emerge for you?
There’s nothing more fun to imagine than the circus. That’s what the circus was designed to be—the dream of dreams, the greatest show on earth. I started writing about the circus so I could write about the mahouts and trapezists and roustabouts. What great words! And so much to look at! That’s something all writers have to learn to do—to watch—and I loved observing the tumult of it all. But before long the circus I was describing came to feel like mere spectacle, without much emotional reality. I’d been suckered by my own show. Distracted by the glitz, I’d forgotten about real life, real love, and pain. So I began this process of reconsidering the creatures and characters of the circus as myths, archetypes to be reincarnated with every generation. I asked myself, what does the strongman’s strength mean, how does it relate to violence, to gender, to adolescence, and that’s how I found Klara, my TV bodybuilder, and Rico, her young friend struggling to understand masculinity and love. Instead of Boss Crabtree presiding over his failing circus, my ringmaster became a childless model-train hobbyist trying to find a home for his creation. And so on.
I expect lots of readers will read the stories without ever thinking of the circus, but it’s there submerged in the book’s weird imagination if you want it. Like any mythology, the American circus with its displays of beauty, bravery, cunning, and capitalism tells us who we are and might be and how we dream. Reinterpreting these myths has been my way of thinking about contemporary selfhood as I’ve known it.
What does the short story form offer that compels you?
The poor short story, always needing to justify itself when really Munro and Gallant and Groff and Machado should be the top of everyone’s pantheon, not just mine. Anyone who loves novels will admit that plenty of their favorite novels have flaws—they love them anyway. But a short story has to be nearly perfect to work at all. You can love a B+ novel just for the journey it took you on, the time you spent with the character, the voice. You hold a novel for so long that by the time you’ve finished it, you’ve bonded with it as an object even if you don’t think the ending quite lands. But a short story has no place to hide. It has to bring you into its world, its vision of experience, discover an interesting problem, and deliver surprise and meaning all within a few pages, and if it doesn’t, well, ho-hum.
One thing I love about short stories is the way they support rereading. It’s natural to reread a story a couple times, so there’s an intimacy that develops between you and the language. You don’t memorize it as you would a poem, but you remember phrases and sentences. So it’s the perfect form for any reader who loves both storytelling and language.
Your stories often deal with the intricacies of different kinds of relationships, both familial and romantic, some unconventional. What intrigues you about these dynamics?
Writers are always looking to trap their characters, block all the exits till the protagonist has to turn around and confront The Thing he or she has been running from. It’s Drama 101, but the true dramatic payoff isn’t the fight scene, it’s the new knowledge—the revelation of who the protagonist is. Well, relationships are traps. Isn’t that romantic, but it’s true: love and family contain us and force us to confront one another and ourselves. We all go around with our bluster, our genders, our traumatic histories, our hungry bodies, and we could probably ignore it all if we weren’t trapped in the same little living rooms and carpools and beds. Because new relationships test us in new ways, I find myself writing about weird aunts, blind neighbors, mom’s ambiguous new lady friend. Rico and Klara are true friends, I think they have real love for each other, but sex, gender, race, and family history are there too, complicating things. I tried to write stories that show up for that.
A lot of your stories feature other worlds of one kind or another. In “Solidarity Forever,” Jacob wants to enter “the There”; in “The Ringmaster,” there’s the train world; in “Aerialists”, there’s the computer world. What’s your fascination with these worlds within worlds?
I’ve sometimes described these stories as realisms with holes in them. I’m interested in the place where imagination overtakes our experience of life, and most, maybe all, of my characters have dangerous imaginations. Jacob and his uncle think they glimpse evidence of another reality in the math they obsess over. Mick has put his soul into his model train that has no value to anyone but him. Dennis, the clown character, spends all day imagining the murders he’s going to commit. Corbin builds himself a virtual home as his real home falls apart. Maple imagines a telepathic node connecting her mind to her friend’s. I’ve always loved stories with portals—rabbit holes and wardrobes and subtle knives—because I think we all live among multiple worlds—our collaborative fantasies and contested understandings of reality. For me, it’s not a realistic realism unless it has a hole it in somewhere, someplace where a dreamworld makes its incursion.
Mark Mayer’s stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, Kenyon Review, Guernica, Colorado Review, and Mid-American Review. Mayer has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Michener-Copernicus Fellow. He spent two years at Cornell College’s Center for the Literary Arts as the Robert P. Dana Emerging Writer-in-Residence. He lives in Denver.