There’s something about working at a bookstore that makes a person wonder what their own name might look like right there on the shelf. And Denver writer Mark Mayer can attest to this — and does, in this interview, on the occasion of the Colorado launch of his collection of short fiction, Aerialists: Stories.
Mayer’s book is being lauded by writers and booksellers alike; Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) wrote that Aerialists is “bright and muscular, luminous and generous, nimble and funny, tender and surprising at every turn.”
While on the road, "heading above the Arctic Circle” — which he assured us was not a metaphor, Mayer talked to us about his book.
Westword: You've got a pretty solid lineup of prestigious Colorado literary venues to launch your new book, Aerialists: the Boulder Book Store on February 21; Tattered Cover Colfax on February 22; BookBar (with Elisa Gabbert and Caroline Ebeid) on February 23; and Fort Collins’s Old Firehouse Books on February 24. What’s the best part of being able to read from a book in a place that you also call home?
Mark Mayer: My first actual W-9 and time-card job was at the Boulder Book Store. I’d walk over from Boulder High and shelve newly received books or pull books for returns. I got to know some truly weird and wonderful booksellers and every corner of the store — science fiction went in the Ballroom, but alien conspiracies in the Annex. I loved it there. I was there during the first of the midnight Harry Potter book parties when no one could see the new book till midnight. I was too young per state labor law to work past nine p.m., but I remember carrying the Goblet of Fire, hidden under a blanket, upstairs. My co-workers were musicians and ex-monks and conspiracy theorists, but all of us were readers, with an enviable book discount, and I knew I was among my people. And, of course, I’d glance often at that space between William Maxwell and Cormac McCarthy and wonder if I’d ever put anything there.
Let’s talk about the stories in this collection. The central conceit of the book surrounds the circus. What is it about the circus that draws us and sort of horrifies at the same time? What drew you to want to tackle the circus in the first place?
Literary language is this great conjuring trick: You look at words, and things appear in your mind. If you’re the kind of writer who finds that magical – and I definitely do — then there’s a natural pull toward spectacle, especially when you’re first testing out your powers of description. Can I make them see an elephant? Can I make them see a tower of elephants? I think so many new writers write about the circus because writing fiction feels like putting on a circus: We’re putting on a show, fighting for our readers’ eyeballs, thrusting yet-more-spectacular scenes in front of them. You’ll laugh, you’ll gasp, you’ll scream! I think part of what makes the circus clowns horrifying and maybe makes the circus itself horrifying is that visual loudness. The aggressiveness of the makeup, the lights, the drums make you start to wonder what’s on the other side of all the spectacle. You sense an emptiness.
What’s your favorite literary circus story? There’s a surprising amount from which to choose, and from a wide spectrum of literary type: from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes to Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants to the old DC comic-book series Deadman. What have you read that filled your heart with big-top dreams?
My favorite circus novel is Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. Carter's book gives you everything you want from the circus: yellow mounds of elephant dung, violent clowns, and the amazing Fevvers, Carter's heroine, "the Cockney Venus," supposedly winged and supposedly hatched from an egg. Nights at the Circus gives you the full chaotic whirl of the circus — so much plot! But I love how Carter finds something nearly utopian inside the circus and then still makes her circus murderous and grotesque and of this world. On the one hand, Fevvers, who is rich and carefree and farts big farts in front of reporters and can fly, is totally liberated, and at the same time, she's not free at all. I love Katherine Dunn's Geek Love too and Something Wicked This Way Comes and Glen David Gould's "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter," but Carter's is my favorite.
I know you’ve mentioned elsewhere that your first attempt at fiction was a “very bad circus novel.” What made it so awful? I hesitate to call any writing a failure…so what did you learn from that early experience that you put to work in Aerialists?
Before I wrote Aerialists, I made various attempts at a circus novel. There was a mysterious acrobat with actual powers of flight…a giant bird that landed one night on the big top…a fire golem reluctant to be recruited…a disgruntled monkey trainer who robs the circus and jumps the train. It was so much fun! And I learned how to conjure, how to put on a show. But after a while, I got weary. I felt like a carnival barker, barking for would-be readers. I kept trying to top that last act, keep the people throwing dimes. It felt empty. What had been magic started to feel like a magic show. So I stepped back. I started thinking about the circus as a set of myths — about strength, daring, wildness, commerce — that have been important to us for a long time. Why is that? What is it about the acrobat family, brothers risking their lives to catch each other? The twins steering one body with two minds? The dizzying machinations of the dog-and-pony show? The sideshow freaks who find each other and marry? These things didn’t seem empty to me at all. I wrote these stories thinking about the contemporary, which is to say timeless, meaning of these archetypes. My characters aren’t spectacles. No one is watching them. But they still watch themselves and understand themselves as strong or weak, daring or afraid, wild or tame.
Here’s the standard writer question…but it’s standard because we all want to know. What's your writing process? Are you a write-every-day writer, or is your process a little more spontaneous?
I throw a blanket over myself and my computer and write hunched in the little pocket of light — like a kid reading under the sheets or an old-time cameraman under the cloth. I’m not any more distracted than the next guy, but if there’s a window, I’ll look out it. If there’s an Internet, I’ll go on it. If there’s a finger bowl of almonds on my desk, there won’t be for long. For me, writing fiction means leaving this world and going to another one, and that other world will snap closed as quick as any dream. So I do what I can to make things easier for myself. When you’re doing your homework, distractions are just distractions, but when you’re writing fiction, distractions are apocalyptic. They can vanish the world whole.
There’s a Calvin and Hobbes where Calvin builds a time machine so that, instead of writing the story he’s been assigned, he can go to the future and simply retrieve the story that his future self will have already written. Except, of course, future Calvin still hasn’t written the thing. Eventually, 6 p.m. Calvin and 8 p.m. Calvin decide it’s really 7 p.m. Calvin’s fault, and soon all three of them are fighting. That’s my writing process, too, kind of. I mean that I see writing as a way of collaborating with myself and fighting with myself across time. I’m writing something today, knowing that my future self will shred it, but over enough time, something emerges that’s smarter than any single Mark.
You've taught workshops at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. What's the lesson about writing that you try hardest to communicate to your students?
Teaching for Lighthouse has been one of my great happinesses in Denver. I love teaching creative writing workshops. I love the collective problem-solving, and I love that they're problems you have to solve with emotion. Workshops become this collaborative feeling process — like, together we're literally feeling our way into the characters. I think I surprise my students sometimes with how emotional I get about their stories, but, a) I don't know how else to read, and b) I need my emotions to have any insight into how the revisions should proceed.
So what in Denver informs your work? What in Colorado inspires you?
I have a lot of home-court affection for Colorado. Of the nine stories, six are set in some version of Colorado, though for the most part they weren’t written here. There are Coors boycotts and wildcat sanctuaries and disputes over the regulation of public open space; there’s a glimpse of Colfax on Halloween; there are lots of dogs and frisbees. I wanted to write a book about Colorado in part because Colorado shaped my first ideas of beauty, but also because Colorado is a complicated place, and in many ways a land of fictions. It’s a bit amazing how important “Coloradoness” has become — the stickers, the flags. One of the stories, “The Wilderness Act,” watches on as a Coloradan drives himself a little crazy with stories about nature and property and love and wild beauty, stories I think Colorado tells itself.
Mark Mayer will read from his new collection, Aerialists: Stories, at the Boulder Book Store on Thursday, February 21; Tattered Cover Colfax on Friday, February 22; BookBar (with Elisa Gabbert and Caroline Ebeid) on Saturday, February 23; and Fort Collins’s Old Firehouse Books on Sunday, February 24.