On the surface, Mark Mayer seems like a normal enough guy. He’s polite, a little awkward, and a little anxious to please. When we were at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop together, it was his job to set up the chairs and the mics for readings, and the chairs were always arranged in nice, straight, punctual rows. His stories, too, have a veneer of normalcy. Model-train enthusiasts dutifully mind their toys, a nephew worries about his anorexic uncle, a parks-and-rec employee tries to get laid. But you can sense, beneath the normal, an abiding weirdness and darkness, a fascination with the sinkholes in the back of the mind, the places where consciousness plunges through the cloud floor of this world and into some other one.
Mark’s weirdness has something to do with tenderness. Weirdness for its own sake is just quirk, but in Mark’s stories, solid-state relationships undergo a phase change right at the moment when love gets hard. A nephew worried about his aunt and uncle sits in the kitchen creating patterns in the linoleum squares, telling himself there must be some combination that will “unlock” the floor and let him get back to a place he thinks he remembers, a place he calls “the There.” A girl copes with her father’s depression by pretending to have a telepathic connection with a deaf-mute friend, whom she then telepathically dumps. A guy on his way into the navy writes a detailed description of his neighborhood into a text-based online world, imagining it will be a place where he and his girlfriend can have sex while he’s at war.
A couple of Mark’s stories are concerned with how the straight male imagination turns toxic, about how misogyny lives in the mind. One young narrator receives dueling lessons in masculinity from his dad and from his mom’s new lover, a female bodybuilder. A guy who finds a “pet” mountain lion in his tree starts obsessing about his own tameness in his new relationship. In one story, a real estate agent for an ascendant Republican client moonlights—or else imagines himself moonlighting—as a homicidal clown. Strongman, lion-tamer, clown… each of the stories in Aerialists links, somewhat sneakily, to a different circus act or sideshow. As a whole, the book is a spectacular of the weird.
At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Mark and I were never in class together, but we’ve stayed in touch and occasionally swapped work. I conducted this interview through emails to Paris where he, his wife (the poet Ashley Colley), and their two rabbits are living this year.
There are so many tender relationships in this collection—children and their uncles and aunts, parents, brothers, friends. What is your interest in these dynamics?
Love is a really hard thing to do right in life. I love reading stories where the hero is affronted by something external, a mean neighbor or an alien, but those kinds of conflicts can feel safe to me because all the character has to do, really, is figure out some way to close the relationship, walk away. Intimacy is more vexed. We’re all carrying around our histories—our bad programming, our genders, our wounded egos, our stink—and then we build little brick houses and try to live in them together. It’s a crazy thing to attempt. So I’m interested in stories that go into that space where we can’t escape each other. Family is claustrophobic, love is claustrophobic, which is what makes it meaningful, too. We can’t help but actually encounter each other.
In these stories you swing from gentleness to menace and back again, and I emerge from each either with my heart overflowing or chilled to my core. Do you think about reader experience or expectations when you’re writing? How do you cultivate mood and atmosphere in your work?
It’s funny to me that the mood of a story or book can be atmospheric, but our own moods are supposed to be things we can pick from the emoji spread. I think it takes all the meaning and threat out of sadness or anger to imagine them as discrete, specific, capsulized experiences, when really sadness, fear, and jealousy are these atmospheres that flood through life and mix in with the sweet stuff, too. You can name the emotion on a face in a photo, but in real time faces are basically liquids, flowing, reacting, breathing, speaking. I’m drawn to fiction—like yours—where I’m given room to feel many ways at once, since that’s how I feel in life. Like, menace is menacing because of how it abuts and butts into gentleness. I try to remind myself it’s never my job to summarize or conceptualize experiences, neither my characters’ nor my readers’. If I feel like I really understand what an event means for them, then I’m probably not living it deeply, since it’s not like I go around fully understanding what the events of my life mean.
From one story-collection writer to another, can you talk about the process of conceiving of this book, thematically and otherwise? How did the circus motif emerge?
A surprising number of young fiction writers want to write about the circus. It’s gritty and it’s fantastical, it’s exotic and it’s American, it’s demonic and it’s a misfit’s refuge. My first foray into fiction was a very bad circus novel in which this Barnumesque showman, Boss Crabtree, goes around recruiting fire golems and snake-women to join his train. I was still trying to figure out what I could and couldn’t do with language, and I was excited by how the circus provoked my descriptions. It was lyrical, but meaningless on an emotional level. I showed it to a friend and he said, “It’s like you spent all your time oohing and aahing at the fireworks and forgot about your date.” These stories grew from the long process of considering what the extremes displayed in a circus really mean, to me, to any of us living in our mundane world. So I found myself writing not about circus strongmen but about Rico, a terrified misogynist-in-training, and Klara, a cable-show bodybuilder who confounds his idea of strength and masculinity.
Your sentences are so gorgeous. Who are your favorite prose stylists? What is your sentence-creation process like?
I admire the paragraphs of thought that Mavis Gallant can fit into a single line like, “Childhood recollected is often hallucination; who is to blame?” I think my whole book might fit inside that sentence. I wish I could deploy semicolons like that. For commas, I go to Alice Munro, her lists—wardrobes, merchandise, character quirks—where each item somehow contradicts the previous, leaving paradoxes everywhere. And Marilynne Robinson, whose sentences are like spaceships, coming out of nowhere, gliding along on superior technology, which is also older technology. “By some bleak alchemy what had been mere unbeing becomes death when life is mingled with it.” That’s her description of conception! “So they seal the door against our returning.” Like anyone, I love the metaphors and similes that make you feel you’re putting on glasses for the first time—like how garbage men call maggots “disco rice”—but for me, the sound of a sentence matters most. Rhythm means more to me than 20/20 vision, and often the best rhythms are the simplest.
I love how many animals appear in these stories, and I also love that you and your wife have two beloved rabbits. Can you talk about your relationship with animals, and why you like writing about them?
We do, we have the best rabbits, Judy and Roberta. Right now, the four of us are living in a tiny apartment in Paris. I don’t have a desk, so I write on the couch and often there’s a rabbit next to me, nudging my arm with her nose. My wife will spend half an hour with them on the floor, eyes locked, telepathizing. She feels like she really knows who they are. To me, they’re little aliens. I think their lives are beyond my powers of imagination. In my animal stories, the human characters encounter themselves, usually their own pain, in their relationships with animals. Rainey and the lion, Stony and the elephant—I think they recognize the animal’s grace and beauty and power, but then they get lost in their interpretation of the animal’s “meaning” and it leads them astray. Part of what I was thinking about with the elephant story, of course, was all the horrible, murderous violence done to elephants, violence linked to our imagination of their beauty and power and mystique.
These stories are so nimble with regard to their relationship with their own theme and genre, and then one of the final stories is literally about a homicidal clown. I love that sharp right turn into ’80s-style horror. Are you a fan of horror as a genre? What is your relationship with genre writing, genre film?
Yes, the murder clown. I’ve often felt, reading short story collections, that you can spot the last story or two, the ones the author wrote after figuring out the stories’ logic or tricks. Usually I get bummed about those too-knowing final stories, which can feel like walk-throughs or parodies of the others. So when I started seeing my patterns, I tried to be my own parodist—this time the sensitive hobbyist’s hobby is murder. It’s the clown’s role, traditionally, to ape and make fun of all the other circus acts. The truth is, I’m not great at horror movies—I haven’t seen either of the Its. But I do love genre fiction—fantasy, science fiction, crime—and I see this project as a genre hybrid, in its way. Circus fiction is one of the classic genres, with its own stock characters and familiar set pieces. Circus novels and circus travelogues were pulp bestsellers. And from the beginning it was a genre that dabbled in horror and fantasy, mixing them with a dusty realism.
How do you find your way into stories? Are you a character-follower? A concept guy? Do you start from an image?
I want to be a character-follower, I want to start with character, but often it takes me a while—like weeks—to meet the character. So I start with whatever I’ve got, scrap materials. The elephant story began with an image, no longer in the story, of the sky being peeled back by carrion birds. The “conjoined twin” story was a little bit of concept and a little bit of theft from Eudora Welty’s “The Key.” No stage of writing comes easily to me, and nothing that worked once necessarily works twice, so I’ll start with whatever I have. But I do trust the character, once I finally meet them, to know far more than I do about what the story is about. I look where they’re looking and trust that there’s more meaning there than I’ve realized yet. Then it’s about following them, yes, but also steadying them toward the places they don’t want to go.
Carmen Maria Machado is the author of Her Body and Other Parties and In the Dream House, which will be published by Graywolf Press this October.
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