Mark Mayer’s debut, Aerialists (Bloomsbury), presents a spectacularization of the normal in a circus-inspired series of short stories. However, Mayer’s characters do not swing from a trapeze; instead, for instance, they take aerial photos from an airplane. A confused adolescent receives conflicting lessons in masculinity from his separated father and his mother’s new female-bodybuilder companion. The son of a communist mathematician suspects that his kitchen floor will open up into an abstract mathematical dimension which he calls “the There.” An eleven-year-old copes with her father’s depression by pretending to communicate telepathically with her deaf-mute friend in a story called “Twin.” Mayer’s carnies are turned in on themselves, yearning for understanding, caught in claustrophobic relationships, and entrapped in an imaginary cosmos of their own creation. Mayer recently moved to Paris with his partner, the poet Ashley Colley, and so I sat down with him virtually via a live Google doc. I watched his responses type themselves across the page as we discussed the genesis of this new collection, the importance of dreaming, and the dangers of the imagination.
Kristen Kubecka You use the circus as an overarching theme for this series, a source for misfit or mythic characters that manifest in everyday life. How did this theme emerge for you?
Mark Mayer The first story, “Strongwoman,” revealed the book to me. I’d been writing stories and aborted novels about the circus for quite a while even though I was never a great circus-goer myself. I was new to fiction and anxious to put enough story into my stories, and the spectacles, violent dramas, and grotesque romances of the circus seemed to be guaranteed story-worthy. So I spent years writing about cursed Russian monkey trainers and otherworldly, levitating acrobats and so on. It was very fun, and I learned a lot about writing, but those first circus stories lacked something for me. They had a lot of dazzle and playful language, but they didn’t pay much attention to what was going on for the people inside the dazzle. The circus was a great device for exaggerating experience but not for looking deeper into it.
Somehow “Strongwoman”—this story about a preteen boy’s friendship with a ’90s cable-TV bodybuilder—changed that. Her strength wasn’t a spectacle for the reader; it was a spectacle for him, both a fascination and an uncomfortable lesson that messed with his ideas about masculinity and his ideas about whom he should be. So I began the translation you mention—of circus acts into contemporaries, yes, but also of spectacles into spectators. I started writing characters who watch the circuses in their lives—they watch their “living skeleton” anorexic uncles, their conjoined-twin friends, the “tame” lions in their trees. The stories that made it into Aerialists get to have it both ways—the grandeur or spectacle is still there, but what matters is how it threatens and provokes a single life.
KK So you are complicating the extreme identities of the circus by reversing and twisting them inward. That’s such an interesting point of departure. Did you base any of the characters on people you know or see in your own life?
MM Yes, I did recruit some family and friends for my circus. I grew up in a collective, in the Reagan-era remnants of a ’70s utopian housing experiment in Boulder, Colorado. Nuclear family, extended family, other folks, on a chunk of former farm—it could get a little circus-y at times. So it was natural for me to populate my circus with some fictionalized members of the Juniper Street Collective. But I should quickly add that they were exaggerated, distorted, spliced, recombined. Klara, the strongwoman, amalgamates a number of my female role models and their friends and girlfriends and is still mostly pure invention. My baldest theft is Uncle Bart in “Solidarity Forever,” the “living skeleton” character who’s based on my real-life uncle, a founder of the collective, who really did give up meals so that he could focus on mathematical representations of class conflict. When I was in high school, my uncle published a proof by differential equations—which I managed to muscle through at the time—that the USSR’s collapse was not inevitable. Unlike Bart, my uncle ate a triple dinner to make up for his missed breakfast and lunch. How do you pass a character like that up?
KK This obsessive fixation of Uncle Bart’s—skipping meals to work through equations in the basement until he becomes a “living skeleton”—is a trait that also manifests in several of your other characters: the young protagonist, Jacob, in “Solidarity Forever” obsesses over creating mazes on his tile kitchen floor; the son in “The April Thief,” over solving the mystery of a secret rift in his parents’ relationship; the real estate agent in “The Clown,” over his potential murder schemes; the old man in “The Ringmaster,” over his impossibly elaborate model train set. You also often write from the viewpoint of a younger protagonist. These characters seem to be working almost manically toward something—toward realizing themselves perhaps? What drew you to writing these types of minds?
MM I am kind of obsessed with obsession, it’s true, or with a certain kind of imagination. Maybe this is just me the fiction writer projecting my own stuff, but I think it’s risky to let yourself imagine anything, because if it becomes real for you, if it starts to matter to you, then you find yourself living in a cosmos of your own. Mick, the old model-train hobbyist, spends so many years building his train and its world that it holds an unsustainable amount of meaning for him. After seventy years working on it, he looks up from the set and realizes that there’s no one who can comprehend what it is he’s made. He’s in our world, but he’s also marooned in a cosmos of his own making. I suspect that, one way or another, all of us are.
I’m drawn to childhood points of view because the flights of childhood imagination allow me to dramatize how we all, in subtler fashion, live by our own inventions. Jacob in “Solidarity Forever” imagines an abstractly mathematical world adjoining his; in “Twin,” Maple imagines telepathy with her brain-damaged friend; in “The April Thief,” Parker imagines an elaborate Rube Goldberg scheme to reunite his parents—all of them, in different ways, are isolated by their inventions. There’s hope for them, though. The adults in the collection are much more dangerously trapped by their ideas. Like the younger characters, they’ve let something fundamentally imaginary gain outsize significance. I’m drawn to characters who do that, who perhaps by accident stake their survival on things that live outside of reality as most of us would define it.
KK It does seem that as a fiction writer you especially would be able to identify with this tendency to get lost in a cosmos of your own creation—and also rely on it for survival.
The scenes in your stories feel uncannily realistic, and even mundane in terms of plot—staring at a tile floor, deciding how to get rid of a model train set. They are so resonant and familiar in the way that a certain smell or sound can conjure a vivid memory from childhood. But at the same time, it is often unclear whether something is occurring in the reality of a story or in the protagonist’s imagination. Has the clown ever actually murdered? Can Maple actually hear her friend’s thoughts? These moments are surreal, but not at all out of this world. Can you speak a bit more about this interplay between the real and surreal in your stories?
MM I think we need a little surreality in order for reality to feel real. For example, we really don’t know why sleep is physiologically necessary, but we do know that you’ll hallucinate if you’re denied sleep for too long. Dream is more important than rest because consciousness needs more than what waking life allows. I didn’t intentionally seed my realisms with surreal elements, but sure enough every reality I built eventually suggested some alternate reality without which the world of the story was incomplete, and without which the world of the story wouldn’t make sense. And usually, yes, it sprouted from something truly mundane—the linoleum.
I was writing a long family car ride to Niagara Falls when I realized that the girls in the back of the minivan were communicating telepathically. The bored mind invents to entertain itself, but it’s more than that. I think mundane things are threatening because of the freedom they grant our minds. I think you haven’t really captured the experience of a long family car ride until you’ve looked at what the imagination does across all those miles. To me it’s obvious: our minds behave surreally. If we don’t put that into fiction, then we’re not writing realism.
KK Earlier you mentioned how creating a cosmos of one’s own can be dangerous. Would you mind elaborating a bit further on this idea of the imagination as a dangerous or threatening territory?
MM Part of it is just that what’s threatening is dramatically interesting, so only threatening patterns of thought end up in the fiction. But beyond that, I see imagination as self-encounter, not self-escape, as we sometimes presume it to be. The deeper we follow the imagination, the deeper we enter into ourselves. This can be isolating, a cosmos of your own, as we said before—that’s one risk—but it can also, claustrophobically, force you to face something in yourself that you’d rather turn away from. Maple, imagining a telepathy with Sasha, might seem at first to be conjuring a friendship to help her survive a hard childhood. And maybe she is; maybe it works for a time. But the friend she invents in Sasha knows her, knows her fears, and is just as disgusted by them as Maple herself. Seeking refuge in make believe, she finds herself being harassed and held to account by a sector of her mind that knows exactly what she’s trying to run from and hates her for trying to run. In a dream, when an escape route turns out to lead you back exactly to where you started, the thing you were trying to flee then seems a thousand times more fearsome. Just like that, imagination returns us to ourselves, and who we are is suddenly defamiliarized and more inevitable than it was before.
Consider the person you are, subtracting your inner, imaginative life: you wake, you work, you shop, you love as you were taught to love. The prescribed life, the prescribed self, is safe. That’s by design. That’s what society, ideology, whatever you want to call it, instructs. But is it safe to be a human being? Does it feel safe to have a hungry, gendered, perishable body? Are all the thoughts up there safe thoughts? The freedom imagination grants us to wander beyond our social training and well-practiced routines is the freedom to really know ourselves. But self-knowledge is forbidden knowledge. That doesn’t mean we’re all secretly murder clowns. It means we all take risks when we consider how our experience of selfhood exceeds the wake-work-shop-love guide to life.
KK The moments when your stories delve into this inner portion of the characters’ psyche are in my opinion the strongest. The terrain of the story becomes a little less stable, a little more exploratory, demonstrating how lived experience is much less predictable than it seems. To me, that’s what makes the contrasting moments in your stories so vivid. I’d love to hear more about your stylistic approach.
MM I try to approach fiction as a way of thinking, and very often contrast is what my fictional thinking looks like. When I find two contrasting images in a sentence, it’s evidence to me that the character who saw those two things at once is asking something, something about the different emotions that those images represent. Poets taught me to think that way. Wallace Stevens, Robert Creeley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath—their poetry taught me a great deal about how to write fiction. Because once you recognize that some important question is being asked on the level of imagery, then you wonder, how can I structure this same contrast across scenes? What settings can I build and set against each other so that when characters move from one place to another they’re going more deeply into this question I see them asking on an image level or sentence level? I never found those famous, pointy models of story structure very helpful. The rise and fall, the mysterious climax. So I don’t think that way. I try to replicate on a larger scale the problems I’m dealing with inside the sentence. If you go back and look at Alice Munro—the short story writer I’ve studied closest—you’ll find the same thing. The paradoxical, self-contradicting descriptions she poses against each other inside a sentence (Rose “always thought … that somebody would look at her and love her totally and helplessly. At the same time she had thought that nobody would, nobody would want her at all”) are little keys to the grander thinking her stories are doing. Patrick loves Rose totally and helplessly and also can’t love her at all.
KK This also speaks to the way you handle claustrophobic, domestic relationships in your stories. You swing from sweetness to violence and back again over the course of just a few lines. What is it that you prefer about the short-story format?
MM Here I go talking about imagery as a kind of narrative thinking—and I could talk about how sentence music and rhythm are also kinds of narrative thinking—but that stuff is too subtle for heavy-lifting narrative work in a novel. A novel, even a little novel, needs real bones to hold itself up. But stories, even longer stories, can stitch themselves together with patterns of imagery, shifts in voice. Stories can be reread. Sometimes they need to be—even classic, familiar stories that aren’t out to baffle you, stories like Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” or John Cheever’s “The Country Husband,” often beg for rereading in the way that a great poem incites a desire to read it again, aloud and with feeling.
Novels can be poetic, but they can’t be poems. Maybe stories can be poems and stories both. They can have characters and worlds, events and surprises, but they can also rhyme an image with another image from pages before. I love story, I love plot, and some of my stories have a great deal of plot, but my plots seem to come from my characters plotting: Parker in “The April Thief” plotting how to get his parents back together, or Stony in “The Evasive Magnolio” plotting how to bury an elephant, and so on. When I impose a plot on my characters, the way a novelist must to scaffold a novel, it feels like I’m distorting the experience. It’s a skill I want to learn, but meanwhile it’s been an adventure trying out these experiments in what can hold a story together.
KK So what direction will your writing take next? Are you working on anything new at the moment?
MM I’m currently working on a novel that has some fascinations in common with these stories: families, particularly unusual family relationships, childhood, imagination, loss. Like the stories, it’s interested in the home as a site of coinciding realities, but the novel gets a little more daring about how it moves among them. There are magic spells, and addictive spider bites, and resurrections via math. I’m superstitious about talking about the details too much at this point, but I’d characterize the novel as “domestic fantasy,” a genre I wish we had more of.