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Characters in PhD Candidate Mark Mayer's Debut Collection Imagine New Worlds

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Laura Miller

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In his famous essay "On Fairy Stories," JRR Tolkien argues that escape is necessary, not from life but "from our present time and self-made misery." Characters in creative writing PhD candidate Mark Mayer's debut short story collection, Aerialists, survive their self- and society-made loneliness by escaping into imagined realities.

"The characters in my stories adjust themselves to reality by imagining what exists beyond or outside of it," Mayer said.

In "Twin," a young girl imagines conversations with her deaf friend until her father's depression becomes serious enough to thrust her back into a wonder-widowed reality. Likewise, in "The Clown," a real-estate agent satiates his desire for connection by dressing as a clown and murdering his clients. The narrator describes the realtor in this way: "He tried to recognize himself, his life and effort, in the résumé, but it was like he'd consigned his life effort to a secret man. What was left ate waffle fries, sold houses, awaited the secret man's return."

While escapism serves as one of the collection's primary thematic drives, the stories also share a collective backdrop—one rooted in the tradition of circus acts and freak shows. When asked how the idea for this collection evolved, Mayer, who's in his fourth year of DU's creative writing PhD program, said, "One of my earliest attempts as a writer was a novel about a dustbowl-era circus. It was very fun to write about a wild circus troupe—to find language wild and fearsome as they were. But ultimately the novel felt kind of pointless to me, without a lot of real emotion. So I began thinking about what the stories meant to me, and I began translating my circus acts and carnies, reincarnating them as contemporary characters for whom these acts of strength or daring had contemporary meaning. Each story in the collection reexamines a different circus act—from the thin man and bearded lady to the dog-and-pony show."

Mayer came to DU after receiving his MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and serving for two years as the writer-in-residence at Cornell College. It was the only PhD program he applied to, he said.

"The creative writing program here offers two things hard to find in combination—the disciplinary training of an English PhD and the freedom of creative writing studio program," Mayer said. "I wanted both a comprehensive course of literary studies and to feel supported pursuing my creative work."

For his dissertation, he's working on a novel about a mother-son relationship with fantasy elements such as magic spells and alternative realities. The mother struggles with an addictive drug that she takes by spider bite. Inspiration and support for his current project come in part from creative writing professor Selah Saterstrom, who offers students writing experiments to help access their creative terrain.

"[Saterstrom] never failed to have some disorienting and provocative and, for me, often transformative creative experiment for us to attempt. She's a wise and awesomely adventurous teacher, deeply committed to her classrooms," Mayer said.

Mayer's debut collection, which will be published by Bloomsbury on February 19, won the Michener Copernicus Prize. Now available in bookstores or at your local libraryAerialists investigates the role imagination plays in our everyday lives. As Mayer puts it, "I think we need to go a little outside of reality in order to get some vantage on it, and these are nine stories about what that can look like in practice."

In the Front Range, Mayer will be reading from his debut collection, selected as an Indie Next book of the month, at Boulder Book Store, Tattered Cover, BookBar, and Old Firehouse Books. To learn more, visit

[Photo credit: Hope Moon]

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