John Mauk has a PhD in English from Bowling Green State University. Trained in rhetoric and composition, he migrated to fiction in the years after his degree. In 2010 his short collection, The Rest of Us, won Michigan Writer’s Cooperative Press chapbook contest. He was named winner of New Millennium Writings 2014 winter fiction contest and given honorable mention in Salamander Magazine’s 2015 fiction contest. His first full collection, Field Notes for the Earthbound has garnered two Pushcart nominations. It is available on Black Lawrence Press. Mauk has also contributed essays to a range of online magazines, including Writer’s Digest, Beatrice.com, Three Guys One Book, The Portland Book Review, and Rumpus. Currently, he teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin from you new book, “Field Notes for the Earthbound”. Could you give us a brief synopsis of the book?
John Mauk: Field Notes focuses on the far northwestern corner of Ohio—an area that went from dense forest to farmland in a matter of decades. The stories share secrets of the people in and around the small Ohio towns that were, in the mid 20th century, struggling to manage the big cultural changes rolling at them. In a broader sense, the stories dramatize the tension between wonder and knowing—mystery and certainty. Here’s the formal synopsis: Cursed by tenderhearted witches, saved by Nazarene healers, and haunted by brazen lunatics, the characters in Field Notes for the Earthbound yearn to escape the relentless horizon of Northwestern Ohio. These connected stories chronicle an area dying to itself, shedding its magic, and awakening to the highways, bottled beer, and rock-n-roll washing over the Midwestern flatland.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired the book, “Field Notes for the Earthbound”?
John Mauk: I grew up on the Ohio flatland—just south of Michigan and east of Indiana. It’s a particular pocket of the American Midwest, sixty miles or so from any mid-sized city. I heard stories about my parents’ generation—those who came along during or just after WWII, who grew up in the 50s and 60s and watched their part of the world wake up to the rest of it. Along came rock and roll, the turnpike, religious diversity, ethnic diversity, and beer sold in grocery stores. It was a time of rupture, and I hoped to characterize that in some small way.
Geosi Gyasi: You study, write and teach. How do you manage to find time to do all these?
John Mauk: I use the natural patterns of my life—or life in general: day, night, summer, winter, etc. I create a routine by partitioning the days, weeks, and months. During the academic year, mornings are for writing, afternoons for teaching, evenings for reading and study. In the summer, I generally write through the day and read at night. If I don’t stick to a routine, my work (and my thinking) gets incoherent. In short, I find routine to be generative. And most writers I know work in the same way. For that matter, most creatures I’ve known or observed are deeply committed to routine: the local skunk shows up in our back yard every night about 10:00. It walks the same path and perfumes the air along the way.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any special reason why you decided to become a writer?
John Mauk: I’ve always written—poems, songs, essays, treatises, stories—but it didn’t occur to me that I should or could consider myself a writer. In the fumes of my dissertation, back in 2000, I wondered what I’d do next. Developing that protracted theoretical project helped me to understand my affinities: I like working on projects that are too big to see in one sitting—too big to handle all at once. I like to imagine my effort spread over months and months—years even.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult writing textbooks as compared to writing fiction?
John Mauk: Textbooks and fiction are, indeed, different enterprises. Granted, they’re both writing projects. They both require immense planning, commitment, study, revision, an understanding of the genre, and an appreciation, even a reverence for, the audience. (Side note: I think writers must, first and foremost, revere those who might read.) In those broad ways, textbook and literary writing are the same. But textbooks are highly negotiated. They are designed so that the audience can consume and apply the ideas. Fiction does something different. While stories certainly adhere to shared principles—and get workshopped and revised according to those principles—they are explorations, aesthetic adventures.
I might characterize the difference like this: Textbooks are public transportation. They get people from place to place. They are safe and clean, not threatening, mysterious, or aesthetically challenging. They invite all comers, anyone who needs to move through a civilization without much fuss. Contrarily, fiction is a naked run through the woods, a midnight hayride, or a plunge over the waterfalls in a barrel. All of these are forms of transportation, but the latter forms are thrilling. They are meant to show us what we are, what the world is, or what it might be.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your ideal readers?
John Mauk: Good question. This sounds egocentric, but I hope my readers share some of my own reflexes: I want to get pulled away from myself. I don’t want to read characters that are necessarily like me—that have my sociological, historical, even philosophical makeup. Of course, if they do, that’s fine. But I want to wonder at characters, narrators, and situations. If something doesn’t quite make sense, I’m all the more engaged, all the more interested. Of course, I want to sympathize with characters—to lean toward them and hope for them. But I don’t need for them to be me, to look like, walk like, or eat like me. I’m more interested in how the story gets told, how the yearning gets developed and how I (as reader) am prompted to yearn along with the characters. I hope that other readers share those reflexes.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the difference between teaching and writing?
John Mauk: Another good question. I’ll start with a similarity: good teaching and writing are both about discovery. Teachers are the most energized and effective when they are co-discovering, when they are educating (from the Latin, e-ducere, to lead out) themselves and students. Writers are at their best when they’re discovering something about their characters’ lives or the world they inhabit.
And now for the differences: teaching is public and political. Every decision, in teaching, has consequences. Every assignment, response, or grade effects people’s lives—what they think about themselves, what they’re able to do in the moment and after the fact. While literary writing certainly can be political—and have powerful sociological/political consequences, those are not necessarily tangled up in the work. History will do what it does with literary work. And I try not to imagine the long-term or cultural atmospherics related to my literary work. When I’m writing, it’s all about the immediate story and those particular people who might read it.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there also any similarities between rhetoric and writing?
John Mauk: Rhetoric is the study of persuasion—how language (in all of its forms) convinces us to act, think, fear, hope, and even imagine. In this sense, literary work is rhetorical. Fiction does, if it’s successful, convince readers of a reality. The narrator (first, second, or any type of third person) works at building a reality and keeps convincing us to stay in that reality. That’s crucial: the narrator must convince us, at every moment, to stay in the textual reality. If the narrator slips and we go reeling away from that textual world and back into our own (the one with air, food, flesh, blood, and so on), the story has lost. Its rhetoric has failed. (I write a bit more about this in a blog for Writer’s Digest: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/3-things-your-novels-narrator-needs-to-accomplish ).
Geosi Gyasi: You teach writing at Miami University of Ohio. Is it difficult to teach students how to write?
John Mauk: Currently, I teach professional writing and rhetorical theory courses. The curricula involve the step from basic composition to hard-hitting rhetorical analysis and beginning theory. My students tend to be English majors, humanities majors, or simply proficient academic writers who want to push themselves a bit further. My work involves getting them beyond performative writing (when the student demonstrates a working knowledge of terms) and into transformative writing (when the student uses terms to discover something about her or his world). In short, I’m always trying to get students from performative to transformative. And, yes, that’s difficult. I’m always winded at the end of a semester and exhausted at the end of a year. But I’ve been energized at the number of savvy and eager students. When people tell you that writing is going the way of the dodo, don’t listen. Waves of new students are going to graduate, and they will be savvy writers. They will have all the sophisticated cognitive machinery and reflexes that great writers acquire: agility, artistry, eloquence, endurance, focus, inventiveness, strategic transgression, wonder, and all kinds of meta-awareness that go into planning any writing project. Despite the grumbling predictions of mega-corporate publishers who see the end of literary writing, I see many traditional and new genres thriving into the future.
Geosi Gyasi: What is your greatest challenge as a writer?
John Mauk: Like many writers, my challenge is to remind myself that I can create something worthy of my energy and others’ attention. Writing is wildly time-consuming. It takes up most of my days, nights, weeks, and months. I could spend part of that time—even a fraction—helping people more directly, being more social, more present for others. I could also be more cognizant of my yard—which is often a wreck. So the guilt wells up while I’m developing another chapter or story and then revising it dozens and dozens of times. To keep going, I have to throw off the guilt and persuade myself that I should write, that I have some dharma fused to this work. That is a challenge.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you want readers to gain from your books?
John Mauk: Almost everyone I know lives with a persistent dull ache that comes from the clash between wonder and progress. I’m not talking about cultural progress that pushes against racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. I’m talking about progress determined to wrap everyday life in convenience, speed, cleanliness, and bland happiness. I hope my readers might, for a while, believe that wonder has a fighting chance against such progress—that the full story of their era has not yet been told, even that our lives shimmer with something other than consumption and productivity.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you belong to any group of writers?
John Mauk: Yes, I joined Michigan Writers back in 2008. This organization helped me to know myself as a writer. It also put me on the track to go public: to submit literary work, to discuss fiction with others, to take that dangerous step and talk publicly about my projects. Through Michigan Writers, I’ve met and worked alongside fantastic writers and poets—those whom I consider mentors and exemplars. In fact, it’s stunning to me how many stellar writers live and work in this part of the world, e.g. Fleda Brown, Benjamin Busch, Jerry Dennis, George Dila, Laura Kasischke, Patricia Ann McNair, Andy Mozina, Anne-Marie Oomen, Jack Ridl, Katey Schultz, Teresa Scollon, Holly Wren Spaulding, Doug Stanton, Phillip Sterling, Keith Taylor, who all have important and award-winning books in the world.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?
John Mauk: Most people who hang around me for very long know that Gabriel Garcia Marquez brought me headlong into the art of fiction. I write about that here: <http://threeguysonebook.com/when-we-fell-in-love-john-mauk/>. Since 2000, I’ve read all the Marquez available to me, most of it many times. In my humble opinion, Marquez ripped a hole in the sky. He showed us a new set of boundaries, not just in magical realism but also in narration: how the teller can tell the tale.
As many fiction writers do, I went through a Cormac McCarthy phase, or possession, which is still happening. In recent years, I keep returning to Annie Proulx and Lee K. Abbott—contemporary American powerhouses. I have their works in my car, at my office, on the bed stand, nearly everywhere I go. They write perfect stories, crafted to the bone. Also, I revere those who’ve managed to set their works out here in Michigan, who’ve captured and dramatized what it means to live and die here: Bonnie Jo Campbell, Jack Driscoll, Jim Harrison. They are stunning.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer or in a notebook?
John Mauk: Computer. I get way more accomplished on a computer because I can write a scene and move it around without worrying too much about order, placement, and the editorial niceties that come way later in the process. Plus, I like the punchy rhythm of my fingers on the keyboard.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?
John Mauk: For me, it’s morning—before my worldly duties demand attention and while the caffeine is freshly coursing through. Sometimes, I edit at night. I trim and tweak with a glass of wine.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have anything to say to end the interview?
John Mauk: With so much attention given to more dramatic forms of entertainment, it’s easy to imagine that literary work is in decline. But I’ve been surprised at the support from local, regional, national, and now international outlets—magazines, writers, peers, editors, readers, and reviewers. Literary work is alive and well. It is thriving among those who yearn to read, write, and share. Your work is so important. Thanks for reaching out, Geosi.