Black Lawrence Press
November 11, 2015

NaNoWriMo Feature: John Mauk

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, 2015! We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale on some of our favorite novels, a consultation program for those of you with in-progress manuscripts, and this–a daily feature profiling a Black Lawrence Press author who has done the unthinkable: completed a novel.

Today’s featured writer is John Mauk, author of the novel in stories Field Notes for the Earthbound.

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Excerpt

MaukFrom “The Blessed”

My mom was a witch. I don’t mean a New Age earth goddess or Wiccan. She wasn’t a peacenik or spiritualist. And she wasn’t retaliating against other religions. Back then, on the open flatlands of Ohio before the turnpike brought the rest of the world zooming through, being a witch was private business. It wasn’t something to talk about or parade around. And it wasn’t a choice any more than your last name. My mom was a real witch. She did things to people. She made things happen. And I can be honest now that she’s gone. She’s the reason David Manville looks like he’ll eat your head if you give him half the chance, and probably the reason he molested that Jonas kid years ago, and why he went off to prison and did unspeakable things behind bars.

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Craft Notes

When I wrote this passage, I was reading and re-reading Annie Proulx. While Proulx doesn’t often write in first-person, she does something crucial that always hits me like a ton of bricks: Sentence by sentence, passage after passage, things keep getting worse. The mud gets deeper, the wind gets colder, the predators get closer, the riding companion gets weirder and meaner. Of course, such narration isn’t for everyone, just for those who like trouble. Proulxian narration—usually in her knuckle-crunching third-person—reminds me to keep trouble coming. If the trouble is done, so is the story.

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Q&A

1) What is the hardest part of writing a novel? What are your techniques for dealing with this aspect of the process?

It’s always the narrator. I’m bedeviled and enchanted by narrators. With a slight adjustment to the voice, the fictional world changes. That’s huge. Often, I simply cannot decide until I’ve written many pages or chapters. It’s way more complicated than first, second, third, up-close third, or roaming third-person. There are also questions regarding sympathy and disclosure. How much should the narrator reveal? How much should the narrator urge sympathy from readers and for characters? What I’ll say next sounds easy and perhaps dunderheaded, but here’s my current response to these two particular questions: everything and as much as possible. In other words, I tend to settle on narrators who can best say everything, wonder aloud, and most openly sympathize with the characters. Such decisions do create limits, no doubt about it. But writing is dogmatic. It’s all about committing to a method and clinging to it no matter how many reasonable or aesthetically responsible choices are out there waiting.

An addendum: I’m currently working on a more traditional novel—one that follows the main characters from chapter to chapter. The process is significantly different from the novel-in-stories approach. The easy part is this: momentum. As a narrative grows, it provides energy. The story begets itself. That’s what every writer wants and needs—for the narrative to become generative, for the fictional world to lead the way. The hard part is fixing. When the story takes an unproductive or banal turn, there’s often plenty of work involved in the correction. I might have to re-chart several chapters and rethink various motivations. That takes patience and time.

 2) What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

Take manuscript critiques only from people who like your work. This is tricky because writers should always welcome tough criticism, but the point here is to welcome tough criticism that emerges from a general appreciation of my style or my aesthetic aspirations. In short, when I first started writing, I worried what various audiences might think about a particular character or narrative move. Now I try to focus my worries. The critical voices in my head have diminished in number but have become more focused in their ongoing commentary.

3) How long did it take you to complete your novel? Please talk a little bit about your journey from first word to final draft.

Field Notes for the Earthbound emerged from a small group of stories, which emerged from a traditional novel manuscript. In short, the project made all the generic rounds. At first, it was practice novel, the thing writers need to experience so they understand the machinery of protracted storytelling. When I realized that it didn’t work, I put it away for a couple years and wrote stories. Inevitably, some of those characters came back to life and roamed around in my stories. And then more of them rose up and joined the mob. When I submitted the manuscript to Black Lawrence, Diane immediately saw the narrative currents—the subtle causalities, the pattern of casualties, the recurring family woe, and so on. She suggested we think in terms of novel-in-stories, and I agreed. The final rounds of editing helped to foreground the latent and lurking connections.

4)   What is your favorite writing time beverage?

It’s always coffee. I’m strict about that. Sometimes, it’s bourbon or wine. But usually, it’s coffee. Okay. Quite often, it’s bourbon or wine. Well, most often, it’s bourbon or wine but never both. Never. I’m very strict about that.

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Suggested Reading

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriele Garcia Marquez (for narrative adventure)
  • The Shipping News and Close Range, Annie Proulx (for character and trouble)
  • No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy (for dialog and subtext)
  • All Things All at Once, Lee K. Abbott (for scene)

Granted, some of these are collections rather than novels, but they’re all perfectly rendered. Here are a few more I’ve recently discovered or rediscovered. Each offers a degree’s worth of learning, especially in scene development: American Salvage (Bonnie Jo Campbell), Light of the World (James Lee Burke), All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr), The World of a Few Minutes Ago (Jack Driscoll), Man Alive! (Mary Kay Zuravleff).

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Mauk Photo1John 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 the 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.

Author Photo: John Robert Williams Photography