Courtney Elizabeth Mauk studied creative writing at Oberlin College and received an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in The Literary Review, PANK, Wigleaf, and Necessary Fiction, among others. Courtney is an assistant editor at Barrelhouse Magazine and teaches at The Juilliard School and The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel, Spark, is forthcoming from Engine Books in September 2012. She currently is at work on a second novel.
In your essay on the inspiration for Spark at the Engine Books website you describe a story you wrote as a child about playing with matches, but it wasn’t until much later, when considering the sibling relationship in the story, that you came back to the idea of fire. In your Research Notes essay at Necessary Fiction you say that you eventually settled on pyromania for your character Delphie because it was “conflicted, not cold; motivated, but not to kill.” Why were these qualities essential for your story? Was that the moment you finally saw how it would all fit together? What was the writing process like for you once you saw how the story might take shape?
Great question. What most interests me about sibling relationships is that push-and-pull between love and resentment. Andrea loves her brother, very much, even though his actions have made her life hard. I wanted the reader to understand why she still loves him, why she’ll open her door to him and be there when no one else is. I also wanted reform to be a real possibility for Delphie. I worried that if he committed premeditated murder, it would be more difficult for both the reader and Andrea to have sympathy for him. More centrally, I just had a gut feeling that Delphie wouldn’t intentionally do physical harm to another person. In the creation process, characters drive me more than plot; the plot develops from my understanding of the characters. I already had a sense of who Delphie was, and I saw him as tragically flawed but not intrinsically a bad or hurtful person. I wanted his flaw to be destructive but also something Andrea could admire. Andrea has lived so safely, always putting others before herself, and I wanted Delphie to do the opposite. Pyromania came to me as the answer pretty quickly from there. All of this was very early on in the writing, when I was still in the making notes in my notebook stage. Once I had decided Delphie would be a pyromaniac, the fire imagery and themes fell into place and the writing just took off.
Between Delphie’s history, Andrea’s hypervigilance, and the emergence of a rash of unsolved warehouse fires, Spark maintains a thrilling tension and sense of ever-present danger. The narrator, and thus also the reader, are constantly questioning whether we are paranoid, whether our fear is justifiable, or whether perhaps both are equally valid, and we spend much of the novel holding our breath to see what will happen. When you began writing, how clear were you about whether or not either Delphie or Andrea could remain “safe” in the end, or did you work it out along with your characters as you wrote?
I had no idea whether they would be safe or not. I never know the ending of what I’m writing until I’m well into it; I’m very much there with the characters, figuring it out as they do. The writing of Spark was pretty intense, pretty emotional. I spent so much time inside Andrea’s head that her anguish felt like mine and sometimes the paranoia would carry over into other parts of my life. That’s the best for me — when you become completely immersed in the characters. After the first draft was finished, I was able to step back and examine things from a more authorial point of view. I changed quite a bit in revision, including the ending, which was redone several times, but that original sense of peril remained important to me.
Sally and Rain are enchanting supporting characters, and though very different, they are both women who Andrea turns to for love and guidance in the face of her own mother’s emotional abandonment. You have explored similarly distanced mother-child relationships from various points of view in your other short fiction, such as The Room (at Wigleaf); and also to some extent as well in Shadowland (at PANK) and Come When You Call Me (at Joyland). What intrigues you most about this relationship, what draws you to consider it in your work?
I haven’t really thought about this. It’s funny because my mother and I are extremely close. She lives in Ohio, but we email several times a day and talk on the phone at least once a week. I’d be lost without her. I do have first-hand experience with parental estrangement with my father, who hasn’t been part of my life since I was a teenager. I struggled hard with feelings of abandonment when I was younger, but I’ve made peace with all of that now, at least in real life. In my writing, those themes do seem to come up again and again. I’ll never understand my father, but I do understand my mother and, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought more about what it would be like to be a mother myself. I think I’m conflating what I know intimately, that essential relationship I have with my mother and which I hope to have with my children someday, with what remains a mystery to me, the distance I’ve experienced with my father. One the most difficult things I can imagine is going through with my mother what I went through with my father, so maybe that’s why I’ve given that relationship to so many of my characters, to push at those emotions.
You also teach fiction writing at the Sackett Street Writers Workshop. What have you learned about writing by teaching others? What do you most hope your students learn from you?
I learn so much through teaching. It forces me to slow down and examine writing from a craft standpoint, to really break it down into what specific elements are working and why and which are not and why not and then to articulate all of that in a way that others will find instructive. I love seeing the writers in my workshop make discoveries. I love discussing their work and watching them grow and gain confidence, both as readers and writers. I’m always wired after a Sackett Street class and spend an hour just bouncing around my apartment. And the next day is always a good writing day. Teaching takes me back to the basics, reminding me that writing consists of building blocks that I do have control over and that what I’m doing is valuable, part of a rich history of storytelling and wordsmithing. I hope my students come away feeling that way, too, inspired and empowered, with a clearer sense of their objectives.
Spark captures & conveys your great love of Brooklyn, your adopted home. It’s a big borough, of course, but if you could recommend your top five absolute favorite places to see/ food to eat/ things to do, etc., what would they be?
There are many excellent independent bookstores in Brooklyn. I’m going to cheat and group them together as one of my five. I’ll call it the Bookstore Tour. I highly recommend BookCourt, WORD, Greenlight Bookstore, Unnameable Books, and Park Slope’s Community Bookstore.
I adore a vegan restaurant on 5th Avenue in Park Slope called The V Spot. Just off Franklin Avenue, on St. John’s Place, there’s Franklin Park, a bar with a cool décor that hosts the Franklin Park Reading series once a month and has DJ and trivia nights. Another great place to get a drink is reBar in DUMBO. It’s in an old tea factory and has this sexy, gothic vibe. My number five would be Brooklyn Bridge. I walk across it every year on my anniversary of moving to the city.
With such strong debut novels as Spark , Myfanwy Collins’ Echolocation, and others, Engine Books strikes me as a very exciting new presence in the independent/small press scene. Did you specifically seek out a small publisher for Spark? How did you know Engine Books would be a great fit for you, and can you tell us a little bit about how your experience at Engine Books might differ from that at larger presses/publishers?
I always felt that Spark would fit better with a small press. I liked what I saw coming out of that community, but at the time I had an agent who was pretty small press averse. He made recommendations to make Spark more “commercial” that really didn’t fit with my vision. Eventually we parted ways, and around that same time I saw some blog posts Victoria Barrett had written about the publishing industry. I was intrigued, so I went to the Engine Books website and was impressed by its design and that they’d published Patricia Henley’s collection Other Heartbreaks. But what really pulled me in was mention of Engine Books’ “writer-centered, story-centered” approach. That was exactly what I wanted in a publisher. I sent off my query letter and was ecstatic when Victoria asked to see the manuscript and then took on the book.
Working with Victoria has been fantastic. Because Engine Books’ list is small, she can give every single title her full attention. We’ve worked as partners every step of the way, from edits to cover design to proofing to promotion. I’ve never felt in the dark or out of control, and I’ve always known that she feels as passionately about the book as I do. It’s
been an ideal relationship, and the book is the best version of itself because of that.
As an assistant editor at Barrelhouse, you must read plenty of great new fiction – who are some new or emerging writers and authors you’re especially excited about? Who should we read next?
There’s a story in the next issue of Barrelhouse that I’m really excited about. It’s called “The Hornbill,” and it’s by Mary Catherine Curley. After I read it, I couldn’t stop talking about it. The story is compact and funny and surprising, with a strong emotional core. She’s definitely one to watch.
Finally, can you give us any hints about your second novel?
My next novel centers on the relationship between two women who grew up together on a vegan commune in Ohio. After exploring sibling relationships in Spark, I wanted to look at friendships, in particular those tight, innocently destructive bonds that can form between girls. Those types of friendships can be their own addiction. The book is narrated by the weaker of the two, who struggles into adulthood with the ramifications of a series of events that split them apart as teenagers and who still feels the magnetic pull of her friend.