Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. I am currently the Associate Chair of the Department of Creative Writing. Before becoming a teacher, I worked a number of low-paying odd jobs—at a plastics factory, at a headshop, as a waiter and prep cook at Shoney’s, as an art instructor at a juvenile detention center, and as a flower delivery person. I prefer being a teacher.
What is your new book about?
Marvel and a Wonder follows the relationship between a grandfather and grandson who live in rural Indiana on a failing chicken farm. One day they receive a mysterious gift—a quarter horse—that upends their lives. Soon the animal is stolen and they must search the bleak underworld of the Midwest to retrieve it and some sense of hope and redemption.
Where does the book take place specifically?
Indiana, Lexington, and Nashville, parts of East Texas.
What are the book’s main concerns, thematically and otherwise?
Though the book is mainly focused on the characters, it explores greed, race, and the ongoing cultural divide in America, the sense that one America is ending while another is beginning. The solution it suggests is that although the world is changing it is not ending, that although the country continues to change, what’s important—our nation’s sense of sacrifice—remains the same. Considering the recent events in Ferguson, MO, New York City, and Ohio, the book depicts the ongoing complexity of cultural and racial identity in America.
How did you write this book?
I wrote the book over a period of five years. The book began as a short story and quickly developed into a novel.
My wife’s father, then her step-father passed away and I realized an entire generation of American men was disappearing, and although deeply flawed, there was a wisdom, a sense of sacrifice that was also fading away. I wanted to explore what it means to be a man in America as the definition of maleness has continued to change. Again, I was also interested in the conflict between greed and sacrifice and how that has shaped the last twenty years of American history.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve had the opportunity to travel all across the country. In that time, I’ve witnessed what appears to be the end of one kind of America and the beginning of another. At the center of our national debate there seems to be a question of whom we are as Americans and what our future might be together.
At the same time, as I mentioned, I’ve lost a number of strong figures in my life—my father-in-law, my step-father-in-law—men who grew up in the Midwest, served their country in foreign wars, worked hard to provide for their families, and carried with them a number of challenging flaws. Like the America of the twentieth century, these sort of men—for better and for worse—also seem to be disappearing, though their legacy concerning identity, race, and the nation is part of the struggle we face today.
I wanted to write a book—a contemporary epic set in the Midwest—that explored that moment of monumental change through the developing relationship of a grandfather and grandson. I spent five years researching and writing the novel. As I wrote I returned to the work of William Faulkner, whose novels—The Unvanquished, The Reivers, Intruder in the Dust—eerily resonate with the recent events of Ferguson, MO, the incidents involving police brutality in New York City, and several police shootings in Ohio. I also revisited the novels of Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as well, to try and depict the epic in the everyday world, the unresolved questions of family and forgiveness, and the dwindling nature of rural life.
In the end, the book grew to be about sacrifice and how the notion of sacrifice—for me, anyway—seems to define this country at its very best. Although the world is changing it is not ending, and although the country continues to change, what’s important—our nation’s sense of sacrifice—remains one of our greatest strengths.
Why a horse?
The horse appears miraculously in the lives of the grandfather and grandson—I needed an act of wonder to set these two characters on their journey. I started going back to the image of the horse in American westerns, then in folk tales and fairytales, then classic myths. The horse suggests movement, motion, the future in a lot of these stories, which served more than one purpose for the book. The horse means different things to each character and hopefully takes on additional meanings as a reader moves through the book.
Who designed the cover?
I worked with Jon Resh, an amazing graphic artist who has designed about half of my paperback covers. While I was writing the book I had a couple concepts and we were able to pull from them for the hardback and paperback design.
Are you ever afraid of negative reviews or audience reaction?
I want the book to do well. I believe in it. But I am also aware the book is dark. It may be a challenge in the current marketplace. However this is the first time I’ve published a book that feels complete, that feels like it represents who I am as a writer. Good or bad, the book feels done to me.
JOE MENO is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. He is the winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award, and a finalist for the Story Prize. His new novel Marvel and A Wonder and the anthology he edited, Chicago Noir: The Classics, were both released on September 1. Meno is the author of two short story collections and multiple novels, including the best sellers Hairstyles of the Damned, The Boy Detective Fails, and Office Girl. He is a professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.