According to Joe Meno, his six previous novels have little in common except that they are all character driven and all “started out small. For me,” he says, “everything starts out as a short story”. Besides his breakout novel, Office Girl (Akashic, 2012), Meno has also published two collections of short fiction: Demons in the Spring (Akashic, 2008) and Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir (Triquarterly, 2005).
His latest novel, Marvel And A Wonder (Akashic, Sept.) was originally a short story about the relationship between a conservative grandfather and his biracial grandson and how that relationship evolves over the course of one momentous day. After writing it, Meno realized that there was more to the relationship than could be contained in a 20-page story and he spent five years expanding it into Marvel And A Wonder.
It makes sense that Meno cites William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as his most significant literary influences in writing this tale, a heaping of gritty realism tinged with magic. In Marvel, Jim Falls, a widowed Korean War vet and struggling farmer in southern Indiana, tries to raise his biracial taciturn 16-year-old grandson, Quentin, while staving off poverty when a magnificent white quarter horse is delivered to him pursuant to the last will and testament of a millionaire whom he’s never met. The horse changes everything for Jim and Quentin, as well as for practically every human with which it comes into contact over the course of the story.
When the animal is stolen, Jim and Quentin embark on a road trip through rural America circa 1995 in an attempt to recover the horse from, initially, the two meth-addicted brothers who stole it, and, subsequently, from a ruthless sociopath who ends up with the horse after it’s passed through several hands.
Marvel And A Wonder was inspired by the evolution in the past two decades of “what it means to be a man in America,” Meno, 41, says, noting that there’s been a “total shift” in what is considered acceptable masculine behavior. Past generations of American fathers “didn’t play with their kids and didn’t change diapers,” while men now are expected to actively participate in child-rearing responsibilities. “That shift in what it means to be a man wasn’t accidental,” Meno says, “It was a real deliberate social shift in one generation. I’m fascinated by that.”
Sitting outside Chicago’s Book Cellar bookstore on a glorious Sunday morning in April, the El train intermittently disrupts our conversation as it rumbles by on the tracks overhead. The streets gradually fill with residents enjoying the day, and Meno, who has lived in Chicago most of his life, recalls how he conceptualized Marvel And A Wonder after his father-in-law died in 2010, followed by the death of his wife’s step-father.
“It occurred to me,” Meno says, “that there’s this certain kind of male in America who existed in the second half of the 20th century: white, from the Midwest, strong personality, served in the military, worked hard to provide for his family. And they’re starting to disappear. Their influence – for better, a lot of times, for worse -- is also disappearing, although their legacy is part of the struggle we as a nation face today.” Marvel And A Wonder, Meno adds, is an attempt on his part to better understand what made men of that generation think and act the way they did.
Whether or not Americans admit it, Meno says, that generation’s “unresolved questions” about race, class, and national identity remain “at the center of our culture” to this day. “Thirty years ago, to be an American meant white, middle-class, English-speaking,” he points out. “It’s changed, and it continues to be redefined.”
Marvel And A Wonder is also a novel that explores the nature of sacrifice, and the tension between satisfying one’s own needs versus the needs of others. It’s a theme that Meno explores on both a personal and social level. “How does that notion of sacrifice define the relationship between the grandfather and his grandson?” Meno asks. “How does that define us as a country? Our nation’s sense of sacrifice remains one of our greatest strengths. I’m trying to capture that in this novel.”
But, Meno hastens to add, “This is not a political book. It’s about these characters and how they relate to each other.”
Meno won’t talk about what the horse is meant to represent, although he refers to it several times during the interview as “a miracle,” and explains that the title was inspired by a line in a Mormon hymn [“Oh How Great”]. Meno wants the story to reflect “certain kinds of Biblical connotations,” including the perception that miracles in the Bible almost always had consequences.
“I have some very specific ideas about that horse,” Meno says, “The characters all have their own specific ideas: the grandfather thinks the horse represents an opportunity for change, or that it’s the spirit of his late wife; the grandson thinks it’s maybe the Holy Spirit; and the guys who end up taking the horse have their own ideas about it, expecting it to make them money. Hopefully, readers come to their own reckoning.”
Writing certainly can be “magical and mysterious,” but for him, Meno says, “it’s essentially a “day-to-day job” that he approaches in much the same way that his father, a stonemason who works in limestone and steel fabrications, approaches his own job. Like his father, Meno slowly constructs his stories from its individual parts, “trying to find the holes” as he proceeds.
Meno is a professor in the Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago but still spends three hours each morning, five days a week, writing. “I always start off with characters,” he says, noting that writing for him “is not a clean, clear, efficient process at all.” There’s a lot of “stumbling in the dark.”
He compares his literary efforts to summers he spent in rural Indiana during his childhood, exploring and getting lost in the countryside. He thinks that an important part of being creative is “the openness of wandering, of feeling your imagination move in a very different way” as one tries to “find the shape of the book that you are working on.”
“I tell my students that with a 200-page novel, you are going to write 100 pages that don’t make the final cut. See it as an opportunity, although it took me a while to enjoy that ‘lost in the woods’ feeling.” Menoe speculates that he must have written more than 50 drafts of Marvel And A Wonder before submitting it to Akashic, the small press that has published four of his novels and a story collection. “Once you understand and accept that editing is part of the process,” he says, “You feel less of a failure.”
A lifelong reader, Meno attributes his love for books to his mother, a homemaker during his childhood, who introduced him to “all these classics” and also to abridged books. “We went to the library a lot,” he says, where he checked out novels, comic books, “anything I could get my hands on.”
It was at a Catholic private boys high school on Chicago’s South Side that Meno started writing. His English teacher, Mr. Neville, he says, inspired a love for language in his students. “My first day of class, we had a 50-question vocabulary test,” Meno recalls, “And instead of just getting us to read short stories and novels, he got us to write our own.” Meno was hooked: after high school, he spent two years in the University of Illinois’ creative writing program, before transferring to Columbia College for his B.A. (1997) and M.F.A. (2000).
Reflecting back on his career as a published author, Meno, whose debut novel, Tender as Hellfire, was published by St. Martin’s in 1999, when he was 24, expresses gratitude that, along with the social shifts he chronicles in Marvel And A Wonder, publishing has undergone its own transformation.
“It’s a more democratic, open field,” he says, “Twenty years ago, if you couldn’t find success with a major publisher, you’d be selling out of your car. [Today] readers can more easily find books and writers are reaching wider audiences. I feel lucky to be part of it.”