Talking to Mark Jacobs (Paraguay) about his short story “Not John”
Mark was a PCV in Paraguay from 1978 to 1980. After the Peace Corps he earned a doctorate in English from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, then joined the Foreign Service in 1984 and served in Latin America, Turkey, and Spain. Today he spends about five months a year going abroad on teams inspecting American embassies.
Over the years he had published a number of books, A Cast of Spaniards, a collection of story with Talisman House; Stone Cowboy a novel from Soho; The Liberation of Little Heaven, another collection of stories and published again by Soho; the novel A Handful of Kings, from Simon and Schuster; and Forty Wolves, a novel published by Talisman House.
He has also published somewhere in the neighborhood of 110 stories in magazines including Playboy, The Atlantic, The Baffler, The Kenyon Review, and The Idaho Review. Stories of his have won the Iowa Review Fiction Prize and the Dr. T.J. Eckleberg Review Kafka Prize. A full list of the publications can be found at markjacobsauthor.com
When I asked about the idea for his short story “Not John,” that we published earlier this month, and how long he had worked on it, Mark emailed me:
“Not John” is one of a series of 12 connected stories that I would like to publish as a collection entitled Swimming to the Island. The stories are connected by characters. A minor character in one story becomes the major character in another story. I set myself the existential challenge of keeping the stories connected, but independent, and it was a kick. I wrote them over a year, more or less, while also working on a novel.
The first story takes place in Washington, D.C. with a couple of young professionals (“Stockpiling Twinkies”). The parent of one of them becomes the protagonist of another story, “Roots and Branches.” Another minor character from “Stockpiling Twinkies” takes the lead role in “Threshold,” and a woman who appears offstage in “Threshold” becomes the heroine of a story called “Garbage Can.” The protagonist in the title story is the live-in lover of the mother of the woman in “Garbage Can.” The stories take place in different states, different seasons, different circumstances. The characters range in age from quite young to pretty old. The idea was to make each story stand on its own, with no reference to the others in the series, while at the same time asking them to work together in the panoramic way a novel can.
I got the idea for Marco Slivovitz, the “Not John” character, when he appeared as a bit player in another story in the series, “The Day the Stink Bug Climbed the Blue Wall.” In “Stink Bug,” Meg Whelan works as a waitress in the restaurant where Marco is head chef. She is drawn to him, but can’t quite figure him out. I shared her interest in the guy, and I had a lot of sympathy for a person like Marco whose identity is fluid, self-invented, and subject to environmental influence. He masters the changes for a long time, but ultimately his string of identities is played out. Who is he, finally? A hard question, supremely hard to answer.”
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