Chatting With Andrew Maust
Andrew talks creating circus kid TTRPGs, combating white male toxicity in SFF spaces, realities of collegiate teaching, and matching the voices of publications.
Andrew Maust is a writer from Ecuador who is now living in Mesa, Arizona. His other work can be found in The Mockingheart Review, Eidolotry Digital, and Bright Flash Literary Review. In 2020 he won a second-place prize in the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest for his poem "The Challenge."
Andrew is the author of the flash fiction story “Conversation With a Bomb Technician” from Radon Issue 4.
What brought you from Ecuador to Arizona?
My parents are missionaries, so I lived most of my childhood in Ecuador, but I also spent time in Honduras and Costa Rica. When I turned 18, I wasn’t an Ecuadorian citizen, so I left Ecuador to go to college. I majored in English at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. When my partner was accepted into graduate school for theatre at Penn State, we moved to State College, Pennsylvania, and I taught English. When she graduated, she was offered a job in Phoenix, and I found grant writing work with a nonprofit in the area.
I think in some ways, moving around a lot as a child made it easier to move across the country. It definitely made me less anxious about moving to a new city.
You won a Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest prize—do you often write humorous poetry?
I would say that most of the poetry that I write is humorous, in one way or another.
A pivotal time for me as a poet came when I went to a Sigma Tau Delta (the English Honor’s Society) conference, and they had a “Bad Poetry Contest.” Writing intentionally bad poetry became a low-stakes way for me to engage with an artform that I previously found intimidating. Even now, it’s hard for me to keep humor out of even my more serious poems.
In my mind, all of the best poetry has a twist or a turn. That’s one reason why sonnets are so enduring, they have that final couplet that shifts the meaning. I think it’s easy for that to turn into a punchline, or to make a funny poem take a serious turn. Poems are also ripe for wordplay and puns, a favorite form of humor for me.
Do you find that humor poetry is more difficult to find a home for than other types?
There definitely aren’t a lot of markets that specialize in humorous poetry, so I’m glad that the folks at Wergle Flomp thought my piece “The Challenge” was worth a prize.
I think many presses and journals have an image they’re cultivating, and humorous poetry undermines that a little bit. Many people come to poetry from journaling, or a place of introspection, and it’s a deeply personal experience for them. Humorous poetry is especially hard to match to the voice of a journal that isn’t primarily a humor publication.
That said, I think humor poetry is fairly rare and can also help a piece stand out from others. And it’s probably helpful in some situations to have the humor sprinkled in the poem, as opposed to landing a joke on every line.
A lot of great poets have funny poems (I think of Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song” or XJ Kennedy’s “For Allen Ginsburg,” or anything by Robert Service), and there’s a long line tradition of parodies, dirty limericks, and other poetic forms that have found audiences. I also have pieces that entwine religion and humor and that’s probably even harder to find a home for—a lot of religious markets don’t want to alienate their audiences, and for a lot of other markets, religious content can be a tough sell.
What led you to create a TTRPG about circus kids?
I’ve played tabletop role-playing games for over a decade now, usually as a game master. I started with Pathfinder, and then branched out into some other systems, and the game design aspect was always something that interested me. Far from the Fairgrounds was my first attempt at making my own game.
My biggest inspiration for this game was Grant Howitt, who specializes in one-page tabletop role-playing games, like Crash Pandas (where players are a group of raccoons trying to race a car), and Honey Heist (where players are a group of bears trying to complete a heist). Setting-wise, the cartoon Over the Garden Wall is what helped me establish the tone. I’ve always loved dark fairy tales, and so it was easy for me to create the options. I wasn’t quite able to keep the instructions to a single page, but it’s still a very rules-lite game, where players have three stats: Rowdy, Mischief, and Education. The art was made by my partner, Bekah Unsworth, and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.
The circus aspect came as an attempt to make characters a little more interesting and diverse, so that they didn’t all feel identical. So, I decided that the players would play as children who all wandered away from a circus where their parents worked. So, for example if the parents were jugglers, the character could carry more items. Or if the character’s parent was an acrobat, the character would be better at climbing and jumping. My favorite was that the stilt walker had the ability to reach tall things or pretend to be a grown-up. I intentionally wanted this to be a game where players could act like children, while exploring familiar fantasy tropes.
You’ve mentioned before that speculative and crime fiction sometimes have ugly pockets of white and male toxicity. What methods have you found for communities to resist this?
I think there are a few things that can be done. Ultimately, publishers have a lot of power over what they accept or reject, and I’ve seen many journals have established clear lines in their submission guidelines that try to cut out some of that toxicity. But even with those guidelines, editors, readers, and writers are overwhelmingly white and male. There are biases and blind spots that permeate those groups. On top of that, a lot of speculative and crime fiction have roots in pulp traditions that are steeped in some problematic tropes, so it can be easy for writers to claim that they’re just leaning into the genre.
I think that censorship is dangerous, but there are voices that don’t need to be elevated, especially when there’s so much great writing out there. It can be a tough call, especially since a lot of speculative pieces include thought experiments or commentary on race or gender. I think the biggest strategy is to listen to historically marginalized voices when people say that something feels off about a piece. For those in publishing, try to find ways to incorporate those voices into the reading and evaluation process.
And of course, be transparent. When publishers start getting stories or engagement that reveals that level of toxicity, it can be useful to post on social media to remind authors that these are not elements the press is looking for. I think if people know that there is low tolerance for that toxicity, it can help.
You’ve often dreamed of moving from teaching freshmen composition to literature courses. Do you find yourself in 2023 any closer to this goal?
I don’t really feel any closer and likely won’t until higher ed undergoes some massive changes. When my partner graduated with her MFA from Penn State, she and I applied all over the country. I applied primarily to teaching positions and writing center positions at universities and community colleges across the nation. Despite having seven years of teaching experience and having taught classes that are harder to find teachers for (like business writing and technical writing), I didn’t come close to a single job offer, even for teaching freshman composition. When my partner got her job offer and we shipped off to Phoenix, I found work at a nonprofit and ended up with a significantly higher salary than I had teaching. It’s rare that someone can shift careers into the nonprofit world and end up earning more. But higher ed doesn’t prioritize its teaching faculty.
I think that English departments are saturated with people who love literature and love teaching. As a lot of institutions continue to send out PhD graduates while tenure track jobs are dwindling, I think there aren’t many opportunities to teach literature. Even at the community college I worked at, those literature classes are seen as a commodity.
I have thought about going back to teaching, especially at the community college level where instructors are usually a little more valued. I’ve thought about what a grant writing curriculum would look like and it’s something that I think I would love. I don’t think that is a path that’s open right now. But in the future? Well, who can say?
Did you share your publication news—both success and failure—with your students?
I usually didn’t, unless I had a class that expressed interest in my writing on the subjects that I’d written about. I usually tried to center the class on the students rather than on myself. One exception was when in order to get students to respond to their teacher evaluations, I’d promise a performance of one of my humor poems. I don’t know if it actually made a difference, but I had good participation.
Even with my classes that were more interested in my work, I usually wouldn’t share failures or rejections. I think part of that is the sheer volume of rejections I’d receive. But if I had a student who was interested in publishing work, I’d be transparent and encourage them. A phrase that someone said to me once was “a piece can be rejected a hundred times, but as long as it gets accepted, it’s a success,” and I think that’s such an important mentality to drill in early on.
Did you find each year there was a larger generation gap between you and your students?
I started teaching very young, I think my first class was when I was twenty-three, so I didn’t feel much older than my students. As I continued teaching, I felt that difference more, especially as I’d make jokes that were less relevant every semester. But from the beginning, I think there was a little bit of a culture gap, since I spent so much time outside of the U.S., there were references that I just never got.
How many times have you restarted writing your novel?
I don’t think I’ve fully restarted writing it, but I frequently go back and re-write sections. There are a few parts that I already know will need to be revised. I suppose at some point it becomes a Ship of Theseus situation, right? If I’ve replaced every word with a new one, is it an entirely new novel?
I try to finish a complete draft before I significantly re-write any portions. Because of that, it’s rare that I fully restart a novel project or even a short story. On the few occasions that I have, it was because I was radically changing the story to the point where it would be unrecognizable from another.
Do you feel that your day job looking over grant proposals feeds well into your poetic focus and attention to detail?
Oh, definitely. I think that all writing is connected, so just as my grant writing strengthens my poetry, my creative and analytical writing informs the narrative portions of my grants.
For example, I have a great team that helps peer review proposals before they go out, and I’ve seen a lot of parallels with my creative writing group that provides me with feedback before I submit a poem or short story. I think that structural priorities such as parallelism and specific language are crucial in both grants and poetry.
Another similarity that I’ve considered is the importance of knowing the audience. In grant writing, I always look at who the funder is, what their priorities are, and how I can emphasize the elements of one of our programs that more closely align with those priorities. And in publishing, I think I use a similar logic. I look at who the publisher is, do my best to identify what they value in a piece, and leverage that into what I submit. Message-matching is important in both arenas.