A penchant for storytelling inspired by listening to his German grandmother’s versions of fairy tales may have set Chadron State College Assistant Professor Markus Egeler Jones on a path that recently landed him a nomination for a prestigious national writing prize.
“Creature of the Dark,” a 700-word story by Jones has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by “Ink and Letters,” a literary journal that published the piece in its Spring 2017 issue.
The Pushcart Prize was established in 1976 by a group of celebrated writers and is considered one of the most influential in American letters. The prizewinning short stories, poetry and essays are selected from nominations by small magazine and book publishers and are published annually in an anthology called “Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Presses.”
Jones, who grew up in North Carolina and Germany, said listening to his grandmother’s tales in German sparked his love of stories and “lit a fire in me as a young, young child.”
Writing took a back seat to 20 years working as a stone mason. However, Jones eventually abandoned the career after seeing the physical toll it exacted on the master masons he apprenticed with. He graduated from the Master of Fine Arts program at Eastern Kentucky University and taught fiction writing at Lincoln University in Missouri before coming to CSC last fall.
Initially hesitant about sending his creative writing out for publication, Jones said about three years ago the urging of his department chairman convinced him to seek a wider public audience. He has since had works appear in a variety of online and print magazines, including “Temenos Journal,” “Crab Fat Magazine,” “Windward Review,” and “New Mexico Review” and in 2017 was a semifinalist for the Tillie Olson Short Story Award.
The story that earned Jones a Pushcart nomination is a flash fiction piece that touches on the origins of violent religious intolerance in a rural community was written in 2010. He submitted it to “Ink and Letters,” a faith-based publication, in response to a call for pieces on the theme “In Black and White,” and was surprised by its acceptance.
“It’s not necessarily a positive religious element,” said Jones of the story.
Flash fiction is defined as writings of extreme brevity that still offer character and plot development, includes works of up to about 1,000 words, and has a history stretching back to the origins of writing, including Aesop’s Fables and collections of tales from ancient India. Sometimes called short short stories, flash fiction was popularized in the 1920s and 30s in the U.S. by “Cosmopolitan” and other magazines and anthologies.
Such brevity isn’t always satisfying as a writer, according to Jones, who also writes poetry and short stories, and has a novel set for publication this year.
“I like to indulge myself in the human condition and a thousand words doesn’t always let that happen,” he said.
Although some teachers have students write flash fiction early in their courses, Jones said his masonry training taught him the importance of first mastering the foundations of a craft, so he waits to the end of the class before encouraging students to experiment with abbreviated fictional pieces.
“I think you have to understand what you are doing before you start playing with a form like that,” he said.
Jones said he has known of the Pushcart prize for years, and wondered if he would ever earn a nomination, but the high number of other pieces under consideration means he is far from assured of being included in the anthology.
“It’s going to be tough competition,” he said.
Meanwhile Jones is focused on helping his CSC students learn the basics of the writer’s craft, the coming publication of his magical realistic novel “How the Butcher Bird Finds Her Voice” and his own writing, which he pursues almost every day.
“I write because I love the surprise,” said Jones. “It’s fun to create and tap into your subconscious and come up with things you surprise yourself with, and the only way to do that is to write.”