Iowa grad’s second novel, ‘Pigeon,’ pulls readers into a Parisian mystery, with a twist

‘Pigeon’ by Pres Maxson is on the bookshelf in Prairie Lights. — photo by Zak Neumann

Pres Maxson, a 2002 University of Iowa graduate, published his second novel, Pigeon, in October. The book, a rollicking romp through the made-up world of a Parisian uber-elite sports club, follows a young busboy mistaken for the world’s greatest detective as he tries to solve a decades-old mystery.

The plot quickly veers from an everyday Parisian café scene to a tall tale filled with absurdist elements, like re-venomized raccoons and farm-raised hornets (both of which play a more prominent role than one might expect). The busboy, Luc Martin, is drawn into the obscure world of plouquette, a fictional sport for the elite, and enlisted to track down a trophy stolen 22 years ago.

“The first idea I had for Pigeon was to write about a completely made up sport without ever talking about the details of the sport. I thought that would be funny,” Maxson said in an interview with Little Village.

“I know from personal experience that being on a team, in the culture of sports, sometimes makes you forget about the rest of the world in that moment,” he said. “I liked the idea of how that would relate to the country club environment, where the rest of the world doesn’t matter, only what was going on inside the club.”

He said once he had the initial ideas, the story started coming together.

“I’d be in a car or getting ready for bed and I’d think, ‘re-venomized raccoons, that’s funny.’ And I’d write it down on a piece of paper or a Post-It,” he said. “Little ideas came to me — the story and the elements of characters and plot turns and minute details, such as absurd animals and exotic pets. They came to me during a period of three to four months.”

Although the novel has many preposterous elements and plot twists that unseat expectations, Maxson said it was a balancing act between playing with absurdism and crafting a plot and characters that draw readers in.

“I didn’t want to make it so absurd that it compromises the integrity of the characters, but I wanted it to be fun and have that imaginative element,” he said. “That’s part of what inspired me to write from the beginning.”

Often, the absurd elements of the novel play off of excesses of the upper classes — the plouquette club includes a hornet farm, where the hornets are milked and used for sushi in the upscale dining room, and the carpets are replaced weekly. But Maxson said he didn’t set out to write social commentary.

Pigeon didn’t start as a commentary on class,” he said. “It started as a funny story. If I try and write to make a statement about something, I usually miss the mark and sound inauthentic. So I’m glad it came off in that way, but really my intention was just to write a book I would want to read.”

Pres Maxson — contributed photo

Pigeon follows Maxson’s 2015 novel Bender at the Bon Parisien. Both books play off the mystery genre, although Maxson said he hasn’t generally been a mystery novel devotee.

“As a kid, I liked Sherlock Holmes a lot,” he said. “But I would say my favorite stories all have an element of mystery. It’s a quintessential part of storytelling.”

Writing the second book was a much smoother process than the first, when he was still learning how to write a novel and discovering his process, he said.

“With Pigeon, I feel as though I was able to tell the story better because I wasn’t learning along the way.”

Maxson, who graduated from Iowa with a degree in English, said the Iowa English department was a factor in inspiring him to write, and it was during college that he noticed he enjoyed his writing classes the most.

“I think I’ve been writing as long as I can remember,” he said. “I wrote a lot in elementary school and junior high, but I didn’t really devote myself to it until high school and college.”

During his time at Iowa Maxson was also a drum major in the Hawkeye Marching Band, a role he reprised earlier this year, directing the UI Alumni Marching Band during Homecoming festivities.

“It was the first time since 2002 that I was in a marching band,” he said. “That was a particular thrill.”

When he’s not leading a Homecoming marching band or working on a novel, Maxson works as a copywriter in Indianapolis. He had some advice for aspiring writers, including picking up inspiration from favorite books and authors, mapping out storylines in advance (“It reads better end to end if you know where you are going”) and putting in the time to sit down and write.

“Devote the time to do it,” he said. “I know it can be hard, but it’s good for you — kind of like eating your vegetables.”

Now that his second novel is published, Maxson said it is inspiring to have people reading his words.

“Even if they don’t like it, it’s meaningful,” he said. “They took the time to digest it and it meant something to them.”

This fast-paced book is timed just right for the winter reading season, which is made for curling up under a blanket with a cup of tea and a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The book is available on Amazon, as a paperback or in a Kindle version, and in Prairie Lights. Having a book on the shelves of the Iowa City book store was “one of the biggest thrills” of the publication experience, Maxson said.

“Even writing in college it was hard to picture a day when I’d have a book on the shelf there, because it’s iconic. But here I am,” he said.

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