Novelist and short story writer Ben Rogers compares writing to a rock climber scaling a wall. Each story, he says, takes him back to “step zero.” When that “little spark of curiosity” emerges, he says, he seeks “the tiniest crevice to get a hold on so I can start moving up the wall. That’s where anything starts. But I need to get up on that wall.”

Rogers’ story collection, The Mayfly, comprises eight times that the author reached the wall’s summit. Kirkus Reviews praises the collection as “an eclectic set of tales often written with verve and sensitivity…[and] unexpected approaches to familiar subjects such as love and family.”

For example, the story from which the collection takes its title chronicles the titular insect’s lifelong (brief though it may be) search for love: 

Diane doesn’t seem to fault him for droning on and on about the time he bore witness to the murder and ingestion of his ex, still fresh in his mind. When next the sun brightens the water, she ventures out and he follows. Yapping away, he bumps into her as they navigate a narrow passage between two rocks. He apologizes. Diane doesn’t budge. He scrambles up and over her body to find that it ends abruptly. The top third of her has been pulverized by a rogue twig. A week later, he is at Sheila’s side when she quakes, convulses, and explodes after eating some bad decomposed organic matter. He reconsiders the practice of naming his love interests. 

One reason why Rogers is drawn to short stories, he says, is because “the form lends itself to experimentation. “On the Rejuvenating Effects of Arch Theft,” another story in the collection, is a deadpan, surreal tale of close-knit friends who conspire to steal Reno’s iconic Arch and reassemble it at the home of one of their members who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It is written in the form of a piece for a scientific journal.

“I have written lots of journal articles,” Rogers says. “It struck me it would be a fun form to tell a fictional story. I had a lot of fun doing that.”

Rogers is director of engineering at a technology company. He is the lead author of the textbooks Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems and Nanotechnology: The Whole Story, both of which are American Library Association award winners.

He also has “journalist” on his resume. Newspaper reporting and writing to deadline, as well as science writing, were pivotal skills when it came to writing fiction. “Journalism taught me to be unafraid to become an armchair expert on something quickly,” he says. “When a character of mine needs to have a particular experience or needs to be an expert in something, I have that research ability. An innate curiosity to figure out how things work carries over from my scientific and engineering worlds. Fiction tends to be an exploration of how people work.”

Rogers lives in Reno, Nevada, where he grew up. His father ran Harrah’s Casino. By the time Rogers attended college, his father was the CEO of KOA Campgrounds, a position he held for 15 years. His mother worked in development at the University of Nevada and helped put together the institution’s growth plan. 

Growing up, he loved Shel Silvestein’s books of off-center poems. He recalls being moved to tears by Where the Red Fern Grows, which he read in elementary school.

His love of reading evolved into a love of writing. “I started taking it seriously after high school,” he says. He was turned on to short stories by Christopher Coake, a University of Nevada professor. “I took a fiction workshop with him when I was working on my novel The Flamer (2012). He’s a fantastic short story writer, and he introduced me to a lot of new [to me] writers.” Tobias Wolff in particular, Rogers says, made an impression. 

In addition to The Flamer, Rogers also wrote the novel The Heavy Side (2019). The stories in The Mayfly were written over the past decade. “I like reading short stories because of the variety you get when you read a collection like the Best American Short Stories series,” he says. “When you read a collection by a single author, I’m often struck how they could change gears in stories that vary in periods of time and even the writing style.” 

This is certainly true of The Mayfly. The concluding story is Man of Letters, an epistolary novella that tops 100 pages and revolves around a Nevada mining town in the late 1860s. “In high school I read The City of Trembling Leaves, written by local author Walter Van Tilber Clark, who also taught at the university,” Rogers says. “It was a big thick book about a high school boy who is on the tennis team and had a girlfriend. It was so beautifully written, but I couldn’t believe someone set a novel that serious in basically my upbringing.”

Van Tilber Clark would not only become one of Rogers’ favorite authors, but also an inspiration for Man of Letters. Rogers’ research for the period story led him to the University of Nevada Library’s special collections, which contain the journal written by a Midwestern journalist who chronicled his journey west to Virginia City, Nevada. Rogers was stunned to learn that his literary hero had a connection to the journal.

“He took it upon himself to transcribe these journals,” he says. “It took him about a decade. I spent months reading this beautiful first-person account of living in the West during that period. I very much wanted to capture the language and setting. It was like my hero reaching out to hand me this stack of books he had spent a decade compiling: ‘Here Ben, I inspired you to become a writer 20 years ago. Now here’s some amazing material you can use.’ He was an angel on my shoulder.”

When asked if there is something that typifies a Ben Rogers story, he says he tries to inject a sense of humor. But he defers to a description he says he once heard of novelist Anthony Doerr. “He was described as having a poet’s soul but a scientist’s capability for observation,” he shares. “I endeavor to that.”

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based writer.