Welcome to the blog, Michael. It is one heck of a pleasure and an honour to have someone whose writing I admire so much here.
Thanks, Nik. I’m glad and honored myself—especially to talk to someone who spells “honored” with a “u.”
First of all, could you tell us a little about your short story collection, Elephants in Our Bedroom?
It’s a book I’d worked on for a long time. Those stories mean a lot to me, as they’re me finding my voice, finding myself as an artist. To see someone grab onto that, acknowledge it, and most of all, read it, verifies what I’ve been doing.
But in more simple terms, it’s a book of 24 short stories, most of them about how people can’t seem to figure out how to relate to each other anymore, with a lot of absurd concepts and images thrown in.
The stories in Elephants in Our Bedroom put me in mind, in themes and quality, of the work of Aimee Bender and Etgar Keret – who are probably my two favourite writers – and that’s got a lot to do with the unlikely and fantastic situations your characters find themselves in. Where do these situations come from? Is there a process or do they just happen?
I purposely try to come up with something that I think is clever, funny, challenging, impossible, uncomfortable, and bizarre all at the same time. I spend a lot of time thinking about things. Once I have something, though, I can run with it. It’s like moving the furniture around in your living room. Only certain things work, and once you find it, you just sit back and appreciate the news angles that you can look at things.
Do you tend to write stories to find out how a situation is resolved, or what happens to a character, or do you know how the whole thing ends before you start?
There’s only certain things that can happen at the end of a story, once you get going, where readers will still believe you, still empathize. At a certain point, I like to lay out what those things are and pick the most interesting one; sometimes it’s what makes the most sense, too. But the character has to reach a new point—“change,” as they say in Story 101. I like them to still be in flux, though, only in a different way.
How would you describe a typical Michael Czyzniejewski story?
I wish there were a word. Maybe my name will be synonymous with the type of story I write, that someone will one day be like, “That’s too Czyzniejewski” for my tastes, that I become so commonplace, I become a dull adjective. Maybe something on the SAT verbal exam. Heck, the GRE. So to get that rolling, I’ll say my stories are rather Czyzniejewski, but can also at times be Baldwin with a dash of ennui.
Do you have a reader in mind when you’re writing, and if you do, what does he or she look like?
My reader is me. I write what intrigues me and entertains me, what I think is cool. It’s good for me that others happen to agree with this view. At least I assume so, as people have printed me. So I think I’m going to keep going with that for now. All writers should do the same.
Which book or writers would you suggest those who enjoyed Elephants in Our Bedroom read?
You name some pretty good ones in Aimee Bender, who has been a great influence on my work; the fact she read my book and wrote a blurb had me flying since. I also love Etgar Keret, The Nimrod Flip-flop. Brilliant. I love Donald Barthelme and George Saunders, too. Can’t go wrong with Flannery O’Connor, the bestest story writer ever, or Raymond Carver, though it’s harder to see either of their immense influences on what I do. Some new great writers are Kevin Wilson, Alissa Nutting, Seth Fried, Matt Bell, people I’ve had the chance to publish, to work with. I think all of these people are going to do great things.
You’re a Creative Writing Instructor, how does that influence your writing?
I have to remind myself of the things I tell my students. How silly would I look if I didn’t? But really, I have to make sure that all the basic things I try to teach go into my stories. Stories that start with good foundations turn into good stories, so yeah, I have to go back, take out the adverbs, the be verbs, add images, restructure sentences, and make sure I don’t end stories with “… and it was all just a dream!” It’s best not to forget any of that.
You’re also the Editor-in-Chief at the Mid-American Review, could you tell us a little about that?
I’m blessed with the opportunity, which fell into my lap. I applied to MFA programs where the students could work on the journal, which is why I was happy to go to Bowling Green. After I graduated, I stayed on to teach part-time, then full-time, as a freshman English instructor, and after a year of that, the former Ed-in-Chief, George Looney, stepped down, moved on to Penn State-Erie (and Lake Effect). That opened up some opportunities for me, and since I was willing to do it, I was given the chance.
It’s fantastic to work on a journal, to have the honor of reading a lot of writers’ work before anyone else. And when I find something I love, to contact that person, to share in their enthusiasm, and to get other people to read that story, well, that’s what it’s all about. We have stories coming out in our next issue that really blow me away. This guy Gabe Durham is a genius. Ryan Call, too. And a lot of others. I’m so glad they considered MAR worthy of sending their work to.
In your opinion, as some who teaches, who reads (and accepts and rejects) submissions, and who writes and publishes, what would you say is wrong with most fiction today?
Too many of the stories I read as submissions—the ones that don’t get in—don’t try to challenge me as a reader, don’t try to take me out of my world and into theirs. Writers do this by writing about non-spectacular, ordinary things, things that aren’t worthy of their skills or time. If you’re going to bother to write a story, why not make it fantastic, why not offer up something incredible? That’s a lot of adjectives to shoot for—I should include “amazing,” “phenomenal,” “terrific,” and “great,” too—but hey, that’s why I read. I don’t want to read 20 pages about some guy who loses his car keys or someone who can’t decide whether or not to go clubbing that night. This is stuff you tell a friend on the elevator on the way up to work, something you tell your mom on the phone at night, not something you put into a piece of art and try to wow someone with. So the fiction that’s not working is probably just too everyday. I will never discredit anyone for trying to overwhelm me, even if the effort, on the whole, is crappy.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given?
Jean Thompson, a teacher of mine at Illinois and a friend, told me when I graduated: Find your favorite story, by your favorite author, in your favorite book, in your favorite anthology, whatever . .. and write a better story.
If you do that, or at least try to every time, you’ll succeed, sooner or later.
Every great story should…
Make the reader wish he/she wrote it, thought of it instead.
Every good writer will…
Work harder than it seems humanly possible to work. A hundred other writers are doing the same, right now, so you’d better than get lazy.
You’re working on a novel at the moment, how have you found that compared with short story writing? Are novels and short stories vastly different in shape?
The novel is hard. I like to finish things, to see the finish line. If I was a runner—and I’m not—I would want to be a sprinter, like the 100-yard dash. I would want to put all my energy—the same energy as a marathon runner—into that small of space, just so I could see where I was going.
What I’m hoping to do is take the anecdotal part of stories and turn those into parts of the novel, to realize that a novel is made up of smaller stories, turn it into a series of stories that tells an overall story. If I can figure that out, think of it that way, I might like it better.
Talk to us about baseball, and about your experiences at Wrigley Field.
Baseball gives me as much joy as anything in life. Take away the steroids, the contracts, the off-field problems, and it’s such a purely beautiful thing, it almost makes me cry it’s 5 months till next season.
Throw the fact in that I’m a Cubs fan, and the pain and joy is just that much greater. Lots of pain, but any glimmer of success is joy on an unparalleled level.
Getting to work there at Wrigley (I’m a beer vendor, by the way)—it’s been 21 seasons now—still seems surreal to me. When I think about it, it’s like the greatest thing I can imagine, that I can go to 81 games a year—plus playoffs!—and watch the Cubs, walk down the aisle to the front row, lean against the wall, 15 feet from the batter’s box, see the batter’s expression as he swings. And get paid doing it. How lucky I am. But other times, I take it for granted, as I’ve done it longer than half my life. It’s part of who I am, and no matter how things go for me—in terms of writerly success, salary, etc.—I can’t imagine leaving that job, not working at Wrigley, being able to see the Cubs every day. It’s the only thing—save family—that interests me as much as reading and writing. So I’m glad that I’m working on a novel about that—that makes it a lot easier, too.
What’s next for you?
I have a story collection, a second one, mostly done. As stated, I can see the finish line there, so it’s easier to work on. Plus, I’ve been given the thumbs up on such things before, so it’s easier to do something when someone else has verified you. I’d also like to get into the novel—really get into it, to the point where it consumes me, so when I’m done, 75,000 words later, I can say, “Wow, that almost killed me, but I did it.” I think it’s what has to happen if it’s going to be any good. I can’t imagine saying, “Aww, no big deal!” without it blowing.
I’d also like to travel, change the routine, the back-and-forth between Ohio and Chicago in the summers, something to shake things up. I should get a shack in the Montana wilderness for a few months, eat caterpillars and crab apples and get down to 114 pounds. Something like that maybe. Or I could get an X-Box or a dog or something.
Anything you’d like to add?
I think this covers it. Not good at math, anyway. Thanks!
Michael Czyzniejewski grew up in Chicago and now lives in Ohio, where he teaches at Bowling Green State University and serves as Editor-in-Chief of Mid-American Review. Stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Moon City Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Knee-Jerk and the anthologies Best of the Web 2009 and You Must Be This Tall to Ride. His debut collection of fiction, Elephants in Our Bedroom, was released by Dzanc Books earlier this year.