In today’s jmwwblog, Flash Fiction editor Dave Erlewine talks with writer and Mid-American Review editor Michael Czyzjienewski about the taste of coffee, writer’s block, the novel on which he’s working, small wives, and rapist bear-trap stories. If you don’t believe what I just said, read more below.
Dave Erlewine: Hi Mike, thanks for doing this. Your recent interview in Fiction Writers Review has you writing from 12:30-2 a.m. a few times a week. Set the stage for us. Coffee? Staying quiet so as not to awaken your wife and son? music? If not coffee, soda? If not soda, random slaps to the face or pinches to the flesh behind your knee? It’s possible I’m projecting.
Michael Czyzniejewski: Coffee is awful. I’m not sure why people drink it. I get the addiction angle, sure, but I’m not sure there’s a worst taste in the world. And that’s surprising, because it smells so good. But it’s awful on the tongue, like gym socks dipped in vinegar with a dash of buttmunch. I’ve had less than a cup of coffee total in my life. I even started a Facebook group once called “Coffee is Stupid,” which everyone should look up and join. Aside from the taste, it’s overpriced (in latte-Starbucks-pumpkin-additive form), leaves those rings on things, gets spilled in my car by people who swear they won’t spill it, and it burns women’s vaginas. How is that crystal meth is illegal and coffee legal?
So no, no coffee, but a lot of caffeinated pop. Diet Pepsi is great, but sometimes, I go for Diet Dr. Pepper. Sometimes my tummy calls out for something else. And what he wants, he tends to get.
I usually have to burn energy/waste time before a long writing session. I read things online, like Facebook and e-mail, twenty times each, sort of as a warm up. Then I’ll remember something I’ve always wanted to look up and read about—orangutans, ash cheese, Nathan Hale, just random shit—and read a bunch of articles on it. I check sports scores. I handle correspondence. I call my mom. Once I get going, though, I don’t like my concentration broken. So I’ll sit and my desk and waste time for a few hours before I actually write. But once I get going, I don’t want calls or people knocking on my door or me remembering I forgot to blow out the candle that I stuck on top of the pile of old newspapers. I get really pissed when that stuff happens. I just throw myself into the story and it’s infuriating to be pulled from that place. I know I sound like Christian Bale, like when he scolded that guy on the set of the Terminator movie for getting in his sight line, but if I’m in a story, really IN it, I don’t want any distractions. It’s hard to get to that place, and often, once I’m pulled out, I don’t get back in.
But this happens once or twice a week, at 1 or 2 or 3 in the morning. Usually, no one bothers me then.
And I work at my office, in a clear space with bright light. I’m claustrophobic as all hell and like that atmosphere, a lot of room where I can see everything clearly.
DE: I read your full answer to my wife who thought about it for a second, furrowed her brow, and said, “He doesn’t like coffee?” She didn’t blink at “buttmunch.” Incidentally, I have some Hawaiian Hazelnut brewing right now. I don’t drink much at night these days but I’m working on this interview and finishing up our taxes tonight. YES!
MC: Anyone who does their taxes in February is either A) extremely wealthy, B) extremely desperate, or C) a total sadist. Which are you, Dave?
DE: There should be a “D)” option, man.
MC: The thing about those flavored coffees is, why not have the flavoring without the coffee? Everyone who drinks flavored coffees is denying what I know. That pinenut-honey-Bolivian-kiwi extract you put in it is just a masking agent. It’s like putting whipped cream on dynamite. Hot fudge on arsenic. Magic Shell on … you get the point.
DE: Indeed, it is overpriced. I brew my own coffee at work every day, except Friday. On Fridays I stop by Starbucks and get a latte or cappuccino or regular coffee. I walk from Union Station (DC) to my office, carrying the coffee, sipping it occasionally, burning my weak tongue, savoring how good life is, or pretending I’m not about to go spend 9+ hours dealing with legal issues. Incidentally, I just joined the Coffee is Stupid group. I even posted a wall comment there about Oliver North and everything. Those who want to find out what chaos I’m creating should join the group and mind the gap. Hmm, I do like the taste of black coffee, though I do need sugar. I’m not prepared to discuss this coffee thing any longer. Can we move on?
MC: You brew your own coffee. That’s…wait. You’re a lawyer, too? That explains everything. Next question, though I’ll add something to a previous response, another option to why someone does their taxes in February: D) you’re a lawyer.
DE: Yes, there is a “D)” option. Thank you. Incidentally, you asked why meth is illegal but coffee is legal. I’ve watched enough “Intervention” episodes, including the “Meth Mountain” juggernaut, to know that the law is right on this one. Coffee good, meth bad.
MC: I’ve never had meth. I don’t have tattoos, either. I don’t Tweet. And I don’t use a wallet chain. I’m glad I was born when I was born.
DE: (pausing). I do tweet from time to time, always feeling confused and anxious about what’s happening to my life. Oh yes, and I’m with you on getting pulled out of a story. Horrifying. The only thing my wife yells about concern food issues. For me it’s when I’m in that “zone” with a story. Incidentally, for me, it seems I can be in the “zone” for an interview or submission, too, and get quite riled up when my son comes in to tell me my daughter has set the trash on fire or she comes in to complain about him sticking things into her ears. I kid, really, I’m actually quite on top of things as a parent. There’s a question here somewhere, can you find it.
MC: I’m pretty good as a parent. Sometimes my son won’t play with me, though, so I act out as revenge, do things like not pay bills or eat something that’s going to cut my life short. I hate to do those things to get his attention, but it works. For now. I’m not sure what I’ll have to do if he ever figures me out. I wonder if that’s what happened to people like Charlie Sheen or Rick Pitino or Tiger Woods. Probably they just wanted to finger paint.
DE: Now that is a new euphemism for Tiger…finger painting! HIYO! Okay, that was my Ed McMahon, and I’m sorry for saying it and invoking the deceased. Let’s move on. In that interview you said, “If you want to write, you’ll write, and if you don’t, you won’t. Writer’s block doesn’t exist—it’s just being lazy or not caring.” What about fear? I read a story recently where there’s an actual writer’s block and the only writers who leave are the “brave” ones. I was wondering if you’d add “scared” to your lazy or indifferent reasons…like maybe scared to get ensnared in a story that doesn’t work, scared to write the same thing you wrote yesterday, etc.
MC: I know what people mean by writer’s block. And I think fear is part of that—fear it’s not going well, which is also just frustration. I’m working on a novel and it’s so hard to do after writing stories for 20 years, as sometimes, it’s not working. That’s not block, that’s one project not going well at that particular time. When that happens, a writer can either throw in the towel or they can work on something else, draft some first lines, or even read something great to get inspiration, then give it another go. When I’m on something and it’s not going well, I’ll try another project, start something new. Or go get a pop from the machine, go to the bathroom. Like Jackie Gleason in The Hustler—just go to the bathroom, wash my face with cold water, clear the slate. Then start over. That works.
And yes, I’m going reference an actor in every response.
DE: Wow, from John Connor to Max Basner. Interesting downward move there, sir. I like washing my face with cold water. Sometimes, when I really can’t write, I use scalding water. Seems to bring up the rage I got from growing up the only Jewish boy in my Dallas, Texas, elementary school.
Can you give some examples of things you read for inspiration? Sometimes, I read “Rich Brother” by Tobias Wolff or the Norman Bowker story in “The Things They Carried.” They always take me back to college, when I first thought seriously of wanting to write. Also, I went to college and law school in Ohio and I think that’s the first “pop” reference since then. I miss Ohio. I want to go back to Ohio Wesleyan and visit my recently retired college professor Robert Flanagan. He still reads my stories and taunts me.
MC: For the past year or so, I’ve had a copies of 40 Stories by Barthelme in my bag and a copy of 60 Stories by my desk, and often refer to those, just read a 5-page story and remember what I always try to remember: Stories can be about anything. On top of that, if you don’t like how something turns out, you can just write another story and fix it, start over from scratch. He’s so great for me in that way.
DE: Can you give a 20-word summary about the novel? Every time I try writing a novel I end up getting OCD’ish times 100 and after a few weeks I question everything writing-related, decide it’s more noble to be a good dad and husband, and vow not to write fiction until June 13, 2032, when I can retire with benefits from the government.
MC: A beer vendor at Wrigley Field faces life changes at a crucial juncture in Chicago Cubs’ history. Human drama ensues.
DE: Well played. Sounds great (inserting Bartman reference here just before this interview goes live).
So, your former student Seth fried told me he loved your book “Elephants in Our Bedroom” but was outraged/saddened to see that the title “Sleepmurder” was now taken. Did you come up with that title before/during/after writing the story? Also, also, my wife is 4’11”, like the narrator, and I’m 6’2″, like her husband. Should I be worried about trying to kill her at night, ineffectually, with a pillow? She does snore.
MC: Short women are great. It’s all the greatness, packed into a smaller dose. A burst of wife instead of a whole helping. That’s great for the environment, saving on clothes, food, gas mileage, coffin length, etc. And if you are going to try and kill her, being small limits her defense options from 114 to 76 or 77. So it’s win-win.
I didn’t know you and Seth were married, either. Congrats. I thought he looked taller than 4’11”.
DE: Seth said my prose was too limpid. My wife is from Vietnam and has said on more than one occasion that she’s tall enough to whack me in the face with a shoe. When we fight she seems about 5’9″ and sounds like someone who I wouldn’t want to fall asleep next to. I do like the “burst of wife” line. I’m going to use that next time I buy the wrong creamer and things go south.
MC: It’s like energy drinks. Or meth, from what I hear.
DE: We’re roughly the same age (I may be a year older…let’s not get all technical). Reading “Elephants in Our Bedroom” makes me feel like the older brother in the “Squid and the Whale,” the one who sings Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” at a school talent show and tries passing it off as his own. When caught, he says it’s a technicality that Roger Waters wrote it because the kid feels like he could have written it. I kind of feel like if iId gone for my MFA instead of law degree, and had I been given a “smidge” more talent and humor and tenacity then I might have written some of these stories. For example, for years I’ve had this idea of a bear trap story. I envisioned a story sort of like your “B-12” where the person setting the trap doesn’t feel as guilty as the reader expects. Now, I guess, I can stop thinking of that bear trap story. If you don’t like the older brother comparison, please don’t bring up the creepy younger brother. Wait, have you seen the movie?
MC: I have seen that movie and I like it, mostly for the return of Billy Baldwin to legitimate theater. But yeah, that dad (who I guess is based on the writer/director’s dad) really screws those kids up, gives the worst advice ever, sort of Douchebaggery 101.
DE: “Hey brotha!” I loved him in that movie. Also classic when the dad said, “Ivan’s a bit of a half-wit, isn’t he?” Don’t know why I always laugh. I’ve seen that movie way too many times.
MC: I think the dad is going to have a book on my press, Dzanc. So actually, now that he’s part of the family, I stand behind everything that he and his character did. In fact, a jogger just ran by the window and I stood up, banged on the glass till he heard, and when he came over, I yelled, “Philistine!” and then came and sat back down. It felt good.
DE: The dad’s definition of “philistine” is classic: “It’s a guy who doesn’t care about books and interesting films and things.” I love how he says, “Your mother’s brother Ned is also a philistine.” Not “Uncle Ned,” but “your mother’s brother Ned.”
MC: But I get that, elements of stories that I read that I wanted to use but thought, “Oh well.” Really, though, elements of stories are okay—steal them and write something new with them. You should. Nothing’s original, not completely. For example, I’ve read all of Stuart Dybek’s books over and over and love them, as they ARE my childhood—Polish, Catholic, Chicago, czernina, altar boys, boobies, etc. And I’ve never written about that part of my life because I’ve always said, “Well, Dybek did it, did it ridiculously well, so I don’t have to.” But I should write about that stuff, because when I write it, it’s not going to be the same. It’s going to be me. I won’t be called a Dybek also-ran, because what I wrote probably wouldn’t be as close as I thought. I’m more likely, like you’re saying, to stumble upon something that’s familiar to a reader than to set out to do it on purpose. If I tried to write a story and make it exactly like Dybek’s, I probably couldn’t; but on occasion, people have told me that a story reminds them of something they’d read, something I’d not read or even heard of, but they swear I must have read it and was inspired by it. There’s lots of stories out there, and overall, I like doing this too much to steal. That’s not the point. I’m not writing to get published. I’m writing to get this crazy shit out of my head, to be an artist, for strangers to shower me with much-desired affirmations.
So go write the rapist/bear trap story. Then steal something else from someone and make it even better. Repeat.
DE: Okay, I will work on the bear/rapist story tonight. My writing group’s prompt is “interlopers” so that seems like a good fit. I like the comments about Dybek. That makes a lot of sense, the idea that the stories you write aren’t going to be as similar as you suspect/fear.
This sort of leads me to my broader point about editing and writing. Last year I edited/read for Dogzplot. I was fired up that Barry Graham asked me to…but about two weeks in I was horrified/annoyed at how horrified/annoyed I was getting at writers getting rejected and bombarding me with further stories. I had trouble giving their stories a fair shake. I hated myself as an editor. I knew as a writer I was guilty of submitting stories almost immediately after getting form rejections. In fact, I felt blah about the whole thing, feeling like there were so many other people at all hours firing away these 300-500 word “gems”, sending me their same bios, checking e-mail again and again for rejections/acceptances. So I quit Dogzplot. Now, I’m editing for JMWW and really enjoying it. However, my writing is fairly inconsistent. I keep coming back to a quote from Joseph Reed of Caketrain that I’d like your opinion on:
“I used to write before I became an editor, but I don’t anymore. Not only does the journal take the majority of my free time—basically evenings and weekends, as my days are occupied in the development office of a much larger nonprofit—but also, seeing as much of what our peers are working on in a given year as we do, it becomes increasingly difficult to know what to add to that discussion. I can’t imagine myself producing anything that satisfies me the way a new issue of Caketrain does. I can’t imagine measuring up, by my own standards, to the work I’m putting out there. So I don’t write, and I feel okay about that.”
Mike, what do you say, as the editor of MAR? Are there times where you feel like there is enough great fiction being produced in MAR to focus on and that you don’t need to write as much? I’m guessing no but thought I’d ask if this J. Reed quote “means” something to you.
MC: I don’t know J. Reed, but I really like Caketrain, and yeah, he’s set the bar high. But if that makes him not want to write, then he was probably at a stage in his writing where he needed a break. But not knowing him, I can’t really say that. At least he has passion for what he does.
It’s the opposite for me. I’m completely fueled by the work we take, almost as a challenge to go and write something great, too (“great” being a relative term for “the best that I can do”). I try not to focus on the rejections, because that’s just part of it, and instead look at the 14 stories I have under contract right now and major finds, as victories. There’s so much great stuff being written now, and for some of it to find is way to MAR and my desk, I’m honored and inspired, really. Yes, it sucks to reject people, but the fact is, not everyone can be a writer, at leat not without work. It’s like how not everyone can be a pro athlete. I wanted to play pro baseball when I was a kid, but reality set in when this big dude on Bee Chemical threw an 82 MPH slider at me and froze my shit. We were 14. I threw my hands up at that moment and said, “Time to focus on my studies.” I was 5’9″ and stocky (i.e., fat), and the only 5’9″ guys who make it are super-fast Apparicio-Theriot-types who are scrappy and can run and do lots of sit-ups.
So not everyone is going to be a writer, but the good thing is, more people are going to be successful as writers, even at the lit-mag-publication level, than be pro athletes. When you’re 18 and nobody drafts your or gives you a scholarship, you’re pretty much done, time to move on. When you get a rejection from some turd biscuit like me who just read your story in his underwear while eating Doritos, you try again 1 second later, work harder. Rejection sucks, but if you let it get you down, you are in trouble. I know writers a lot more talented than me who let it get to them and stopped writing. A good chunk of the reason why I made it is because I stuck with it. Sometimes that was hard, like when I didn’t publish anything for three years after I started sending out. Or the day I sent a story to the New Yorker I got a copy of that mag with an Arthur Miller story in it (it was about beavers, I think). I remember thinking how fucked up that was, that Arthur Miller and I were trying to do the same thing because he had Pulitzer Prizes and was married to Marilyn Monroe and probably had a hugantic penis but he wanted the same thing as me for his work. It’s overbearing, but it’s also the truth, that if I wanted to be in The New Yorker (I stopped sending years ago, to note), I was going to have to be better than Miller, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, George Singleton, and every other writer on their contract list. Or at least just as good. That’s what publishing is, standing out. If great things like being a writer or a ballplayer were easy, everyone’s dumbass cousin would be on book tour and I’d play first base for the Kalamazoo Kangaroos (as there would be 790 MLB teams… get it?). You have to look at the writing that any magazine does, and if you’re not prepared to write better or equal work than that—no, let’s say better, as everyone is always getting better—then you’re not going to be in that magazine. It’s something I try to tell to students, to use that as a guide, as a primer for whether they’re ready or not.
So to get back to your question, the J. Reed quote means to me that someone cares a lot about stories and is putting out a good journal and has made sacrifices to do it. As a writer and an editor, I appreciate that to no end. What he does with his own stuff is his and his alone. The world won’t cry if I, he, you, or pretty much anyone else doesn’t write another word.
DE: My wife would probably clap if I stopped writing. Okay, to bring this home,
Sufjan Stevens has done CDs of Michigan and Illinois. I love the latter, especially the Casimir Pulaski, Chicago and Gacy songs. If he makes Ohio as his next state, any suggestions for him?
MC: Since I grew up in Illinois and know much more about it than Ohio—when you grow up somewhere, I think that’s your home, plus you learn about everything like Lincoln and Al Capone and Michael Jordan in school—I also love the Stevens Illinois album. My favorite song, far and away, is the zombie song. I play that all the time. I love that a chorus spells out Illinois in a creepy way as the song goes on. I actually don’t remember why he wrote a zombie song about Illinois, as we didn’t cover that in school, but it’s still great. And yes, Casimir Pulaski Day is a pretty big deal to me. It’s a shout out, and I’m proud as a Polish-American and Chicagoan to not get mail one day a year in his honor.
In Ohio? He”d have to start with Ohio State football, probably Woody Hayes tackling that kid. That’s what’s important here, the Buckeyes, their football, and that ultimate shame. Follow that up with the Browns leaving for Baltimore, which still gives their fans night terrors, along with having Brady Quinn as QB for Browns 2.0. He could do something on Mad Anthony Wayne, who has some tall tales surrounding him up here in NW Ohio. I think Superman was created in Cleveland. There’s a mental hospital down in Athens that has a lot of legends surrounding it. The Pretenders and Marilyn Manson are from Ohio. Jesse Owens. Jack Nicklaus. Mike Schmidt. LeBron. The Wright Brothers. Gloria Steinem. Roy Lichtenstein. Rita Dove and Toni Morrison. Youngstown is an interesting place, not really in a good way, and Springsteen sort of covered that. William Howard Taft is from here and got stuck in a bath tub because he was so skilled in the eating arts. A bunch of other presidents, too, like Harding, who was corrupt as all hell. Cincinnati has that funky chilli that makes people crap until they get used to it. Martin Sheen’s character from Apocalypse Now is from Toledo.
I also think there was a war between Ohio and Michigan for Toledo, where the only fatality was a cow.
Bowling Green is the childhood home to Dorothy and Lillian Gish and Scott Hamilton, but not much goes on here worthy of Sufjan’s ballads. Oh, I did see a Girls Gone Wild bus parked at the Hampton Inn the other night, so maybe something there.
And my wife. That makes up for a lot of the bad shit.
MC: Here’s to wives and zombies. Thanks again, Mike.