In his newest collection of short fiction, I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories, writer, Missouri State University professor, and stalwart Wrigley Field vendor Michael Czyzniejewski introduces us to 30 couples in the throes of impending disaster. In entries that are as few as two pages long, Czyzniejewski tosses us mid-wash cycle into a character's life, and lets us stick around at least until he or she's been hung out to dry. The vignettes are brief, funny, and visceral in either their beauty or their grotesqueness. Sometimes both. Just like love.
Over the weekend, Czyzniejewski, who currently lives in Springfield, Missouri, with his wife and kids, answered some questions by e-mail about the book, his writing philosophy, and his return to Wrigley.
For such short stories, your characters seem so fully fledged—what usually comes to you first? A character or the idea for a short narrative?
Michael Czyzniejewski: I'd say I start with predicaments or situations, unusual things that happen to relatively normal people, just so I can make them deal with them. Eventually, the people turn out to be not so normal, because of how they handle things, what comes out in backstory, interior monologue, etc. Nobody's really normal, and I'm counting on that. One story in the book that started like that is "Marrow," about the guy who sees the woman in the grocery store parking lot, you know, enjoying herself. How does this protagonist react to this situation? Where does it lead? Why is it happening? (It's a story, by the way, inspired somewhat by real events, as there's a Walmart Neighborhood Market by my house, and I've seen people camped out in their cars, doing just about everything.) That's what gets me going, gets me writing, gets me figuring out what's next. I never know what happens at the end of stories when I start, which is counterintuitive to some writers. But I like the expedition.
I appreciate the skill involved in taking a story from beginning to end in so few words—some of these stories are only two and three pages long. Personally, I like short short stories. Is writing so economically a conscious choice?
Yes, for sure. Firstly, writers should always be economical, whether they're writing short short prose or working on a series of postapocalyptic teen adventure novels. If five words will do, don't use ten, that sort of thing. Plus, paring forces you to pay more attention to what you're doing—cutting is the ultimate editing, and you can't cut unless you're paying very, very close attention.
But I also like the idea of finishing something in one sitting. Part of that is just having kids, a full-time job, other responsibilities, and a limited opportunity to work. My wife is a poet, so we try to work it out so we can give each other four-hour blocks of time. There's something about taking that time and finishing a complete full draft, of starting with an idea and seeing it through to the end. Of course, this is probably why I haven't ever finished a novel, but it explains why I have three books of mostly short short fiction; my mission, now that this book is out of my hands, is to shy away from that form, to write more extended pieces, finish that novel, do something else. Surprise people (i.e., me).
In your book Chicago Stories, a lot of the characters were already written for you to some extent, insofar as they're "known" figures (although it's not like any of us really know them)—do you generally prefer creating your own characters? Or did the characters in Chicago Stories feel like they were your own characters too?
There were a lot of approaches to those characters, as there were a wide variety of subjects. The Rod Blagojevich piece, for instance, is me just going off the voice I heard in interviews and speeches, his love of his favorite word. The Mr. T story is just me doing the guy who plays Mr. T doing Mr. T. Those were the easier stories to write, really writing themselves. The stories dating back further in history made me work harder, create a voice. I have no idea what John Wentworth or the Everleigh sisters sounded like. Those were harder—plus, they usually involved research—but I found those more satisfying. I mean, me doing a Mr. T impersonation for 75 words is one thing, but it's pretty easy, what every stand-up comic and fourth grader since 1983 has done at one point or another. Me discovering and fictionalizing a narrative about the allegedly mysterious death of Marshall Field? That's something I'm more proud of when I look back at those.
Was it purposeful that an element from one story would show up in the next? For instance, after the evisceration in "Change of Heart" there's the mailman's angioplasty scar in "All Out." The fruit trees in "The Plum Tree" and then "The Plagues of Egypt." Politics in "Instead of Getting Married" and playroom politics in "High Treason."
Wow! You know my book better than I do! I didn't think about the surgery scars or the politics, but I think I remember the orange trees in the plague story and making the connection to "The Plum Tree." I think I just like fruit trees, what they look like, the idea of them in people's yards. Being from Chicago, it's bizarre to drive around a place like Phoenix or Tampa and see orange trees in everyone's front yard, and even more bizarre to see all that fruit on the ground, rotting. I can imagine people planting those trees, thinking of all the great things they'll do with the fruit—only who needs 2,000 oranges, or however many oranges a big tree produces every year? Anyway, I tell my students to be as subtle as possible and put those little links in their stories, in their collections, to be as subtle as possible, because the type of readers who read short stories will make those leaps, read into things. And it worked on you!
Were these stories written with the book's overall theme in mind?
Not originally. I tend to work in the domestic landscape a lot, and when you deal with normal people, this type of conflict is a pretty obvious route. But no, after Chicago Stories, I was just writing not-Chicago Stories again, getting rid of some ideas I'd been storing up for a couple of years. When I had a 100 pages or so, and Chicago Stories (out in February 2012) was far enough in the rearview, I was looking for a project, examined what I had, and the theme stood out pretty quickly. Once I sold Curbside Splendor on the book and they agreed to do it, I needed more pages, so I wrote four or five new stories to round out the book, stories like "Hot Lettuce," "Marrow," "Opal Forever," and the outline story, the stories that are obviously about breakups (and for some reason, longer than the older, precontract ones).
For how long did you work on this collection?
A couple of the stories are pretty old. "A Change of Heart" is from around 2000, my third published story, one that didn't fit into previous collections but felt right for this book. "Instead of Getting Married" I wrote for a Quick Fiction special issue on weddings when their editors got married, like 2002. "Thin Air" is pretty old too, a story I wanted in Elephant in Our Bedroom but was nixed by the editor, a story I liked; the Curbside editor, cut stories too, including "Thin Air," but that's the one I saved, the one I died in a ditch for. Most of the rest of the stories were written sporadically between 2008, after Elephants was accepted, and me contacting Jacob Knabb at Curbside in late 2013 to pitch the idea. So two-thirds of the book are stories I'd been accumulating, the last third, the newer, longer ones, I wrote last summer for the August 1 deadline.
Are you still a vendor at Wrigley?
Yep! I just mailed my union dues check and am good to go for this year. Last season I only did five games, as I had commitments in Missouri, a class I was teaching. But this year, with all the excitement with the renovations, the young kids coming up, Maddon, Lester, I want to make more appearances, be there as much as I can. Plus, the concession company finally installed a minimum-games rule for employees, so I gotta do 15 if I want to get rehired for 2016. And I want to get rehired. Really, I can't imagine giving this up. Moving to Ohio didn't do it, as that was a quick five-hour drive, door-to-door. Moving to Missouri hasn't done it yet, though I'm going to have to work it to keep it up. It's a great privilege, though, to be able to go there, see the games, and actually make money. I've been there 26 years already and I wouldn't mind going 26 more. Besides, if the Cubs win the World Series every year in that time—as we all know they will—I think they'll officially be tied with the Yankees for most titles. I don't want to miss that.
How is teaching going these days?
Teaching is amazing! I'm really lucky to be doing what I'm doing. Professor jobs are going extinct, so many colleges preferring adjuncts or online jockeys or Internet robots or what have you. But doing what I do is amazing, to have written three small-press short-story collections, the majority of them made up of two-page stories, and someone thinks this shows enough competence to pay me a salary plus benefits. In a just world, I'm tarred and feathered and run out of town. The best part, though, is the students, working with them, getting to know them, seeing them grow into their voices, to have the confidence to follow through. I can't imagine not having that satisfaction at this point, just like I can't imagine giving up the Wrigley gig. Both are a part of me, part of my process, as much as my writing is. I admire the heck out of people like Junot Díaz and Lorrie Moore and Tim O'Brien, people who probably don't have to teach anymore but still do. Even if I had a best seller or prizewinner or got some major film deal, I think I'd teach. What would I do all day if I didn't? Write? I think I'm supposed to say that, that I'd write ten hours a day and ready my Infinite Jest or my Gravity's Rainbow. I don't think I'm ready for that—let's get to seven pages before we get to 700.
I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life, Czyzniejewski's third book and second with Curbside Splendor, is being released later this month, but is already available for preorder on Cubside's website.