Monday, January 2, 2017

Blogging for literary citizenship: An interview with Michael Czyzniejewski

I’m two days in to a blog project that has me writing a review of a poetry collection each day, but I’ve got nothing on my partner, fiction writer Michael Czyzniejewski, who spent the 366 days of 2016 writing daily reviews of fiction collections—an even more ambitious task.

I was impressed to see Czyzniejewski complete his task every day without fail, no matter what was going on in his life or who might be telling him, “You know, I really despise that damn blog.”

I recently (as in, today, right now, from the back seat of the car) had a chance to interview Czyzniejewski as he drove to Chicago in his typical style—stingy with bathroom stops, his hand resting on the seat back beside him and blocking my view. We were between public radio stations and I’d already read us some Emerson out loud, so I needed a distraction. I began (a few moments in the future from right now) to ask him some questions.

Me: What was your favorite aspect of the Story366 project?

MC: Oh, reading all the books—consuming all those voices, all those aesthetics, all those different perspectives, but mostly it was getting to read. Reading is the pleasure in itself, and that’s what I got to do the whole time, was just read good books.

Me: Were there any downsides? Like, did you miss having fun with your beautiful family?

MC: Even reading 366 collections, I put only a small dent in the number of collections I wanted to read. I still have a hundred collections at my house that I haven’t covered yet. Also, I made a rule that I couldn’t do a book that I’d read before, and I had to exclude a lot of my closest friends because I’d already read their books—people like Seth Fried, Al Heathcock. Aimee Bender, Karen Russell, Shannon Cain—it seems like they should be in the project, but they’re not, because I’d read their books, and I’d made the stupid rule.

Me: What about your beautiful family?

MC: What about them?

Me: Didn’t it take you away from them a whole bunch and make you feel crummy?

MC: Not only did the project take me away from my family, but with a deadline pressing, it affected my mood. I was stressed sometimes. But I think that’s how it is with any pursuit that you carry through. When you have pursuits like that, some kind of regimen, it has the potential to cause stress in your life.

Me: What is your chief writerly takeaway? And why are your windshield wipers still on?

MC: Because it was rainy and foggy. Wait, is that going on the blog?

Me: Yeah.

MC: I think I understand now more than ever that different writers do different things well. Writers find their voice and they do something really, really well, and they write a book and that book is published, and some of those ways of writing books I can’t do and I never will do—and that’s OK. I’m never going to be the same writer Lee Smith is, or David Gates, or Junot Diaz; they’re all really talented, and they have an aesthetic that’s completely different from mine, but I’ve come to admire them for that, and to respect the difference, more than I ever had before. Alice Munro’s probably the best example of that.

Me: Don’t you think you should turn on your headlights? It’s pretty drizzly.

MC: My headlights have been on this whole time. How about if I take care of the driving and you do backseat things.

Me: How about if you move your arm?

Also me: What writer most rewarded your close investigation?

MC: Oh, wow—one writer?

Me: You can give me a few.

MC: People who I’d never read before—Amber Dermont. I’d never read her before and I absolutely loved everything she wrote. I loved Katie Chase’s book. John Jodzio. Shane Hinton is somebody I liked a lot. Tara Ison.

Me: Who had you read some but didn’t really get until you encountered them within the confines of the project?

MC: Oh, OK. 

Me: Cop.

MC: I’m not doing anything wrong.

Also MC: A person I hadn’t read in fifteen years probably that I read and I said “Wow” after every paragraph was Lee K. Abbott. I really liked sitting down with Lee K. Abbott again after all that time. He’s truly a master storyteller. I appreciate him now more than ever. I just thought he wrote good stories, but now I see how he constructs them and how he tells them, and everything is just amazing.

Me: I won’t ask for a name. We’d be poor ambassadors if we talked smack about writers. But did you read any popular writers you found to be overrated? And in what way?

MC: I don’t like the term “overrated” because I think the idea of rating is kind of a misnomer,. Who’s rating them? Does that mean they sell a lot of books? Is their name bigger than the title on the cover? I don’t think there’s anyone like that in the project anyway. People in the world of short stories, when they become popular as a story writer, they have to earn that. This isn’t Hollywood. People don’t get put into literary magazines because they have the pretty face or the six-pack abs. They earn their way. I don’t think there’s anybody like that. They do have talent; maybe it’s not my own aesthetic, but they do what they do, and they do it really well.

Me: Look at that big Trump billboard.

MC: [Shakes head.]

Me: Tell me about the withdrawal you’re feeling.

MC: It was this morning at about 1:30 that it just hit me—wow, I didn’t do a post! I’d been doing all this stuff, and there was this feeling that I’d just forgot. I was thinking around 9 o’clock that I’d just do one, but I had to get off that path. If I’d done one last night, I would have done one today, and when would it end? … I kind of missed that I hadn’t read a new short story that day.

Me: This was an exercise in literary citizenship. Is that principle an important one to you?

MC: It’s the most important one to me. It’s very easy for this writing pursuit to be selfish—for it to be all about you, and you wanting other people to give you affirmation and publication and credit, and that’s an important part of it, but at the same time, if everyone was selfish, there would be no reason for us to exist. The only reason I have a publishing career is because people decided to start small presses, and they decided that they wanted to do this.

Wait, what is that? Whoa, it’s a dude with an umbrella. It looked like a mushroom walking across the highway. Where was I?

Me: [Reads back.]

MC: In any case, people decided that there weren’t enough presses and there were too many good authors who deserved to have books out. As a result, I have three collections of stories published. I think that’s true of a lot of the books I covered in my blog this year. Whether they’re small presses, or they’re the large ones, when I tagged all those presses in the post every day, I realized that—especially if you go to the Penguin site or the Knopf/Doubleday site—there’s a history to each press, and you read them, and it’s always about someone loving books and wanting to bring these voices to the masses. There’s never any notion of, “Oh, let’s start a big press because we want to make money selling books.” Maybe that’s an underlying motive, but there are always stories about pioneers starting presses because they loved books. We need to keep that going.

Me: Anything else you’d like to say?

MC: You know, I just saw the umbrella out of the corner of my eye, and it really did look like a giant mushroom walking across the overpass. And thinking about how we were going 72 miles per hour, I can’t say it wasn’t a giant mushroom walking across the highway. We’ll never know.