Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of two story collections, Elephants in Our Bedroom, released by Dzanc Books in 2009, and the forthcoming Chicago Stories, due this coming spring from Curbside Splendor. He teaches at Bowling Green State University, where he serves as Editor-in-Chief of Mid-American Review. In 2010, he received a fellowship in fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Jean Baptiste Point du Sable Settles at the Mouth of the Cuyahoga River,” “Nathan Leopold Explains the Ferris Wheel to Richard Loeb, Wolf Lake, 1924,” and “Gil Scott-Heron Leaves a Voicemail for R. Kelly, February 3, 2002” all appear in Issue Thirty One of The Collagist.
Here, Michael Czyzniejewski talks to interviewer Joseph Scapellato about Chicago history, multiple writing processes, and the origin of the term "dramatic fictions."
1. “Jean Baptiste Point du Sable Settles at the Mouth of the Cuyahoga River,” “Nathan Leopold Explains the Ferris Wheel to Richard Loeb, Wolf Lake, 1924,” and “Gil Scott-Heron Leaves a Voicemail for R. Kelly, February 3, 2002” all appear in Chicago Stories, your new book—can you tell us a little about how these particular pieces fit into this collection? In what ways do they resonate with the collection as a whole?
All three of these pieces are stories that I had to a bit of research on, which is what I wanted to do for the book, just to make it as well rounded and diverse as I could. Early in the Chicago Stories project, I was able to write quite a few of them without doing much research. I knew who Oprah was. I knew who Dennis DeYoung was. I knew who Mr. T was. And while I’d heard of all the persons you bring up here, I didn’t necessarily understand enough about how they fit into Chicago history, or more importantly, how I could write a story about them that would be relevant today, contain an element of irony, and still make sense in the grand scheme of history. I think these people represent different periods of Chicago’s history, represent different people. The book has historical figures and pop culture icons, live people and dead people, inanimate objects and abstractions. I think they contribute to the balance of the overall Chicago perspective, something I was aware of initially when I set out on this project.
2. Where (or how) did these pieces generally begin for you?
The book has a few different types of pieces, but I start with the same initial goal: To try to combine at least 2 or 3 elements of Chicago history together, things that don’t necessarily fit together (but sometimes do), or like I said, something ironic, and go from there, a person with a person, a person with an event, etc. The du Sable piece is one type of piece, as it really isn’t about du Sable, but kind of a jab at Cleveland, something that references the famous Jordan shot over Ehlo in that 1989 playoff game. I didn’t set out for the piece to not be about du Sable, but I knew I wanted to do a du Sable piece and this is what popped into my head, how Chicago, at the corner of one lake, has its history, and Cleveland, at the corner of another, has its. I left room in the collection for pieces like that: Pieces that diverge from the expected, though du Sable, Chicago’s first permanent settler, only gets named, nothing else, which sometimes happened.
The Leopold & Loeb piece sort of does that, as it places these two young men at the scene of their grisly murder (or at least where they dumped the body), but then riffs on Chicago’s tie to the Ferris Wheel, never mentioning the murder, just utilizing Leopold’s elitism, letting the reader insert the context for him or herself.
The Gil Scott-Heron/R. Kelly is more direct, something I envisioned one saying to the other. This piece came to me late—it’s the last piece I wrote, if I’m not mistaken. I needed one more story for the book (to make the 40), and I had a list of 5 or 6 names that I wanted to do a story on, including Scott-Heron and Kelly. Eventually, I thought of pairing them, both of them in the music industry, and when I listened to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” I knew exactly what it was going to be and mimicked that cadence and style as closely as I could, writing it immediately, listening to the recording on a repeat loop until I was done.
Most of the stories came about like that, me with a list of names, places, events, etc., and mentally drawing lines from one to another. What would be funny? What would be scary? What doesn’t make any sense at all?
3. One of my favorite things about these pieces is their engagement with history and pop culture. Here we have an alternate city-foundation myth, an explanation of the Ferris Wheel from one infamous Chicago murderer (Nathan Leopold) to another (Richard Loeb), and a damning voicemail from one Chicago musician (Gil Scott-Heron) to another (R. Kelly). I’d love to hear how history and pop culture are (or aren’t) the engine of these works—how would you characterize your writerly relationship with this kind of source material?
Chicago has so much history and so much pop culture. It’s a city that’s easy to do a project like this on, as so much has happened, important things and not so important things. Any city is like that, probably, but Chicago works well for outsiders, too. When I started out, I wrote a lot of the pieces that were important to me, things I remembered from watching the news, things that stuck with me. I wrote one of the stories on Skip Dillard, an ex-DePaul basketball star who robbed some convenience stores after his playing career ended, then did some time. I remember that story, his fall from grace, as much as I remember any part of Chicago history because I remember him missing a key free throw in a tournament loss, then remember watching the news when he got arrested. Both stories—the missed FTs and the robberies—were 30-second snippets, but they stood out to me. The same thing with Gary Dotson, who was maybe the first person (I checked: second!) in America to be released from prison because DNA evidence overturned his conviction, yet he was rearrested at bar a couple of days later—in my hometown of Calumet City—on Christmas Eve! So, a lot of the stories, especially the characters who aren’t as obvious as Roger Ebert or Barack Obama, are stories I personally needed to tell. There’s probably a good balance between these and the ones I researched, the ones I had to discover for the project, the ones that the curious reader will have to look up.
4. You’ve called the pieces in Chicago Stories “dramatic fictions.” I love the flexibility this term allows: one reads like mournful wishful thinking, another like an extemporaneous mini-lecture, another like a terrible curse. How did you come to the term “dramatic fictions,” and what do you hope it signals to readers?
Firstly, the “dramatic” element comes from the fact that they’re monologues, that they are to be read as such, as rants, as responses, as what their titles indicate. Chicago is the Windy City, after all, not for weather but for its windbags. I like how that fit in.
Originally, it wasn’t “fictions,” but “vignettes,” something the editor, Jacob Knabb, came up with as a subtitle. Something about that didn’t ring right with me, mostly because if I had to, I couldn’t give an honest, 100% correct definition of a vignette without looking it up. I think we settled on “fictions” more than anything for legal reasons: I consulted with a lawyer-type on these, just to make sure that all these stories (on living subjects) fell under fair commentary and criticism protection: As long as the word “fiction” appeared on the cover or on the legal page, I was okay. So since I didn’t like “vignettes” and I like how “fiction” can describe so many types of stories and writing, we went with that. So, in the end, I like the title, but it’s also our “You can’t sue me, Hasselhoff!” gesture.
5. What other writing projects are you working on right now?
I have a finished collection of stories, a collection that was actually done before Chicago Stories. I’m still tweaking it, but I think in principle, it’s ready to be read. When the Chicago Stories project was officially a go, I was working on a novel, one that I’ve been tooling with for a few years. It’s about a beer vendor at Wrigley Field, a job I’ve held for 20-something years, though the character isn’t necessarily me—in fact, it’s kind of my id, if not everyone’s id. I need to work on that novel again now, as I was on a roll before the Chicago Stories project took over (thankfully). I hope to have a draft done by the end of the summer. Otherwise, I try to write shorts all the time, at least one a week, as it keeps me sharp, keeps my non-novel ideas from distracting me, keeps me with stuff to send out to journals. So, in other words, I wish there were more hours in the day.
6. What great books have you been reading recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
I was just at AWP, so I picked up some things I desperately want to read. Matt Mullins’ book, Three Ways of the Saw, is just out, and I’m eager to read that. I also got Amelia Gray’s new book, Threats, Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake, Matt Bell’s Cataclysm, Baby, Lawrence Coates’ The Garden of the World, and Christine Sneed’s Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry. I’m in a new anthology called Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings and I’ve been reading that since I got back; it’s a lot of fun. I recently finished Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors. My book of the year so far, the book I’ve enjoyed the most, is Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! Witty, sharp, a one-sitting read. Eat it up.
7. Tell us something we don’t know about Chicago.
There’s a golf course on the beach on the North Side and it’s teeming with raccoons.