Smile Politely

Life between the bleachers and the plains

A short primer on Michael Czyzniejewski:

  • He’s an instructor in creative writing at Bowling Green State University (the one in Ohio, not Kentucky); 
  • He wrote a book of short stories called Elephants in Our Bedroom, which was published earlier this year by Dzanc Books
  • He splits his summers between Bowling Green and Chicago, where he’s a vendor at Wrigley Field
  • He’s a graduate of our very own University of Illinois
  • He’ll be reading from Elephants in Our Bedroom this afternoon at the Illini Union Bookstore at 4:30 p.m. as part of the Carr Reading Series, along with Matthew Gavin Frank

Czyzniejewski (a name for which copy and paste was invented) was kind enough to respond to my email questions with a very entertaining voice, which I’m sure will only be magnified in person. Duck out of work a little early and check it out.

Smile Politely: Is this part of a publicity tour for Elephants in Our Bedroom, or is this a one-off?

Michael Czyzniejewski: I think this is part of the tour, maybe the last real date. I have another reading scheduled in March, but really, this was the last one I made (date-wise) when I got everything together when the book was coming out. And a good way to end the series, I think, by coming home to the U of I and to Illinois.

From here on out, now that the book is nine months old, I think the rest are “one-offs.” Can’t really say you’re promoting a new book when your book isn’t new and so many people out there have newer books; it’s their time now, as I had mine. Time to write a new book, basically, and then I can start again.

Smile Politely: You’ve been editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review for almost 10 years now. Has the world of literary journals changed as much as other mediums with the widespread use of the internet? What do you like about working for MAR?

Michael Czyzniejewski: Even when I was an assistant editor back in ’95, there was talk of things going online, as a few fledgling publications had popped up. Of course, they were generally scoffed at. That’s not true today. I think there’s a lot respectability for online publications, not to mention things like Podcasts. Oh, and I saw two new iPhone app journals last week. Maybe that’s getting ahead of things, but the Internet isn’t going anywhere, and with the financial climate the way it is, that’s an easier model to swallow than printing, mailing, etc. The readership and accessibility can’t be argued with, either. I’m just glad that so many journals that are online have seemingly done it the right way, respecting the work that editors do, what they’re supposed to do in terms of publishing ethics. And I see that continuing, for both print and online publications, with only the occasional jerkwad.

I like finding stories at MAR still more than anything. I’ve met a lot of nice people and learned a lot about how to conduct a small, non-profit business, but really, I love finding great stories from a huge pile of stories, enjoying that work, and then getting it out there. With the thousands of stories I read each year, it’s so great to come across something that really catches my eye, piques my imagination. Calling the writer and letting them know, having them react, is also quite satisfying. So it’s always been about the stories.

Smile Politely: How do you balance working at Wrigley Field with your BGSU obligations? How many games do you work per season?

Michael Czyzniejewski: The good thing about Wrigley is I don’t have a set number of games I have to be at — I go whenever I want. In April and September, that means a few Saturday-Sunday trips, though this year, with things gone South, I missed the last weekend or two altogether. Too cold, too depressing, not a lot of beer sales. But once summer comes around, I try to make as many games as I can, within reason, especially the Fridays through Sundays. It depends what I have going on in Ohio, how much I want to be away from home, which is the hardest part. When I was single, I would do them all, just vend my ass off. But with family, there are other priorities than a second job, even if that second job is the best second job in the history of the world.

Smile Politely: How did you end up following the Cubs since you grew up on the South Side? Do your childhood friends still speak to you?

Michael Czyzniejewski: Most people were into the Cubs that I knew. The White Sox screwed up in the early 80s and went to cable, what I think was called ONTV. We didn’t have that. The Cubs were always on WGN when I came home from school — my mom still watches every game, as do I — so I’d get home around 2:30 and catch the fourth inning or so on. Plus there was the big year when I was 11, ’84, the team that really turned things around for that organization, for fan interest, as they went from 12,000 at every game to selling out. And it’s stayed that way since.

Sox fans? I think I met one once. Nice guy. I have nothing bad to say about him.

Smile Politely: What’s your strongest memory of attending U of I?

Michael Czyzniejewski: I used to see shows a lot, go to Mabel’s and the Blind Pig, which are both gone now. I think there’s a Pita Pit where Mabel’s used to be, which seems detrimental. I wonder what is at the site of the old CBGB’s — there’s at least a 40% chance that it’s a Starbucks, which depresses me. But I saw some good shows at those places, bands like Pavement and the Melvins. I loved a band called Dick Justice, a local band, named after the Dean of Discipline at the U of I. I remember wearing combat boots and flannel shirts and moshing a lot. And I guess I went to class and stuff during the day, read a lot of books.

Smile Politely: Which is flatter, Bowling Green or Champaign-Urbana?

Michael Czyzniejewski: Bowling Green seems flatter because the tall buildings in C-U are taller by a story or two. I don’t think that’s what you mean, though. But really, it’s easier to get to the open spaces in BG, so probably BG. They both are flatter than most things, and that’s okay, because I’m claustrophobic and I like seeing as far as I can see when I look straight ahead.

Smile Politely: You’re doing a joint reading with Matthew Gavin Frank. Do you know him personally or are you familiar with his work? If so, care to say a few words about him?

Michael Czyzniejewski: I remember Matt being here when I was here, just by sight, seeing him in the English Building, and if I’m not mistaken, at some shows. But we’ve been in touch since we found out we’re here together this week. He’s like me, I can tell, wanting to tell stories, to be gregarious in a crowd. It’s easy to see why he writes, to get that stuff down (and get credit for it). To not just be a mumbling crazy person who talks to himself.

Smile Politely: What advice would you give to aspiring short story or fiction writers? Is getting an MFA something that should be done? What’s the quickest route to fame and fortune?

Michael Czyzniejewski: The quickest route to fame and fortune is pyramid schemes involving celebrity and pro athlete money. If you want to write, though, an MFA is a pretty solid idea. You get the chance to work with great people who care about your writiing, who will give you good advice, who will answer all the questions that you need answering. It’s not necessary, but it helps. Plus you get two to three years where you’re SUPPOSED to be writing and reading. Overall, though, if you want to write, you’ll find the time, get those answers. I think if people want to write, they will. They’ll find a way. Otherwise, they’ll be very sad.

Smile Politely: If someone is unfamiliar with your work, what do you think should motivate them to come to your reading?

Michael Czyzniejewski: I’m pretty entertaining, I think, plus there’s a lot of cuss words, especially sexy ones, in my stories. I also take myself less seriously than most people, so I just try to have a good time. Did I mention the sexy cuss words?

Smile Politely: Of your published work, I’ve only read “Nephophobia“. What inspired the idea for that story?

Michael Czyzniejewski: That was going to be the first in a long line of phobia stories, me writing about people who have the different phobias, turning that into a book. About halfway into the third story, that got old, even for me, as every story was the same, me explaining the phobia, then putting the character up against it. It was not going to be a good book, so it ended there. With the cloud one, I think I looked at a list and clouds seemed like the most unlikely thing a person could be afraid of, so I started with that. But there’s some pretty wild phobias out there. I have a niece who is deathly afraid of butterflies. No joke. She screams and runs away like people do from bees or grizzly bears. It’s called lepidopterophobia. I guess Nicole Kidman has it, so that right there makes it a very real and very serious disorder.

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