An Interview with Short Story Writer Michael Czyniejewski
On the value of short fiction, editing, and teaching
Michael Czyniejewski of Chicago, Illinois, is the author of four story collections. He earned his B.A. in Rhetoric at the University of Illinois and an M.F.A in Fiction at Bowling Green State University, where he taught for several years. He is currently a professor at Missouri State University.
Where Did it Begin?
When I asked writer Michael Czyzniejewski why he decided to become a writer, he laughed and said, "A moment of affirmation!"
When he was a teenager, he thought he "would be an artist, a comic book artist." Just as soon as this desire was born, however, he realized he was not as good of an artist as he wished to be. Eventually, someone who knew of his creative instincts told him he should be an engineer. "I was talked into it," Czyzniejewski said. "I was told engineers are creative." He decided to major in engineering during his undergraduate years but quickly decided he "didn't fit in."
When he zoned out during lectures, he took to drawing, but was told by one of his professors that it was distracting. Adamant that he needed a creative outlet to prevent him from experiencing boredom, he found an alternative. Rather than drawing, he began writing stories. "Looks like taking notes," he said. When he showed one of his stories to someone else, they told him it was funny. So he wrote another. And another.
By this point, it had become a "unanimous decision" that he should leave the engineering major. "Others were telling me I should leave," he said, "and I was telling myself. My GPA was telling me." He laughed, but at the same time acknowledged that, at the time, he "didn't want to fail at something else." That fear of failure, the desire for success, drove him to work hard at learning his new craft.
Wind and Amnesiac in the Maze
My introduction to Czyzniejewski's work began with his short story Wind. Its conversational style and opening line—"All of a sudden, nobody can explain wind"—were immediate hooks. I asked Czyzniejewski what the inspiration for the story was and what, from his perspective, are the main themes of the work. Laughing, he responded, "I have no idea." He went on to tell me the story is almost twenty-five years old, published in 1998. It is the first story in his first book, Elephants in Our Bedroom. "I remember the first line and nothing after that," he said. In contrast, when asked about Amnesiac in the Maze, his latest short fiction collection, his response was, "Yeah, that's a work that came out this past summer so I can talk about that a lot more easily."
The main concept of the book, Czyzniejewski states, is a "pretty old concept." He started writing the stories many years ago with his starting point for every story revolving around "title patterns" involving "character tropes" which were "ironic and interesting." Titles of stories in the collection include: The Time Traveler Laments, The Alien Assimilates, and The Hemophiliac Engages the Glass Eater. In the title story of the collection, The Amnesiac in the Maze, the story depends on subverting the expectation that in order to get out of a maze, one must remember how they got in.
Czyzniejewski went on to describe how he had written the collection "for a long time then put it aside for a while… then got back to it… Strange to go back to a project like that, but it's also good and satisfying, otherwise it would've been shelved for life. I'm glad that I got it going." The manuscript was ready for publication in 2019, but the pandemic hit and stalled the book's release. It was finally published in 2022.
Why Short Fiction?
"I think everybody's answer to that is that there's a lower attention span for [today's] readers," was Czyzniejewski's remark when asked why he prefers writing short fiction as opposed to novels. But he disagrees with the sentiment. He asserted that not only are novels more popular than short fiction, but, in fact, novel series are the most popular literary works in today's world. "When people read, they want to stay with it," he said.
Czyzniejewski has the opposite mindset, preferring short forms of fiction, and this is reflected in his writing process. "I usually come up with an idea and think it out in my head and write it out in one sitting… I'm not enthused about it anymore after taking a break and coming back."
Editing and Teaching
Central to Czyzniejewski's literary life is his editing work. Over the years, he has edited two literary journals, Mid-American Review and Moon City Review. "When you're an editor, you read so many different things… You read a lot of stuff that's not very good or not matched to your aesthetic." He described the types of works he and his team receive as a "full spectrum." In describing this "spectrum," he paraphrased writer Steve Almond: "Five percent of the work you get is really god awful. Five percent is really amazing. Everything else, ninety percent, is in the middle – an adequate submission – not memorable."
He says that as a professor, he also receives a variety of work from his students which fall in that spectrum. "Getting a student from the lower five percent to the middle ninety percent is easy. Getting a student from the middle ninety percent to the top five percent… hardest thing as a professor." But it's what he strives for.
Once in a while as an editor, he comes across a submission which is not yet publishable. The magazine is not willing to accept it, but there is something about the work that is "interesting." He often brings these pieces to his students for discussion as "a teaching moment."
Czyzniejewski strongly believes workshops are the best tool for students to become better writers. In a workshop, the student gets to hear firsthand how someone else has responded to their creation. They offer the developing writer something important, Czyzniejewski says. "A different perspective."
Above all else, Czyzniejewski asserts that the most important thing for developing writers to remember is that writers write, "Nothing's more valuable than you, writing."
Samhi C., a senior in the BFA program at Penn State Behrend, interviewed fiction writer Mike Czyzniejewski in anticipation of his visit to Behrend next week as part of the Smith Creative Writers Reading Series. Czyzniejewski will read from his work on Thursday, Oct. 5, at 6:00 p.m. in the Metzgar building. For more information visit: behrend.psu.edu