Monday, January 31, 2011

5 (or so) Questions with Michael Czyzniejewski

It's finally time for our first 5 (or so) Questions feature of the new year! I was fortunate enough to speak with Michael Czyzniejewski via email about his story in the current issue, "The Amnesiac in the Maze" as well as the distress of being trapped in a corn maze, inspiration (glad I'm not the only one inspired by the Transformers cartoons), and of course, the Wizard of Oz.

9L: The details of how the amnesiac handles his prolonged time in the cornfield -- fashioning husks into clothes, the way he compares the stalks to sitting against the wall in bed -- feel so right on and immerse the reader in the setting with him that I have to ask, have you ever been trapped in a cornfield? If not, did you do any kind of research for the story in terms of knowing the physical details of how he'd interact with the environment?

Michael Czyzniejewski: This story is one of the few I've ever written that came out of a real life experience. A couple of falls ago, my family and I visited a local farm, pretty much exactly like the one in the story, with a little general store in the barn that sold gourds, a petting zoo, pig races, apple cider, and a ridiculously large corn maze. We went inside. Despite there being several "clues" to help visitors along, me, my wife, and our 3-year-old son spent about an hour trying to find our way out. Aside from the whole thing being more enormous than it had to be, it offered a half-assed Wizard of Oz theme, which I used a bit in the story. Worse, there were signs that sported clues, and the clues were things like, "The Tin Man is rusting out! If he's good, go left, and if he's bad, go right!" or "The Wicked Witch says the Scarecrow knows which way the sun rises," things that didn't make sense or help at all. It was also getting dark. After a long while, we ran into a young couple (also in the story), also visitors, who seemed like they knew the way because they'd gotten out before. Then they got lost along with us. When we finally escaped, we stopped by the barn on the way to the car to sort of gripe about how difficult the maze had been to maneuver, but everything was shut down, nobody was around. This meant that if we got lost in the maze, no one was coming to find us, that they didn't keep track. We knew we could just plow through the walls, but I was surprised that this was a legitimate option, that it could ever come to that, that the farmers/owners would want that, just a bunch of visitors either lost in the maze or forced to destroy it if they wanted to go home. I wonder if there aren't people still in there. Right now. How would they know?

On top of all this, I'm super claustrophobic. It's not even funny. My wife had to talk me into going, and the fact that I couldn't find my way out made me a bit crazy. Probably more than a bit. Definitely more.

The moral: I will NEVER go into a corn maze again.

9L: One of the things I really loved about this story and provided so much psychological richness is that the amnesiac being lost in the maze is self imposed. He says pretty early on in the story that he knows he could just bust through the corn and be out, but he doesn't want to compromise the integrity of the maze for other guests, so there's a concern for not ruining the journey for anyone. Yet, at the same time, he does want to find the exit and remember who he was before the maze. How did you go about balancing those aspects of his psychology?

MC: That was the big trick of being lost in a corn maze, as I mentioned: You can always just push down the stalks if you want out. When I started the story, I'd gotten a few pages in before I remembered this, so I had to go back and do something to make it believable, or else the story wasn't going to work. That's when I started inventing his quirks, his relationship to the place, and most of all, the rules he lived by from with inside his own head. I'd meant for it to be absurd, and I think that's the way it comes off, and I think the amnesia helps me out in that aspect, too. Most of all, by the end, I wanted the reader to start thinking that maybe he had problems outside of the amnesia, that before the condition started, he was already pretty lost.

9L: On a similar thought, and maybe this is close (too close?) to the previous question, his short term memory in intact, so it's not like Memento where he's constantly forgetting and needing reminders of his present. Rather his life has been separated into pre and post amnesia. Was it difficult or freeing to write a character that doesn't remember anything than his most recent past?

MC: I think that's a good way of putting it: He's free. Anyone else, someone would eventually care, come looking, or he would have just gotten out the hard way. The amnesia worked because it gave him an excuse to lose all sense of priority and urgency. Only a person who has nothing to escape to would make this choice, decide to become part of the maze rather than disturb the world. I think I also wanted him to succeed at this task, to find his way out legitimately, just so he could remain pure. If he cheated, busted through, that would be his first act, what defined him: failure and destruction. All the maze metaphors -- being lost, taking wrong paths, one bad decision snowballing into chaos -- worked a lot better because of his purity, his desire to do right by himself and this attraction.

9L: What inspires you? Are you a writer that draws inspiration from music, movies, and TV as well as from reading?

MC: I'm inspired by a lot of things, everything you list. I was a kid who spent a lot of time in front of the TV and a lot of time at the library. I read all the Encyclopedia Brown books, the Choose Your Own Adventure books, and a few Hardy Boys mysteries, but also watched Saturday afternoon monster movies, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Barney Miller, and One Day at at Time. So pop culture has had a definitive impact. But I also read the classics, was stuck in the Boy Scouts a while, traveled the U.S, and watched the news and then Johnny Carson with my parents.

That type of mix is something that continues today. I can watch zombie movies on the couch while flipping to a documentary at commercials, all while having a story collection open on my lap. I read CNN pretty religiously, keep an eye on Facebook updates, and on top of everything, follow sports and sports stats like crazy.

So I have a lot of informing me, a lot from the now, a lot I remember, and a lot lost deep in my brain that is probably contributing without me knowing.

Oh, and Wikipedia.

9L: Part of the amnesiac's journey is his transformation into the scarecrow and you mentioned the corn maze that inspired the story had a Wizard of Oz theme, so it begs the question, if you were a character from the Wizard of Oz, which one would you be?

MC: Without a doubt the Cowardly Lion. I'm big and hairy and put on a good game face, but really, I'm more puddy tat than king of the jungle.

Thank you so much, Mike, for taking the time to answer my questions!

To read Michael Czyzniejewski's "The Amnesiac in the Maze" and the rest of the awesome poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in vol. 7, no. 2, pick up a copy in our webstore.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Amnesiac in the Maze

Tomorrow, I'll be presenting a new 5 (or so) Questions with Mike Czyzniejewski. His story "The Amnesiac in the Maze" is featured in the current issue. To gear up for the interview and in case you haven't gotten your copy of the new issue, which you should because it's a stunner, here is an excerpt from the story.

The amnesiac, during his time in the maze, is by no means alone. Other people, other visitors to the farm, come and go through the maze every day. The amnesiac assumes that the busier days, always two in a row, are weekends, and starts to count time in that way. Before long, he knows when it will be Saturday and that gives him solace, to know at least that much. Like most people out in the world, he starts to look forward to the weekends. He enjoys others, and most of all, hopes that one of them will help him find his way. So far, they haven't, but he looks forward to running into them, anyway. He decides he is sociable, wonders if he was always sociable. If that's the first piece of the puzzle.

At night, the amnesiac sleeps in the dirt, nestled against a row of stalks like he would lie against the wall in his bed. Corn is firm enough to support his weight, yet surprisingly pliable, like an outstretched arm from a lover, or maybe his mother. Occasionally, he wakes with something crawling on his face, inside his clothes. Even in the moonlight, he does not check to see what it is. He'd rather let it be, let it cross him like a road and allow it to move on. He'd rather become part of the ecosystem that is the corn maze than disturb it any more than he already has.

The amnesiac tries, several hours a day, to recoup his past. Without any distractions, without outside stimuli, he figures he will be able to concentrate. Everywhere he looks, it is either corn, dirt, or sky. As he ambles along, he expects flashes of his memory to come back to him, for his subconscious to kick in, offer up some clues. There is no scientific evidence to back this, nor are there documented cases of this theory proving correct. But the amnesiac doesn't know that. He's trapped in a corn maze and speculation, along with hope, is all he really has.

To read the rest of "The Amnesiac in the Maze," stop by our webstore to order a copy of the current issue, vol. 7, no. 2.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Contributor Round-up

Here are some contributor updates:

Dan Chaon's (vol. 4, no. 2) novel Await Your Reply has been chosen by the Mesa County Public Library for their One Book, One Mesa County project. If you click over, you can read more about the project and see the excellent trailer for the novel.

The Staff Recommends put together a reading list of Midwest literature, "Readings from the Flyover Country," which includes The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day (vol. 6, no. 2 and vol. 7, no. 1) The list was necessary because as they put it, these are "books and writers who would be better know if we Midwesterners believed in horn tooting, but we don't because no likes a horn tooter, and there's nothing so special about you that deserves tooting about anyway." Perhaps this is a call to start horn tooting about all the great Midwest writers!

Jedediah Berry (current issue, vol. 7, no.2) is profiled as part of the feature, "The Pleasures of Strangeness," about the wonderful Small Beer Press.

Dark Sky announced their updated list of forthcoming books and The Novelist and The Rapper by Mickey Hess (vol. 4, no. 1) will be released on March 1, 2012. Congratulations!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Contributor News

Vanishing Point by Ander Monson (vol. 1, no. 2 & vol. 6, no. 2) is a finalist in the criticism category for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The NEA has posted bios and excerpts of work from the recipients of the 2010 Literature Fellowships: Prose. 9Lers Roy Kesey (vol. 1, no. 2, vol. 3, no. 2 & vol. 7, no. 2), Mike Czyzniejewski (vol. 7, no. 2), and Adam Johnson (vol. 1, no. 2) are among the fellowship recipients.

Congratulations everyone!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Vol. 7, no. 2

As we go into a cold, snowy weekend, I just wanted to post a reminder, in case you didn't already know that the new issue of Ninth Letter (vol. 7, no. 2) is available to buy in our webstore. It's a great issue to curl up with on the couch. This issue contains new work from D.A. Powell, Charlotte Pence, Peter Orner, Margot Singer, Mike Czyzniejewski, and Mary Miller. Over at the current issue page, you can see the full table of contents and samples of the design spreads. Although seeing pictures of it doesn't quite do the design justice as it's meant to be something you interact with as you read.

I'll have some other excerpts from the issue over the next few weeks. In the meantime, vol. 7, no. 2 contributor Matt Bell has posted an excerpt from "Virgil, Virotte, Vitalis," one of his three stories from the issue over on his blog.

In her editor's note, Jodee, thanks the individuals, organizations, and supporters who Ninth Letter could not exist without. It must be repeated that we are extremely grateful for everyone's support! And as always, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Monster Mags of the Midwest!

The AWP 2011 countdown continues. Here's a reminder that one event you should put on your schedule is the joint Ninth Letter/The Cincinnati Review/Mid-American Review reading or as it is now known, Monster Mags of the Midwest!

As The Cincinnati Review's blog post puts it, join us "for a fearsome night of reading, Heartland-style, with plenty of poetry, fiction, and beer on tap. Lots of bread, too, for some reason."

There's a great line-up of readers: Lucy Corin, Bob Hicok, Cate Marvin, Erika Meitner, and Kevin Wilson. Head on over to The Cincinnati Review blog for bios and a fun fact about each reader.

Here are the rest of the details for the event.

Date: Saturday, February 5
Time: 7pm
Place: Bread & Brew, 1247 20th St., Washington, DC, 20036 (phone 202-466-2676)

Hope you can make it. It will be a lot of fun!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Process and Writing the Big Thing

As a reader, I'm endlessly curious about how/why a story was put together a certain way, which is why it's such a frequent question in my 5 (or so) questions interviews. It amazes me how writers can take so many different paths to get where they need to go.

So I was happy to see Fiction Writer's Review has compiled a series of quotes about the writing process from interviews they'd done with various authors, including 9L contributors Dan Chaon (vol. 4, no. 2) and Benjamin Percy (vol. 6, no. 2), in the FWR Flipbook: My Writing Process on their Facebook page. Links to the original FWR interviews where the quotes were pulled from are also included.

Today, The Millions posted Cathy Day's (vol. 6, no. 2) fascinating new essay, "The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia's Novel Crisis." It discuss how the typical workshop set up can discourage students working on longer projects ("The Big Thing"). Turns out when it comes to writing shorter isn't always better. The essay tackles a lot of interesting ground, including how to best help facilitate the kind of art a student/writer wants to create. It had me thinking about my own workshop experiences and remembering the joy of letting a project grow into something I could never have anticipated when I started. Be sure to check out Cathy's essay. It's a thought provoking read!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Submissions/Cover Letters

Just a friendly reminder that our online submission manager will reopen this upcoming Monday, January 17. Send us your best poetry, fiction or creative nonfiction. Watch the video below for some (humorous) advice from 9L contributor, Seth Fried (vol. 3, no. 2 & vol. 6, no. 1) on how to improve your cover letter.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Behind The Scenes

Here's a glimpse behind the scenes as we prepped the new issue (vol. 7, no. 2) for shipment to subscribers. Keep an eye out as it should be in your mailboxes soon. If you're not a subscriber, head on over to our webstore to sign up.

We'll have much more about the issue and the contributors in the upcoming days and weeks. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 06, 2011

News Round-up

Here are a few news items about 9L contributors and staff member alums:

Congratulations to Chris Abani (vol. 4, no. 1) and Lillian Bertram, former 9L staffer, for being named to Narrative Magazine's list of 20 Best New Writers.

Former 9L CNF editor, Steve Davenport, guest edited the current issue of Arsenic Lobster.

Mike Czyniejewski (vol. 7, no. 2) has "Top 10 Tops" on over Dzanc Books blog detailing his favorite things of 2010 in categories like, best scene, best short story chapbook, and best trend, among others.

Today's AWP 2011 news: 9L editor, Jodee Stanley, will a part of the "Beyond Times New Roman: The Literary Journal as Object" panel on Thursday, Feb. 3 at 4:30pm. The panel also includes the editors of 1913, 6x6, The Lumberyard Magazine, Luna Park Review, and Versal.

Monday, January 03, 2011

New Year

Good afternoon y'all. Hope you had a great holiday and are enjoying the new year! We're certainly looking forward to 2011 around the 9L offices. There are lots of exciting things coming up in the next weeks and months - the new issue and new interviews with contributors.

We'll be at AWP 2011 in DC. AWP isn't until the first week of February, but it's never too early to start planning. When you're walking around the book fair, come by and see us at table B23. We'll be in between the Mid-American Review and The Cincinnati Review. We've teamed up with them to offer a 3 for 1 subscription special (subscriptions to all 3 for $33!). Ninth Letter, MAR, and The Cincinnati Review will also be co-sponsoring an off-site reading on Saturday, February 5 at 7pm at Bread & Brew (1247 20th St., NW). Writers scheduled to appear: Lucy Corin, Bob Hicok, Cate Marvin, Erika Meitner, and Kevin Wilson.

For the first time, I'll be live blogging at AWP, catching up with contributors, talking with readers, and bringing you all the latest scoop on events.

It will be a lot of fun and of course we'll have cool swag at the table. More information as it becomes available.

Speaking of anticipation. The Millions put out a list of their most anticipated books of 2011 and some familiar 9L names made the list:

Ander Monson (vol. 1, no. 2 & vol. 6, no. 2) and Joe Meno (vol. 3, no. 2) have contributed pieces to The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books.

There is No Year by Blake Butler (vol. 5, no. 1)

Hot Pink by Adam Levin (vol. 1, no. 1)

Have a great day and we wish you the best for 2011. At the very least, there will be some great reading!