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.

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