Humor & Heartbreak: a Review & Interview with Michael Czyzniejewski

The term “love story” can cause an array of reactions: gushing, eye rolling, a person to utter, “ugh, another one?” I have to admit, I’m a sucker for love stories, but even me, the hopeless romantic, can get sick of the same redundant plot line. Many tend to follow the same boring path ending with a beautiful sunset, but what about the flip side of love? Michael Czyniejewski explores the less fluffy side of love in his short story collection, I Will Love You For the Rest of My Life. Read on to hear from the author himself on how this book came to be.

Kristen Nathan: Many people use the same storyline over and over with a happily ever after. You took a different approach, and by different, you cracked open some of the biggest faults people can have in relationships. What made you want to write a book of breakup stories?

Michael Czyniejewski: “I didn’t set out to” is the easy answer, because I didn’t. About a year and a half after my second book came out, I knew it was time to get going on a new project. I’ve been working on a novel forever, and that wasn’t clicking, so I looked to see what else I had going. I’d written a lot of stories, a lot of shorts, so I thought of doing a book of shorts, and when I got the files together, that’s just what it was: Sadness. So I sent those to Curbside and made my pitch and they liked the idea. The title was pretty crucial. I wrote seven-eight more stories to round out the book, which for some reason, are all the longer stories—I guess trying to write breakup stories means I write longer ones.

But I think you’re really asking why I wrote all these stories to begin with. I guess it’s subconscious, just the conflict that I go with more often than not. Sometimes, the relationship mishaps are in the background, sort of a sub-story, but often, they’re the focus. I’m not particularly damaged in any way, nor am I some heartless bastard. I’ve had my share of bad breakups, and at 15, 17, 21, 27, they were pretty monumental. Devastating. But no, I’m okay now.

Have I convinced you yet that I’m okay? Because I am.

KN: Uh huh, sure… I’ve heard to calculate how long it takes to get over an ex is to take the duration of your relationship and divide it by two. Who knows the accuracy with that…but anyway.

What I loved about the book was the way it kept me on my feet. Each story had some unique surprise. Even the three page stories had a punch that left me going, “Wait, what?!” Especially “You Had Me at Zoo.” I’d love to watch an ex back-flip into a bear cage.   Which was your favorite to write?

MC: I really love “Space” for some reason, which is odd, because that’s the only story in the book I couldn’t place. But I love the comedy elements of it, pure sitcom, the mistress traipsing around in the nude in front of the Skype … from space. Writing it was like the old fortune cookie trick, where you add “… in bed” to every fortune. Only with this story, I added “… from space” to everything that happened and for some reason I cracked a smile every time.

KN: I know that fortune cookie trick well. The best part about it is my boyfriend’s grandma was always who initiated it. The humor in the book helps it to not be overloaded with sadness.

Some of these stories contain raunchy details and brutal truths. Did you find yourself coming out of your comfort zone at any point when writing this?

MC: I feel for my characters in this book, feel for them greatly. I am particularly sad for the guy in “Opal Forever” because he’s so sure of himself, so sure it’s forever when it happens, when the rug’s pulled out. It was really hard to write about the shut-in woman in “All Out” because she’s so desperate, so alone. I read “Memorare for the Ding Dong” and I’m always able to cry at the end when everyone’s in the minivan, crying. I don’t like going any of those places, but that’s where this book, once it was decided, had to go.

KN: If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, the best pieces of work develop when we find we’re afraid of where we’ve allowed ourselves to go. Something else that can be intimidating with writing is experimenting with form. You allowed yourself to play with not just the words but their arrangement, including numerical lists, outlines, fragments and longer narratives.

How did you come upon the idea of changing format and ultimately what made you go that route?

MC: I owe a lot to Lindsay Hunter and Amelia Gray for their short-short book because they really challenged the way a story a can be told. They made me realized that this is the beauty of the two-page story, that you can get away with experimental forms and even ideas because it’s only two pages. I tell my students the same thing: Write shorts to try the things no one will put up with for seventeen pages, let alone an entire novel. I like the outline story in my book a lot, but that’s about as far as anyone was going to put up with that. It’s so great that this format allowed me to try it, though, and have it be what it is, before anyone could start thinking about it too much.

KN: Agreed on the outline story. Even in that length I found myself skimming it because it got overwhelming and overloaded reading those long phrases repeatedly. Are there any stories that didn’t make the cut?

MC: Sure. I think I’ve forgotten them, though. I feel like the momma spider who lays five hundred eggs and drops a couple on the way up the web. I have thirty stories in my book, so who cares if a couple get lost in the shuffle?

But yeah, Peter Jurmu, who did the final edits, pointed at several and said no, that they were either redundant or just weren’t that good. Ouch, like breakup ouch.

KN: Our writing is like our baby. Even if it is 30 babies who got lost along the way.

When it comes to naming pieces I feel like it either falls right into place or takes a while to think up. I spotted the line, “I will love you for the rest of my life,” in “Opal Forever” and wondered, why this line? How did you know you wanted that to be the title?

MC: I remember the exact moment I thought of this title. I was just driving home with my family, it was dark, and it popped into my head. I’d wanted to get “breakup” in the title somehow and was working with that but getting nowhere. Then it hit me to put it in a subtitle, to have a subtitle, so I started playing with lead-ins. There were grim and serious ideas, like Hearts Asunder: Breakup Stories, but that’s not really something that represents the spirit of the book, the humor or irony. So, like I often do, I went for the joke. As soon as I thought of it, I knew it was it. I said it out loud to my wife and she thought it was right on, too.

To note, someone on the design team, at the very last second, noticed that “breakup” is one word, when I and everyone else had it hyphenated for the first year we worked on it. That was a nice catch.

KN: I love those a-ha! moments. Especially with titles. You know when it’s right. I have to say that I’m glad you didn’t use breakup in the title and went the more creative route. Also, thank you for teaching me how to spell breakup correctly.

Now that you’ve completed this book and you look back on the process from beginning to end, is there anything you’d do differently? How will that factor as you move forward with your next project?

MC: I told Peter when we still had six months to finish the ARC that I didn’t want to leave anything on the table. My second book, Chicago Stories, offered fictional monologues from forty famous Chicagoans and what I got from everyone, after they read it, was “Hey, why didn’t you do Mike Ditka?” “Why didn’t you do Al Capone?” So with this one, I wanted to cover breakups from all angles, from those who did the breaking, to those who were broken, to peripherals. I wanted to use different definitions of breakup, like I do in “Hot Lettuce,” the breakup of a band. I wanted to be funny and sad and both at the same time. I just didn’t want to read a review and hear, “Czyzniejewski had the chance to really explore the meaning of the breakup, but seemingly left a lot of stones un-turned.” That’s the most intentional and premeditated I’ve been about a book of mine.

I think I want to get away from the themed collection if I do stories again. It was fun, twice in a row, and kept me focused, but also limited me with what I could do. So if I do stories again, I think I’d like the theme to be more subtle; there it is if you’ve read the book, but not there on the cover, in the title.

KN: Exploring the subject from unique angles was definitely accomplished. From being unfaithful, the breakup of a band as you mentioned, to pushing ourselves to move past the one we thought was our “forever,” there’s a story in there for everyone.

What is next for you after this?

MC: I should probably write that novel. It’s about my part-time gig, slinging beers in the aisles at Wrigley. I start this year on the Fourth of July and am hoping to be inspired—by beer vending, not the patriotism. I do have another, more random collection of stories, done. But I have time—this book’s only four months old and I don’t start touring for another couple weeks!

KN: I can only imagine the experiences you will have while serving beer to die-hard sports fan. Especially Chicago fans.

While you explored this topic, what do you ultimately think is the most complicated aspect of love?

MC: Oh, true to the book, it’s definitely longevity. I think love, in my experience, has to adapt. It starts out really great with anyone, even people you’re not remotely a match for, but then it hits a wall. Either you need to move on, or you’re lucky and you really have found the person you should be with. I hit many walls and just once, with the last one, did I want to adapt and move on. It’s been so fantastic, worth all the heartaches.

KN: I think for many the hard part is recognizing when that wall has been hit and finding the strength to continue on without them. Sometimes…you just know.

Do you believe in fate?

MC: Oh yeah. As noted in the previous question, I think my wife and I were destined to not only be in love, but to be partners, raise children together, live together, fight with each other, and be artists together—she’s a poet. Can’t imagine myself with anyone else, especially not any of the others—hate to admit this, but all of them were right when they broke it off with me! So sorry I couldn’t see that then.

KN: In the end, love is one of the things that shapes us the most as human beings and I appreciate the way you brought to light the less popular side of love in such an experimental way. I look forward to seeing what you uncover next!


 I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life

By

Michael Cyzniejewski

Curbside Splendor

2015

139 pages

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