Luke Rolfes: Michael Czyzniejewski’s brand new collection of stories entitled The Amnesiac in the Maze is out from Braddock Avenue Books. This book, sometimes devilishly funny, sometimes unabashedly heartfelt, is a collection of twenty-four mind-bending stories that surprise and delight. Congratulations on your new collection, Mike, and thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us!
Could you start things off by telling us about the idea for The Amnesiac in the Maze? This is your fourth collection of fiction. What was the genesis of this project, and did the process of construction differ from your previous books?
Michael Czyzniejewski: Thanks, Luke!
I think, like any project, it began by me doing something once, then doing it twice. Once I recognized the start of a pattern, I could start doing it over and over, immediately thinking “book project.” So I think I constructed it like any of the other three books, just a story at a time, when they came to me. But it took a while. When putting this together last year, as in the final copy, I realized that some of these stories were published in the mid-2000s, meaning I’d started in the early 2000s. That means I started the stories from this book before I started the stories from my third, I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life, which came out in 2015. It was a slow burn, the slowest, but I’m happy where it landed.
LR: One thing that jumped out to me, off the bat, is that you do a lot of referring to characters by identity roles. Most all of the story titles follow the format “The [identity role] does X.” Some of these identity roles are jobs. Others are labels placed on folks by society. Could you talk a bit about these labels? How does it shape your understanding of these characters when you refer to them so often by their identity roles instead of a name?
MC: I liked starting with the tropes or stereotypes, sometimes a little of both (if there is indeed a difference). I started with them wanting to do their thing, but instead, having to do the thing they least wanted to do, the opposite. Or the ironic. But the key was to start with someone/something that carried a lot of baggage, a lot of traits, etc., that people would recognize, basically so they’d “get” the joke. If you know what an atheist is, or a hypochondriac, a daredevil, a nihilist, etc., then the story works better. But I had faith—everyone knows what those are, the eccentricities of someone who’s lived with that identity.
One of the earlier stories is “The Atheist Reconsiders," and that was specifically about this case/situation from where I grew up, where a city park put up a crucifix and this one real local atheist spent over a decade—he was rich, bored, whatever—working to get it taken down. So that story wasn’t about all atheists, but sort of about one, one “type” of atheist, the one that insisted they be right. From there it was easy to do that, to cut these tropes into likely subsets, and go from there. Not every hemophiliac is deathly afraid of glass, but mine is. Not every nihilist hates people, but mine does. I think I just went where the interesting story was, and sometimes it worked. Others, it didn’t (and those are buried files on old hard drives).
LR: Speaking of labels, do you have a specific label that fits your own writing? Folks on the back cover have described this book as surreal, fabulist, fantastic, and experimental. Do you think of yourself as a certain style of writer, or do you see yourself as not fitting in any particular box?
MC: I think those are nice, as they all make me sound very interesting! But I don’t think it’s good to take that into writing, as labels limit you. If I sat down and started thinking, “Okay, time to be surreal here,” then that’s just a hurdle, one that steers ideas and stories into directions that maybe they’re not meant to go. Often, I can go there without trying—hence the labels—but I don’t think it’s good to get too caught up in that. I remember writing a magical realism story in grad school, then another, and was like, “I’m a magical realist now”—I would actually say that. Of course, heading into a new story project, I almost immediately hit a wall because suddenly I had to be García Márquez or Borges, and that’s tough. So, yeah, it’s already happened.
LR: One of the things I admire about your work is how you never turn people into caricatures, even the bad people of the world. I also appreciate the fearlessness of your writing. You handle taboo subjects in a way that gives them nuance and thought. You aren’t afraid to have a ventriloquist take up fluffing as a new career, for instance, or to write a story following around a recently released sex offender who works as a custodian at a college and dials numbers written on bathroom stalls. Can you walk us through how you find story inside what others might find taboo?
MC: Oh, man, thanks! That’s better than any of the labels in the previous question, to be fearless. Wow!
I guess I, firstly, don’t think that either of those examples are all that weird—other than the fact that most casual readers probably won’t know what a fluffer is. My thinking is, stories are read by intelligent people, usually adults, and things like sex and violence occur in the world and readers will be ready for it.
All of it comes with a wink, too, or at least that’s how I’m considering it, that all of it’s pretty absurd, anyway. I mean, I was sitting in my apartment one day, over a decade ago, and it somehow popped into my head, that oddball connection between fluffers and ventriloquists, manipulations of the hands and mouth. It’s a connection that’s in the first line, something about “She’s always been good with her hands ….” I mean, it’s ridiculous, right?
It reminds me of the advice someone gave me years ago about using adult-themed lit in your classes—tell the students in the syllabus that the work will be akin to the material in an R-rated movie. That’s served me pretty well up to this point … though recently, there’s been more and more of a demand for trigger warnings, which I’m still trying to figure out.
LR: Just a quick follow up to that: I’ve known some writers who like to challenge themselves by taking on a premise that is particularly absurd or risqué. “Can I really write a story about X and make it genuine” the challenge often goes. Can you talk about your process of content generation? Does your work generally start with premise?
MC: Always. It’s usually something that pops into my head, in my eternal rabbit-hole plunge, in my stream of consciousness, something that makes me smile. The fluffer story is one of those. The hemophiliac/glass eater story was like that. For another story, not in this book, I remember walking to my office and somehow I went from kids having imaginary friends—my wife and I had been talking about that, how our kids never had them—then it just popped into my head that it would be funny to have a kid’s mom start up an affair with her son’s imaginary chum, for it to be real—more real—for her. So that’s how I work. I rarely sit down and am able to say, “Okay, new story idea … go!” Away from the desk, I spend a lot of time in my head as I mosey around, walking, showering, driving, etc., and come across concepts like this and that’s my next story. So, yeah, a premise every time.
LR: This book is a mixture of flash fiction and more traditional-length short stories. I’m curious: Do you approach the two forms differently? And do you know if a piece is going to be flash when you start, or can you sense that it will be longer?
MC: It’s funny, because the new book I’m working on is all flash, so for a while now, I’ve known that I have a thousand words to work with, and that’s it, so I’ve been in flash mode. For this just-released book, though, I don’t think I’d ever set a limit, at either end, long or short, that I wrote them more organically, just letting the stories go where they wanted to go. Flash, as in the intentional kind, takes a lot more discipline. I set word markers and have to be at a certain points in the arc at certain word counts—e.g., if I haven’t established the story, gotten in going, in under two hundred words (and that’s on the long side), it’s probably not going to work as a flash; I either have to start over and rewrite (which is never bad, by the way) or put that in the not-flash pile. I haven’t written a non-flash piece in almost two years and now you have me wondering if I can go back. Maybe, though, I’ve taught myself to write longer stories, or even a novel, to put those markers out there and write to them. Hmm.
LR: Let’s take a look at a couple individual pieces. Up near the top of my favorites is “The Hemophiliac Engages the Glass Eater.” A hemophiliac man falls for a Vaudeville-esque “eater of glass,” and the two make a love pact. She wants to see him bleed, one time. He wants to watch her eat a real piece of glass. In the end, this is a sneakily tender love story that can melt one’s heart. I’d love to hear how you came up with this one.
MC: Oh, so glad you like that one, as it’s one of my favs, too, and is Jeffrey Condran’s (the Braddock editor) fav, too.
That’s one of the easier ones, I think, as I think I mentioned earlier: Take someone and make them do the opposite of what they want to do. I guess I could have made the hemophiliac the glass eater and really pushed it, but I don’t think that would have made sense. The only thing that puts people in these situations, quite often, is love, so once I made the glass eater into a desirable and unlikely mate, then the story really took off.
But what I’m describing is just what we do in most stories, stories with characters who have real names and less-obvious titles. We try to push characters into uncomfortable situations. Into conflict. I think it works a little differently for this book, somewhat on the nose, because all of it is in the title. I was more than happy to lean on the titles, like poets often do, to sell the story, to get the premise out of the way and hit the ground running.
LR: Another piece I am drawn to is “The Bigamist Gets Ambitious,” which follows the journey of two women who are married to the same long-distance truck driver (who has taken on a third lover). I think that people often get in the habit of finding somebody to blame or who is at fault in stories about infidelity, yet this story gives us a handful of characters who are all somewhat absolvable while at the same time shouldering a share of blame. I always think that “shades of gray” is so much more interesting in fiction---nobody’s actions being purely right or wrong. Any thoughts on that? Is that something you take to heart in your writing?
MC: I think you’ve nailed what I was going for here, that I didn’t want anyone to be right. I wanted everyone to know what was going on and to be okay with it, which made it stranger. I think an earlier draft of the story made the second wife surprised—shocked—when the first wife/narrator knocks on her door. But that scene was really slowing the story down, as it had to be a scene, that young woman with a baby losing it. I dropped all that and went with the “I always wondered when we’d meet” angle and the story was able to move on, to get to the part where both people have reached their limit. Everyone breaks the rules, but there’s still a line—for each of them, especially the narrator, they’ve discovered that line.
I also have to admit that this story started with the title, perhaps more than any other story in the book—I really liked the sound of “The Bigamist Gets Ambitious” and knew I had to write a story, a story where a guy with two wives goes for a third (how bigamists move upward, from two to three, right?). I believe there’s an early start somewhere in a file that has the bigamist as the narrator, but that didn’t work at all.
LR: The wickedly bizarre “The Brother-in-Law Breaches the Beach” in which a man name Oscar falls in love with a photograph of his sister-in-law that comes to life reminds me of one of my favorite cult-classic stories---A Real Doll by A.M. Homes. This one is a blast to read. Was it a fun one to write, or was it a challenge?
MC: It was fun to write that story! I think it’s because of the multi-layered complexity to it. First off, Darla is his sister-in-law, and that’s already taboo enough. And then there’s the fact that she’s come to life from a photo, which makes this weird and not just a story about a sleezy guy stalking a family member. On top of all that is the impracticality—throw the first two complications out and this is still a woman two inches high who’s in love with a regular-sized dude. So it’s all doomed from the start, yet it moves forward, anyway. I don’t think I could write it fast enough.
LR: And, finally, I always like to ask about the title story. Your piece The Amnesiac in the Maze leads off this book and serves as a tone-setter. This story seems, unlike some of the others, to be more allegorical or holistically symbolic. At what point in the process of constructing this book was this piece written? Did you always know it was going to open the collection? And, since you live in the Midwest, did you visit a corn maze or two as inspiration?
MC: Oh, yeah. I wrote this right after visiting a corn maze in Ohio. I’m claustrophobic, like pretty bad, so it doesn’t have to be tight spaces that get me—any sense of prohibited movement or limitation works at me. My wife and I visited a pumpkin patch with our oldest son and they had a maze out back and she talked me into it. It was pretty complex, too, but the weird thing was, there was this Wizard of Oz theme, little signs peppered throughout with the Tin Man or the Scarecrow giving riddles on which path to take, riddles that didn’t make sense. One was something cryptic like, “The Scarecrow says that if you’re smart, you’ll take the right fork, but the Scarecrow doesn’t have a brain.” Huh? That didn’t help my anxiety. We found our way out, eventually, and after, my wife said, “You know, you were never really trapped—you could have just walked through the corn at any time.” And I was like, Duh. So that made it into the story.
I think the piece does sound metaphorical, like I’m trying to say, “Having amnesia is like living in a maze,” but I really wasn’t trying to say that, as I have no idea if that’s what amnesia is like. But it sounds metaphorical and smart, and when picking a title from the story list, that’s the one that had the best imagery to work with in terms of a cover image. And I just wanted to sound profound.
LR: What’s next for you and your writing? Any new projects in the works?
MC: I have that flash collection about half done and I’m having a ball with that—it might be the book I’ve enjoyed the most. I actually have another collection—about dads—that’s already finished. So, stories. All the time. Forever.
LR: Congratulations again, Mike, on this unique and exciting book!
Bio: Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of four collections of stories, most recently The Amnesiac in the Maze (Braddock Avenue Books, 2023). He serves as Editor-in-Chief of Moon City Press and Moon City Review as well as Interviews Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. He is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.