Author Interview | John Jodzio: Knockout
John Jodzio’s short stories are powder kegs of wit, vice, and human frailty. Knockout, the provocative author’s new collection from Soft Skull Press, spins darkly humorous tales about a tiger theft, an agoraphobic mother, and the sale of a used sex chair, among other kooky characters and outlandish scenarios. Pithy, unrestrained, and entertaining, Jodzio’s prose puts the reader in the headspace of the depraved and manages to evoke empathy for their plights.
The Minneapolis-based writer, whose stories have appeared on This American Life and in McSweeney’s, is oft compared to George Saunders. His previous short story collections If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home (Replacement Press, 2010) and Get In If You Want To Live (Paper Darts Press, 2011) established the 44-year-old as an edgy and irresistible voice in fiction.
To celebrate Knockout, Jodzio is hosting release parties in Minneapolis, New York City, and Los Angeles throughout the month of March.
Crave: What is it about short stories that appeals to you?
John Jodzio: Mostly it’s the brevity and the compactness of them. For whatever reason, my brain is wired for that amount of writing and that amount of concentration.
Some people might assume that because they’re brief, short stories are fast or easy to write, that you can just pound one out during your lunch break. What are the challenges of the form?
That might be what it looks like, but it ends up being the same amount of work as a couple of chapters of a novel. Probably 10% of it is getting it down on paper and 90% is revising. A lot of my stories I tinker with for years and years.
What do you like to drink when you’re writing?
I’m a binge drinker. If you get me out at a party, I will have a lot to drink, but on a weekday night it would be rare. I’m a gin and tonic guy [but] there isn’t one usually sitting by the computer while I’m writing.
What’s the strangest place you’ve ever written?
I lived in Italy for a while. They were rebuilding this 17th century monastery that had gone into disrepair. It was the kind of place you’d have to stoke the fireplace in the kitchen. There would be like 15 cats around. Late at night, I would sit down and try to do some writing longhand—I don’t think I even had a computer at that point—but then the cats would come and try to all sit on my lap at once. It was a bit of an ordeal.
Your stories pair bizarre circumstances or personality traits with authentic human emotion. Is that a balance you create intentionally?
Yeah. I’m trying to always make sure that my characters are well-rounded and have that internal life on the page. Having a story that’s strictly about character would be boring to me, so I like to put them in outrageous or dangerous situations to see what would occur. I think that’s a hallmark of my work: having these characters and putting them in pretty big conflicts right away and seeing what ends up happening. That’s the kind of thing I’m interested in when I write a story.
Who is your first reader once you get a draft down?
Usually it’s my wife, Katie. She’s been reading my stuff for 15 years now. She has all of the stories I’ve ever written in my life in her mind and is able to compare those and contrast what I’m doing now. She’s also a good judge if I’ve done something messed up or something somebody is not going to like. Then I have a couple of writing groups that I will toss stories to once in a while to get feedback from the outside world.
Has anyone ever told you that you’ve gone too far with a story and if so, what was the plot?
That doesn’t happen all that often. There are a couple of times where people have read my stories and attributed my personality to them. I had someone come to an interview that I was going to do with them and they were like, “Oh, wow, I’m glad you seem pretty normal in real life.” I write about these people because they’re interesting to me, but my life in the end is kind of boring.
You’ve kept a day job as long as you’ve been a writer, correct?
For the most part, I’ve always worked. I wrote my first book while I was temping at IBM. I’ve had jobs at the University of Minnesota for the second book and the new book. I don’t know how you would survive in today’s climate without a day job, just sort of writing and grinding away, especially writing short stories. There’s no money in it at all. I’m already anxious about everything in the world, so not having a steady stream of income would drive me bananas. If I didn’t have that at all, I’d probably be scrambling trying to put everything together. In the end, it’s easier for me to do my 9-to-5 job and not have to worry about health insurance and all that business that comes with freelancing.
So the jobs have not been writing-related?
I only have so many words in me per day. I know a lot of people who have the journalism or grant writer jobs; when they get home after a long day of churning out words, they end up being like, “I don’t know if I want to sit at the screen and do any more writing.” I think you have to be pretty dedicated if you have a day job where you’re also doing that. My jobs have all been pretty far afield from doing any sort of writing. It’s mostly, “Go schedule this meeting for me” or “Go order lunch for us.” Administrative-type things.
You don’t just do traditional readings when you release a book; you do parties, and you’re doing them in big cities like Los Angeles and New York for Knockout. How do you put them together? Why is it important to you to do a book release that way?
I just want to get a bunch of people I know in those cities together and have some drinks and have fun. A book is a way to make that happen. It’s the occasion. I think going to a boring reading can be detrimental to your book sales. I like to make sure that things are happening. People will end up wanting to buy your book because they will remember your party fondly.
How did preparing and putting Knockout into the world with a bigger publisher compare to doing so with the small presses that released your previous two books?
There’s a lot more backing behind your book. The editorial stuff is kind of insane, how much back-and-forth, how many drafts you’re writing. I work with this really good editor Dan Smetanka and his ideas to make the book better were incredible. I was really happy to get someone who was smart about the process and knew what the stories needed.
What has kept you in Minnesota?
All my relatives are here. I’ve lived other places but when I turned 30, I was like, “I think I’m going to stick around here.” I don’t see me moving for the rest of my life. I don’t know if that’s sad. [Laughs] I like it here. Unless there’s some apocalyptic event where we run out of water, I don’t see me moving anywhere else.