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Sometimes it seems as though the literary market is dominated by nothing but boring, humorless tomes written by “serious writers” who do nothing but “write seriously.” It’s a tragedy, really. Colleges should offer classes on how to be interesting, and how to make your readers giggle. If these courses were to exist, the best professor for the job might be John Jodzio, the off-the-wall writer who’s been published nationally by the likes of McSweeney’s and One Story, as well as by local mags such as Paper Darts, the young literary force started by three U Of M grads who have nurtured their project from its nascency as a quirky lit/art site to something that now calls itself a publishing press and creative agency, in addition to its primary function as a magazine.
And so it’s especially pleasing to see Jodzio’s latest venture is the first collection from Paper Darts. The magazine, and now press, has created a gorgeous, visually stirring adventure in which to house Jodzio’s stories, which range from pieces like “Recently I Passed A Kidney Stone That Looks Like A Shark’s Tooth” to “A Toast To Randy, The Oldest Son Of My Secret Family.” The book, titled Get In If You Want To Live, will have a release party at Honey on October 15. We recently chatted with Jodzio about the collection, his role as an absurdist, and how he bores easily.
The A.V. Club: How did you first get involved with the folks at Paper Darts?
John Jodzio: They did a storefront in-a-box thing about a year and a half ago; it was last summer. They rented out a storefront for a week over at 24th and Lyndale. And my press, which is now defunct, Replacement Press, ended up partnering with them for the week.
AVC: What first catches your eye with this book are the illustrations, which feel very Paper Darts. It’s a very beautiful book. How did all of the illustrations come together?
JJ: The project started out with a bunch of McSweeney’s pieces that I had put together and I sent them off to Paper Darts thinking, “Maybe they could round up some artists to illustrate them.” And basically, I knew from their website that they had a good stock of people who could illustrate. And that’s how it started. Logistically, they contacted all of these people, put all of the illustrations together. I sent my manuscript over to them, and they became the driving force behind assembling the book and putting it all together.
AVC: Would the illustrator receive the piece and then go in his or her own direction, do whatever he or she wanted?
JJ: Yeah, Meghan [Suszynski, co-founder and creative director] would send them an e-mail saying, “Here’s the story, interpret it however you’d like.” There are some [illustrations] that are pretty literal and then there are some where you can’t really understand why the artist would have done that, but that’s the charm of it.
This whole manuscript is stuff that doesn’t really fit in the normal short story section. And I never really knew what to do with these short pieces, like the thing I wrote for The Tangential—I never really knew what to do with those. So we just figured out how to put all of the pieces together into one thing.
AVC: When did you write these 19 stories?
JJ: It’s probably been over a period of five years. Comedy pieces, for whatever reason, come more slowly for me. They take longer for me to come up with and it just sort of is a matter of waiting for what’s funny to come out. These are the 19 that I ended up with.
AVC: Would it be fair to call you an absurdist? Is that the stuff that you’re drawn to?
JJ: That’s the stuff that I like to read. I like to read George Saunders and other absurdist short story tellers like him. There are a bunch of comedy people I’m drawn to, like Mark Saks. There’s also Mark Leyner, who I read a lot a few years ago.
AVC: Why do you think you’re drawn to these absurd story lines?
JJ: I have to be entertaining myself when I’m writing. The scenarios I come up with have to be entertaining to me. I think I try to find the absurdity in the world.
AVC: Do you get bored really easily?
JJ: That’s totally it. Lately, a lot of the stuff that I’m reading has been hard to finish. A lot of it just seems like work in some ways, and I don’t know why more writers aren’t trying to inject humor into their writing. Especially in this town, where everything is just... a little bit boring.
AVC: Is that part of the reason why your stories are shorter, too? You figure that since you don’t want to read someone’s 5,000-word story, no one is going to want to read yours?
JJ: If you can do something humorous for 5,000 words, that’s great. A piece can just sort of peter out after awhile. There comes a point where I get bored with writing it, so it seems like a logical decision to stop. Over the years, a lot of my work has gotten shorter, and maybe that’s because I have a shorter attention span, and it’s possible that I’ve started thinking that the reader has a shorter attention span as a result.
AVC: In an interview you did with Paper Darts, it says that you write one line, read it, write two lines, read that, and so on. Is that part of why your pieces are shorter? Seems like a time-consuming process.
JJ: Yeah, it takes so goddamn long for me to write a story that it just doesn’t end up being very long because of that fact. I’ve written a couple of short stories that are 25 pages or something, but they took me about 10 years to finish.
AVC: Why do you write that way?
JJ: It’s probably some weird control thing. I have to get something correct before I can move on to the next portion of it. I have a lot of stories that are 3 pages long, but I can’t put the next sentence down because I don’t really understand the piece or know where it’s going. So, I’d say that process I use is basically about controlling everything as much as I can, controlling the environment.
AVC: How do you know when the story is done?
JJ: There’s a feeling, maybe it’s relief, that comes over you when you finish a first draft. I don’t think they’re ever really done. I’m always tweaking stuff. I had a grant proposal due this week. I took out one of my old stories and started looking at it, switching a bunch of words around. If I stay away from the stories, they’re finished, but if I’m constantly looking at them, there’s always going to be something there that could be changed.
AVC: That seems very different from how a lot of writers work. A lot of people just throw words at a page as fast as they can and revise the hell out of it later.
JJ: Personally, I think I’m done with a story when I get really sick of it. I’m like, “Okay, this is done. Sick of writing it.” And then I’ll send it out to a couple of journals or submit it to a contest or something. If I end up getting bored with it enough, and I know it’s good enough to send out, that’s when I’m done.
AVC: Do you submit a lot of work?
JJ: If I finish it, I’ll shoot it out. Lately, a lot of the stuff I’ve been doing has been solicited work, which is good in the end, because it makes me finish something on a deadline instead of just ruminating for a long time. A deadline actually forces me to work and finish a story.
AVC: How do you name your stories?
JJ: For comedic pieces, usually the first line is fun to draw from. If I can’t think of something, I’ll use a one-word title. Sometimes I pull out a line of dialogue or there’s some thematic thing that applies to the whole story.
AVC: Is that how you usually start writing? With a funny line?
JJ: Usually there’s a funny line coming from the character’s voice, or the narrator saying a striking opening line, and I just kind of go from there. There’s not usually a whole hell of a lot of planning.
AVC: The title for the book comes from a story set in a post-apocolyptic world about a woman who’s refusing the advances of a man on the side road. What made you choose that story for the title of the book?
JJ: There’s something urgent about it. I want someone to see the book sitting on the table and I want them to feel like they need to open the book. I didn’t want it to be totally literal. I wanted the title to be something that sounded urgent. When you’re looking at the book, you should feel like you need to pick it up and open it.
AVC: The story is also pretty representative of what the collection is, too; it’s an absurd situation, but it has a character behaving as though everything is normal. That seems to be big in these stories—poking fun at people by placing them in bizarre situations, yet having them react normally.
JJ: Yeah, if you’re an absurdist, you can’t just go on a flight of fancy. You have to ground things in reality. If the reactions of the characters don’t seem plausible at all, then it doesn’t work very well. Like, that story, it’s something that could happen at a bar. A guy could be hitting on her. But it just happens to be set in a post-apocalyptic world.