John Jodzio – Knockout
The tall tale is elevated to an art form in John Jodzio’s third collection of stories, the deeply weird and satisfying Knockout (Soft Skull Press). Oddly affecting characters abound in Knockout, from Lily and Annabelle, young sisters who report on their parents dysfunctional fights to passing truckers via CB radio, to the girlfriend of a con-man who speed-dates to find his new marks, to the depressed and opium-addicted proprietor of a struggling family opium den facing competition from the shiny new box-store opium emporium down the street.
In another writer’s hands the travails of these characters could seem unremittingly grim– or played for laughs, but Jodzio finds the sweet spot between pathos and humor, and his characters discover small triumphs amidst the chaos of their lives.
ANNE RASMUSSEN: I’m struck by how many of the characters in Knockout find themselves in dire straits for which they may be partly to blame. The word “hapless” comes to mind for many of your narrators who seem to have terrible luck combined with even worse judgement. And yet there’s a certain buoyant quality to them as well. I hesitate to call it “optimism” or “resiliency” because neither term quite gets at the way they seem to ride the waves of their misfortune, to roll with and respond to whatever crazy event becomes their new reality. There’s such a mashup of darkness and humor in these stories that I’m still trying to characterize it. How would you define a true “John Jodzio character”?
JOHN JODZIO: You’ve done a wonderful job here of explaining what I like to see in a character. A dollop of haplessness, some bizarre/dire circumstances, just enough guts and brains to make their way forward with the cards they’ve been dealt. There’s a sentence in my story “Winnipeg” that I think gives a good synopsis of most of the characters in the book: “Humans can get used to anything, no matter how deplorable or sad. We just reset our expectations and find happiness in our revised baseline.” In the end, that’s kind of my overall worldview.
AR: I realize this is a bit of an unfair question, but do you have a favorite character (or characters) from this collection? (For me it was a close call between Lily and Annabelle, the 10 and 11 year old heroines of the story by that name, and Ellen, the unlucky girlfriend of a grifter named Atomic, in “Someday All of This Will Probably Be Yours.” All three felt kind of heroic to me in the way they were able to take charge of situations in which they had relatively little power. Which characters have stuck with you over time, and why?
JJ: My two favorites are probably the narrator from “Duplex” (a steak stealing jewelry designer with a horrible roommate) and the narrator from “Our Mom-and-Pop Opium Den” (an opium addict working in his failing family opium den). I worked on those stories in short bursts over like 5 years and it really took a long time to figure them out. I think when you are with a character for that length of time and you finally get them down correctly on the page you only grow more fond of them.
AR: I love the way the plots of these stories push the reader to accept a crazy-seeming premise by continuing to stretch the boundaries of realism throughout the story. From the first paragraph, opening line or even title, as in “Ackerman Is Selling His Sex Chair for Ten Bucks” or “Our Mom-and-Pop Opium Den,” you have a tendency to start with a farfetched or extreme scenario and then keep dialing up the volume from there. Does the character or the situation tend strike you first when you set out to tell a story?
JJ: It sort of depends on the story. Largely at the beginning of any first draft I am looking for an interesting or jarring or memorable sentence to get everything rolling for me. In Ackerman, I had that first sentence (“Ackerman is selling his sex chair for ten bucks”) float into my head from somewhere and I was like who would be selling a used sex chair? And why? Then I set out to find who this character was and why he was contemplating buying such a bonkers item.
For “My Mom and Pop Opium Den”, I already had the situation in mind (a big box opium den moves in on a mom and pop opium den’s turf) and then figured out what strange characters were going to inhabit this world/what the stakes were.
AR: You have a lot of really killer opening lines—to give readers a taste: “My boyfriend, Atomic, is speed dating,” “There was a tiny man mowing my lawn,” “Lisa’s father was shot from a cannon once,” and (one of my faves) “I’m on the wrong side of history, and I’ve got a vodka-soaked sea sponge shoved up my ass to help me forget.” In addition to the generative effect of having a first sentence in mind, I can imagine these lines jumping out at readers from the tedium of the slushpile. How much (if at all) of a publication strategy is in your mind during an early draft?
JJ: I don’t think it is really a publishing strategy so much as the thought in my mind that there is a lot of stuff in the world my stories are competing with and if I don’t hook someone in right away they are probably going to move on. For instance when I pick up a short story collection at a bookstore I always start checking out the opening lines to see if anything grabs me. If not, I put it down. I think I’m just trying to do my damndest to not have anyone put down something I’ve written.
AR: For me as a reader, timing and surprise is the element that defines truly comic writing—a plot point or perfect detail that I couldn’t possibly predict even when I think I’ve got a handle on the situation. I’m curious whether you view yourself as a comic writer, and also how much of these unexpected plot twists occur to you during the writing process (as opposed to being more planned out)?
JJ: I view myself as a comic writer now, but throughout my college years I mostly read sad French poetry and sad Raymond Carver stories and thought anything I wrote needed to be deadly serious. Off the page I was always cracking jokes with my friends, but it took me a long damn time to give myself the permission to be funny in my writing and to let these unexpected connections that randomly occur in my brain to actually become part of the plot (as opposed to having one of my characters just smoke another clove cigarette and stare blankly at the ocean).
AR: Haha, yeah I’ve noticed writers can be a little touchy about the term “comic” as though it’s a slur on serious writing, when it seems to me like a much harder thing to get right. A perfectly absurd detail or premise allows you to get away with much darker material that would feel otherwise grim or maudlin. “Cannonball,” “Winnipeg,” “The Indoor Baby”—each of these had a laugh-out-loud first line or plot detail, but they’re also emotionally devastating by the time we get to the end. How do you maintain that balance and bridge the gap between “jokes with friends” and these nuanced, funny-but-heartbreaking stories?
JJ: That is always the hardest thing for me – trying to determine the correct balance between the humor in the story and its emotional core and how to make sure those blend together seamlessly. My early drafts of my stories usually tend to be much zanier than the finished product. I am guessing that is because early on I am mostly concerned with the plot bones and I am still learning about the characters. Draft by draft I figure out who is telling the story and what they ultimately want and then the story shifts toward a more equitable balance of humor and emotion.
AR: Okay, some process question(s) on behalf of all those writers bravely submitting into the void…. With Knockout you’ve got a collection of funny, moving stories, most of which were published first in journals and then brought together for the book. So, doubly successful, hooray! But I’m curious about which of these stories was the biggest challenge for you to bring from an initial draft to its current form, and why? How do you know when a story isn’t working? And do you toss it completely or mine it for parts?
JJ: This probably goes back to a question above about my favorite characters in the book. The story “Duplex” is the longest thing I’ve ever written and there are bits and pieces of a bunch of different stories in it which make it feel like some sort of all-star hodgepodge of my favorite things I’ve written over the last ten years. I kept on adding and subtracting things in and out and finally found a through line that made sense. It seemed like it took like 9 million years to figure out how to make it work.
That said, most of the stories I end up writing do not work. Mostly I know when a story isn’t working when I get stuck in the middle of it and can’t figure out what happens next. Sadly this happens to me over and over again. When that happens I’ll shift to a different story for a while to regain my sanity. I don’t think I’ve ever necessarily given up on a story, but I certainly have mined parts and pieces that I like from one non-working draft into another non-working draft just to see if I could infuse some new energy or perspective into the story to get it to function. Sometimes this works great and sometimes this works horribly.
AR: Were there stories that changed significantly between their initial publication and the release of Knockout?
JJ: The story that shifted the most from the journal to the collection was probably the first story in the collection, “Great Alcoholic Owned Bed and Breakfasts of the Eastern Seaboard.” When I reread the version that was originally published (in the journal Volume 1 Brooklyn), I really hated the ending and knew it needed to be reworked, but I was really flummoxed by what exactly I should do. I was lucky enough to have the advice of a great editor (shout out to Dan Smetanka at Soft Skull!) who helped sort of guide me though some of the different possibilities and then let me have at it. In the end I think it is way, way better than the original.
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John Jodzio is a winner of the Loft-McKnight Fellowship and the author of the short story collections Knockout, Get In If You Want To Live, and If You Lived Here You’d Already be Home. His work has been featured in a variety of places including This American Life, McSweeney’s, and One Story. He lives in Minneapolis. Author photo by Tiffany Bolk.
Anne Rasmussen holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught writing in jail, advised graduate students, and constructed giant bear costumes worn by Rockettes. She edits the Late Night Interview column and reads fiction entries for Sundress Publications annual Best of the Net. She sympathizes with unreliable narrators.