Sentence by Sentence: an interview with John Jodzio

John Jodzio’s work is humorous and dark, precise and eccentric, and compulsively readable. Look no further than these latest two stories to appreciate his talent, range, and ability. THERE’S NO CHICKEN FIGHTING IN THE INFINITY POOL was published in the latest issue of Adroit and THE NARROWS was published in The Sun. I had the privilege of chatting with John about writing, rivers, soda pop, and hot dishes.

Keith Lesmeister: Congrats on these back-to-back publications. I’m a long-time subscriber to The Sun and your story “The Narrows” is unlike anything I’ve read lately. And I say that in the best possible way. On the surface, here are two women, sisters, who rescue jumpers from a river in a selfish attempt to satisfy their own need for physical connection. What were the origins of this story? How did the idea surface (pardon the pun)?

John Jodzio: The origins of this story are sort of all over the place and kind of hard to pin down. I grew up on a river and now I live in Minneapolis by the Mississippi so there’s always been a bunch of moving water around me. I’ve always been interested in how random things end up in the water and wonder who dumped these things there and why. I also remember one day I started thinking about how Niagara Falls is this bizarre dichotomy — a very popular place to go on your honeymoon but an even more popular place to commit suicide. Like most of my stories my brain started to pull some of my experience and some of these weird facts into a strange alignment and I ended up with these two lonely sisters fishing suicidal men out of the river with their man hooks.

KL: The sisters in “The Narrows” are not always “successful” in the sense that many of the jumpers achieve their desired goal, which is suicide. You’ve managed to touch on a very sensitive and critically important topic which has, for so long, been taboo. Or maybe not taboo, but just very difficult to talk about. What is your approach to writing about important societal topics and issues in your fiction?

JJ: There’s been a definite shift in the tone of some of my stories lately. I think I’ve gotten more interested in attempting to explore these kinds of societal issues in a more overt way (instead of letting them organically occur in a story) while also trying to figure out how to channel and express more of the world-weariness, loneliness, and anger that myself and a lot of the people around me are battling in their lives.

KL: In “Chicken Fight” you’re able to capture perfectly the manic throes of a failing marriage. Despite the glorious ending, this moment in the couple’s life together—the hotel, drugs, booze, and playful reverie—feels more like a pit-stop on their way to ultimate demise. Either way, when writing a short-short fiction piece, what are you focusing on initially? Character? Language? Some combination?

JJ: Usually any short-short piece I write it usually starts with the language and voice. There’s always an opening line or first paragraph that is always a little shocking or funny or weirdly phrased and has some propulsion to it. This story just started with me revising that first paragraph over and over until I got the voice how I wanted it and then there was some taffy pulling and taffy mushing with characters and plot, trying to concoct how the narrator and his wife had arrived at this critical point in their marriage and how they might move forward.

KL: There’s a theme and mood of desperation throughout both stories. A kind of addictive melancholic alchemy—the stories feel sad and desperate to me but they’re offset by humor, intrigue, and perfect pacing. Could you discuss how you strike this perfect balance between desperation and all those things that help offset the desperation without compromising it completely?

JJ: All of these things you mention are just gut feelings I get while I am writing a story. I don’t really do any planning when I start writing something and so I am just blindly making my way through sentence by sentence, figuring out what would make sense next. Whatever alchemy exists in my stories probably always ends boiling down to a simple equation: if things start getting too desperate I leaven, if a character gets too happy I weigh them down, if the pacing gets bogged I cut some darlings to speed it up. How those things exactly happen in the context of the story is always the hard part and what takes a bunch of drafts and a bunch of time to get right.

KL: In any versions of “Chicken Fight” did the featured couple not win the last match? If so, what was that like?

JJ: Figuring how to end that story was difficult for me. There were a number of different endings, one with them losing the match, but it felt too hopeless. In the end the ending that felt right for me was for them to win and stay together (at least for now) and continue on with their hedonistic weekend.

KL: What are you currently reading?

JJ: Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin, The Strange Bird by Jeff VanderMeer, and My Own Devices by Dessa.

KL: What was the last concert you attended?

JJ: Spoon/Grizzly Bear

KL: And… last series of questions.

KL: Is it soda or pop?

JJ: Always and forever pop.

KL: Casserole or hot dish?

JJ: Hot Dish

KL: Do you prefer…

KL: Downhill or cross country skiing?

JJ: Definitely cross-country

KL: Lakes or rivers?

JJ: Obvs rivers

KL: Dylan or Young?

JJ: Young

KL: REM or Depeche Mode?

JJ: Depeche

KL: Solitude or small groups?

JJ: Solitude

JOHN JODZIO is the author of the story collections Knockout and If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is horribly addicted to burritos.

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