Chris Barzak's debut novel, One for Sorrow, goes on sale today. To help Chris celebrate, La Gringa and Mr. Mumpsimus - along with a host of other well-meaning online book nerds - will all be posting something fun about Chris and his work, and Mr. Mumpsimus will be collecting all those links for you in one handy place.
So who exactly is this Barzak character, you ask?
Well, in his own words: "I grew up on a small farm in Kinsman, Ohio, a small town where Clarence Darrow also grew up and the science fiction writers Leigh Brackett and Edmund Hamilton once lived. I attended university at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, bummed around in Carlsbad, California for a while afterward, lived in East Lansing Michigan, where I worked as a librarian’s assistant in the Capitol Area District Library, returned to Youngstown State to earn my Master’s degree in English, and lived in Ami, Japan teaching English in a rural junior high and elementary schools before returning home to Youngstown in spring of 2006. I've worked, pretty much in order from age fifteen until the present, as a sap collector for a maple sugar maker, dish washer, grocery store stock clerk, pet groomer, car washer, parking lot attendant, fast food slave, country club waiter, receptionist, assistant coordinator of Youngstown State University’s Poetry Center, telephone interviewer, book store clerk, librarian’s assistant and English and writing instructor."
Chris published his first short story at twenty-four with “A Mad Tea Party” in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and began writing One for Sorrow when he was twenty-seven. His short story "The Other Angelas" was long listed for the James Tiptree Jr. award in 2004, and his novelette "The Language of Moths" was nominated in 2007 for the Nebula Award. Currently he lives in Youngstown, Ohio where he teaches composition and fiction writing at Youngstown State University.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Chris for the Swivet (and apologies in advance - this is a long post!):
A great deal of your writing revolves around a recurrent – and difficult - theme: the complexity of relationships between men. In One for Sorrow, this theme manifests itself in the protagonist’s strained relationships with his father and brother, as well as his confused friendship – almost sexual at times – with the ghost of a murdered classmate. Is this a conscious decision in your writing? Who were the men whose presence in your own life affected you the most, either positively or negatively?I'd like to thank Chris for taking the time to let me interview him, and for supplying that fabulous author photo.
I can’t say that particular theme is a conscious decision in my writing. It is, though, a theme I recognized early on. If Henry James is reliable as a definer at all, I suppose he’d say it’s one of my central themes that I’ll be elaborating on for the rest of my life. Hmm. That doesn’t sound too fun, now that I think about it.
I think that the complexity of relationships between men crop up in my writing because of my experience of male relationships growing up as the youngest of a house full of men. I have two older brothers. The oldest is quite older than me; there’s ten years between us. So by the time I was three or four I can remember him babysitting my middle brother and me when our parents went out on occasion. By the time I was a ten, he was moved out, married and on his way to making his own family. He was like a second father to me because of the age difference.
Our house is built on my grandfather’s farm, so I grew up with my grandfather around too, and an uncle down the road with his family, all boys as well. The men really outnumbered the women in our family. I think being the youngest put me in a position where I felt like they already had all these established relationships before I came along, and so I did a lot of observing of their interactions with each other, which were plentiful to say the least, and often difficult and inarticulate events, probably contributed to me being concerned with relationships between men in my fiction. In any case, the men in my family are largely quiet types, except when they complain about politics, so their inner worlds felt less imaginable than my mother’s or grandmother’s, whose inner lives were articulated almost on a daily basis.
My mother is a think-out-loud person, so I think I heard what is normally a person’s inner monologue consistently externalized a lot of the time. My mom can talk about whatever she’s thinking, almost like a running narrative. I always thought that was funny and weird and cool. I think maybe because the men in my family didn’t articulate their inner lives, I tend to write about that absence as a way to try to understand them better, and maybe as a way of trying to fill some of that silence.
Another recurrent theme in your writing is growing up in rural Ohio. Indeed, in One for Sorrow, Ohio – and in particular, the city of Youngstown – are as much characters as Adam and Jamie and Gracie. How did where you grew up shape you as a writer?
Well, I grew up in a tiny house on a back road of a town with a population of roughly 3000 people at that time. I’m sure it’s grown a bit by now, though. As mentioned, my mom and dad built a house on my grandparents’ farm, so I also grew up with beef cows. Herefords and Angus. There were always lots of cats and a dog or three around as well. Occasionally chickens or hogs, and once a goose that showed up on her own, and then also once a rooster that fell in love with my grandfather. My grandmother hated that rooster, and the first time he pecked at her gave her enough reason to declare him dinner.
At the time I didn’t have a clue how quaint or weird this probably would seem to a lot of people. Growing up in a bucolic fashion is somewhat anachronistic, I’ve been told, but it was really nice. I wouldn’t trade it for another childhood. In any case, where I grew up shaped me as a writer of place, I think, and in particular a writer of rural Ohio and the urban decay of Youngstown, the city where I moved to live with an ex-girlfriend when I was 19, because these places were largely the main experience of the world I had for the first twenty years of my life.
My family didn’t travel. When my mom and dad married, they drove off for their honeymoon, made it to Kentucky, stayed overnight and came back the next day because they couldn’t wait to be home again. I did not inherit their particular fondness for home to that degree - I like to travel and live elsewhere - but I did inherit a love of home for sure. Stuff on TV didn’t really correspond with my reality much either, and the rest of the world felt pretty far away. So, having been in Ohio most of my life, I have deeply rooted memories that attach me to the place, and not just my own, but my family’s memories too, because we’ve been around here for the past five generations and so all of those memories come along, growing up, having places that are significant to my grandfather or great-grandmother or a second cousin etc. pointed out all the time.
Once, in a college literature course I took, while discussing E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, a professor asked how many in the class had lived in the same house all their lives (many of the students didn’t understand the English attachment to family homes and property in that book). I was the only person to raise a hand. Most of the other students had moved around at least six or seven times in their lives. I think a bubble broke at that point, and I started realizing a lot of things I’d taken for granted about the world until then. So I started writing to some extent about what I know but also about what I didn’t know intimately because of having lived in one particular place for most of my life, and because of that place being somewhat remote.
Ohio isn’t always the place I know best in my fiction though. In many of my stories, the places I’m writing about exist only in my imagination. And my second novel is set in Japan, which is another home of mine now, after having lived there for two years. So I have several homes I write about now. Because my family home is such a stable one with history, having seen it from the outside as a structure that’s not largely typical of contemporary American families - which are more transitory and mobile, as you say in your next question - because of all that, the idea of home and familial relationships are often subjects in my writing.
Staying with the Ohio theme for a moment…you’ve lived and worked in a number of places: California, Michigan, Japan. In a country where so many of us live such a transitory lifestyle, you made the decision to return home to Ohio to teach at Youngtown State University. What brought you back to Ohio?
When I left Japan, I came home to Ohio because that’s where all my family live, and I hadn’t seen most of them in two years, so I thought it’d be nice to re-acclimate to America by coming home to live with them again for a few months. I figured I’d stay for the summer and be off again. But after I’d been home a while and decided to visit old friends in Youngstown, I noticed there had been some changes in the city since I’d left. They were small but good changes, and it gave me a sense of hope.
Youngstown is one of America’s notoriously poverty-stricken cities. I’m sure by now the majority of the country has forgotten what happened here in the early eighties, with the steel industry abandoning the region, and how the community was fractured by this and began to fall apart over the next three decades. It left a shadow over the area, and broke the community’s ability to work together and share resources. So like Detroit and Flint in Michigan, Youngstown, which used to be the fastest growing city in America, and had public amenities like the second largest municipal park in the country after Central Park due to those bygone years of growth here, fell into ruin.
When I left for Japan in 2004, I think the city was at its worst. But when I came home, I saw that a new mayor had been elected, our first African American mayor actually. The city and the surrounding suburbs have a history of racial strife that goes back to when the steel corporations pitted white against black during labor strikes. So this was a sign of progress for me. And the mayor and city council had managed to reopen the downtown and small businesses were opening again, and nice restaurants and coffeehouses and bars. People were on the streets again. It’s still in small numbers, but it’s increasing.
There was also a network of local artists and musicians and actors and writers here. Previously it had felt somewhat like a cultural vacuum. But when I returned it felt like a community was beginning to grow at a grass roots level, and after a lot of years of wanting to do something for the city but only being able to write about it and tell its story, here was an opportunity for me to try to be a part of what we’re hoping will be a local renaissance.
I’m a community-minded person, and I relearned what all that means while I lived in Japan, where community is everything. I decided to stay and be a part of the community effort to revitalize the area, to hopefully make it a place that may someday have more opportunities for people to become their better selves. That’s really all people need - opportunities. And I like being nearer to my family and able to spend time with them more easily than, say, when I lived in Japan or California. I can take my nephews and nieces to see a movie now and have a relationship with them, or be at my grandparents wedding anniversary party, like I was tonight.
Although you’ve written and published a number of short stories, One for Sorrow is your first novel. What can you tell us about how your novel evolved? What was the impetus for writing a ghost story?
I love ghost stories in general. There were a lot of ghost stories told in my family and in general in our community as I was growing up. My grandmother swears her mother’s ghost has helped her find lost things and advised her in difficult times. She’s a real, living presence to her, sort of in the same way God is to some people. Just there. And throughout our town there were always abandoned farms and little family cemetery plots from ages ago and dead-end, dirt roads that had lots of ghost stories surrounding them. I always loved these sorts of stories, the drama and mystery and history in them. So the ghost story comes somewhat naturally to me.
In this particular case, I wrote a ghost story called “Dead Boy Found” when I was twenty-four, the year a friend of mine, a little younger than me, died from a sudden, severe allergic reaction. It was a difficult time for me and a lot of my friends, and it dredged up a particular memory of mine from childhood, a memory of a boy in a nearby town who had been found by two men in the woods, which he’d been cutting through on his way home from a Boy Scout meeting. They tortured him to death. They didn’t know him. They just did it.
I was around twelve years old. I remember not being able to comprehend why people would do this to another person for no reason, and to a child at that. I remember being afraid after that, worried about dying. And when my friend died young, in our early twenties, in another horrible, sudden, senseless manner, all those feelings from when I was twelve stirred in me again, and I wrote a story that is for the most part chapter two of One for Sorrow. Except the ending of that story is different in the novel.
In the story, Adam gets into the grave with the ghost of the murdered boy and there is a sense that for the rest of his life an essential part of him will be dead as well, a sort of sympathetic spiritual death. A couple of years after I wrote that story, which went on to be published in Kelly Link’s anthology Trampoline, I reread it and felt bad about leaving Adam in such a bad place. My life was in somewhat of a bad place at that time too, so I decided that, as I was trying to figure out how to make my life better, I’d write Adam’s story, hoping he could find his way out of that dark place as well. In the end, I think we both ended up in better places - that place in life where everything is not completely the best but has potential to get better. When I finished writing the novel, Adam was at the beginning of starting over, and I was too. I left Ohio for Japan, where I began to write another novel.
Was working with your editor at Bantam – Juliet Ulman – very different than working with editors on your short fiction? What advice would you give a new novelist about learning to work with an editor? What mistakes did you make? How did the process help you grow as a writer?
Working with Juliet was really amazing. I feel lucky that she read my manuscript and saw what I was trying to do, and saw that with a little work we could make it even better. Juliet understood the book, and was able to communicate this to me in a way that made me know we’d be able to work together, that I could trust her.
Working with an editor on a novel is very different from working with editors on short stories. In my experience with short story editors, often there is not much editorial work to do, or else there is line revising or ending twists that need taken up a notch or something to that effect. Fine tuning, I guess you could call it. But with novels it’s a bigger thing, and Juliet and I dug deep into it, tossing ideas back and forth about issues that needed more work. She’d point out problems, explain why they were problematic, always made sense, and would offer an idea for change, which I’d often think wasn’t the solution, but it would spur my imagination and then I’d come up with an idea that we both liked. This was a really intimate process, which was different for me. So while I was also rewriting some of the book, I was also getting to know what the writer/editor relationship was all about, and a lot of times that would be as interesting to me as the writing and rewriting processes. I warned Juliet that she had a newbie in me, and she was gracious and led me gently through the whole book-making process. It gave me an understanding of and appreciation for the rewriting process, and for the writer/editor relationship.
My advice to new novelists who are about to work with an editor would be to make you’re your personalities fit together, like mine and Juliet’s did, and that you have the same vision for your book, so that you never feel like you’re writing someone else’s idea of your book. Before signing with Juliet and Bantam, she and I exchanged a bunch of e-mails, getting to know each other as well as talking about the book, and through those e-mails (I was still in Japan at the time) I got a good sense of who she was, and her me, and this made it really easy for us to enter into a working relationship together. I’m not sure if all editors are willing to do that with writers, but to me it’s a sign of a good editor who does.
One for Sorrow focuses primarily on the friendship between fifteen-year old Adam McCormick and the ghost of his murdered classmate, a sort of lonely misfit named Jamie Marks. The murder itself - particularly the discovery of Jamie’s body and how that affects both Adam and his fellow classmate Gracie Highsmith - figures prominently in the story. Yet you chose to leave the central question of the story unanswered. I admit that I was both surprised – and oddly satisfied – that you chose not to write what most readers probably expected at the end of the story. Can you tell us a little about that decision?
I want to say as little as possible about this, because I don’t want to interfere with the reading process for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet and may want to someday. But I have to say a bit, I guess, if I’m going to make any sense. The best way for me to answer this question is to say that I think that I did focus on the central question of the story - for most readers, when a body shows up, the central question is: Who did it?
So, okay, the novel doesn’t focus on answering that specific question. But it does respond to the question in its own way. If I’d been writing a police procedural novel, or a novel that is about our desire for justice in this world, I’d probably have written about Adam redeeming Jamie’s death by finding his killer(s). Instead I wanted to write about what the absence left behind by people who die, especially people who die in sudden, shocking ways, does to those who survive them.
For Adam, he’s been a little upset since the death of his grandmother, who he’s very close to, months before Jamie disappears. And of course with his mother and father’s casual cruelty and his distant relationship with his older brother in the background, when Jamie is killed - a boy he was just about to let himself get close to - he’s thrown completely out of his previous indifference to life because he has a realization that life may never get better, because it certainly didn’t for Jamie. And this realization that what’s already a bad situation may get worse, that life could be a series of enduring one brutal event after another until you die, sets him off looking for an escape from the chaos surrounding him.
In the end, I think he has to accept that we all have to live with uncertainty in our lives, and that there isn’t always fairness in the world, even if we strive for it, and that it’s probably going to be a bit harder for some people than others, including people from backgrounds like his, coming from the rungs of the rural working class.
I think books can have a lot of different ways to respond to their own central questions, and sometimes I think central questions aren’t maybe the same ones for everyone. When I pick up a book and a body shows up in the first chapter, I actually worry that the following chapters may begin the process of trying to find out who did it, which doesn’t interest me so much as who the person was that died, who loved them, who regrets their loss, what does their death say about the world we live in, where people take lives in such horrible, senseless ways? What does being alive mean, and what is being dead? Those questions are more central to me when a body shows up in fiction as well as life. I’m not a detective. Or else I’m interested in detecting what the living can learn from the dead, and not just the identity of who killed them.
Another strong theme in One for Sorrow is alienation. The alienation that Adam feels from his family. The alienation that Jamie feels, first from his classmates, and later as a ghost who cannot find a place to belong. The alienation that Gracie experiences when she comes to realize that finding her classmate’s body has made her different somehow in the eyes of her parents and classmates. How have you experienced alienation in your own life?
That could take a book of its own, so I’ll keep it to a minimum. I like to think everyone has experienced alienation in some way, even if it’s been in some small way. As soon as you put people together in groups and define them by general aspects, you’ve got a population within that group that probably doesn’t fit all the general aspects, or not in the way described at least, and in those spaces between the general and the specific is where a lot of alienation crops up.
For myself, I think I’ve felt a little different all my life, even within my family. While my middle brother was learning how to take tractors apart and put them back together, I was keeping a journal of my summer raising a calf my grandma had given me. I guess I was going through an All Creatures Great and Small phase. Or while my oldest brother was playing baseball, I was writing plays for my friends to put on together. My family doesn’t really have many readers in it besides myself and my sister-in-law, who I was glad my oldest brother married because it gave me someone else to talk to about books when I was younger. My mom’s reading materials was limited to women’s magazines, the newspaper and textbooks. She was an elementary school teacher in the school district I attended. My dad’s reading repertoire was the newspaper and hunting magazines. Neither of my brothers read much unless they had to for school.
I had a small library growing on my dresser when I was a kid, though, and once when I was a teenager an aunt remarked to my mother that it wasn’t natural for a boy to read so much. I think she had assessed “so much” by the size of that small library. I think it was probably fifteen books.
At school I was pretty quiet in the classroom because it was a small school system, being out in the countryside, and being a “thinking” kind of person was sort of suspicious. It was the sort of place where you’re just supposed to get through school and be done with it so you could start your own life, your own family. So I didn’t try to bring notice to myself in classrooms. I didn’t say when I was excited by a short story or a novel or by some cool thing we did in art or some chapter we’d read in history. My graduating class was fifty students. If I’d let myself participate excitedly in even one class, say, everyone would know about it by the end of the day. So in particular I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in a rural community, not in this particular way at least. I love the countryside, but the parameters for “normal” there are just too small for me.
In fact the smallness of my years growing up there made it hard for me to leave. I’d been raised to live there, so when I did finally leave and go to college at 18, it was a little like living in another country, trying to figure out how to live even just an hour away in an old steel town. Going to college was difficult too. At first I was quiet in those classrooms like I’d been in high school. It took me a year or two to get comfortable sharing my ideas out loud with people because I’d spent so many years keeping ideas to myself for fear they might cast a suspicious cloud of weird over me. Professors kept writing on my essays and reading responses, “Why didn’t you say this during class discussion?!?” Some of them eventually started to draw me out in class until I got more comfortable.
It was sort of a class issue, I think. Working class people aren’t brought up tossing ideas around or coming up with new ways to do things. They’re brought up learning how to follow directions and execute someone else’s plans. Even my mother, who went to a regional college for years as she raised my brothers and I, to get her degree in elementary education, saw that I was a Global Learner, she says, someone who learns in leaps and bounds, absorbing material almost randomly without seeing connections, and then just getting it. She didn’t approve of this learning style. She tried training me to be a Concrete Sequential Learner, someone who goes step by step through things, a good instructions-follower, but that didn’t really work out.
It’s also been an odd and somewhat neurotic experience becoming a writer after all. For years I’d been telling people that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up, and at first I think it was thought of as cute, and then as potentially an issue, and then as an issue (amongst family and friends), and then as a real problem when I went to college and majored in English. This was disturbing to my family, who felt if I were going to go to college at all, I should go for something that had an actual job waiting for me at the end of a Bachelor’s degree. And there weren’t many people from this area who had ever become a published writer that I knew of. So when I started to publish short stories eventually, and then to have sold a novel, at first I was like, this is cool, but then I realized I was actually doing what I’d always wanted to do and a part of me became afraid. I sometimes find myself at writing conventions or in conversations with publishing people, and think at any moment this person is going to realize I don’t belong here.
Maybe that sounds weird, I don’t know. But it feels that way sometimes. You know, my mother once tried to explain to me, when I was in college and set on studying literature and writing, that people from where we are don’t really write books. That sounds terrible, but when I thought about it, not many people from where I am really do write books. Or if they write them, I don’t see a lot of them published, I guess. Basically she was trying to politely say it was nice, but maybe I should be a little more realistic. I was wanting a career doing something that usually middle class and up people do. It was kind of a luxury career, she was saying, and was hoping I’d come to my senses and want something else, too. Something that I could actually make a living at.
Of course I didn’t listen to her. And I think to some degree I was able to do most of the things I’ve managed to cross off on my “To Do” list in life by not listening to other people. Or at least not listening to people who tell me I can’t do something because of who I am or where I’m from.
I could write about other kinds of alienation I’ve felt in life, but I’ve got to save some of that for the next book!
One for Sorrow was published by an adult trade publisher (Bantam), but in tone and style, it has a strong YA feel. Did you set out to write a YA novel? What were some YA or children’s novels that influenced you when you were younger?
Honestly, I don’t have a clue about this whole YA thing. To me it’s a marketing category, same as science fiction, fantasy, westerns, mysteries, and this amorphous thing I see in the bookstore called the “General Fiction” section. What is “general” fiction? Really, I’m not sure what constitutes a book being YA. For some people, it seems as easy as saying, well it’s a book told from the point of view of a teenager. But then I think, well what about Catcher in the Rye, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Lovely Bones, or Huck Finn, or The Perks of Being a Wallflower or A Separate Peace? There are a lot of books told by teenagers and kids that are shelved in “General Fiction” or adult fiction, and have been for years.
Once upon a time it seemed there wasn’t really a YA section, or at least it didn’t have as much of a presence, and what was there felt like it was written for kids, not teens. So I didn’t read a lot of YA books growing up. I read books that are categorized as YA literature now. But that category is something that I think is newer, with a coolness and hipness to it at the moment. When I wrote One for Sorrow, though, I wrote a novel I wanted to read. I wrote from a voice of a narrator that I loved. To me, while writing that novel, I felt it could be read by people fifteen and up. But if One for Sorrow feels YA in certain ways, or is shelved in the YA section at some stores, it’s not because I modeled it on YA fiction intentionally. It just happened.
I suppose that paragraph could give people an idea that I don’t like YA fiction, which isn’t true. I just didn’t write One for Sorrow with YA as a category in mind. I do love many books that are categorized as YA or children’s literature. And actually, a lot of my favorites are the ones I listed above. I also like Scott Westerfeld’s YA novels a ton, Peeps being my favorite of them all. And I really love Kelly Link’s stories, some of which are considered YA, and she’s going to have a book out from Viking next year, I think, collecting her YA stories. So that’s exciting. Holly Black’s faery series starting with Tithe and Justine Larbelestier’s Magic’s Child series have been fun reads in recent years as well.
My favorite books when I was a teen, though, were Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cavebear series. I imagine reading those were like reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World for some people. And I loved Ray Bradbury’s books so much. Something Wicked This Way Comes more than anything, and also Dandelion Wine and The Illustrated Man. And Poe. I loved Poe.
Okay, I have to ask: do you believe in ghosts yourself?
This is one of those questions that are hard because people totally judge you by your answer immediately. I’ll just say that I do believe in ghosts. But I’ll qualify by saying that what I think of as ghosts might not be the general definition
What’s next, Chris?
Well, I finished a second novel while I was living in Japan, and finally got it into a shape that I’m mostly happy with at this point and Juliet should be looking at it soon, I think. For now I’m calling it The Love We Share Without Knowing. It’s set in Japan, and is told from multiple perspectives, both multiple narrators but also multiple narrative modes. It has a ghost story at its heart as well, but spins off into other kinds of stories throughout.
I’ve also pulled together a collection of stories called Everything You Need. And right now I’m working on a third novel, tentatively titled Yesterday’s Child. It’s a family generational drama, told from the point of view of a boy who is something like a seer. Only he doesn’t see the future so much as he does visions from the past. It, too, has ghosts in it, as well as a white stag, dreams that become reality and a man who can stop time. In my imagination, it’s like a Midwestern The House of the Spirits or One Hundred Years of Solitude, recounting the history of an American family from the beginning of the twentieth century until, well, around now.
The Giveaway: How did where you grew up affect who you became as an adult? The first six of you who post the answer to that question in the comments section will win a copy of Chris's debut novel, One for Sorrow. After you post, email me with your snail mail address. (Sorry, this contest is open only to residents of the United States!)
And now I'm gonna remind y'all to click over to the Mumpsimus to continue the journey through Barzak Day in the Blogosphere!