Tag Archives: Austin Review

An Interview with John Jodzio

2 Jun
A New York Times review said about Knockout, "John Jodzio’s entire collection is tremendously funny and well written, every story inventive and a pleasure to read.”

A New York Times review said about Knockout, “John Jodzio’s entire collection is tremendously funny and well written, every story inventive and a pleasure to read.”

John Jodzio is a winner of the Loft-McKnight Fellowship and the author of the short story collections Get In If You Want To Live, If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home, and, most recently, Knockout. His work has been featured in a variety of places including This American Life, McSweeney’s, and One Story. He lives in Minneapolis.

To read an exercise on building character based on Jodzio’s story “Lily and Annabelle,” click here.

In this interview, Jodzio discusses trying different approaches until scenes make sense, the importance of hooking the reader over and over, and surprise endings.

Michael Noll

I’m always curious how passages come into being. In this case, I love the paragraph about the mother’s hatred of Longwater Community School—so intense that she dumped red paint on the principal’s car hood. At the end of the paragraph, though, we learn that she’s sending her kids back to the school because she wants revenge on her ex-husband, who “hates the school even more than she does.” When you began writing about the mother’s hatred of the school, did you know in advance that she would send her kids back to it for revenge? Or did you begin the passage and, at some point, think, “Hey, what if she sent them back there?” I guess the larger question is this: Do you know where you’re going when you begin a passage, or do you start writing and hope for something cool to happen?

John Jodzio

In the early stages of this story I had written a couple of passages I found intriguing. One was the opening paragraph, the mother pushing the father out the second story window. Then there were a couple of scenes between Lily and Annabelle when they were back at Longwater. I didn’t really have any of the reasons how or why these things connected at that point, but after a draft or two the backstory unfolded (i.e. the dad cheated on the mother with a landscape painter, he was homeschooling them, their mother was sending them back there for revenge, etc). This is mostly how all of my stories come together. It’s mostly trying some different things and seeing what meshes/makes sense.

Michael Noll

The story is written in chunks separated by space breaks, and each chunk ends on a kind of punch. As a result, it’s possible to read each one as a kind of stand-alone piece, with a beginning, middle, and end. This would seem like a great way to approach plot and tension—worrying less about the big picture and more on keeping the reader hooked page by page. Is that your process? How much did you think about the big picture of the story?

John Jodzio

This is absolutely my process! In all my stories I am largely concerned with hooking the reader and love to give those little punches at the end of each passage in a story. I want these chunks to be able to stand on their own but to also move plot and character forward within the larger scope of the story. This is probably a function of how I write—I seem to end up really polishing each passage before I move on to the next one.

Michael Noll

How did you approach the end of the story? It’s sweet—and unexpectedly so. The next-to-last section ends on this:

“And that’s that,” their mom tells the girls as Jerry drives off. “Even the really nice ones have a breaking point.”

It’s not a moment that suggests good things will come. Were you surprised by your own ending?

John Jodzio

I usually don’t get surprised by endings but this one did surprise me. I’d struggled to find a good ending for a long time. I actually randomly added that blanket door as a detail to flesh out their apartment in one of the last drafts and then it somehow it came back to me as a possible ending. No idea why that happened, but ultimately liked how hopeful it was and how well it fit in the context of what was going with their family.

June 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Develop Characters Using Degrees of Intensity

1 Jun
John Jodzio is the author of the new collection Knockout, which includes the story "Lily and Annabelle."

John Jodzio is the author of the new collection Knockout, which includes the story “Lily and Annabelle.”

Most of us have had the experience of liking something (ice cream, for instance) and then experiencing something new (say, gelato) and thinking, “Whoa! I like this so much more.” The opposite can also happen: you hate something and then discover something that you detest even more. These degrees of liking or disliking reveal a lot about our tastes and personalities, and they’re a great way to develop characters.

John Jodzio uses such degrees of intensity masterfully in his story “Lily and Annabelle.” It was first published in Austin Review and is included in his new collection Knockout.

How the Story Works

The story is about two girls, Lily and Annabelle, whose parents have recently separated, an event which leads to this paragraph:

Their dad has been homeschooling the two of them, so the next morning, their mom drives them back to Longwater Community School. Their mom hates Longwater. She hates all the teachers there. She hates the curriculum. She especially hates the principal. Last year she drove over to the principal’s house in the middle of the night and dumped a bucket of red paint onto the hood of the principal’s car. Their mom believes that there’s asbestos in the classroom ceiling tiles even though the principal showed her the paperwork that said all the asbestos in the building was disposed of ten years ago. Their mom’s hatred of Longwater doesn’t matter anymore, it’s been dumped by her anger at their dad. She’s bringing the girls back to Longwater for revenge. She’s re-enrolling them there because their father hates the school even more than she does.

The paragraph is straightforward in its structure:

  • Statement of action, based on a decision made by a character
  • Statement of feeling, in this case hatred
  • Description of the intensity of that feeling
  • Revelation of a feeling that is stronger than the first one—that, in the words of the story, trumps the first feeling.
  • Explanation of how this new feeling explains the action from the beginning of the paragraph.

This is a really useful strategy because it reveals something the mother feels strongly about but also something that can make her act in a way that is contrary to that strong feeling. It’s a version of that old game, “How much  money would it take for you to ____?” The answer can reveal a lot and, of course, create tension.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s develop character using varying intensities of feeling, with “Lily and Annabelle” by John Jodzio as a model:

  1. Find something that your character feels strongly about. It doesn’t really matter what it is. You’re aiming for surprise—if not at the subject, then at the intensity of the character’s feeling about it. Try answering the question, “You know what I really love/can’t stand?”
  2. Describe how strong that feeling is. This is the fun part, in stories as in life. We often enjoy hearing people describe something they adore or loathe, the way they gush or rant. Let your character go on too long about the thing they that drives them crazy.
  3. Find something that trumps that evokes an even more intense emotion—that trumps the first feeling. It can be related or not. The relationship between the two things can be temporary or permanent. Try answering this question, “But you know what I really really love/can’t stand?” Or finishing this sentence: “I thought that was great/bad, but then I found out about ____.”
  4. Let the character act on this discovery. As with all stories, action is the key to narrative. Once your character learns of something he/she hates or loves even more, then what? You can try going in a couple of directions. In one, the character acts contrary to her own preference (as the mother does). In another, the character gives up something he loves or embraces something he hates. In both, the characters are acting in a way that will probably surprise the people around them. That surprise can create drama.

The goal is to reveal nuances of character and kickstart narrative by finding out what characters love or hate to a degree that surprises even themselves.

Good luck.

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