Andy Mozina’s first story collection, The Women Were Leaving the Men, won the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. His second collection, Quality Snacks, was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Prize and other awards. His first novel, Contrary Motion, will be published by Spiegel & Grau in March, 2016. Mozina’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, McSweeney’s: The Small Chair and elsewhere. His work has received special citations in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the Midwest. He is a professor of English at Kalamazoo College and lives in Kalamazoo with his wife, Lorri, and his daughter, Madeleine.
Geosi Gyasi: You grew up in Brookfield, Wisc., a suburb of Milwaukee. Could you tell me something about your childhood?
Andrew Mozina: I grew up in a big family—the ninth child out of ten. I spent a lot of time playing sports with my siblings and neighborhood kids—football, softball, basketball—and committing minor acts of delinquency. Watched a lot of sitcoms. In the summers, I caddied every day but Mondays. In high school, I was on the debate team and worked at a pizzeria. I read some, but not much. Are you still awake?
Geosi Gyasi: I am curious to know how come you attended Harvard Law School for only a year?
Andrew Mozina: Near the end of college, I started getting interested in fiction writing, even as I applied to law school. I ended up deferring admission for a year to explore writing, and I kept reading and writing fiction when I was in law school. I started to feel as if I needed to choose one or the other, since most good legal jobs seemed to leave little time for writing. After my first year of law school, I took a two-year leave of absence, one year of which I spent in a graduate writing program at Boston University. Once I decided I was more interested in writing, it didn’t make sense to take on more debt to finish law school. Then I finally dropped out for good.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write your first book, “The Women Were Leaving the Men”?
Andrew Mozina: The stories were written over a fairly long period of time—about thirteen years. I wrote them while I was working and going to grad school and then working and more grad school and after I started teaching at a college. Ideas came to me sporadically and I revised a lot.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you come up with titles for your books?
Andrew Mozina: If it’s a story collection, I start with the titles of individual stories that I like—they need to sound right. Then I look for one that seems in one way or another a conceptual umbrella for the whole collection. The Women Were Leaving the Men has a lot of stories that involve fractured relationships between men and women. Quality Snacks expresses a theme that pervades the collection—the desire that the ordinary might be somehow extraordinary—and individual stories are sort of like snacks, so there was that. My upcoming novel is called Contrary Motion, and it’s about a harpist taking a symphony audition. “Contrary motion” is a musical term and also a metaphor for how the protagonist experiences his life, both its ups and downs and how he tends to work against himself.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your research areas as a writer?
Andrew Mozina: I’ll research anything I need to know for a story.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are some of the great writers you studied under while at Boston University?
Andrew Mozina: I was lucky to study with Leslie Epstein, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Maureen Howard.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s your opinion about the flood of creative writing programs spluttered all over the world?
Andrew Mozina: I’m happy about it. People need time to write and people with whom they can talk about their writing, and MFA programs provide all that. As a whole, MFA programs have produced writers with wildly different sensibilities and approaches to form. I can’t say I’ve seen the dreaded “workshop story” that anti-MFAers like to refer to as if it’s a scientifically established genus. Trying to be a writer means trying to make a dream real and once you get other people believing in your dream, it can start to feel and be real. MFA programs are a setting where that can happen. In fact, let’s all quit our jobs and do MFA programs next year!
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that talent matters as the main ingredient to become a great writer?
Andrew Mozina: Gosh, you’re talking to an economics major who never felt he had a natural affinity for fiction writing, so I guess I’d say you have to have a talent for working a lot (though I don’t really have that either). If I really lean on the word “great” in your question, then, yes, to be a great writer, with a prominent place in the history of literature, you probably do need to have some sort of extraordinary gift as well as the ability to work a ton.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you know why you were the winner of the 2008 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for Fiction?
Andrew Mozina: That’s a very good question—one that is, no doubt, still stumping the other writers who entered their books in the contest.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any personal admiration for Joseph Conrad?
Andrew Mozina: Yes, I admire Conrad quite a bit. He overcame so many challenges and had so many adventures. As you may know, when he was very young, he and his parents were sent to Siberia (literally) for resisting the Russian occupation of their part of Poland, and shortly after he lost both his parents. He wrote in his third language, had a lot of crappy berths as a seaman, had to support his family entirely through his writing, had to deal with being something of an outsider in England where he settled—I mean, it’s no wonder the guy was always in despair and on the brink of nervous collapse (according to his letters). Then, his writing is just great, so rich and nuanced and original and absolutely engaged with a lot of important moral, political, epistemological, and aesthetic issues. He did it all, except he wasn’t the best writer of female characters (well, he’s not quite as bad as the consensus opinion of him, but not as good as he was in other aspects of his work). Though there are instances of racism in his work, I think he generally worked to explode the binaries on which racism and colonialism depend.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you give me a brief synopsis of your book, “Joseph Conrad and the Art of Sacrifice”?
Andrew Mozina: It takes off from the idea that the loss of his parents was a formative experience for him. It taught him that sacrificing for others was noble and could also cause unintended damage: he admired his parents’ sacrifices and he was devastated by them. I argue that this created a lot of ambivalence for him around the notion of sacrifice. Then as a writer he was heavily influenced by Flaubert, who often figured the writer as an outcast and a martyr. Conrad could not continue his parents’ political sacrifice—he left Poland to become a seaman—but I think he approached writing in a sacrificial spirit. In addition to shaping his approach to writing, sacrifice and scapegoating are themes throughout his work. The book traces the evolution of these themes from some of his early works up to Chance, suggesting a general movement from considering sacrifice as a pagan ritual that unites communities to sacrifice as a Christian act designed to reveal the injustice of pagan scapegoating.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you gain anything from writing?
Andrew Mozina: Writing is a very meaningful activity for me. I care about it. Writing is my main way of processing my experience of the world. I love to read good writing; good writing makes living feel worthwhile.
Geosi Gyasi: You have published fiction in Tin House, Ecotone, Fence, The Southern Review and Missouri Review. Do you have a personal favourite among all the stories you’ve written?
Andrew Mozina: Well, if I had to name a favorite, I’d probably say “Self-Reliance,” which is in Quality Snacks and also online right here: http://www.nerve.com/fiction/mozina/selfreliance. I’m not saying that because I think it’s such a great story (a lot of people are put off by it), but because of what it’s about, which is coming to terms with shame through absurdity.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any idea about the literary scene in Michigan?
Andrew Mozina: I think it’s great. People are generally supportive and accomplished and fun.
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family read your works?
Andrew Mozina: My wife sometimes reads things I’m drafting and helps me with them. I’m not sure if she reads the finished product or not.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about your book, “Quality Snacks”?
Andrew Mozina: It’s fantastic! It’s about deluded and desperate mostly middle-aged people in emotional pain, which means it’s also humorous, because it’s hard for me to deal with emotional pain straight on. Some of the characters you’ll meet in the book: a surgical power tool salesman, a woman who faces down a mugger in a hospital parking lot, a boy who hunts a polar bear with a gun stolen from his father, Santa Claus as a one-man baseball team, a flavor engineer who works for Frito-Lay, a woman waiting to have sex with Elvis. And more!
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that the short story form is easy to write than novels?
Andrew Mozina: Yes, it is! In some ways the form of a story is a little trickier, a little less forgiving. On the other hand, a novel has to have more heft and the milieu of it needs to be thicker than in a short story. Characters who are rich and complex enough to carry a story may not have enough business to carry a novel. Novels, I think, have more of an obligation to work on both an intimate psychological level and a big social level, whereas a good story can work mostly just on the psychological level or on other smaller scale levels.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as your greatest achievement as a writer?
Andrew Mozina: First, I have to laugh at the idea. Then, OK, my novel is coming out in March, 2016. Because novels are so hard for me to write, getting one published feels like a big deal.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you engage yourself in readings of your works?
Andrew Mozina: I do like to do public readings of my fiction.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you belong to any group of writers?
Andrew Mozina: I’ve been in a writer’s group for about twelve years or so. It’s super helpful.
Geosi Gyasi: What is/are your future literary ambition(s)?
Andrew Mozina: Write steadily and produce good work.