Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with John Jodzio

by Meghan Phillips Read the Story September 18, 2017

In “Floodplain,” the narrator tells people his wife drowned and Valerie does Antiques Roadshow appraisals. Could you talk about the role telling stories plays in this story or in your other work? Why do you think humans tell stories?

In this story, I think the narrator tells these stories about his ex-wife drowning partly to gain other people’s sympathy and partly for his own entertainment. He’s clearly lonely and his lies are his attempt to make his life sound more profound or interesting than it actually is. He ends up getting lucky because even though Valerie can see through his lies, she likes him anyway.  We have so many reasons to tell stories—most of the ones I write are attempts to explain the weird and precarious world or to make things less boring than they actually are.

Lots of time passes in “Floodplain,” which can be difficult to do in flash. Was this story always flash length? How did this story evolve from draft to draft?

The origins of it are probably from about a dozen years ago, a little bit after Hurricane Katrina happened. I was thinking about this man who was lying about a drowned wife to try and get free drinks at a bar. It started pretty short and then expanded into some weird spots (i.e. In one iteration, the narrator started to make these strange found art sculptures in his garage) and then got pared back down. This is usually how my flash pieces work. Expansion, expansion, expansion, then a point where they bog down, and I can’t figure out what’s up, so I put the story away for a long time. Then I get the story out and look at it with fresh eyes and prune the hell out of it.

What does it look like when you have an idea for a story? Is it an image? Overheard conversation? A weird headline on Twitter? How do you keep track of story ideas? 

Usually things start after I get a first sentence that is striking or funny in either the tone or circumstance, but this one didn’t really have either of those. Mostly this one came out of continually reading stories about people lying about tragedies they were never involved in (such as saying they were a first responder during 9/11 when they were actually living in California at the time).

Mostly I keep all of my quarter-baked story ideas in a folder called “Bits and Pieces,” and if I get stuck with a story or want to work on something new, I pull something from there to help push a story along. I’ve got tons of stories that are like three sentences long that I haven’t had time to explore yet. The hard part for me is always grinding through the next 2 or 20 pages to find out what happens after the first few sentences.

A few weeks before my guest reader gig, a friend of mine enthusiastically told me to check out your work. Who are the writers that you’re enthusiastically recommending to your friends these days?

A couple of books I’m really excited for everyone to read that have just come out or are coming out in a little bit: Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station, Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, and Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry. I also just read The Bed Moved by Rebecca Schiff a month or two ago and loved it.

If you were going to give the Antiques Roadshow treatment to something in the space where you are right now, what would it be and what would you say?

I’ve got this 1950s cigarette machine near my desk that I found rusting in a rooming house garage where I lived during my early twenties. Inside the cigarette machine I found all these mechanical drawings and this meticulous diary regarding how it was designed and built. In the diary there are all these entries about this guy named Len who was managing the project. After about a year of working on it, the designer and Len’s relationship goes sour and there are about 3 months straight in the diary that simply says “No new news from Len”.  While I’d love to know the cigarette machine’s monetary value as an object it is sort of priceless to me because of the sad story that comes along with it.

About the Author:

John Jodzio's work has been featured in a variety of places including This American Life, McSweeney's, and One Story. He's 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. He lives in Minneapolis.

About the Interviewer:

Meghan Phillips is the fiction editor for Third Point Press. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in matchbook, WhiskeyPaper, and Paper Darts. Her chapbook, "Abstinence Only" is forthcoming from Barrelhouse. You can find her in real life in libraries around Lancaster, PA, and on Twitter @mcarphil.

About the Artist:

Alex Hockett's work can be found at Unsplash.