Shane Oshetski had the good fortune to ask Vincent Czyz some questions about his story “The Nameless Saint” which appeared in Camera Obscura’s third issue. This short story is also a chapter in a novel called THE UNLUCKY LOVES OF MILANA NODRAVNA, which is told in the form of 10 short stories/chapters and many have been or will be published (“The Three Veils of Ibn Oraybi” was published by AGNI ,”The Gypsy Charm” was published in March of this year by Louisiana Literature, and “Moon of Drunken Mists” will be published by Wasafiri (London-based) in March, 2012).
Czyz was born in Orange, New Jersey, “home to two world-class boxers I know of: Two-Ton Tony Galento, known as the Orange Nightstick (back in the ’40s he knocked down Joe Louis in his bid for the heavyweight title), and my older brother, Bobby, a two-time world champion.” In 1993, Czyz began visiting Turkey and since has spent a total of nine years in Istanbul. These two elements seemed to have had a role in the creation of “The Nameless Saint”, the story of a fighter’s search for his father through a country populated by Turkish tribes and Gypsies. I asked him about this along with questions about the writing life. What follows are his answers in their entirety.
Camera Obscura: One of the reasons I love this story so much is that it so successfully transports me into this place and time.
Vincent Czyz: That’s good to hear because I throw in with those authors who believe their primary task is to create a world. If that’s not a cliché by now, it should be.
CO: I was surprised to learn afterward that the country and the tribes here are fictional given the richness of detail and the mixture of real peoples like Gypsies and Slavs with fictional ones like the Taztas. Why did you choose this blending of the fictional and the real instead of writing about a real Turkic tribe in a real place or fictionalizing everything?
Czyz: The problem with writing about a real Turkic tribe is that there isn’t one to my knowledge that is still shamanic—and that is a key theme running through these stories. (There may be a few in Siberia, but that was not a setting that interested me.) The Slavs in this story are fairly fictional as well—they are not Polish per se, or Russian or Serbian, etc. It’s a generic label. This is because there is no single country that fit the geography and history that I needed as a framework for these stories. Instead, just as most characters in fiction are an amalgam of several actual people, my fictional country is amalgam of Eastern European and Balkan nations. Again, the idea is to create a world—not to write a history book. For me, this means making the world as believable as possible and adding accurately portrayed “real” elements is one means toward that end. There are of course several others.
CO: I’m assuming it took a great deal of work to imagine and build the countries and cultures these characters inhabit. Can you tell us about the process you went through in the creation of their world?
Czyz: Fortunately for me, I lived on and off in Turkey for a total of about nine years. This meant frequent trips to other Balkan countries as well as to Eastern Europe. Before I ever began writing these stories, I was immersed in Balkan culture and, during my travels, saw some of the effects of the clash between Turkic and Slavic cultures as well as between Islam and Christianity.
Once I started writing, I stacked up a dozen or more research books, including a history of the Russo-Caucasian Wars, first-hand accounts of Gypsy life (I could write a few of my own about Turkish Gypsies), and a history or two of Central Asia. I did thousands of pages of reading and while some readers have said, “Oh, this isn’t like that …” or “That isn’t like this …” that’s primarily because there are times when I took poetic license. It is not, as I said, a history book.
CO: What do you feel all this research gave you in the creation of this world?
Czyz: It gave me invaluable insight into the mentalities of the peoples I was trying to portray, numerous events and incidents to use as plot devices, and the details necessary to create a believable world.
CO: Is there something in particular that draws you to the clash of Turkic and Slavic cultures and/or the clash of Christianity and Islam?
Czyz: An abiding melancholy in both cultures, I think, is what piqued an artistic interest in their conflict. Curiosity about one’s ancestry is typical enough, and this is what first motivated me to explore Slavic culture (I’m part Polish). Both at the family level and on a national level, Poland’s history is in many ways, one of loss and lament. With Germany on its western border and Russia on its eastern, Poland was for centuries caught between the proverbial hammer and the anvil. And to make matters worse, the Mongols and the Turks swept westward, adding a new list of invasions. The hordes were at first brutally successful. But as the machinery of war changed, they suffered devastating defeats, and in the 19th century, the Russians were no less brutal in their conquest of Central Asia. This is the point in history where “The Nameless Saint” takes place; the Turkic nations are mostly under the Russian yoke. And so their songs take on deeper tones of melancholy as they grieve for their broken empire and wax nostalgic over the centuries when their armies were all but invincible.
The clash between Islam and Christianity in the vicinity of Eastern Europe is best embodied by the history of the Russo-Caucasian Wars—still going on really in Chechnya. The stories and actual events that come out of these wars, including the kidnapping of two Georgian princesses and the untimely death of Russian author Mikhail Lermontov, put to shame the plot of the typical pot-boiler. I think it’s fair to say I was spellbound by the heroism on both sides though appalled at the loss of human life and the suffering inflicted.
CO: Along with the larger world, I also loved the smaller world of bars and bar fighting in this story. Your brother is a two-time world champion boxer, so did you draw upon experience to create the fighting culture in the story or did you have to invent that as well?
Czyz: Very little invention there. I was an amateur boxer for about five years, and, as kids, my brothers and I grew up in a rough section of East Orange, NJ—in fact, all of East Orange is pretty rough. The fighting sequences are based mostly on my experiences in the ring, at ringside, and to a much lesser degree, on some of the street fights in which I’d been involved.
CO: Action is difficult to do well in fiction and the fights in this story are exquisitely rendered. I assume you know a thing or two about fighting in general, but can talk about your process of writing Brosnik Yelenich’s fights?
Czyz: Very glad you enjoyed the fight sequences. There is no question in my mind that without having actually boxed, I would not have been able to do the fight scenes quite so believably. With the exception of the first brawl, Brosnik’s fights are matches with rules. For the most part, therefore, I gave him opponents with distinct styles and of course he has his own style as well. From there it was a matter of imagining two fighters with these styles—and some were certainly drawn from memory. The Old Mongoose that Brosnik faces was based on a boxer named Jose Cruz. Everyone in the gym called him Mantequilla (Butter) because he was that smooth—very hard to hit. He had a way of rolling away from punches that I never forgot. Nikusi is a classic tall, rangy, boxer-puncher—the kind that always gave me the most trouble. As a fighter, however, Brosnik is not modeled on me at all; he’s actually a version of my younger brother, who was also an amateur fighter.
CO: There has been a lot of debate if the often given advice that writers should ‘write what they know’ is good advice at all. As a writer who draws from experience but also from research and imagination, do you feel you ‘write what you know’?
Czyz: “Write what you know” is advice for writing 101, that’s about it. Once you find your voice and figure out how you want to tell your stories, it doesn’t matter if you know the topic or not. Of course if you’re not familiar with your subject matter, you will need to do research. But if you can’t write what you don’t know, you’re a craftsman, not an artist—someone fit to write instruction booklets, not novels or short stories.
CO: Were there any authors or specific works that inspired this story?
Czyz: No particular authors, no, but the misery of the lower classes is certainly inspired to some extent by Dostoyevski’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, a book that I found valuable as a document of the Russian psyche but which I did not enjoy reading. I like to say writing it was the crime, and reading it is the punishment. I’m joking of course—it’s a great work of literature.
CO: How about your writing in general? Who do you count among your influences?
Czyz: Samuel R. Delany, William Gass, William Gaddis, Paul West, Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, Guy Davenport, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are the main ones.
CO: On your website (http://www.vincentczyz.com) you say you gave up your job and tried to live off your fiction and, “Boy did I learn”. For those of us fool enough to think this might one day be a possibility, can you tell us what it is you learned?
Czyz: I would be happy to because I cannot stress this enough: you will NOT make a living from writing literary fiction any more than you will one day walk into a deli and pick up the winning Powerball ticket. Theoretically it’s possible, but it’s sheer irresponsibility to base any decision in your life on making a living writing serious literature. My first novel, Ghost Dancer, received a rejection from Michael Pietsch (he acquired and edited David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) that offered so much praise, my agent and I were sure it was a matter of time before Ghost Dancer was picked up for publication. Quite a few more rejections came in, many so good they could’ve been used as backcover blurbs, and yet several agents and quite a few years later, it is still waiting.
Another example: In 1989—yes 22 years ago—I submitted a story called “Straightsville” to Esquire Magazine. An editor wrote a very long rejection in which he informed me that it had made it to the final editorial meeting but in the end had been voted down because it was not deemed “New York enough” (this is ironic because at the time, and for years up to it, Esquire had insisted “Literary excellence is our only criterion.” Or maybe it was “merit” …?) The editor who wrote the dissenting opinion was angry or I would never have known what had happened. “Well,” I thought, blithely enough (a pun on the name of the editor at the time, Will Blythe), “if I missed by a hair with Esquire, someone else is sure to go for it.” Nope. After 22 years it is still making the rounds—and while it often gets commented on, I think it’s racked up around 40 or 50 rejections.
The moral of the story? Don’t quit your day job!
CO: So if a job is a good idea to sustain yourself as a writer, then what do you feel is necessary to sustain your fiction?
Czyz: My former publisher, Gil Roth, answered this question so well, I’ll quote him: “If you can quit writing fiction, you should.” In other words, if you are not obsessed with writing, you may as well move on to something else. If you can’t quit fiction … then it’s an addiction you can’t get along without, and you don’t need to contrive schemes to “sustain” it. I have never understood writers who have to force themselves to write. If you have to force yourself, you should be doing something else.
* We are providing the first half of Vincent Czyz’s The Nameless Saint, which includes a section missing from the print version (due to an oversight during production) with apologies to the author. Please enjoy this excerpt and considering picking up a copy of Volume 3.