A Conversation with JJ Koczan
JJ KOCZAN is an ogre living under a bridge grumping his way around the South Shore of Massachusetts. He writes a lot. Some if it is bearable and most of it is about music no one has heard of. A collection of his short stories and poetry, titled Electroprofen, is out now. He blogs at TheObelisk.net and tweets at @hptaskmaster.
Kevin Catalano: I’d like to open with a joke: what do you call the stuff that oozes from eight infected wounds?
JJ KOCZAN: ‘Octo-pus?’ It’s ‘octo-pus,’ right? It’s a good thing we’re doing this via email, because that took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to get. Actual minutes were spent. Minutes of my life.
What does Electroprofen mean? (Apparently, I don’t know how to use Google.)
One of the things I liked best about it as a title, actually, is that when I Googled it, there were no results. I made it up. The obvious portmanteau is ‘electro’ and ‘ibuprofen.’ I wanted something that sounded psychedelic, like you might find on a garage rock record from 1968 with mop-tops and funny sunglasses on the cover, but the phrase I take out of it is “the shock that takes pain away.” There’s no story “Electroprofen,” sadly, though I’ve thought of about a dozen poems for the title since I first came up with it — none actually written, of course — so I figure I’ll use it somewhere for a smaller piece down the line whenever I get there, and it can be like Blind Melon’s “Soup,” which didn’t actually appear on the record of the same name. I like the title. It barely fits on the cover because it’s so long, but I think if someone is picking up the book and they see it, they’re going to wonder what the hell is going on there, which I very much enjoy. The cover itself, the artwork, is by an artist named Adam Burke, who operates as Nightjar Illustration, and deserves to make way more money than he does, however much he actually makes.
Will you explain your fascination with octopi?
Do I really need to? Aren’t octopi universally fascinating? My wife could tell you this story better than I can, but years ago we had a house party, and we screenprinted T-shirts for the occasion that wound up with a print of an octopus on them. We named the party “The Second Annual PTA Octopus Festival.” There was, of course, no PTA involvement or the school board or anyone else, and certainly no octopus, but it was something to put on the shirt anyway. Ever since then, we’ve kind of been tagged as octopus people. There are worse things to be tagged as, frankly. Octopi are intelligent, cunning creatures who, when captive, will strive to break free. They’re graceful, at times vicious, use tools, and are generally awesome. I wouldn’t keep one as a pet, but if I ended up living in an underwater apartment complex of some sort involving either an advanced breathing apparatus or my own having grown gills, I’d totally invite the octopus over to hang out. The octopus probably wouldn’t come, though, because … you know, busy with life and stuff like that.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a collection of stories that has a reoccurring character in name only (in this case, Joe/y Octopus), but who is never the same person. In one story, he’s a bratty birthday boy; in another, he is a local hero who, in reality, is an asshole; in another, he is a background bartender. (You’ve even used this name in stories not part of this collection.) So who is the singular Joe Octopus?
Yeah, I’ve used that name a lot. The short answer is there isn’t a singular Joe Octopus. He’s one of a couple characters I’ve had pop up in different stories, but he’s almost always there and never the same person. There have been instances where Joe Octopus is there and not named, as well. I know who he is, but it’s not said. He lurks. The first time I wrote about a particular him was over a decade ago in a story called “The Gleeful Death of Joe Octopus,” and that’s probably the only time a Joe Octopus referred to an actual person. The story was about a young man who died of a heroin overdose, and it was based on someone who hurt a good many people I knew. It’s usually a negative presence when Joe Octopus comes up. He’s the snotty kid at the birthday party; he’s the bigot. Even when it’s passive, he’s almost always malevolent. I don’t know that I’ve written a good-guy Joe Octopus, or that I would. That’s just not how I think of him. In that story with the park ranger, I wanted him to be the absolute worst parts of the human psyche. That might be the worst Joe Octopus to-date. Maybe one of these days I’ll write a spaceship story with Captain Joe Octopus punching aliens in the face or something. Except it has to be a woman.
The note at the beginning of the incredible WWI story, “By Candlelight in Gossow,” reads, “The premise of this story comes from one written by my maternal grandfather, circa 1929.” Can you tell us more about how you found this original “premise,” how it read (i.e., was it just a short note, very detailed, etc.), and what compelled you to adapt it?
When my mother’s father was a senior in high school, he wrote a story for his school newspaper, or for their literary mag, I don’t even remember what it was, and the plot of it was basically the same as in my story, where it’s after the war and the protagonist is mistaken for the son of a dying woman. I guess part of what hit me about it was the connection to family. There are creative streaks in my own family, but not much by way of writing. I never knew my grandfather. He died before I was born, so when my grandmother showed me that story, it hit me very hard, and I wanted to build off of it in part to remember it in my own way. It was a means for me to know something about my grandfather as a young man, and I wanted to imagine myself writing it, so I did write it, with what I hope he’d consider proper attribution on where the idea came from. My mother has that original story now. My grandmother gave it to me, and my mom swiped it and put it away somewhere. One of the kitchen cupboards, maybe? Someplace.
I hate to put a label on your unconventional style, but the pieces in Electroprofen could be called magical realism, since they mix everyday happenings with sudden, supernatural occurrences. What then is your own relationship with reality? Do the two of you get along?
I won’t argue with “magical realism” or with labels in general. Frankly I’m happy someone would think enough about something I did to tag it one way or another. That’s a level of analysis. It counts. So thanks. As to my relationship with reality … Fluid? I don’t know if I’d say we get along — reality, as we all know, can be a real jerkwad — but I do the best I can. If I like to play a little with the real and unreal in stories, it’s really just that: playing. When the aliens show up or when there’s a monster in the woods or when some schlub who’s a thinly-veiled version of myself who smokes and likes the Mets and Iron Maiden (never been a fan) can teleport people, I think that’s fun. I have a good time with that. As I’ve sort of moved away from writing fiction over the last couple years and done more critical writing, that’s something I’ve missed a bit, but it started to feel kind of formulaic after a while, like there always had to be this thing that wasn’t quite what it would be in “real life,” which I put in quotes because screw real life. My least favorite response I’ve ever had to my writing — though I acknowledge that I’m still fortunate to have a response at all — is to have someone ask if something is real. “Is this real?” Who the hell cares? Of course it’s real; it’s on a page. You’re holding it. You just read it. “Is it real.” Bite me and see if that’s real.
You mentioned your critical writing, and I want to dive into this. While I know you best for your writing (and your staggering kindness), so many others know you to be the tireless editor of the successful metal blog, The Obelisk. Do you see an intersection with your devotion to doom metal and your own fiction and poetry?
Hardly tireless. Mostly tired. We could also quibble about how ‘metal’ it is, but I won’t shy away from the term, since that’s where my roots are musically. I listened to a lot of metal as a kid, still love some of it, so sure. Where the intersection happens in my mind is in the basic act of writing. I want to write. All the time. Most of the time, it’s all I want to do. I used to keep notebooks religiously. I have stacks of them filled with the drunken garbage meandering bitching of 20-something me: college sucks, work sucks, I just spilled the wine — all things like this. Blogging has taken that impulse away. I’ve been very, very, exceedingly fortunate in that the particular niche The Obelisk covers has resonated with a readership that, while small in the grander scheme of places like Rolling Stone or Pitchfork — I’m only one person, after all — is worldwide. I hear from people in Asia, Africa, all across Europe, Australia, South America, and in nearly every state in the US, and the fact that anyone finds even the remotest use in something I’ve written, even if it’s just “hey, check out this band” and then they do, that’s unbelievable to me. It’s something I feel so lucky to have in my life. The Obelisk started as a kind of side-project while I was out of work seven years ago, and it’s come to be my tiny contribution to the development of an international aesthetic and a big, big part of who I am as a person. In terms of writing, it’s the place where I can live out that ‘write all the time’ ethic.
Those lucky enough to hear you read know that you’re an entertaining performer of your words. I also understand that you’ve been the frontman for a few doom-metal bands. Is there a relationship between these two types of performances?
Probably. I’m no great talent at either reading or performing with a band, but I do think that creative work is something to be celebrated, and I’ve certainly been to readings where an author sounds like they’re mourning what they’ve written. That’s not to say I’m an advocate of shouting all the time or bouncing off the walls, but if you’re not into what you’re doing, what’s the point? Who’s getting rich off writing? Five people in the universe who hire sweatshops of grad students to write for them? Whether it’s the act of writing, reading, or singing in a band — something I haven’t done in nearly half a decade — I try to at least put something of myself into it, because if I’m not going to do that, then I don’t really see the point of engaging with the medium at all. I appreciate the compliment on my reading. If I’ve got a story or a poem or whatever it is that I’m reading, then I’m trying to communicate that to an audience. It’s not everyone’s mindset, but it makes much more sense to me than pretending that audience isn’t there, like you’re reading a sentence over to make sure you got the verbs to agree at your desk or something.
This is the part of the interview where you get the rare and special opportunity to ask me a question.
Tell me about your novel. All of it.
I was about to paste the whole novel here, but oddly enough, the publisher didn’t think that was a good idea. So I’ll say that the title is Where the Sun Shines Out, which is the English translation of the name of my hometown, Chittenango (in NY), an Oneida Indian word for the creek that runs through the village. Chittenango is the primary setting, and it’s also where the author of the Oz books, L. Frank Baum, was born. The premise is that two young brothers are kidnapped from the annual Wizard of Oz Festival, and only one survives. The novel, then, focuses mostly on the surviving brother’s ‘life’ into adult age — life is used loosely here, since much of it is so busted it can hardly be called living. It’s not a happy story, but I did intend it to be inspiring. Thanks for asking!
If you were to have dinner with anyone in history, why would you choose me, and what time can you pick me up?
Easy. Having been fortunate enough to share numerous meals with you over the years, I’d choose you obviously for your warm personality, your sense of humor, your openness in discussing writing, and your humility. It’s been too long, I would say.
Aw, shucks. I appreciate your offering those superlatives unprompted.
Have you been reading, watching, listening to anything particularly inspiring lately?
For the last two years or so, I have immersed myself in the Star Trek canon, and as silly as it sounds, it’s been a great source of inspiration. I think my next project is to get a kids book out that I wrote a while back — need art — but I’ve thought long and hard about doing a collection of science fiction poetry or maybe writing some genre fiction, since that seems to be where my interests have led me, and it seems like a place where it’s safe to get away from some of the well-if-it’s-dark-then-it-must-be-authentic posturing that has infected popular culture, as evidenced in an entire swath of TV shows that have little to offer more than sexualized violence and poor lighting. Maybe if I’m writing about a future that has some element of hope to it, I can internalize some of that. Hard to do in a universe where some schmo can grab an AR-15 and go apeshit at a gay bar in Florida, or shoot up a kindergarten, or commit war crimes because someone’s too lazy to fill out paperwork on a court order, but if Star Trek is my way of checking out of the modern rhetoric, I feel like I could do a lot worse. I lead a pretty curated existence, honestly. Between music, what I read, what I write about and what I watch, it’s become pretty insular as modern amenities have allowed it to be so. That doesn’t offer many opportunities for leaving my comfort zone of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the new Colour Haze live record, but life is short, and there’s way too much good out there to get lost in the bad.
Would you now like to take this opportunity to plug your new movie?
Yeah, sure. I play Ben Affleck playing Batman in the new Justice League flick. It’s gonna be terrible. You should go see it.
In all seriousness, thanks for the chance to run my mouth. It is deeply appreciated.
It’s been my pleasure.