Jodzio's love of short stories animates 'Knockout'

Minneapolis author John Jodzio
Minneapolis author John Jodzio says he begins each of his short stories based on a catch first sentence. Like most of his work, the stories in his new collection, "Knockout," focus on people on the fringes of society.
Courtesy of Soft Skull Press

Minneapolis writer John Jodzio creates darkly humorous short stories about people on the fringes. He says that he writes stories about people you want to know about — but not necessarily know.

"Yes ... I think that is a hallmark of my work, where these people are maybe on the margins," he said. "And you want to know about them, but you don't necessarily want to hang out with them or go over to their place to have a drink or anything like that."

Or, referring to one of the characters in "Knockout," his latest collection: "You might buy the stolen steaks from the guy, but you don't want to eat them with him."

Stealing steaks is part of a story called "Duplex," in which a ne'er-do-well who shoplifts frozen meat for a living while sleeping in a car with his pet ferret is looking for a cheap place to stay. He meets a somewhat creepy guy in a bar who mentions that a room has opened up at his place because the previous tenant has died under mysterious circumstances. It's $400 a month:

I quickly weighed the pros and cons. Had I showered in the sink of a Burger King bathroom that morning? Yes. Did my car reek of steak and ferret? Uh-huh. Was I going to die just because the guy who lived here before me died? Probably not. "It's perfect."

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John Jodzio's ''Knockout''
Minneapolis short story writer John Jodzio's new collection, "Knockout," has tales of second-string security operatives plagued by grasshoppers, anthropologists who realize their subjects have an unsavory interest in them, and tiger kidnappers.
Courtesy of Soft Skull Press

It turns out that while the narrator's right on the first two points, he's got some problems coming in the near future on that last one.

"Knockout" features stories about stoners working in a drug testing facility, second-string security operatives mounting a stakeout in a grasshopper infestation, and a criminal couple who have found a way to combine speed-dating with burglary.

Jodzio said he leads a boring life compared with the people in his stories. His tales often grow out of a catchy line that comes to him out of the blue.

"The first sentences in a lot of them are where they began," he said. "Just like a weird line came to me, somehow, and that ended up being a character's voice."

As an example he offered the first line from the title story, "Knockout."

When I was in rehab my roommate Tommy showed me how to knock out animals by pinching a spot on the back of their necks.

"I think that came to me from Spock in 'Star Trek,' where he would like make people go to sleep," he said. "And I was sort of wondering one day, what if you started doing that to animals? And I think I had a thought about going to the zoo and knocking out a giraffe, and that ends up sort of in the story there too."

Jodzio said he likes the short form because as a writer he's always looking to compress stories to find their essence.

"I've always wanted to do comedy," he said. "And there is also that within a short story. It's a lot easier to have those little bits in there that can last a page or two, where things end up being funny, but stretching that out a lot longer tends to go badly."

As a result, a reader of Jodzio's work is often smiling but feeling uncomfortable.

"Knockout" is Jodzio's third published short story collection. He's throwing a publishing party at Honey in Minneapolis at 7 p.m. Saturday. It will feature several local writers, including performer and poet Dessa. There will be another reading on April 7, with a further selection of local writers, at the Magers & Quinn bookstore.

Jodzio sings the praises of the local literary scene.

"I often tell people from out of state, this is a great place to be a writer," he said. "And I don't know if there are many places like that in the United States anymore, but Minnesota certainly is."

Even as he prepares to launch "Knockout," Jodzio is looking to his next project — sort of.

"I'm starting work on a novel, and I guess I've been saying that sentence for probably the last year, or year and a half now," he said sheepishly.

He admitted that, given his love of short stories, the novel could be a bunch of them linked in some way.

"I think that's a fine way to do a novel," he said. "So that might be what I'm going to do next."

It all depends on what intriguing opening lines come to John Jodzio's very active mind.