An interview with Andy Mozina

Interview by Steve Hughes

Andy Mozina’s latest novel Tandem is a wild ride that explores the psyche of victim and perpetrator as well as the weirdness and malleability of love. It’s at the same time hilarious and morally jarring. I completely enjoyed reading it and hope that one day someone will make a movie out of it. Some years ago, he and I met for lunch at the same brew pub that appears on the first pages of Tandem. It was a bright and breezy spring day, not as warm as it looked, but the sun sure felt good. We sat on the patio, a stone’s throw from the Kalamazoo river, which rippled past, heading for Lake Michigan. This wasn’t exactly the beginning of our interview, but the greatness of hanging out that day resonates with me still, and more so since reading Tandem. So picture us there, me and Andy, at the old Arcadia brewery, stationed at a picnic table, breaking bread together, and earnestly discussing his new novel. 

Really bad car accidents are such frequent news events. If we haven’t been in one we know someone who has. I was wondering if there was some specific event you referenced that got you started on this book. If not, where did the idea for Tandem come from? 

Once I pulled out of a parking spot, in an unfamiliar situation and heavily distracted by my own thoughts, and went straight into an intersection, running a red light. A car came from my left. I had a split second when I thought, wow, I’m about to get in a bad car accident. But then we both stopped; I ended up inches from T-boning them. That shook me up pretty bad, because I had been so dumb and my life and the life of my wife (who was riding shotgun) and the person I almost hit might have changed radically if we hadn’t been lucky. Then I heard something about drunk driving on NPR. I don’t remember the details of that story, whether it was about a specific crash or the general problem of drunk-driving crashes, but I thought of how awful such a situation would be for both victim and perpetrator. My general impulse as a writer is to go towards the awful.

What sort of research did you find you needed to build the book? Did you learn anything surprising or remarkable that changed the course of the story? 

Probably the most important research I did to get the emotional framing of the book was to attend a Victim Impact Panel run by a local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Based on the check-in procedure, everyone in the audience except me was there by court order because they’d been charged with drunk-driving. The panelists talked about dealing with the consequences of being hit by drunk drivers. There were about forty people in the audience. One notable thing was that the crowd looked like a perfect demographic cross-section of Kalamazoo residents (gender, race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, etc): drunk driving was an every person sort of thing. And the panelist presentations were devastating. I was sure everyone had been scared straight, at least for the moment, though that probably was not ultimately the case. The most consequential technical thing I learned while researching the book was the phenomenon of paint transfer from one object to another when cars collide with things. That affected the suspense of whether the hit-and-run will be solved.

It’s a literary pleasure recognizing all the pairings and parallels you worked into the story. From one too many double IPAs, to the Twin Towers, to the hilarious idea of costuming—who is he Magnum PI or Mike Ditka? And bigger stuff like the narrative structure of the book, told by two characters. What is it that made Tandem resonate for you as a title?

I was definitely conscious of certain pairings when I came up with the title. Mike, one of the protagonists, hits a tandem bicycle, and then Mike and Claire, the mother of one of the victims, become both a witting and unwitting tandem. The other parallels and pairings were not as conscious, though I like pairs and oppositions in general, but I’m super glad you’ve pointed them out.

One of the things I like so much about Tandem is its closeness to you, your home of Kalamazoo, your experience as a professor at a small college, your studied knowledge of economics. There’s a parallel between your life and that of your troubled protagonist’s that feels both daring and inspired. How did you decide this was OK, and then decide to run with it?

I’m pretty old school—or, you could say, naïve—when it comes to how I think about the relationship between author and fictional protagonist: I assume the separation is total and that nothing in the character necessarily has anything to do with the author. That said, when it comes to world building and setting, my imagination is pretty limited, and I liked being able to use aspects of my life, or the lives of people I know, for the setting and for different aspects of Mike and Claire. As everybody says, good writing is in the details, and it helped that I was already familiar with a lot of the details. Then I used the details to develop characters that were not me and situations I’d never been in, so in the end, it didn’t feel all that daring.  

Your physical descriptions crack me up. I love his Easter Island head, her margarita belly, Suzanne whose chin was like the toe of a shoe-stretcher, the dude whose high shoulders made it seem as if he was perpetually inhaling, the wonderful chili powder smell of her armpits, and her fulsome, broken-nosed beauty. Your descriptions feel wild, but wildly dead on. There is a real humor in them. It seems an important stylistic choice. How would you describe your relationship with humor and the body?  

It’s always risky to describe someone else’s body because elements of appearance are sometimes overly valued or de-valued or stereotyped in destructive ways. You also don’t want to make fun of people for things they can’t control. And, maybe most importantly, you’re also trying to honestly filter descriptions through characters and who they are, even with the novel told in the third person. So when Claire thinks Suzanne’s chin looks like the toe of a shoe-stretcher, she’s seeing her through an object with which she’s personally familiar and in a way that doesn’t flatter Suzanne because Claire doesn’t like her. The image is vivid and has an absurd or humorous element to it, as you’re saying, which are things I generally like in writing, and it’s also just in Claire’s head; I actually think of it as her stylistic choice, more than mine. The humor can also cut positively because, as you’re suggesting, Mike loves the chili powder smell of his ex-wife’s armpits.

Tandem is split between two characters who tell the story back and forth, his and hers, as victim and perpetrator. What were your reasons for this duel approach and how did this particular construction benefit the story?

I knew by writing about the perpetrator, I’d be playing into the general fascination with anti-heroes, which can risk glamorizing them or simply giving them all the attention, and I definitely wanted the victim’s pain and burdens to get equal representation. I also didn’t want Claire to be a perfect victim or Mike to be an entirely loathsome perpetrator. As I said earlier, I love oppositions in stories, and I think the most interesting thematic and dramatic stuff happens when oppositions, and the choices that flow from them, are more or less perfectly balanced. 

As you mention, there are the risks of glamorizing an antihero and risks of describing someone else’s body, yet at the same time, you are drawn to the awful. It seems that the process of writing a novel is a story in itself with real conflicts that you’re aware of and had to balance to keep the prose from going overboard. Can you trace this awareness? Is it all your own? 

Maybe the basic tension comes from the awful often being very interesting but also dangerous to present. To thread the needle, you have to represent awfulness with a clear head and a reasonable moral compass, so you don’t simply replicate and reinforce awfulness but frame it constructively by holding it up for understanding and critique. Humor can help you do that, and it can also make it trickier to do that. So, yes, trying to write something is a dramatic adventure in itself! Having friends and editors give feedback as I’m sorting all that out hopefully minimizes the degree to which I might go overboard.

“You cant get any wetter when youre already underwater.” Statements like this make it apparent that Mike is a master of rationalization, making all sorts of bargains with himself to work around pretty much every wrong he commits, and he commits a lot! He’s not a psychopath, but for sure, there is a complex psychology ruling his actions. Was it difficult to sustain this super conflicted character?

Denial of clear facts, resistance to accountability for bad behavior, and ever-more convoluted rationalizations delivered with a straight face—all these seem more and more to be hallmarks of contemporary U.S. culture. I find these things to be maddening in real life, and I wanted to satirize them through Mike’s character. I also find the impulse to do good, even though there’s a high likelihood of failing at that, to be so important and necessary. Once I combined those conflicting impulses in Mike’s character, I felt I had a big driving force for the story. Honestly, that combination had something of a self-sustaining quality, as I could tack back and forth, catching wind from different angles like a sailboat, leaning into different sides of Mike’s conflicted character to propel the story forward.

How do you feel about his transgressions, particularly those he makes in the name of love? Was it hard to remain sympathetic? Did you ever lose patience with your characters?   

There’s a stretch when Mike is morally bottoming out, ironically in the name of love, where it’s not easy to be with him, I definitely feel that. But, as a writer, I’m focused on making the characters understandable and interesting, and as long as I think I’m doing that, I don’t lose patience with them. Somewhat perversely, I find myself sometimes resisting protagonists on whose behalf a novel is making too many simple appeals for sympathy. Real sympathy always starts with understanding; if a novel is helping me understand the character and what’s happening is interesting and the protagonists have at least some redeeming qualities, I’ll stick with a book whether or not I overall like or sympathize with a protagonist. Ultimately, whether a character is likable or sympathetic is up to each reader, but I hope the reader will be drawn into this story in different ways. 

The protagonist found graphs to be enormously comforting. Tandem is sprinkled with terms a devoted econ major would appreciate—upselling, balance sheets, valuation coups. How did your undergraduate study of economics shape your character development and narrative of this book.

I think economists are all about rationalizing human behavior and more often than not they do so in relatively cold ways, via equations, numbers, and sometimes attempts to quantify what either can’t or shouldn’t be quantified. I think there’s humor and pathos in that. Economic concepts like cost-benefit analysis, marginal utility (the incremental benefit of choosing to do more of something) and Pareto Optimality (a state where someone can’t be made better off without making someone else worse off) also give Mike a vocabulary for imagining he is doing the right thing, which is disturbing and satirizable and psychologically interesting to me. From one angle, the concepts seem to apply and help him make decisions; from another angle, thinking such concepts are determining in his situation seems a fundamental misreading of what is at stake. I’m really interested in seemingly rational delusions. 

There’s a lot of talk about love in this book. Love as a path to restorative justice. Love that ameliorates guilt. The protagonist is just trying so hard that he gets worn out of giving love and generating love. Love becomes a tool for him. Would you say this a love story?

Now that you put it that way, I’d say it definitely is a love story. But, as you’re suggesting, probably not in a conventional sense, because at different moments the story is validating love as this great constructive emotion and at other moments the story is interrogating or destabilizing what love is by examining the motivations behind apparently loving actions. Every emotion or emotional concept can be used or experienced in good and bad ways. The book asks when is love sincere and when is it performative and how does that matter to the person giving the love and the person receiving it.

So is it real?

Hah! Yes, love is real, in real life, if that’s what you’re asking. If you’re asking, Is Mike’s love real?, then, well, maybe the novel is working. I think it’s up to the writer to do as much as they can to carefully frame questions like this and to prepare the field for the play of interpretation—and then give it over to the reader. If I could answer this question about Mike’s love myself with 100% certainty, I guess I wouldn’t have written about it.

Physical closeness is described as a sort of medicine for the brain. There’s moment where the protagonist suggests he might give up his whole charade and turn himself in if he could just have sex with his ex-wife. It almost seems that sex is a fuel for rational thought. I appreciate the normalcy of it. So, maybe lack of sex can make a person crazy? How do you see it? What is the function of sex in Tandem? 

You’re making me see sexual desire is a key element motivating the characters and driving the plot. I’d say sex can be sanity-inducing and crazy-making. Mike is fantasizing about meeting a woman when he gets into the crash, and as you say he thinks he’d be willing to turn himself in (a sane thing to do) if it meant he could get back with his ex. Claire desires Mike, which makes her take wild risks. Her notions of sexual fidelity affect how she handles her marriage. Whom Mike desires in the second half of the book informs some of his most insane thoughts and biggest choices. 

Tandem has a lot of visual components to it and seems like it would translate well to the screen. Do you see your story cinematically? 

I like stories that play like a movie in my head, so I was definitely trying to use details that might create the old movie-in-the-head effect for the reader. In fact, I would love for there to somehow even be a “movie” soundtrack for this book, as the reader was reading it. 

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke has a sort of slantwise place in this narrative. It shows up in a bookclub and Mike imagines both himself and Claire as characters in it. It got me wondering who the writers are that have made the biggest impact on your work? Who are you inspired by? Is there one in particular that influenced the writing of Tandem? 

I love probably hundreds of writers, past and contemporary, who end up influencing me, but probably the big three early ones who left an ongoing impression are Conrad, Dostoevsky, and Kafka. For this novel, the most direct stylistic influences were Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and Lauren Acampora’s The Wonder Garden. If I was working on a Mike section, I would warm up by reading Tower; if I was working on a Claire section, I would read Acampora.

What’s next for you? 

No idea.

Andy Mozina is the author of four books of fiction and a winner of the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. His stories have received special citations in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the Midwest. Mozina is professor of English at Kalamazoo College.

About the interviewer: Steve Hughes is the writer and publisher of Detroit’s longest-running zine Stupor. Recipient of a Kresge Literary Fellowship as well as two Knight Arts Grants, he has published two anthologies of his zine: A Treasury of True Stories (2011) and A Celebration of Bad Ideas (2023). He is the author of the short story collection STIFF (Wayne State University Press, 2018). His stories have appeared in Fence, A Detroit Anthology, and Hypertext. Hughes lives in Hamtramck where he swings a hammer, fixing one house at a time.