Joe Zizzi’s childhood in the 1950s had everything a kid could want–pro athlete dad, wonderful mom, cool big bro. When the ’60s kick in, this ideal life is violently shaken: a car crash claims his mother’s life and his father’s career, and brother Matt becomes distant and disturbed. Over the years, Joe learns to cope and carves out a niche for himself as a college sports star, and later as a coach and writer, but he can’t quite shake the family legacy. Diagnosed with kidney failure, the semi-pro husband and devoted dad has life-and-death decisions to make–and life wins, though perhaps only by a slim margin.
What inspired you to write I, Kidney?
I was a healthy, functioning adult, and then I was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease. I suddenly found myself apologizing for being tired all the time and feeling generally rotten. It’s a genetic mutation and it runs in my family, yet people were asking me what I did to get it. It took ages before my doctors explained what my treatment options were, and I went into treatment—dialysis–with little understanding of what it entailed. I needed a book to explain this whole process to me, and so did my fellow dialysis patients. Most (all?) of the health professionals working with me seemed to need a book to explain the patient experience—the stigma of misunderstood illness, the pain and discomfort of treatment, the uncertainty of finding a donor–to them. One day I realized that I’d have to write this baby myself.
How did you come up with the title?
I woke up one morning, sat bolt upright in bed, and said I had to write the book, and this was the title. Calling it I, Kidney was a brainstorm—titles like I, Claudius and I, Tina are so immediate. And some doctors do tend to look at patients as just the organ of their specialty.
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
One was killing off characters that readers have gotten to know well. Before this, either the death was part of the back story, so the reader doesn’t meet the person directly, or the character was an actual real-world figure and therefore in the public domain, so to speak.
The other was making the medical details accessible. How not to get too technical, or too graphic. Joe’s progress in becoming an informed patient gave me the opportunity to teach readers about how dialysis works and—important to professionals as well as lay readers–how it can affect an individual patient.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
The specific picture: no one wants to be sick. No two people’s experiences of illness are the same, even if they share a condition. Illness, physical or mental, shouldn’t be stigmatized.
The big picture: Everybody has a story. We need to talk to, listen to, and understand one another. Nobody is disposable in this life. Or any other life.
Who designed the cover?
The family photo on the cover was drawn by Eugenia Cameron, a Bronx, NY-based art teacher and art therapist. She’s the illustrator for The Chris Six Group, responsible for 95% of the drawings in The Basket of Seeds and the covers of New York Brain and Moish and the Mob. The art folks at Amazon supplied the eye-catching kidney.
What books are you reading now?
Fiction: The Good Inn by Black Francis and Josh Frank with drawings by Steven Appleby. It’s cinematic (and it’s about a film), surrealistic, whimsical, and rooted in real century-old incidents. The melding of text and artwork gives the presentation an antique and otherworldly air. I’m not giving anything else away, except that Black Francis is Frank Black of Pixies, ”Teenager of the Year,” etc. fame. Come for the visuals, stay for the story.
Nonfiction: Manson by Jeff Guinn. As with his startling Go Down Together about Bonnie and Clyde, the author gives readers the family pathology and the sociopolitical pathology that fueled the notorious murderer, with insights into America’s fascination with charismatic killers. Now that the sixties are getting to get shrouded in myth, it’s an important document and a first-rate complement to Helter Skelter and other Manson lit.
(I’m just a book reviewer at heart.)
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I grew up in a reading family with books all over the place. The whole world seemed to be writing—novels, plays, poems, songs, song parodies—so it was natural for me to want in. And I’ve hit all those genres over the years, even if only to some limited extent.
When I was in school, if anyone messed with me, I threatened them with literary revenge—“I’m writing a book, and you’re in it!” As I grew older, I realized I could address bigger, deeper wrongs by writing. It’s still a core motivator for me.
Can you share a little of your current work with us?
My new novel concerns an Interpol agent–but it’s not a normal spy yarn. His assignment takes him into a very public field and this story into a very different genre. I’m also treating that other genre in ways it normally isn’t. I intended to try my hand at something commercial, but I immediately broke all the rules of how these stories are done because I’m not wired to do commercial and the two genres allegedly don’t go together. Right now, current events in a particular field are lining up with aspects of my story, so when I start pitching it to agents, someone should say how timely it is and grab it.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I work best narrating the story onto tape—it’s especially helpful in creating first-person narrators and organic dialogue, which I act out complete with voices. The challenge is transcribing what’s been said. I’m slow at it, and I stop to edit and ponder. I’m looking into transcription services to save my sanity.
What books/authors have influenced your writing?
As a teenager figuring out how to write fiction, I took Catch-22 as my bible—everyone had terrific names, the dialogue flew like missiles, and the overriding vibe was that life is insane but you have to fight on. This was where I was as a budding writer, and I probably haven’t changed all that much. The Group by Mary McCarthy showed me that I could get away with spotlighting multiple characters in depth. A Clockwork Orange demonstrated that I could write in another English if I so desired. Kurt Vonnegut’s works gave me permission to link all my stories into a universe. These were all formative experiences. More recently, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde urged me to try new things in my work, and I’m indebted.
What genre do you consider your book(s)?
Whatever it is, it always seems to be literary fiction first. I, Kidney is a family saga, and between what I’ve finished and what I’m still working on, I’ve hit a number of discrete genres, but they always come back to being literary fiction. Even my new spy idea can’t help being literary.
What are your favorite themes to write about?
The ambiguities of identity—racial/ethnic, gender, generational. Concepts of fame, local or larger. Men becoming better men. And every story I write has at least one character who is a writer, visual artist, or performing artist. I’m probably missing a few, but these are major.
Do you see writing as a career?
I get paid to write promo materials, so that writing is my job. I like to think of my novels as my career, but most folks I know mistake it for a hobby.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
One: don’t feel you have to put something on paper every day. If it has to incubate in your mind for months before you sit down to the keyboard, fine. There’s no one way to go about writing a novel.
Two: respect your characters–you created them. Love your main characters, warts and all. Hate your villains, even though they may have some desirable traits. Honor the ones who have the smaller roles: without them, the big players can’t do their job.