Passion for writing permeates life of acclaimed YSU novelist

Christopher Barzac

YOUNGSTOWN — Growing up on a farm in Kinsman, Christopher Barzak devoted his days poring over tales that took him to faraway places. They acted as a substitute for the lack of kids to play with in the neighborhood.

“I spent a lot of time on my own, reading and imagining stories to entertain myself. I also had an immune system disorder that made me into an often-sick child before it was diagnosed and treated,” he said. “Sick kids tend to be isolated and trying to recover, and what that did was create a situation where I couldn’t be as active outdoors. So, I read a lot and began to write stories in response to the ones I loved best.”

Wanting to be a part of a world filled with words and ideas, thrills and magic, he pursued that goal at a very young age.

“Before I could spell, I used to draw sequential pictures and staple them together to make them into what I thought of as books. Once I learned how to read and write, I switched from drawing to writing my stories. When I got really hooked, I was in third grade and there was a short story contest in my elementary school for which I submitted a story. I won and, afterwards, continued to write on my own regardless of whether there was a contest.”

After graduating from Maplewood High School in 1993, his college education reflected an academic pursuit related to literature — a bachelor’s degree in English and minors in creative writing and psychology in 1997 from Youngstown State University, a master’s degree in English in 2003 from YSU and a master’s degree in creative writing in 2010 from Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

Inspired by the works of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allen Poe, Shirley Jackson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Angela Carter and many others, Barzak’s tastes leaned toward authors who wrote about the world we live in combined with supernatural elements.

“I loved the intersection between the real and the magical,” he said. “I love reading stories from those genres in both a literal way, but I also enjoy the metaphors that the fantasy aspects of that kind of writing can provide a reader for understanding real world situations and conflicts from a slant angle, indirectly. I enjoyed learning about mythology and folklore that spoke to the human condition through fantastical metaphors.”

Explaining how that influenced his literary efforts, he said, “I enjoy fantasy and supernatural stories that incorporate social commentary because I do love stories of social realism. While these two kinds of writing seem like they would be separate, there is always a way to find the seam where they meet and to explore that seam between the real and the unreal. I rarely work to build completely alternate worlds like in the ‘Game of Thrones’ series. As much as I enjoy stories set in completely alternate worlds, I prefer to write within this one.”

Barzak, 47, has written four novels, released two short story collections, had numerous works featured in anthologies and appeared at writing workshops and conventions. His debut novel, the Crawford Fantasy Award-winning “One for Sorrow,” was adapted for a 2014 film, “Jamie Marks Is Dead.”

Reacting to the film version he said, “It’s any writer’s dream, really, to see the book they’ve created inspire other people to take the material and deliver it in some other kind of medium. I’ve also had novels adapted into plays and that’s been enjoyable to watch, too. Someone who adapts your work is going to make something that is inherently a bit different than the book you wrote. A film really cannot include everything that a 300- or 400-page novel can include since it has a short time frame of a couple of hours to work within, but I love seeing what others make of the stories I write.”

Currently, Barzak is completing “Monstrous Alterations,” which he described as “a collection of stories that are all retellings and adaptations of famous works of fairy tales, fantasy and classic monster fiction.”

As he continues to create reality-based fiction meshed with fantasy, Barzak added professor and editor to his writing career when he returned to Northeast Ohio after briefly living in southern California, Michigan and Japan, where he taught English.

“I like being a part of so many of the different levels of the writing and publishing process. It’s good to be able to see and understand the work writers and editors and teachers do from all angles,” he said.

He teaches “Craft & Theory of Fiction: From Fairy Tale to Fabulism” as part of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) in Creative Writing, a graduate program to learn the craft of poetry, nonfiction, fiction and playwriting that is shared between YSU, Kent State University, the University of Akron and Cleveland State University.

Unfortunately, YSU decided to cancel the program and closed admissions. Barzak retains “some small hope” that administrators will change their minds.

“The Mahoning Valley needs a voice. It needs storytellers to talk about our lives here, to reach beyond this place and to connect us to the wider world, and this program was an opportunity to help develop the talents and skills of local writers, while also attracting students to the area from across the United States to study at YSU as well as occasionally from other countries, like the UK.”

For now, he uses the knowledge and wisdom gained over the years to inspire the next generation of writers.

“Read broadly and outside of your preferred genres of writing. You can learn how to do different kinds of techniques from different kinds of writing,” said the author whose past, present and future mixes the artistic with the scholastic.

Barzak is married and lives on the North Side of Youngstown.

To suggest a Saturday profile, contact Features Editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com or Metro Editor Marly Reichert at mreichert@tribtoday.com.




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