An Interview with John Guzlowski

Haven’t read the story yet? Read “The Last Man on Earth — A Mini-Novel” here.

Speaking with John Guzlowski, I couldn’t help but feel that I sheltered under the warmth of a favorite uncle or grandfather. But his history is replete with its darkness and gravity. After the Nazis had overrun Poland, John’s family was sent to slave labor camps to fuel the regime’s growing atrocities. Words could scarcely express the depth of horror and inhumanity that his parents endured during those hard years. The war eventually came to an end and left his parents adrift in the world. They could not return to Communist-controlled Poland. John’s uncle made the journey, and when he arrived in Poland, the Communists shipped him to Siberia.
Eventually, his family emigrated to the United States with little more than a wooden suitcase. Working double shifts at a local factory, John’s father provided for the family.
Listening to him tell his family’s story, I could not help but think about the similarities to my own as my own father escaped Communist persecution during China’s Cultural Revolution. We also recognized the escapist impulses that drew us to comic books and how that has informed our fiction tastes and writing. It was a pleasure to interview him, and I owe him a croissant the next time he visits New York.

Stanley Lee: How did writing begin for you?

John Guzlowski: As a child, I loved reading, could do it all day but had no books in the apartment where we lived. But it wasn’t until my family, and I went over to a friends house one day that I fell in love with books. At one point, I had to go to the bathroom and went in there, and wow, I found all these comic books in there. Atlas, Marvel, Behold, everything. I read them all. As many of them as I could. My parents had to find me to tell me that we were leaving, I was so interested in them.

SL: Coming from immigrant parents myself, I know that mine looked down on my interest in comics. How did yours feel about this growing obsession?

JG: Oh, they disliked me spending money on comics. “We give you a nickel, and you go buy comics. You should buy something to eat!” they used to say to me. My older sister loved reading too, and she read the sophisticated books. But no, my parents never stopped me from reading comics.

SL: Reading and writing literature are different animals, though. How did you start writing?

JG: It was in my teens. I had my interest in comics and found some other kids in school who had the same, and we got together and made comics together. We mimeographed scenes and everybody was writing and drawing together, all of us immigrant kids. Doug Muench eventually went on to work on Batman in the 80’s and Don Glut was involved in writing the second of the Star Wars films.

SL: Wow. That’s quite a nucleus of talent and artistic community there.

JG: Oh yeah. But it was back before everyone called themselves a geek. We had to endure a lot of abuse back then.

SL: How did you guys go from working on comics together in basements to writing professionally?

JG: Well, one of us would have a car, and we’d drive to Milwaukee or New York, and we’d march straight into those offices and ask around. I wasn’t in the group that went to Marvel, but I was there when we went to see William Gaines of MAD. Just driving around like that we met Frank Frazetta, Jim Strenko. Yeah, comics are bigger now, and you can’t do that anymore these days.

SL: Reading your current work, your poetry, it’s very different than the comics that you mentioned.

JG: One of the first things I ever wrote – and I still have it – is a comic titled “The Crimson Fire Hydrant” which was about a superhero who dressed up as a fire hydrant and I still think a lot about it today. I felt that I came from two worlds, the comics and the concentration camps, and I had a lot of trouble putting it all together. I knew there was a kind of connection there. And when I got older I realized that my heroes were immigrants. That Superman was an alien – in both senses of the word, and that he went through what we went through. When he had his cape on, everyone loved him, he was a success, but when he took his cape off, he was just like us, an immigrant. He had all this difficulty adjusting and fitting in. Well, that spoke to us.

SL: And the themes that these comics touched on, you could relate to them as well?

JG: Oh yes, yes. I mean post-apocalyptic world? My parents lived through it! 1 out of 6 Poles were killed. He lived in an area surrounded by barbed wire with a 25% mortality rate. He saw people hanged, castrated. My mother watched her sister raped, and her baby kicked to death. I didn’t know it as a kid, but as I intellectualize it now, I see the connection.

SL: Many of the early comic greats also had World War 2 very fresh in their minds as well.

JG: Right, a lot of the old guard before Kirby and Ditko were Jewish. There was not only Magneto and his Holocaust backstory but Dr. Doom as well. His mother was a gypsy.

SL: So, let’s talk about your work then. What would you say the purpose of your work is?

JG: I’m writing about my parents. I just want people to know about them and what they went through. My dad had stories, but he couldn’t write. So a big part of what I’m doing is telling their stories. One thing my mother said to me was “Make sure they know we were not the only ones there.” There was such a big concern for that. I never really wanted to write about myself. I don’t feel like I have a story.

SL: Where do you see your writing going from here?

JG: I have a new book coming out later this year, Suitcase Charlie. For the last five years, I’ve been working in genre fiction. It’s a story about a serial killer in a DP neighborhood, killing children in such a way so that people will think Jews are doing it. Then I’m working on another novel, also coming out this year, about a German soldier on the Eastern Front, Road of Bones. It’s based on my mother’s experience, and it’s about the man who killed my grandmother.
SL: Last question. Do you have any advice for younger writers?

JG: Write every idea down. Every idea. When I was younger, I had these great ideas and always said later, later, but now I always write everything down. You can’t expect it to be there for you later. When you write things down, you actually find that your brain is working through things. It’s amazing.