Catching Up with 2020 Crazyhorse Fiction Prize Winner Jack Ortiz
Jack Ortiz received his MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he won the August Derleth Prize. “They’re More Afraid of You” is his first published story.
CH: How did you first hear about Crazyhorse?
JO: When I was an undergrad, I was researching fiction contests, and I submitted to this one in 2014. I obviously didn’t win, but I distinctly remember the story that did. It was “Cold Light” by Caleb Leisure, which has stuck with me over the years as an example of damn good writing. So, I think because of that story, this magazine/contest has stayed on my radar over the years.
CH: Tell us about yourself! Who you are, where you studied, what you do, etc
JO: A couple of years ago, I got my MFA in fiction at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I was surrounded by incredibly supportive and inspiring people. I owe a lot of my instincts as a writer to that program. I’ve been abroad for the past couple of years, and in Uganda since January, when the whole world shut down. For now, I’ve been able to work online, which I’m grateful for. Since the lockdown restrictions have eased here, I started teaching a small, free writing workshop, and that’s probably the most interesting thing I’ve been up to.
CH: Your story, “They’re More Afraid of You” deals with toxic relationships on many different levels; family bonds, intimate relationships, even personal relationships with substances. Is this a topic you find yourself addressing frequently in your work?
JO: Yeah, there’s a lot of toxicity in this story. . . When I first drafted it, the questions I was exploring were, “What’s in a name? What happens if someone is called something they’re not? What if he is mistaken for someone who is loving but menacing?” which is already a toxic set up, and it evolved into an exploration of the terrifying prospect of feeling unloved or unlovable and all the problems that can create. For Julián, he loses everyone important to him. Painful experiences are ubiquitous, though most people’s stories aren’t as “loud” as Julián’s. I think addiction and difficult relationships come up so often in my stories because I’m interested in the connection between the toxicity in all of us and intimacy. Like, this idea of how you can’t really be close to someone without experiencing their darkness. Someone who read a much earlier version of this story for me told me to “write toward the pain.” It’s important for me to write about the feelings that people, including myself, have spent so much time trying to escape. Painful experiences can be alienating, but I hope that if literature has any power, then it’s to make these experiences less uniquely painful.
CH: Your story is set entirely in LA at the end of the 1990’s and into the early aughts. I noticed online that you might also be currently working on a collection of linked stories set in LA. How important is setting to your work?
JO: I was surprised to hear you found anything about my writing online. When I was writing linked stories during my MFA, I think LA was a useful focal point for my thesis. I’m not attached to that location as much right now. However, setting was really important in writing “They’re More Afraid of You.” My father is from these neighborhoods, which is why I was interested in exploring them in this story. I also borrowed from what I know of being a skater kid (or poser, rather) who frequented RAT Beach in the early 2000s.
CH: What project (if any) are you working on at the moment?
JO: Staying alive.
Submissions for the 2021 Crazyhorse Fiction Prize open on January 1st 2021.
Submit your work here: https://crazyhorse.submittable.com/submit
Writers may submit stories up to 25 pages. Winners receive $2,000 and publication. All entries will be considered for publication, and more than one essay may be entered. Before you submit, please remove your name and any other identifying information from your manuscript. Simultaneous submissions are okay, as long as you contact us should the work be accepted elsewhere. The $20 entry fee includes a one-year subscription to Crazyhorse.