Christopher Barzak – from short stories and novels to Sundance Film Festival

Author and YSU Professor Christopher Barzak in Kinsman, Ohio. Electronic Image courtesy of Christopher Barzak.

Author and YSU Professor Christopher Barzak in Kinsman, Ohio. Electronic image courtesy of Christopher Barzak.

By TY LANDIS | Metro Monthly Staff Writer

In just a few weeks, the annual Sundance Film Festival will be kicking off in Park City, Utah. Large crowds of people, snow, celebrities, and the swirling aroma of films and culture will be the norm among the thousands attending the festival. Local author and YSU Professor Christopher Barzak will also be making the trip to Utah, equipped with an incentive and sense of accomplishment that most of us wouldn’t dare dream up.

The homegrown and accomplished Barzak has been at it for a while. Having started his writing career with short stories, Barzak has since gone on to pen two novels, with a third on the way in 2015 titled “Wonders of the Invisible World.”

Now, the hardest challenge for Barzak comes in the form of viewing his own work in the hands of someone else, and in another form entirely. Barzak’s award-winning 2007 novel “One for Sorrow” is what ultimately put him on the map, a work that made the transition from the pages of a book to the big screen when writer-director Carter Smith (“The Ruins”) came calling in 2008 with the idea of turning “One for Sorrow” into a film.

After a long process of renewing the novel’s option, pulling together human and capital resources, and working through script revisions, Barzak’s creation receives new life. Now titled “Jamie Marks Is Dead,” Smith’s adaptation of Barzak’s novel will premiere at Sundance on Jan. 19. The film stars Liv Tyler, Judy Greer, Cameron Monaghan, Noah Silver, and Morgan Saylor.

Barzak, a native of Kinsman, subscribes to the idea of writing what you know, having taken experiences from his youth in order to shape the spirit of his first work. “One for Sorrow” started as a short story, but grew from Barzak’s desire to reflect on his hometown. The book can be best described as a coming-of-age story that traces the supernatural bond between two lonely teenage boys amidst a potent rural decay that echoes that of Youngstown’s.

“I wanted to write about book set in my hometown that dealt with different things I was afraid of as a teenager, stuff like death,” Barzak said. Most of what informs the novel’s sense of loss was the death of 12-year-old Raymond Fife, a boy who was found brutally murdered in Warren in 1985.

“I think it was the first time I realized there were people who would kill small children for no particular reason,” Barzak said.

The author’s novels interact with one another in such a way that has the same themes bouncing off one another: ghost stories, fantasy, the supernatural; the strange fantastical that happens in everyday life.

It may not be strange, but the fantastical has definitely set in for Barzak, whose transition from short stories to novels has thrust him into unexpected prominence.

“Initially, I was trying to figure out how to let myself be more expansive and digressive because a novel has room for that. Once I got the hang of it, it went rather well actually. Each book will teach me something different. I get bored, I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again,” Barzak said.

Now, the writer has afforded himself some time to soak up the journey he’s about to embark on, however different and awkward it may be.

While “Jamie Marks Is Dead” won’t veer too far away from Barzak’s novel, the writer finds comfort in the fact that each will stand as their own separate works. Director Carter Smith did consult some with Barzak on the screenplay, but it was mostly Smith wanting Barzak to be happy with any changes he might make from things featured in the book.

“The more we interacted, the more comfortable I became. It’s odd, a friend of mine recently said it’s like having a baby and giving it to someone else to raise,” Barzak said. And while the changes from novel to screenplay are minimal, Barzak finds solace in Smith’s own organic additions to the story, mostly coming in the form of a character Smith brings back in the film whose arc ended earlier in the novel.

Although YSU’s spring semester coincides with Sundance, Barzak doesn’t anticipate being too absent from work. The festival kicks off on Jan. 16, with Barzak arriving on Jan. 17 and leaving three days later. The trip will mostly be one of pleasure for the writer, who says if anything businesslike pops up it’ll mostly be offhand and unexpected. “Certain people have asked to meet with me. My agent is going too, I think he’s planned dinner, and we’re going to see if we can get tickets to other films as well,” Barzak said.

Having already lived in Southern California, Michigan, and the suburbs of Tokyo, Barzak seems content residing in Ohio, and why not? The reaction from his students and family has been positive. “My students are probably just as excited as I am. Sometimes when I walk into the department, they’re more fervent and freaking out than I am. My family is also super excited; my mom is worried that I’ll become uber-famous and want to leave,” Barzak said.

After the buzz of Sundance dies down, there won’t be much down time for Barzak, who is already working on a follow-up work to his next novel, as well as a collection of short stories that are retellings of famous genre literature. Now that one of his novels has morphed into a screenplay, Barzak thinks it could be fun to write a script. “I’m more interested in it now that I’ve ever been. I would probably want to start from scratch rather than adapting something I’ve written,” Barzak said.

As for when people can see “ ‘Jamie Marks Is Dead,’ ” it really depends on its success at Sundance. Barzak is confident that it will have a wide release next fall, and is something that can hopefully play close to Youngstown in the coming months.

© 2014 Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

Still from the Sundance Film Festival motion picture  ‘Jamie Marks is Dead.’ Electronic image by Robin Harper.

Still from the Sundance Film Festival motion picture ‘Jamie Marks is Dead.’ Electronic image by Robin Harper.

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