Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mike Stefan Strozier on ‘The Labyrinth’

Category: Issue 15

For someone like Mike Stefan Strozier, the throes of life are not scary but adventurous – things that hurt but against which you can try your guts. For some two-thirds of his entire life, Mike continued to struggle with potentially life-threatening challenges of schizophrenia, war, homelessness, and alcoholism – not to say of his broken family life. Still, the human strength of this man kept bouncing to continue in some really impressive creative and artistic direction. It’s not Mike’s kind to recount the tragedies of his life (even if he sees them as ‘tragedies’) very often. So when he wrote his memoir The Labyrinth (World Audience Publishers, 2006), it was not unusual for him to step aside from the ‘person Mike’ who had suffered the trials and tell the major events of his life with an objectivity and control that are the envy of many an aspiring writer. And it was equally hard to resist asking Mike for an interview about his memoir. Following is our e-conversation about his experiences, publication activity, and a word about his recent affair with the wrestling babe Chyna.   

Ernest: Hello Mike and congrats on surviving those tough times of your past life that you mention in The Labyrinth. Before I flood you with questions, I feel like asking ‘why a memoir’? What need or urge drove you to pen it down and publish it?

Mike: I decided to write a memoir in 2003 after looking back on my relatively short life and realizing that I have survived some rather unique and even amazing things. And, at this point in my, life I had done a lot of writing and I wanted to capitalize on it; I wanted to become a famous writer, a household name in literature, and it occurred to me that few (if any) great writers can actually claim mental illness—specifically, schizophrenia—as their literary élan. So I decided to be the first and mine it for all its worth. As I was writing, I found myself homeless for the 2nd time in my life; and at the same time just starting to be successful with my publishing company, World Audience Publishers, and theater company, La Muse Venale Acting Troupe. It was as if I was writing the last chapter of my memoir, literally. And, I read Lee Stringer’s Grand Central Winter, which had a big impact on me. I ended up working at a job (purely by chance as it developed out of a temporary agency job that I had at a completely different job) where Lee Stringer sat on the board of directors that helped homeless schizophrenics (in addition to homeless without mental problems, such as Lee formally was). I then sought out Lee, using the connection of our common employer. He would occasionally have readings of his work. We met and became friends and he—after some time thinking about it—decided to join World Audience Publishers as a board member, or otherwise a founder along with a few other artists. This was the very beginning of our press, in 2004. I had been writing my memoir all along, and then in 2006 I quit my job to try and seriously launch World Audience, Inc. and my writing career and after laying some ground work with the press, I spent that summer working on finalizing my memoir. Lee read it and guided me along and provided much help, along with Magdalena Ball, who is a reviewer in Australia, and a member of World Audience, that favorably reviewed my poetry collection, called Schizophrenia Poetry, which I published too that summer. I published my own work first with World Audience and it helped to move things along. Then, despite the fact that so many people have read and loved and even favorably reviewed The Labyrinth, I added to it again in 2008 and send it to our excellent chief editor, Kyle Torke, who is editing it now and I hope to finally have the book finalized permanently and published in early 2010. This last time, I added more of my early youth and later successes, and otherwise made it an even better read.

Ernest: You start your book with a dreary account of what it was like living as a child with schizophrenia. And apparently you got some very rough treatment, both from family and the medical community. What were your major strengths back then, things that you think helped you get through? 

Mike: First, it should be clear that schizophrenia almost always arrives in teenage years, and mostly to males. In fact, the Greeks called it “Sickness of the Young”, which is the title of my first collection of short stories (2001). My childhood was grand and I was something of a king at that time. My troubles started at about age 16 and they are described in my memoir, as is how I got through, though maybe not specifically. I think my main strength was that I was such a free spirit as a child growing up on a farm, riding horses and caring for all manner of dogs and other animals, and exploring and imagining all day long. It makes for a strong spirit, capable of resisting much pain. And, I have always had a fine sense of humor and that helped. I am a very patient person. I am confident. But it’s true that my own family abandoned me for the more than a year that I was locked up in a mental institution, as did my friends. Later, my family would do it a second time. I will say this: writing a memoir does force the writer to find answers, not in a psychiatry-kind-of-way; but in a common sense way. And, it has become abundantly clear to me, now age 43, that the fact is people—be they family or friends or lovers—do not like people who are mentally ill. People avoid the mentally ill, regard them with disgust, and can never accept them as “people”. There are always a few exceptions—such as writers! It is important for people who suffer from mental illness to recognize this fact, I think, and fight back, or somehow find a way to avoid becoming a victim. In the past, certain people (not just family) have said, “You’re not really crazy,” as if they understand. And, while it’s true that the thing can be viewed as something of a graph, with my peak nearly 3 decades ago (when I indeed was “really crazy”) and now it is just a low simmer, the stigma never leaves at all. And we all understand the consequences of that.

Ernest: How did schizophrenia interfere with your studies?

Mike: In terms of writing, it was a blessing. There is not too much else I am good at, and I am a very average student. But even though I have a degree in a hard science (geology), I got through my studies by writing down every word the professor said and then writing what I thought later. If nothing else, I have a large imagination. It took me a long time to learn how to harness that imagination and wrestle it to the ground, control it, force it to do my bidding; but once I had done that, what more could a writer ask? I read of writers who suffer from writers’ block. I never have that problem—ever. I read of writers who fade out after mid-life; perhaps around age 50, they are running out of things to say. I do not see that happening in my case. I have the next two decades—at least—full of things to write. My only obstacle is finding the money to survive and the time to write. But even though I frequently have neither thing, I still churn out my work like a factory man! But if I am operating at 85% capacity, I hope to soon be firing on all bores at 100%.

Ernest: When and why did you join the military and what were the implications of your history of schizophrenia in this case?

Mike: If things were falling apart in my family, when I left for the mental hospital, they were even worse when I returned. Add to that that my family openly rejected me and I had to do something to escape—and fast. The military seemed like the only option. And, about this time I decided to spent the better part of my coming life plotting, scheming, and fighting back against those who did not like me because I was mentally ill. And, frankly, I’ve done a pretty good job at that—which is in my memoir. I told the Marines and the Navy that I was schizophrenic and had been hospitalized. They denied me to join and said that if I ever tried again, I would be breaking the law and a felon. Damning them, I lied and joined the army. I excelled in the army, top of my class (as described), as a non-commissioned officer. Later, I went through Air Force ROTC in college and decided to become an active duty commissioned officer. I lied again. Furthermore, I was an intelligence officer with a TOP SECRET clearance; with I might add a SCI code. I am among the most trust agents of the United States Federal Government. I was honorably discharged from the army and the air force. I have proved my point. And I am among good company; great men, even US presidents (Kennedy), lied to get into the military for health (or other) reasons; I have just expanded it to now include mental health.

Ernest: How do you see your time in spent in the military in Iraq? Was it terrible, adventurous, dangerous, or what?

Mike: It was all of those things and more. War is nearly an indescribable experience, though I think I did a pretty good job of it in my memoir. Having been in Iraq in 1991, I found it painfully ironic that the second coming of Bush brought us back there, largely unsuccessfully. Politics aside, war changes those who fight it. Since those are men—because only men are in combat, at least in America—I can say it makes a man of you. Probably the “politically correct” crowd would sneer at a comment like that but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. War makes you count the rest of the days of your life as precious. It makes you more confident to face other obstacles. It makes you wiser, more tolerant and cautious. Luckily, I did not come home further traumatized.

Ernest: After the war, your marriage went on the rocks and you are still having trouble in seeing your kids. Do you think going to the war has a close connection to this chapter of your life?

Mike: No, my divorce and subsequent custody battles were due to a bad marriage. I covered this chapter of my life because it ties other parts of my life together better, and because I think many people can relate to what it means to go through a painful divorce. I remembered how difficult it was at the time for me, and I thought if I shared how I experienced it, perhaps others who will live through a hard divorced might be able to relate to my story, and perhaps my story—if told well enough—might help them a bit.

Ernest: What role did alcoholism play in your life? That is something not covered very well in the book as I remember it. 

Mike: After my divorce, I did become alcoholic and it played a major role—if not the primary role—in shattering what was left of my life at that point. I didn’t cover it in-depth because I didn’t want this story to be about my battle with alcohol. But like divorce, I wanted to spend some time in demonstrating through a story what, clearly, alcohol did to my life, and how it negatively impacted it. A lot of times, alcoholics are in denial, and when I present my situation in words, it is undeniable to anyone (including me) how alcohol affected my life. However, since recovering and getting my life back on track, and a number of years sober—though now I do drink, and have for a couple of years—it is equally clear how much better things are without alcohol consuming my existence.

Ernest: After your divorce you also became homeless?

Mike: Yes, and despite being in a mental hospital and a war, that was the most trying period of my life, mainly because again my family turned against me and testified with my ex-wife in our custody battle. Perhaps they did that because, again, as a schizophrenic, they thought I was not a good parent. Though they brought no evidence to make that case, the simply fact that they testified against me caused me to lose a case which I would otherwise almost surely have won. I think being homeless is as much a state of mind as it is a physical state. Most homeless people have been rejected by their family. It’s not just that they don’t have a place to live. It’s true I did not have a place to live, or any money; but just as important was the fact that my family had literally abandoned me. When that happens, it is nearly impossible to square with reality. It is incomprehensible. For me, being homeless was a matter of searching. I would walk all day long. I was trying to find an answer for what had happened to me. And there were no answers to be found. It is very hard to get out of being homeless. It takes an amazing amount of persistence—more than anything else I’ve ever done before. Thankfully, I have subsequently gone back to court and have been again granted custody of my children with an order to go get them. I have reconnected with them and they are now in my life again. I have good kids. I hope that someday my kids see the other side of the story, as no doubt they are only being told part of the story right now.

Ernest: What inspired you to go for writing and publishing, founding your own publishing company – the World Audience Publishers?

Mike: I started writing when I returned from the mental hospital as a way to understand who I am and to reconcile what had happened. And, then I found I liked it a lot and I never looked back. I wrote poetry, stories, books, and last plays. World Audience Publishers has evolved largely because of timing. About the time I began to get good at writing, and was producing quite a bit of it, in my twenties, was when the Internet became a major force of change. I tried to get published in print, and I did have success, but I am not good at marketing my own work. I don’t enjoy writing to publishers and asking them to publish my work. I get irritated and frustrated. So I started publishing my work online, and I learned HTML and other Web codes in order to create my own Web sites and publishing entities. That was in the 1990s. In fact, one writer, Hareendran Kallinkeel, who is in India, has been interacting with me in this manner for 20 years, since that time, and he and I are still involved in World Audience to this day. Hari and I were very interested in Francis Ford Copula’s www.zoetrope.com. That writers’ group came to mean a lot to us, and even other writers of our age group—along with similar Web sites. I wanted to form my own Zoetrope community. World Audience formed, and the journal audience, out of my many, many conversations with Hari. About 2004, World Audience began to take on a life of itself, and I formed it as a NY State corporation. Then, starting in 2006, we began to publish books, in addition to the literary journal, audience. But again our timing was perfect because just then print-on-demand technology had become mature and we were able to become a full-fledged publishing company in every sense of the word. Because there is so much opportunity on the Web, we continue to grow at a very fast rate.

Ernest: And you have written and produced plays, and even acted in some plays, right?

Mike: I returned to New York in 2003 and went to see an off-off Broadway play one day. I instantly realized that I could write a play, and that that was my strength. I wrote plays and produced them and they were very well-received. I was having so much luck and it came so easily to me. I formed a theater company with some of the actors and we have had a lot of productions in just a few years, mostly my own plays. The company is La Muse Venale, Inc. www.lamusevenale.org and it is a 501c3 non-profit theater company in New York. World Audience has become so successful that I have not focused on theater for a year. I am still writing plays, however, and whenever I can get to the point where World Audience is on autopilot, I hope to return to the theater, armed with a new set of plays to produce. But theater is a very insular business in America and because it can be very close to politics and even be therapeutic at times, there are a lot of people working in theater who guard it fearsomely. I have come to accept I will never be accepted by that crowd, which is fine with me. Simply producing my own plays with my own theater company, and with my own group of actors (and audience and critics, for that matter) is enough for me. I have never had as much fun as I had during the 3 years that I was producing my plays, and I would bet you money that every one of my actors would say the same thing, and they weren’t paid a dime.

Ernest: Lately, there has been some news of your affair with the wrestling celebrity Chyna. What’s the story?

Mike: Chyna and I were in a relationship that lasted about 3 months, but I only physically stayed with her a couple of days in L.A. where she lives. I published her book, Paper Doll, in black and white and we were supposed to do a color book from the profit that was made from her doing signings with the black and white but that plan now seems very dead. Nevertheless, this relationship with Chyna was extremely interesting to me, and I have learned very much from it. I didn’t know of Chyna before I published her book. Learning about her career and her celebrity directly from her, first-hand, for the first time, was very useful to me. Even more interesting is the fact that her career is basically over at this point, aged 38. Watching her emotions as she deals with that fact—even now, after we are no longer involved—is no less fascinating. In fact, now that I know her very intimately, I can watch any video or her, or read anything she writes and see a whole new level there. Chyna has opened my eyes to many, many things about celebrity, fame, Hollywood, media, and even America. It’s similar to how going to war opened my eyes about many things. Unfortunately, I will probably never hear from her again (unless she sues me), because I satirized her life in writing and because we were in love and when we broke up it was difficult and painful and lasted for several weeks. I would prefer to be her friend, though I admit I would probably end up writing more about what I saw. I have lived all over the world—as opposed to simply traveling—and met many people from all walks of life, and Chyna is the most interesting person I have ever met in my life. What I felt for her was real and I still have feelings for her. I am not one to be treated poorly, which is what she did to me, personally and professionally. I wrote about the experience and it’s over for me. But at this stage, she is probably not content to be a friend to me.

Ernest: So do you want to offer any advice to bachelors regarding women and relationships after your divorce and the Chyna affair?

Mike: Try Match.com, it works! I met this super, super hot woman and we have a date this weekend. Writing poems works wonders. Unfortunately, if you’re not good at writing poems, it can backfire horribly. I will say one thing about Chyna. At one point, we were sitting over drinks after dinner, chatting, and she asked me what I had to offer her. You see, she had every intention of us getting married. I was not that sure; but willing to play along. I replied that I could offer love, friendship, romance, poetry, support, help, and the like; but that unlike her I was not rich or famous. She said that was not enough. She said she wanted something more if she were to get married, some kind of professional benefit to her career, through my own career or standing in the media culture. That conversation was the turning point in our relationship. Up to that point, the book that we had published was generating a lot of buzz and, it seemed to me at least, that she was getting more attention than normal. We had made some media contacts that proved quite fruitful. Perhaps I was already offering her exactly what she sought? But in the end, she did not think so and told me to go away. Now, only 3 months later, I have taken some major steps forward with World Audience and my own writing career. I would venture to say that within 1-2 years M. Stefan Strozier is well on target to be a media mogul, as well as a professional writer and produced playwright, of the highest order in America. The old guard is dying off fast and my star is rising at lightning speed. And what of poor Chyna? Even in these 3 months, it seems to me that what success she has obtained (a tiny bit on a cable show; an appearance at a karaoke bar, singing to an empty house) is rather pathetic—even in comparison to what I have achieved, here and now. For me, Chyna was a fascinating study in “old-school media”, in every sense of the word. I am very much a New Media property. I learned a lot from here, therefore. I would still like to be friends, however.

Ernest: What is one thing that scares you now and the one hope that keeps you going?

Mike: I don’t want to sound boastful; but I can honestly say that nothing scares me. It’s another little benefit to having lost your mind. At some confrontations in my life, the man I was set to fight would look into my eyes and remark that I was “too crazy” and back off fighting me. Those times I have had to fight, I won against men who were infinitely better fighters than I am. My appetite is insatiable. When you have truly stared into the abyss, little else in life is of consequence.

Ernest: You also conduct seminars, or webinars if you will, off and on, for writers and publishers. What do your seminars aim at and how can aspiring writers join you there? 

Mike: We are now moving our very successful phone conference to www.blogstar.com and I think it will grow even more, with a subscriber base. It’s just one example of how World Audience is using technology to reach readers and sell books. There is more information on our home page: www.worldaudience.org.

Ernest: Okay, let me thank you for taking time for this chat. I wish you success in your endeavors!



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