By Megan Kirby
Jen Lancaster signs her books with neon bright Sharpies: yellow, orange and hot pink. Women line up in the Theater Wit lobby with books pressed to their chests, some sipping champagne from plastic flutes (a glass came free with ticket purchase). When it’s their turn with Lancaster, the author asks them about their haircuts, their jackets, how far they drove to get to the event. “I’m so glad you could make it!” she says again and again, like a gracious hostess—and somehow it seems genuine every time. When anyone holds up an iPhone and asks for a picture, Lancaster always agrees.
Everyone wants to be Jen Lancaster’s best friend.
In February, the New York Times bestselling author signed books and answered questions at Theater Wit’s screening of “Freaky Friday” (“The most excellent version with Jodie Foster, none of that Lohan bullshit,” she teased on her blog, jennsylvania.com). The Book Cellar hosted the event in honor of Lancaster’s newly released body-swap novel, “Twisted Sisters.” Since publishing her first book in 2006, Lancaster’s written ten books total (seven memoirs and three novels, all generally labeled “chick lit”), and she’s turned a cult-like following into major mainstream success. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Jocelyn Augustino
By Ted Anton
In “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing,” former Oak Park resident manager and journalist Rachel Snyder tells the story of what happens when two high-school girls stay home to try ecstasy the same afternoon their street is rocked by a series of home invasions. The neighborhood suspicions threaten to rip apart Oak Park’s suburban veneer of race and class harmony. An assistant professor in creative writing at American University in Washington, Snyder has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, and has appeared frequently on National Public Radio. She published the investigative “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade” in 2007. “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing” is her first novel.
So what was the inspiration for “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing?”
I was accompanying an American military MIA mission in Vietnam, writing for a magazine, and a friend there told me this story of these robberies all in one night that happened in Georgia. The story stuck with me. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Shaun Crittenden
By Naomi Huffman
Last winter, I interviewed Christine Sneed about her then just-released “Little Known Facts,” a novel about an aging Hollywood heartthrob named Renn Ivins, and the effects of his celebrity on his relationships with his children, ex-wife and his much younger girlfriend. It was one of my favorite books of the year, and other critics seem to agree: Booklist named it among the Top Ten First Novels of 2013, and in addition to profiling the novel, Kirkus Reviews included it on their Book Gift Ideas for Avid Readers list.
In October, Sneed, who teaches creative writing at Northwestern and co-hosts the Sunday Salon reading series, was awarded Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award. We caught up around Thanksgiving in her workspace in her Evanston condo to talk about her writing process, journaling, and her forthcoming novel, “Paris Gare St. Lazare.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Liz Baudler
Pardon the 1920s jargon, but Chicago author Renee Rosen is the bee’s knees. Rosen’s the author of “Dollface,” the story of Vera Abramowitz, a nice Jewish girl who ends up falling in love with a gangster from the North Side and one from the South Side in Chicago’s heyday as the crime capital of America. Vera and her best friend Evelyn sashay through the city until the going gets tough, and then they toughen up. Rosen, who launched “Dollface” with 1920s aplomb—complete with speakeasy, gangland tour and submachine guns—talked with us about how the time period and its lady characters are more than just a passing craze.
You always felt like you had a book in you. Why this one?
This has been a ten-year-love affair for me. When I started working, there was no “Boardwalk Empire,” no remake of “The Great Gatsby.” I started to research, and became so enamored of the characters that walked our streets. I knew there was a story that could come out of this era. I just had to dig and find it.
Why do you think the twenties are back in style?
We’ve all been struggling since about 2008, and the twenties was such a prosperous time, such a happy-go-lucky time, and I think that’s a perfect escape for us now. We’re tired, we’re weary. And I also think people love the fashion. Mary Janes, cloche hats are back in. People are having a lot of fun with it. Read the rest of this entry »
By Micah McCrary
John Freeman’s “How to Read a Novelist” contains fifty-six illuminating profiles of some of the most-acclaimed writers of our time, including Toni Morrison, Jonathan Safran Foer, Joyce Carol Oates and A.S. Byatt. Each of these profiles contains both wisdom and idiosyncrasy, certainly sides of some writers that we don’t see in their books. In a conversation with John Freeman, the former editor of Granta and sometimes Newcity contributor, we get a little bit of his idiosyncrasy.
The first thing I’m interested in here is the issue of intimacy. “It was a breach of everyone’s privacy when a reader turns to a writer,” you write, “or a writer’s books, for vicariously learned solutions to his own life problems. This is the fallacy behind every interview or biographical sketch, to tether a writer’s life too literally to his work, or to insist that a novel function as a substitute for actually living through the mistakes a person must live through in order to learn how to properly, maybe even happily, survive.” However, I’d argue that this is part and parcel of the act of reading: we hope that reading will be a conversation, so what’s wrong with a little theft of shared or similar experience?
I think what is intimate and what is personal are often confused in America. We anecdote-share in conversation, pass the bucket of trauma back and forth until the scale is roughly equal. So we often crave intimacy even though we are way past the point of too much information. This is why a good novel, a really good one, is so powerful. It provides a different framework for intimacy: one of the mind, rather than of details. And in the end, the mind has control of everything anyway, from how we feel to how we make sense of the world. This is why that title of Jonathan Franzen’s first essay collection—“How to Be Alone”—felt like a stroke of genius. To be intimate and yet alone with a good book is an extraordinarily liberating thing. It can shatter the boundary between you and another in a way nothing can, except maybe love. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Shaun Crittenden
By Naomi Huffman
Charles Blackstone’s new novel “Vintage Attraction” chronicles the relationship between Peter Hapworth, a bored adjunct writing professor, and Isabelle Conway, a prominent sommelier and host of a local cable access show that shares the book’s title. Their story closely mirrors how Blackstone met and fell in love with his wife, local restaurateur and former host of “Check, Please!,” Alpana Singh.
The book was released this fall to mixed reviews, but Blackstone, who also serves as managing editor of the online publication Bookslut, says, “I appreciate the time that all reviewers spend with this book [….] I know that there will always be some who will jump to conclusions based on a quick read and overly simplistic assumptions. I don’t really consider that book reviewing, though. There have been a lot of reviewers—and readers—who have responded very deeply and intelligently to the book, and I’m grateful for that.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Blackstone in person at his home in the Gold Coast, and later over email. We talked about wine, pugs, the pressure to be a prolific writer, and the line between memoir and fiction. Read the rest of this entry »
By Sarah Cubalchini
Leslie Stella’s “Permanent Record” follows teenage boy Badi Hessamizadeh, an Iranian-American in post-9/11 America, who wishes to be a normal high-school student. After an incident with blowing up the school’s toilet, Badi is encouraged to attend a new school, where his name is stripped down to Bud Hess and he tries to get involved by writing for the school newspaper. But when mysterious threatening letters appear in the school newspaper, Badi’s troubled past and his much hated nickname, “towelhead,” come back to haunt him, and to prove his innocence, he must find out who’s the one writing all the letters.
After writing three adult novels, what inspired “Permanent Record?”
The idea first emerged as adult fiction about ten years ago. I wrote the book with the same setting (a Chicago private school) and some of the same characters, but from the perspective of a teacher who no longer appears in the book. (Badi, the protagonist in “Permanent Record,” appeared in that version, but as a supporting character.) That version didn’t work for a variety of reasons, so over the years and in between other projects, I rewrote it twice. I was drawn to something in that story over and over, and finally I had to figure out what it was. I realized what I had liked about the earlier versions were not the adult characters and their stories, but the teens. Read the rest of this entry »
By Naomi Huffman
Despite the piles of books I encounter as a book reviewer and editor, I’m still often seduced by a book the old-fashioned way: a delightful cover design, a formidable number of pages, a titillating title. With Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” it was the latter.
But a few chapters in, Fowler seduces with something else entirely, delivering a shock that quite literally changes the “truth” of the story, at least as the reader has come to understand it so far. It’s a trick, but it’s one Fowler deals deftly, and there’s nothing cheap about it. What follows is a story about how a young girl named Rosemary grieves the loss of her sister Fern, and how the memory of that loss has haunted her even into middle age. Rosemary tells the reader what she remembers, but because she was just five years old when Fern was lost, much of the novel pertains to memory and explores how what we remember is often just as important as what we choose to forget.
Karen Joy Fowler spoke with me recently from the road, while touring to promote “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Shaun Crittenden
By Naomi Huffman
Among the dozens of editors and publishers suggested for 2013’s Lit 50 issue with whom I was not familiar (and it’s the discovery of new people that I love most about working on that issue), one particular name appeared over and over: Mairead Case. One contributor claimed, “Wherever something literary is going on in Chicago, Mairead is there.” Still another contributor insisted, “This city’s lit scene moves on Mairead Case’s blood and sweat.” I had to meet her.
Mairead is an MFA-W candidate at the School of the Art Institute. She’s the Youth Services Assistant at the Poetry Foundation Library, and an editor-at-large for Yeti Publishing and featherproof. She writes regular columns for Bad At Sports and Bookslut. The scope of her involvement in independent publishing is astounding: she’s previously edited for The Journal of Ordinary Thought and Proximity, and copy edited for Semiotext(e) and Nightboat. She co-authored a comic with David Lasky, “Soixante Neuf,” which was included in The Best American Comics 2011, and was a volunteer director at Louder Than a Bomb. Last summer, Mairead graduated from the Naropa Summer Writing Program in Boulder, Colorado, and is at work on a novel. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Jacob S. Knabb
By Greg Baldino
“You know,” said debut novelist Chris Terry, “Kirkus listed ‘Zero Fade’ as historical fiction. It made me feel old because I’m actually two years older than Kevin.” Set in the early nineties, “Zero Fade” follows Kevin and his uncle Paul over several days of life-changing adolescent drama covering everything from haircuts to homophobia, girls to bullies, and the ever-present question of “What more can go wrong?” Adam Mansbach, the author of “Go the F**k to Sleep,” said after reading it: “We need writers like Chris L. Terry,” and Audrey Niffenegger called it “a wonderful book,” which is possibly as diverse as early praise can get.
What were some of the advantages and challenges you found in telling a story set twenty years ago?
Since Kevin’s coming up with some of the same pop culture as me, it was easy to set it then because I could talk about the things that I liked in 1994, instead of having to research what teenagers in 2013 are into. Also, technology has changed the game for young people. If I set the book in ninety-four, I wouldn’t have to consider cell phones and the internet.
It’s funny. I read a book set twenty or more years ago now and there’s always a scene where I catch myself thinking, “Yo, why don’t they just look it up online, or text somebody?” Trying to figure out what music sounds like, or standing around waiting for your late-ass friends is becoming a lost experience. That’s probably a good thing, but I think those types of relationships—the older friend who copies your albums that no one else has, your buddy who always has a tape in the VCR in case something cool comes on—should be commemorated. Read the rest of this entry »