It was this year’s AWP Conference in Seattle when I first came in contact with the tour de force that is Roxane Gay. After an evening of readings, publishing-house parties and general carousing, a crew of us found ourselves in the lobby of one of the main hotels hosting the conference, where the likes of Tobias Wolff or Richard Bausch could be spotted waiting for an elevator. As we made our way toward the hotel bar, my friend Adrienne stopped and gasped, “Oh my god, that’s Roxane Gay! I love her.” There she was in unassuming jeans and t-shirt, the ubiquitous culture critic who Flavorwire declared one of 25 Women Poised to Lead the Culture in 2014, Roxane Gay. I knew about her, but was not yet intimate with her work. Adrienne on the other hand was a confirmed admirer and devoted follower. As soon as an opportunity arose, she jumped at the chance to discuss with Gay the very important matter of Juan Pablo Galavis, the then-new Bachelor, and his romantic interests, Ferrell and Crawley. Though not a fan of the show myself, I was thoroughly entertained by the conversation and thoroughly impressed by Gay, who was clearly an intellectual, informed and sophisticated, yet still able to speak vox populi—a combination I dig in people, especially in writers. I needed more of a fix, which was all too easy to satisfy; she and her work are everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »
Building Stories: A Conversation with Rebecca Makkai about the Construction of her Novel, “The Hundred-Year House”Author Profiles, Chicago Authors No Comments »
By Brian Hieggelke
I live in a loft, in a printing factory built in 1883. Sometimes I daydream by gazing at a spot in our home, where perhaps an HDTV or a contemporary couch now sits, and wonder about that very space a century or more ago. What kind of workers perched there day after day? What kind of lives did they lead? What, if anything, did they talk about as they cranked out the original “Tarzan” novels and other fare?
This kind of curiosity drives Chicago writer Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, the delightful “The Hundred-Year House.” Zee, a troubled English professor, and her husband Doug, a literary scholar who’s having a hard time making progress with his exploration of a now-obscure poet’s legacy, have just moved into her family’s coach house on the North Shore, on a property that once served as an artists’ colony. What unfolds is something of a literary mystery with an original structure: Before long, we’ve abandoned Zee and Doug and their unanswered questions and visit the house in an earlier time, and then in another even earlier, each leap backward illuminating the narrative as we go. It’s a smart book, full of delicious turns of phrase and pieces of “found” documents, poems, letters, etc. that mesmerize once you’ve crossed its threshold.
Makkai grew up and lives a middle-class life on the gilded streets of the North Shore, a juxtaposition that informs her writing with a mix of insider and outsider perspective. The mother of two young children published her debut novel, “The Borrower,” in 2011 and will add a story collection featuring several of her “Best American Short Stories” winners, called “Music for Wartime,” to her list next summer. Not to mention her writings for Harper’s magazine and her work on a memoir about a grandmother she never really knew, one who’d been the leading lady of the Hungarian stage and a very successful novelist in that country back in her day. We had a lot to talk about when we had lunch. Read the rest of this entry »
By Christine Sneed
I first became familiar with Columbia College professor Garnett Kilberg Cohen’s stories a couple of years ago when I read one of her two previous collections, “Lost Women, Banished Souls.” Immediately apparent in these stories is Garnett’s light touch and her talent at writing about love in its many complex permutations. When she asked me this past spring if I’d be willing to read an advance copy of her newest story collection and, if I liked it, send her Milwaukee-based publisher, Wise Blood Books, a blurb, I was happy to do so. Many of these new stories balance on the narrow, spiked fence between comedy and tragedy, and love—its protean nature especially—is again a key theme. Garnett and I recently exchanged some thoughts about “Swarm to Glory.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Liz Baudler
Megan Stielstra’s writing career is forever changing. She tells me this as we sit on couches in the office space for her new nine-to-five job, and it looks like a sushi bar, all square lines and pale stripes of wood and white blocks. The walls are whiteboards and she can’t wait to take a marker to them.
Stielstra’s writing career has never been about the best-selling novel she hoped to write. It took shape as she scrubbed floors in Florence and read a lot. When she went to Columbia College, she walked out of her first class feeling like she had smoked everything there was to smoke, so high was she from the excitement of writing.
The writing career detoured when a trusted professor asked her if she’d ever thought about teaching. Yet she can’t stand in front of a classroom without writing, or else she’d violate some incredible trust with her students. It still amazes her that they trust her with first drafts: she would balk at handing over hers like that. Read the rest of this entry »
Any project Marvin Tate undertakes is just a sliver of the performer’s multimedia career—he’s been one of the funky minds behind the band D-Settlement, performance poet and all-around mixer-upper. That said, a sliver of Tate bursts with rhythm and spice, and his slim volume of poems, “The Amazing Mister Orange,” channels and chronicles the down-on-their-luck, the temporarily mighty going for a fall, with zingy grace and tempo. We chatted over email about the book’s genesis and style.
Who was “Mister Orange”?
Mister Orange is/was a name I once called my good friend Ainsworth Roswell, an amazing performance artist who taught me how to be in touch with the freak in thee. His favorite color was orange, he was Jamaican by way of England and so he had this incredible accent that blew MF’s away. He would put on these underground shows in Post Wicker Park in dank basements, BDSM clubs and on street corners. He ended up committing suicide by jumping from the seventh floor of the Water Tower Place and landing in the food court. I bet he was making a statement; he was always interested in class, weed and race. Read the rest of this entry »
A Mockingbird Sings? A Conversation with Marja Mills about her Controversial Memoir of Her Onetime Neighbor, Harper LeeAuthor Profiles, Memoir No Comments »
In 2001, reporter Marja Mills met up with Harper Lee, or Nelle, as she is known, and her older sister Alice Lee, in Monroeville, Alabama, while on assignment for the Chicago Tribune after the Chicago Public Library had chosen Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” as its One Book, One Chicago selection. Mills went back and forth to Alabama—and in 2004, she even moved next door to the sisters—and struck up a friendship with the two women. The story of the unusual camaraderie is the topic of Mills’ fascinating, touching and, it must be said, respectful, memoir, “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.” In the following email conversation, Mills recalls the first time she read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, as well as the recent controversy over Lee’s very public disavowal of the memoir.
Do you remember the first time you read “To Kill a Mockingbird”? And your reaction to it?
Yes. I was in the West High Library in Madison, Wisconsin. I felt as if I were in Maycomb, Alabama, walking those dusty, red clay roads. Harper Lee drew that world so vividly. It was transporting.
Can you say a bit more about how you were feeling when Alice Lee invited you into the house for the first time? You indicate you were surprised, thrilled and even a bit regretful. Is there anything else that you care to add?
She was so gracious, and here I had made this petite woman with the walker and raspy voice get up and answer the door. I kept telling myself to remember every detail of every room, because I wouldn’t be there again. But she seemed to enjoy the conversation, as did I, and it became the first of many. Read the rest of this entry »
By Brandie Rae Madrid
First-time novelist and Chicago transplant Lori Rader-Day’s “The Black Hour” is set in a prestigious university in a fictional Chicago suburb. After an inexplicable attack by a student shooter, Professor Amelia Emmet returns to work, albeit with a cane, a new anxiety about her students, and a slew of faculty who think she must have brought the crime on herself somehow. Told from two perspectives—that of Emmet and her new teaching assistant Nathaniel—the novel explores the aftermath of a violent crime that is becoming all too common on campuses today.
You’re originally from Indiana? What brought you to Chicago?
I am. The central Indiana area just northwest of Indianapolis near a town call Lebanon. Lots of people pass by it and may not stop.
We came to Chicago in 2001. I had gotten a job, and I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to come up here with me, and he responded by asking to marry him. So my fiancé and I came to Chicago together, and we got married about two years later. So, a good job, but also just trying to find adventure.
Chicago and its history end up being a big part of this novel. Can you speak a little bit about that and how that came about?
I can’t say that I’m an expert in Chicago crime history, but I think it’s really interesting to live in a town with so much rich history of all kinds. And then Chicago has such interest in its own history that I just love, but it also has an interest in its own crime history. I was thinking about what would draw Nathaniel in the book to Chicago once he’s there—because he’s interested in what happened to Dr. Emmet. But I thought he would have this sort of dark interest in crime, and of course Chicago is a good place to study crime if you’re going to do it. Read the rest of this entry »
By Brendan Tynan Buck
Kathleen Rooney’s fifth book cost her job as a senate aid for Dick Durbin. An essay in “For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs” mentioned a flirtation with her boss, the Chicago office district chief, and when that got back to Washington, she was fired. (He wasn’t.) Rooney’s recent novel “O, Democracy!” examines the firing of Colleen Dugan from the employment of “the Senior Senator of Illinois” during the climax of the 2008 election. Though based partly in autobiography, Rooney stresses it’s best to engage her book as standalone fiction. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Kathleen about structuring her novel, sexism in politics, and the presidential election of 2008.
How did your experience as a senate aid inform the creation of the novel?
Writing the book, I tried hard to use my experiences to create something that was definitely fiction, the reason being that I wanted events to be more interesting and logical than real events are. This is my first novel, even if it’s my seventh book. I’ve written memoir before, but I didn’t think that would be the best shape or form for the story that I wanted to tell. The separation between my actual self and my protagonist exists because I wanted to avoid the critique of self-absorbed navel gazing that memoirs often get. I wanted it to be a story that’s not just about one individual, but about a bigger system. Read the rest of this entry »
“As far as I know, the only people who have read the book are three women, all twenty-five and under, and two of you said, ‘I have no interest in having kids, but I liked the book,’” said Ben Tanzer. The Chicago author, publisher and podcaster was referring to his new essay collection “Lost In Space,” adventures in fathering his two sons, Myles and Noah. “Lost In Space” drips with pop-culture riffs and love letters to Chicago; it’s a book non-parents can wholeheartedly enjoy and actual parents can appreciate. Ben Tanzer and I chatted over Cuban coffees and Latin music about the hard jobs of writing and parenting.
Whenever I’ve heard you read, you’ve focused on relationships.
I am very into relationships. Sometimes it’s conscious, sometimes less so, but I’ve always been drawn to how people connect and how things get disrupted. In our lives, the most confusion’s around relationships, so how do we communicate, what’s real? How we can say things to people that we know are a mistake. Read the rest of this entry »
By Naomi Huffman
I first met Gina Frangello in 2011, when I was an undergrad studying writing at Columbia College; I took a fiction seminar class she taught my senior year. When she introduced herself she talked about her novel, which she was revising, and which would turn out to be “A Life in Men,” released last month from Algonquin. She went on to talk about the books we would read and study that semester (“You guys are going to love Milan Kundera,” she insisted—she was right), and then she talked passionately for several minutes about the books she was reading, written by friends and by writers she admired. Her enthusiasm was palpable; right away, I began to admire her support of other people’s work.
The summer after I graduated from Columbia, I was hired by Gina and her husband David to nanny her twin daughters Madeleine and Kenza and their friend Siena, who were then eleven years old. I picked them up three days a week from their home in Roscoe Village, which has the kind of beautiful slatted hardwood floors, gaping windows and dark wood trim I’ve come to associate with old Chicago houses. There was often some sort of minor tragedy unfolding when I arrived at their home those summer mornings—a misplaced shoe or transit pass, a forgotten lunch box, teeth or hair that needed brushing. I don’t know what she did when we finally left, but I liked to think of Gina writing, savoring the new quiet of the house, working in her small office just off the main rooms of the house, which does not have a door. Read the rest of this entry »