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 »
By Sarah Cubalchini
Janice Deal’s debut, “The Decline of Pigeons,” is a short-story collection about broken people amidst the turmoil of loss, from a woman trying to rebuild herself after losing her arm to a man haunted by the memory of letting his daughter be bitten by a vicious dog.
Even though Deal was always interested in writing, it took enrolling in Fred Shafer’s Adult Continuing Education writing class at Northwestern University to start pursuing her fiction. When Deal received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for Prose, she took a sabbatical from her day job and went to Paris to focus on her writing. Ever since, she’s been publishing short stories in literary journals like The Sun, CutBank, StoryQuarterly, and The Carolina Quarterly. “The Decline of Pigeons” was selected as a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Read the rest of this entry »
By Greg Baldino
There was a time when experimental science fiction could sell a million copies. It helped that at the time science fiction (having acquired a reputation just slightly better than that of pornography) was sold in cheap mass-market paperbacks off the spinning wire racks of grocery stores, pharmacies, newsstands and who knows where else. They were readily accessible and reasonably inexpensive; and though genre fiction might still have been seen as declassé by some, a slim paperback was easily concealed in a jacket pocket, or cradled in concealing hands on the morning commute.
The market changed, everything changed, and now you can no longer walk into a 7-Eleven and pick up a Samuel Delany novel for pocket change. Despite this, his work is both still relevant and celebrated. His groundbreaking science-fiction novel “Dhalgren” remains in print and was adapted for the stage in 2010. Authors from Neil Gaiman to Junot Diaz have cited him as an influence and inspiration. Delany spent two decades away from the genre that launched his literary reputation, but returned to science fiction last year with his novel “Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders,” which Roger Bellin of the Los Angeles Review of Books called “a book worthy of his career full of masterpieces—and a book that no one else could have written.” As philosophic as it is pornographic, the book chronicles the life of two gay men who, meeting in their late teens in 2007, forge an open and committed relationship that spans sixty-to-seventy years into the future. It is the first time a newly published Delany book has sat on the SF shelves since Knopf-Doubleday reprinted five volumes of his science fiction in stylish trade paperbacks back in the early 2000s. Read the rest of this entry »
By Helen Kaplow
Everyone knows about Scott Fitzgerald, writer of the semi-autobiographical “The Great Gatsby,” the latest lavish film version at your local theaters now. Scott’s wife Zelda was the quintessential flapper and party girl. Together, they were the glamorous “It” couple of the Roaring Twenties, icons of the Jazz Age, first in New York and then as famous American ex-pats in Paris, hanging out with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and that hip gang. With the release of the Hollywood film, no less than four books have been freshly published about Zelda and/or Scott and Zelda.
“Beautiful Fools,” an immensely human and tender novel, is the contribution of R. Clifton Spargo, a Chicago-based writer and cultural critic who pens “The HI/LO,” a blog for the Huffington Post. An Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has published many stories and essays, and this is his first novel.
In an unconventional look at the couple, Spargo’s book is not set during the Fitzgeralds’ mythic heyday. He tells their story in the next decade, after the fall. Now broken by mental illness, alcoholism, adulterous relationships and financial ruin, Zelda is institutionalized on the East Coast while Scott is living in California and has a girlfriend. Spargo’s book tells the tale of the couple’s final meeting on holiday together in Cuba during the end of the 1930s—a trip about which very little is actually known. Read the rest of this entry »
By Naomi Huffman
I’ll likely always remember Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg’s memoir “You Were Never in Chicago” as the book that made me fall back in love with this city. Steinberg’s nostalgic telling of his steady transformation to becoming a Chicagoan, which began when he moved to Evanston from rural Ohio to study at Northwestern as an undergrad in 1978, reminded me very much of my own coming-to-the-city story. Steinberg describes emerging from the subway downtown for the first time: “climbing those stairs, the rainy city a square of gray light that opened up to buildings and cars and people.” And a few paragraphs later: “In the beginning, you just soak it all in.” Indeed.
Last month, when the New York Times published Rachel Shteir’s takedown of three recently published books about our city that included Steinberg’s “You Were Never in Chicago” (and also “The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream,” by Thomas Dyja and “Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor’s Office and Into Prison,” by Jeff Coen and John Chase), the response was vehement. Carol Marin of WMAQ Channel 5 news, Rex Huppke of the Tribune and even Mayor Rahm Emanuel all replied in defense of the city, and with a few zingers to throw back at Shteir. Read the rest of this entry »
By Brendan Buck
George Saunders is a number of things. He’s a writer, a professor at Syracuse University and a MacArthur Fellow (aka “genius”). His newest collection, “Tenth of December,” has made him into a New York Times best-selling author. But “Tenth” is only one of several notable collections, which include “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “In Persuasion Nation” and “Pastoralia.” But despite having one hell of a pedigree, George Saunders remains humble and approachable, and was willing to shoot emails back and forth with me over a weekend on voice, process and genre.
You tend to wear your influences on your sleeve. Your teacher Tobias Wolff is an obvious one, but you’ve also written at length about how Vonnegut changed your idea about what literature was. In the writing, what ways do you feel your influences have expressed themselves?
I’m actually not sure. There are a lot of questions that the writer himself probably doesn’t think much about, or the answer to which he can’t really articulate. I think influence works like this: you are madly casting about for something to love, so you know better how to direct your energy. Something suitable arrives. You wallow in it. It gets into your DNA. Then you tire of it and move on. Over and over. And then, at the end, all of the things that are “you” have been filtered through these various influences. And you are changed, both as a writer and a person—but in thousands of ways that are too subtle to describe, except in very broad terms. That is, I don’t think the sum change could necessarily be described. And, from a creative standpoint, there’s probably not all that much value in describing it, if you see what I mean. My guess is, we are attracted to writers who are doing something that it is in our nature to do—so we imitate them for awhile so that we can eventually distinguish what in us is different from them—and move on accordingly. Read the rest of this entry »
Stephen Rodrick/Photo: Jeff Minton
By Brian Hieggelke
On paper (literally), Stephen Rodrick leads a swell life. He operates as a magazine journalist at the highest level, penning thoughtful cover stories about celebrities for the New York Times Magazine, or undertaking month-long adventures with the oil men inhabiting North Dakota’s still relatively rugged frontier. But Rodrick’s been haunted by his father’s absence in his life, first as a Navy pilot who spent more time on missions than at home, and then permanently when his father was killed in a crash while serving the country.
With his new memoir, “Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey Into His Father’s Life,” Rodrick confronts his ghost head on. His story of growing up the underperforming son of a Type A father he worships, and what it’s like to lose him like he did, is both heartbreakingly sad and self-deprecatingly hilarious. But Rodrick is not content to just rewrite his diary; his father’s life was mostly lived away from his family and the son decides to undertake, through reporting, a journey to understand that part of it. Rodrick spends vast amounts of time on board various ships with a modern-day parallel to his father, Commander Hunter “Tupper” Ware. His up-close-and-intimate portrait of the modern-day Naval pilot is equally amusing and heartfelt; together with his own story, he elevates the form of the memoir. Read the rest of this entry »