Transformation Through Narrative Structures: Book and Paper Artist Teresa Pankratz Talks Storytelling and Inspiration

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Teresa Pankratz/Photo: Bryan Saner

Chicago 1986: Teresa Pankratz and her husband are out on the town, familiarizing themselves with their new neighborhood on the North Side shortly after moving to a new apartment. Artistically, nothing was calling out to Pankratz at the time. But then they happened upon a quaint little shop with a captivating display called Artists’ Book Works. The exhibit was so exquisite that she was immediately drawn in. There, Teresa says, she was “mesmerized by an assortment of beautifully constructed book-like objects: exotic, humorous, intriguing, absorbing.”

Since that fateful night in 1986, Pankratz has been creating small-editioned narrative sculptures and artists’ books specifically to explore the relationship between humans and familiar, domestic objects and sheltering spaces. The term “artists’ books” seems elusive but essentially refers to publications as artworks, books as a medium. Pankratz’s narrative sculptures can be seen as artists’ books as well, the key difference being she incorporates found objects within them, such as the objects in her 2007-08 piece, “The Lost/Found Portrait of Marissa Vorobia.” This work includes a handmade paper record sleeve, shoebox liner and constructed shoebox with a digitally printed lid among other objects. Read the rest of this entry »

The Writer’s Advocate: Detroit’s Poet and Literary Arts Organizer Extraordinaire, M.L. Liebler

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M.L. Liebler's new book "Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out The Jams." a collection of poems, songs, fiction and non-fiction he's compiled from artists like Eminem, Woody Guthrie and Michael Moore, will be coming out soon. Liebler poses for a portrait between classes at Wayne State Wednesday September 29, 2010. MANDI WRIGHT/Detroit Free Press

M.L. Liebler/Photo: Mandi Wright

By Amy Danzer

Rare is the writer who has an easy time of it making money or getting their name out there. Writers are often grossly underpaid, uncomfortable about self-promoting and already juggling too much to take on extra work that does not pay. When money for the arts is especially hard to come by, as is the case in Detroit or anywhere really these days, it’s a particularly special thing to have someone like M.L. Liebler in one’s corner.
Poet and professor at Wayne State University, director of The Ridgeway Press, and co-editor of the Made in Michigan Writers Series, M.L. Liebler has an extensive history of organizing programs to bring community together to support the literary arts in Detroit and has created opportunities, paid opportunities, for writers’ voices to be heard for decades. Read the rest of this entry »

Clowes Encounter: Talking Comics and Chicago with Cartoonist Daniel Clowes

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By Ray Pride

An early spring afternoon a few days ago along Milwaukee Avenue, south of North, east of Damen, so far removed from the Wicker Park of the 1990s: I pause in front of Myopic Books, still standing, surrounded by storefronts peopled by yupscale saloons, Levis, American Apparel, and remember the days when it was Earwax Café, the front windows there? It had two-top tables in both the plate-glass windows where you could watch the passersby on the street, or turn your head, and watch the other customers, and on certain days and nights, catch sight of a clutch of furiously productive scribblers, which could include Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Archer Prewitt, Gary Leib, among others. They hadn’t “arrived,” but they were there.

I was, too. The food was cheap and heavy, tending to the vegan, and the ashtrays were as often filled with torn-up notes a writer had digested or an artist had rejected as with ashes. My clearest memory of sighting the young artistes was while awaiting a momentous date with a not-yet-girlfriend, sitting at the table in that window, the girl who looked into small tatters and saw her name, and looking away with mild mortification over her shoulder and catching sight of scribblers off to the side, taking in the smell of the food and the not-quite-burnt coffee in the air before looking back at her blushing face. The scraps, the girl, the general atmosphere: plus the furious nurture of a few of the founding foundlings of the still-spreading school of Chicago cartoonists hunched over a free meal.

Now, in the decades since, Clowes’ lovingly rendered Midwestern grotesques have colonized the consciousness of a couple generations of readers far beyond the Chicago comics scene in the waning of the twentieth century. I like talking to Dan. He laughs easily and scores points quietly. We were talking since the 1990s, but I’ve had agreeable structured, journo-subject interviews with Clowes since at least the 2001 release of the movie of “Ghost World.” We tried to remember if and when our respective pasts might have first crossed in those formative Chicago years. It could have been a gallery opening for Ware’s work, he suggests, but we figure it might also have been at some casual locale like the Rainbo Club, and we had probably bristled at each other at some point or another, with a fine mix of shyness, fear and hostility. “In the way we do—we Chicagoans do,” Clowes agreed, laughing. Read the rest of this entry »

Understanding Human Performance: Sian Beilock Investigates “How the Body Knows Its Mind”

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Sian Beilock_author photoBy Toni Nealie

I struggle to write when I sit at my desk for too long. My students freeze when stressed. Chicagoans pine for sun in winter. “How the Body Knows Its Mind” resonated with me because it identifies the science behind what we feel and suggests simple changes to improve our lives. I caught up with neuropsychologist Sian Beilock after her week of presentations around the country.

What was the impetus for the book? How does it follow the work that you did on human performance in your previous book “Choke”?
I think everyone thinks of the mind as telling the body what to do — our thoughts, our feelings, our learning, our ability to perform — reside in our head. As I started doing research for “Choke” I realized what we do with our bodies and our surroundings have a big impact on how we learn and how we feel. No one was really telling that story. Everyone was telling the story about what happens inside our head. There’s a great story to tell about some simple things we can do to feel better, perform better and learn better if we understand a little bit of the science. Read the rest of this entry »

The Million-Dollar Wound: How A Life of Fighting, Chanting, Loving and Running Paid Off When I Published a Novel and Got Gored by a Bull

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Bill Hillmann in striped shirt/Photo: Foto Mena

Bill Hillmann in striped shirt/Photo: Foto Mena

By Bill Hillmann

In November of 2005, I moved down to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to write a novel. I’d attempted to write a book the year before but it was complete garbage so I threw it in the trash. Then I saved up a bunch of money using my big shoulders, working as a Local 2 Laborer on construction sites all over the city and figured I’d rent a place, live simply, and like my mentor Irvine Welsh (of “Trainspotting”) advised me, “write every single fookin’ day.” I met Irvine around 2003 through a mutual friend in the Chicago boxing community named Marty Tunney. Irvine and I hit it off and he really fanned my flames as a writer. Anytime I asked him a question he gave me the best advice he could. As simple as it was, writing every day was the best advice I ever got.

San Miguel was even more breathtakingly beautiful than I’d expected. It’s a Spanish colonial town built on a small mountainside. Spectacular cathedral spires stretch into the sky amid colorful hundreds-of-years-old buildings. The cobble stone streets wind and climb the steep pitch of the mountainside. Art galleries and excellent restaurants haunt every path. San Miguel made an impact on the Beat Generation and is the town Neal Cassady left while counting rail ties on his way to Celaya when he died suddenly. Read the rest of this entry »

How Pain Defines and Defies Us: Leslie Jamison Discusses “The Empathy Exams”

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Leslie Jamison

Photo: John Freeman

By John Freeman

Newspapers may be dying, our publishing industry is at war with Amazon, but a bright spot remains in U.S. letters: the literary essay. In the past decade, writers known for other books and other work have begun working in the form that gave birth to the New Yorker.

These new essayists—from John Jeremiah Sullivan to Elif Batuman, Aleksandar Hemon and Daniel Alarcon—don’t come from the same boys club as the writers of the last heyday of the essay. They are unglossy, smart, deeply stylish and, with her debut collection of essays, “The Empathy Exams,” Leslie Jamison proves she will probably write her way into their company.

Jamison is hardly an underdog. She grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a prominent economist, niece to the psychotherapist Kay Redfield Jamison. She attended Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently studying for a Ph.D. at Yale. Her debut novel, “The Gin Closet,” the tale of three generations of women and their tortured family history, received high praise when it appeared in 2010.

And yet it did not prepare readers for “The Empathy Exams.” Written over a period of many years, the book examines how pain both defines and defies us, and meditates on its role in empathy. The title essay recalls a period that Jamison spent as a medical actor, faking ailments in scenarios meant to test doctors of their diagnostic skills and their ability to demonstrate empathy. “Empathy isn’t just listening,” Jamison writes, “it’s asking the questions that need to be listened to.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Myth of the American Dream: Cristina Henriquez on Her New Novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans”

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Photo: Michael Lionstar

Photo: Michael Lionstar

By Amy Friedman

Immigration is a hotly debated topic, though more often through the lenses of policy proposals and the scoring of political points than about the very real people involved. Cristina Henriquez’s new novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans,” works to bridge this gap by exposing the immigrant experience in first person, giving voice to those who are frequently spoken about or spoken for without actually being spoken to. The unknown Americans in her book narrate their own chapters, and in doing so speak to their unique cultural traditions and backgrounds that too often become muddled in the minds of native-born citizens. This narrative technique allows for the immigrant experience to come alive with a richness and complexity that routinely goes unsung in third-person accounts that have a tendency to cast immigrants as menacing outsiders rather than as integral members of the American landscape. Read the rest of this entry »

Glorified Losing: Brian Costello Talks “Losing in Gainesville”

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Photo: John Sturdy

Photo: John Sturdy

By Brendan Buck

Brian Costello, a Florida native and Chicago immigrant, is a comedic performer, musician and writer. He currently hosts the monthly game show “Shame that Tune” at the Hideout and drums in the band Outer Minds, but he’s also a two-time novelist. His first, “The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs,” was released by Featherproof Books in 2005, while his second, “Losing in Gainesville,” was just released by Curbside Splendor. I recently caught up with Costello over email about his new book.

One of the first things that strikes me about your novel is its conversational and lyrical style, similar to the writings of William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, the latter’s work having a direct reference in the book. Were these writers a conscious influence on your writing? Who are your influences?
Not really. I like them both, and learned a lot from “All the King’s Men,” but overall, with structure, I was influenced by double LPs like “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones, “Trout Mask Replica” by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, and “Double Nickels on the Dime” by the Minutemen. I love double albums, and how each side can create a different mood. Side Two of “Exile on Main Street” comes to mind, for instance. With “Losing in Gainesville,” I wanted to write a “triple album,” where each part/side has a different mood to it. Within the actual writing, the influences could be everything from Herman Melville to the movie “Dazed and Confused,” rock critics like Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer, the TV show “The Wire,” and various writers directly referenced in the novel itself. Read the rest of this entry »

Snow Problem: Bill Roorbach Discusses His New Novel, “The Remedy for Love”

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Photo: Sarah A. Sloane

Photo: Sarah A. Sloane

By Christine Sneed

“The Remedy for Love,” Bill Roorbach’s third novel, is a suspenseful and sexy novel set in western Maine during the lead-up to and the dramatic onslaught of a blizzard. Eric, an attorney in his mid-thirties, his marriage on the skids, closes his law office early and on the way home stops to buy the ingredients for a meal he plans to cook for his estranged wife. At the store, he ends up helping out Danielle, a young woman in need of a haircut, a clean coat, and a few bucks when she comes up short at the register. After making up the difference, Eric continues to play the good Samaritan and drives her several miles out of town to the cabin in the woods she’s squatting in.

Through a series of mishaps that, due to the approaching blizzard, Eric realizes could prove fatal, he’s forced to take refuge in the cabin with Danielle, who is at best a very reluctant host. Over the course of the next few days, while the temperature drops and foot after foot of snow falls from the sky, this couple gets to know each other very well. Read the rest of this entry »

Hot Money: Ian Morris Discusses his Debut Novel, “When Bad Things Happen to Rich People”

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BadRichBy Christine Sneed

“When Bad Things Happen to Rich People” is Chicago-based writer and founder of Fifth Star Press Ian Morris’ funny and briskly paced debut novel, a social satire set in Chicago during the lethally hot summer of 1995. The novel’s protagonist, Nix Walters, is an adjunct instructor of English at a communications college in the Loop, where he has few prospects for advancement. When Nix was still in his early twenties, he became a literary punch line when his first and only novel, touted as the next big literary phenomenon, was universally panned by critics.  Now, years later, his pregnant wife Flora and he are struggling financially.

Their fortunes change, however, when Nix is asked to ghostwrite the memoirs of publishing magnate Zira Fontaine. Although grateful for the lavish author fee, Nix quickly finds his marriage, his career and his identity threatened as he struggles to retain his self-respect as both writer and teacher while working on Fontaine’s memoir. His marriage is going off the rails and Nix must also navigate a board-led insurrection at Fontaine’s corporation. These tensions come to a turbulent climax when a brutal heat wave hits the city. Read the rest of this entry »