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 »

Critical Force: Make Way for Roxane Gay and Her “Bad Feminist” Self

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roxanegayBy Amy Beth Danzer

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”

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Photo: Ryan Fowler

Photo: Ryan Fowler

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 »

Starting at Endings: Garnett Kilberg Cohen Discusses Her New Story Collection, “Swarm to Glory”

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Photo: Lynn Sloan

Photo: Lynn Sloan

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 »

Writing What? Essaying Megan Stielstra, Essayist of “Once I Was Cool”

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megan stielstra

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 »