By Greg Baldino
“Raven Girl” is your new book, a modern-day fairy tale about what happens when a postman falls in love with a raven. I understand it was originally written to be a ballet, yes?
(Nods) This is a collaboration between myself and Wayne McGregor, who is the resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet and he also has his own company which is called Random Dance. So his background is in the world of modern dance, but when he works with the Royal Ballet he obviously works in the realm of ballet. His sensibility’s very cutting edge and dark, and so we’re a good pair. When we started talking about what we might do I said what kind of story would you like, and he said he would like a fairy tale, like a new fairy tale. And then later he said he would like a DARK fairy tale. And of course what fairy tales that are any good aren’t dark? They’re usually pretty horrifying.
Until they get watered down for the movies.
The nice thing about writing a new one is that it’ll be a while before they can water it down. 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 »
“As a child,” writes Krystyna Wasserman in her introductory essay “Swept Away by Magic,” “[Audrey] Niffenegger spent hours alone in her bedroom, dreaming, drawing, reading and writing.” Years later, those childhood pursuits became an adult career, spanning multiple creative disciplines. Now, fans of Niffenegger’s books and art have the chance to explore a kaleidoscopic cross-section of her work with a handsome volume of her visual art.
The collection serves as the catalog to an exhibition of Niffenegger’s work on display this summer at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, located in Washington, D.C. Her first major museum exhibition, the mid-career retrospective opens June 21 and runs through November 10. Featuring almost 250 works of art ranging from artist books, to graphic narrative work, to stand-alone illustrations, the exhibition is a substantial showcase of a diverse body of work.
For those who can’t make it to the museum, “Awake in the Dream World” offers a microcosmic alternative. In addition to the art excerpts, the book features three essays by Wasserman, the exhibition’s curator, Niffenegger’s colleague and Art Institute of Chicago curator Mark Pascale, and Niffenegger herself, shedding both insight and context on the history of her creative development. But of course the serious point of interest in the book is the art itself. Read the rest of this entry »
By Kelly Roark
Susan Nussbaum’s debut novel is eye-opening, devastating and laugh-out-loud funny. A group of young disabled people in a fictional Chicago institution tackle demons past and present. While Nussbaum exposes some of the very real horrors of the institutionalization of disabled persons, “Good Kings Bad Kings” is far from heavy-handed. Richly imagined diverse characters face the issue of institutionalization, and make changes in both small and dramatic ways to take control of their own futures. The winner of this year’s PEN/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction joins us for a conversation about the types of institutions disabled persons often live in, her fantastic characters, and her reclamation of the word “crip.”
Are there a lot of institutions like the one in the book?
Yes, I don’t know the number in Illinois, but there are many thousands in the country. There may be more than a thousand in the state. There are nursing homes—they’re legion—everywhere, and then there are other facilities for people with mental disabilities, kids with various developmental disabilities. There are places where, if parents think they can’t manage or someone else can do better, there are certain pressures on families to institutionalize a disabled child. And there are certainly no financial breathers from how much it costs to have a disabled child. The government makes it very hard for a disabled person to survive in a way that is manageable, financially, because the institutions have big lobbies. Culturally, we’re also a people who feel it’s good to segregate people who make us uncomfortable. It’s a long tradition, going back way over a hundred years. Doctors really pushed to get these families to put their kids into facilities. Real hell holes. Read the rest of this entry »
One of the many awful aftershocks of a violent incident like the Boston Marathon bombings is the tendency of public figures to say terrible things while trying to make sense of what happened and why. Among the unproductive statements made recently, unfortunately by quite a few well-meaning people, is an idea that “there’s no explanation for what happened.” Sure, I will grant that there’s no justification. But “there’s no explanation” indicates that we just don’t want to understand. This is an understandable, but regrettable, impulse. It is an impulse closely related to the constitutive element of hatred: the refusal to understand. When we refuse to understand, we turn the object of our misunderstanding into a potential object of hatred. We must recognize that there are explanations. They may be illegitimate, awful and evil but there are explanations.
In “American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men,” David McConnell presents a thoughtful and well researched, if uneven, alternative to the silence impulse. He writes about violence perpetrated by men against men who are either gay or perceived to be gay—mostly what could be referred to as “hate crimes” (a label McConnell discards: “admitting ‘hate crimes’ looks like criminalizing motive, and that looks like criminalizing thought”). Instead, “I settled on the exotic-sounding words ‘honor killings’ in the book title, because, incredibly, that’s what these crimes resemble.” It’s a good observation. The murders he describes are all revenge killings for perceived violations of normative, heterosexual masculinity. Like other murders we call honor killings, the motivations for these murders clearly fall on the dark end of a spectrum of human values. They are twisted understandings of honor and pride, but their relation to what we, the normal, would call honor and pride, are what make them both repulsive and fascinating. Read the rest of this entry »
By John Wilmes
‘The business of literature is blowing shit up.’
David Shields quotes the phrase from an essay by publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash, and it seems almost the summation of what’s brought us together for the afternoon. It explains the animal that’s operated on subconscious levels for both of us, as long as we’ve taken the task of writing, and writing well, all too seriously. And that much of literature seems to have lost a want to explode—that all the most-sold novels of recent years seem content to accept the nostalgia of the form’s tradition, and to deny the challenge to cut to metaphysical bone and efface the self—is what drives Shields’ last few books. “How Literature Saved My Life,” his latest, is no exception. Read the rest of this entry »
By Liz Baudler
Chicagoan Anne Elizabeth Moore has just released “New Girl Law,” a book about her experiences working with Cambodian college girls attempting to rewrite the Chbap Srey, the Cambodian female code of conduct. A teacher at SAIC and author of “Cambodian Grrrl,” Moore guided the project and followed its return to Cambodia, and recently discussed her work’s impact with me.
In “New Girl Law,” the process of the girls rewriting the Chbap Srey seemed quite organic. Did that surprise you?
It did. I think what’s sort of remarkable about that first batch of work that these young women did was that I was like, “You guys should know how to do this,” and because of who I was and how I was brought into the situation and the conditions under which that project was established, they did it. From there, there’s a whole bunch of things that could happen. People can be like, “This is a really stupid process and it doesn’t work for me at all and I hate it and you’re an American and you don’t understand what we’re doing at all.” Or, a community, a group of people can be like, “Actually, that’s worked for us and we want to do this with it.” And that’s kind of what happened in “New Girl Law.” They came up with this project that we then implemented despite my potential inability to meet the demands that would come with that, but then they did lead this process of pretty amazing work, rethinking the gender policy on which their nation was founded. Like, who does that when you’re twenty? Read the rest of this entry »
Acclaimed science writer Mary Roach fell in love with human anatomy in her fifth-grade science class when Mrs. Claflin introduced her to a “headless, limbless modeled plastic-torso,” and got her hands on model organs that “fit together like puzzle pieces, tidy as wares in a butcher’s glass case.” This introduction, along with the findings from a 1968 study on humans’ intolerance to bacteria-ridden food and an evident personal curiosity for the scientific taboo help lead to “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” Roach’s latest book.
Roach’s witty and conversational voice allows “Gulp” to read like a novel rather than a science book. Instead of being taught about our digestive system we are told about it. And, for anyone who’s ever flunked an exam on the periodic table or failed to locate the pancreas of a dissected frog, there’s a huge difference. Read the rest of this entry »
By Kelly Roark
Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, “The Interestings,” begins with a group of teenagers in a summer camp. Jules, the initial outsider, is there on a scholarship but finds herself embraced by a circle of friends that open her world a little wider. A look at talent and various means of success, “The Interestings” follows these characters to their late fifties. Wolitzer discussed the book and some of its themes with me.
You attended a summer camp like the characters in the book— is that what inspired this story?
Yes. I mean, in part. If the summer camp experience hadn’t led to a lot of other thoughts I would never have written a book about it because it’s not a “summer camp” novel. For me, the experience opened my life up to the fact that there’s a big wide world out there. So, it was really when I came of age. I loved it so much there and it was the first time I got to take myself seriously. I met these wonderful kids who are not the kids in the book but I met my own group of wonderful kids. I couldn’t bear to be without them. Read the rest of this entry »