Where are you based?
The family and I live on the Hyde Park/Woodlawn border. Just south of the Midway; just north of 63rd Street. My son and I are sitting on the Midway right now—looking south. I suppose that we live right in the shadow of the U of C’s newest, sparkling glass, state-of-the-art high-rise dormitory.
You finished “Free Burning” in 2006, and then spent some time focusing on shorter fiction, including the Pushcart-noted “Yayi and Those Who Walk on Water: A Fable.” What are you up to these days? What are you working on?
I’m currently working on one short work and my third novel.
You’re on the faculty at U of C (and DePaul, though not in creative writing). What’s your approach to teaching fiction? If your students walk away from your classes with one thing, what do you want that thing to be?
I’ve instructed creative writing—particularly writing the novel—with the University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing Education for five years. My hope is that I approach those students’ work in as honest, thoughtful and critical a fashion as I would the work of any established author of published fiction.
And I must. As, after teaching for some time, I find it difficult to read anything these days without scribbling in the margins and engaging some back and forth with the writer in my mind, as if they are among my workshop students. “Salman, be respectful of your colleagues here in the circle, man.” “You too, Zadie, and stay in your seat back there, Jonathan. I can see you, you know?”
Just joking. I’d never speak to my students like that.
But I do blame them for my inability to stop the back and forth. The forth is always in mind, you see, and I guess I’m mostly concocting the back. Teaching totally turned my reading habits delusional, schizophrenic, something. Thanks, guys.
But the students and their work have been an enormous part of my life—the balance of my institutional/professional engagements—over much of the last decade or so. I hope that the students whom I encounter step away from the workshop with a substantive and accurate sense of the capacity of their voices—on, and beyond, the page.
Take me through your daily writing routine—do you work on a set schedule, X words/pages/hours a day, or do you binge-write when inspiration strikes? From home, the library, a coffee shop, a “space”?
I write as per my movement. Usually late at night, or at some obscene morning hour. Yet I use all these tools afforded by technology to scribble and record when inspiration hits outside of assigned hours. On good days, it does hit as such—willy-nilly, and so I walk around with calluses on my fingertips from tapping cell phone and mini-CPU keys. For writers, the upside to the ongoing virtual tech revolution is that we have the tools to proverbially remain in front of our desktops, or our typewriters, or with pen and pad in hand, always. Regardless where we are: via this app or the other. So I write where it hits, but stubbornly believe that I do so in the most focused and productive fashion at home in the office.
Best place to get inspired in the city?
The Green Line ride in its entirety, from 63rd/Cottage (nearest our home), through Washington Park, Bronzeville, the “Near” South Side, turning at the Loop bound through the West Side, before ending in Oak Park (near my wife’s place of employment at the Oak Park-River Forest High School). Stay on these trains in this city, end-to-end, north-to-west, south-to-east, ride with eyes open, there and back again, and you will see things for what they are. Blinking and shining and flinching and blue and bruised and blitzed and sagging and brilliant and swinging low and ever bombastic.
In an alternate life, the one where you aren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
In another universe that looked much like this one, I’d be a college basketball coach. In a Bizarro Universe that looked nothing at all like the one in which we live, I think I’d be a law or economics scholar, one of these think-tank sorts in the hub; in an alternate world that looked like this one did, say sixty-seventy years ago or so, I’d be a big-band leader. Playing swing tunes so hard folks had no choice but to keep dancing, even after the ditties started to bop.
What (existing) book did you not write but do wish you’d written?
This question is sort of the reverse of the last, and I am exceptionally superstitious. Thus, I fear that I can not respond to this in any meaningful fashion without eternally jinxing myself, and my work. If you push me, I’ll say that I wish I’d written the Book of Job from the Old Testament. In Aramaic.
Anything coming up in Chicago—literary or not—that you’re especially excited about?
Always looking forward to June-through-late August here in Chicago, and dreading just about every other Midway climate day. We’re right on the early pages of that calendar as I type, 60-65 (if fortune shines) days to go.
—Interviewed by Rachel Sugar