Finishing the Lit 50 is always such a bittersweet ending for me. What starts out as such a pleasure of discovery—Chicago’s literary world now has more than 200 published writers!—ends in the sorrow of having to leave so many worthy names off the list. We do our best to reflect the sum of our knowledge and reporting, to add in diversity of style, medium and genre, and to constantly introduce new players to the mix. But we know that, in the end, many choices might appear capricious, that for every worthy individual honored, two have been overlooked. A day later, after the lingering effects of sleep, sunlight and exercise deprivation and an overdose of junk food and energy drinks abates, I know we’ll return to where we started: overjoyed at the growing literary abundance of our city.
Careful readers will remember that we alternate lists each year, between the behind-the-scenes influencers and the on-the-page creators; this year belongs to the latter. Which is why you won’t see represented the two most talked-about new endeavors in literary Chicago: J.C. Gabel’s magnificent revival of The Chicagoan, and Elizabeth Taylor’s noble undertaking, Printers Row. We are confidently hopeful, or perhaps hopefully confident, that they’ll still be around to have their day a year from now. (Brian Hieggelke)
Lit 50 was written by Greg Baldino, Ella Christoph, Brian Hieggelke, Naomi Huffman and Micah McCrary. See previous years here.
1 Aleksandar Hemon
How many Chicago writers can you name from the hundred-ish years before Nelson Algren and Saul Bellow? Five, maybe? Though the city literally has hundreds of published authors in its midst right now, if being remembered for a century is unlikely, literary immortality is almost unimaginable. If any contemporary writer has a chance to still be around long after we’re all gone, most would lay odds that it’s the Chicagoan-via-Bosnia Aleksandar Hemon, the one who wrote his first story in English in 1995, and who garners comparisons to Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov. If Hemon’s writings stir the soul—his acclaimed books “Nowhere Man,” “The Question of Bruno,” “The Lazarus Project” and “Love and Obstacles” and regular stories in The New Yorker and elsewhere—it’s his humanity that inspires. Hemon not only opens his doors through his words, but also his actions: he is a regular presence at local literary events and he invites gatherings into his home. His recounting in The New Yorker last summer about the illness and death of his tenth-month-old daughter Isabel was one of the most terrifying and heartbreaking stories ever printed. He has a book of autobiographical essays coming out in 2013, entitled “The Book of My Lives” and he continues to edit the “Best European Fiction” series, now in its fourth rendering.
2 Sara Paretsky
Sure, it’s only June, but if the past five months have been any indication, 2012 is going to be a year Sara Paretsky won’t soon forget. January marked the thirtieth anniversary of Paretksy’s ground-breaking mystery series, starring fictional female private detective, V. I. Warshawski, and the release of the fifteenth book of the series, “Breakdown.” The Chicago Public Library named March 14th Sara Paretsky Day, and celebrated not only her publishing success, but also her concern and activism for social issues in Chicago and the world. And this week, she accepts the Harold Washington Literary Award, which kicks off Printers Row Lit Fest weekend.
3 Irvine Welsh
How leading Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, whose first novel “Trainspotting” catapulted him into fame in 1993, came to be a Chicagoan is a peculiar story. Brought to town for Columbia College’s Story Week several years back, he later returned for a visiting professor tour and, somewhere in the process, met and married a young Chicagoan. And so here he is. Since he first burst onto the literary scene, Welsh has written four short story collections and eight novels—his most recent is “Skagboys,” a “Trainspotting” prequel that debuted at #1 in England upon its release this spring (it’s due Stateside this fall). In addition, he has written a number of screenplays and directed several smaller projects, including music videos and short films.
4 Rebecca Skloot
Since it came out in 2010, Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” has sold more than 1.25 million copies. Skloot spent more than a decade researching and writing the story of the so-called HeLa cells, learning about the black woman from whom they were unknowingly taken and eventually forming a close relationship with the family descended from Lacks. Realizing she had struck a chord with readers, Skloot, who moved to Chicago since the publication of her book, founded The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to raise funds for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks and other unknowing subjects of medical experimentation; the foundation has awarded twenty-seven grants, primarily to fund the education of Lacks family members. Oprah and Alan Ball have also captured some of the excitement, and are producing an HBO film based on the book. In the meantime, Skloot is working on another book, on the relationship between humans and animals.
5 Christian Wiman
After a long poetic silence, Christian Wiman emerged in 2010 with the haunting, spiritual “Every Riven Thing,” a collection of verse that traversed a life that had taken a series of hairpin turns in recent years, from a newfound love, marriage and children to the almost simultaneous discovery that he had an uncurable form of blood cancer. Not that Wiman had been slacking; the editor of Poetry magazine has kept rather busy at work in helping realize the vision of its founder, Harriet Monroe, in this its centennial year, along with the more recent opportunity created by donor Ruth Lilly, which not only led the Poetry Foundation into beautiful new quarters, but also gave Wiman the tools to take the magazine to heretofore unknown influence and circulation. This fall will see the publication of “The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine,” which he’s co-editing with fellow editor Don Share.
6 Chris Ware
Asked before an auditorium of comic fans, scholars and creators to talk about the elaborate design work in one of his Acme Novelty Library collections, Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware seemed just a little embarrassed, as though his award-winning and critically acclaimed graphic novels were an awkward hobby, like collecting garden gnomes or drawing portraits of dead popes. This after his fellow panelists Dan Clowes, Seth and Charles Burns all expressed the mutual sentiment that every new book of his pushes them to raise their game. Despite this anti-hubris, Ware is warm and gracious speaking with his fans, in perhaps surprising contrast to the desperate anxiety of his characters such as Quimby the Mouse and Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth. In October, Pantheon Books publishes his new work “Building Stories,” a collection of mini comics of varied designs in a boxed set that explores the lives of an apartment building’s residents through modular narratives, further upping the stakes for everyone who looks at comics and asks “What more could be done?”
7 Audrey Niffenegger
Audrey Niffenegger may be best known in America for the international best seller “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and the film production of the same name, but Chicagoans know her as well for her work in book, paper and print art, which she has displayed at Printworks Gallery since 1987. A longtime resident of Evanston, Niffenegger studied printmaking at the School of the Art Institute, and received her MFA from Northwestern University’s Department of Art Theory and Practice. Niffenegger was among the original founders of Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper Arts, where she taught for many years. Niffenegger released her second novel, “Her Fearful Symmetry,” in 2009. Her visual novels include “The Three Incestuous Sisters” (2005), “The Adventuress” (2006) and “The Night Bookmobile” (2010), a serialized graphic novel published in the London Guardian. She is currently at work on several projects, including a ballet with Royal Opera House Ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor, which is set to premiere in London in May 2013, her next novel, “The Chinchilla Girl in Exile,” and a screenplay of “Her Fearful Symmetry.”
8 Adam Levin
After his 2010 “The Instructions” brought about comparisons to David Foster Wallace and Philip Roth, Adam Levin’s next book needed to make a sizable splash. And that it did. “Hot Pink,” a collection of gritty short stories released from McSweeney’s in March, shows off Levin’s greatest talents: sharp storytelling and a ferocious capacity for imagining the bizarre. Levin is also the recipient of the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award and the Joyce Carol Oates Fiction Prize. He teaches Creative Writing and Literature at the School of the Art Institute. Regarding future projects, Levin says, “I’m working on fiction, though it’s hard to tell what form yet. Hopefully a short novel.” Well, okay. Be vague and mysterious all you want, Mr. Levin. We’ll still read your books.
9 Carol Anshaw
Just about twenty years after her “Aquamarine” put her on the emerging-novelist watch list, “Carry the One” has announced Carol Anshaw’s fully formed moment. Already in its fifth printing since its release this spring, “Carry the One” has earned not only the best reviews of Anshaw’s career, but also the highest profile with The New York Times tackling it twice and Entertainment Weekly giving it the full-page “A” treatment. It’s a particularly satisfying outcome, since this particular novel, ten years in the making, proved especially vexing to get published, requiring a change of agents, a change of voice (to past tense) and the expungement of about a hundred pages. Adding compliment to good fortune, this fall, her story “The Last Speaker of the Language” will be included in the 2012 edition of “The Best American Short Stories.” Anshaw, who used to pen young-adult novels and book reviews and whatever it took to finance her fiction writing, can now choose her pleasures. When she’s not mentoring a new generation of writers in her role as an adjunct professor in the MFA writing program at the School of the Art Institute, she’s painting or spending time in the Amsterdam apartment she shares with her partner, the filmmaker Jessie Ewing.
10 Alex Kotlowitz
Though it’s been a while since Alex Kotlowitz’s published a book, the author of “There Are No Children Here” and “Never A City So Real” has been anything but invisible, enjoying a recent surge in acclaim in a new vocation as filmmaker. After his story about an innovative Chicago antiviolence project called CeaseFire ran in The New York Times Magazine, he partnered with filmmaker Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) to turn it into a documentary. The resulting film has been the talk of the doc circuit ever since, with the added notoriety that it got more attention for being snubbed by the Academy Awards than if it’d won an Oscar. Kotlowitz seems to have caught the movie bug, at least a bit. He’s at work now on a screenplay based on his New Yorker piece about bank thieves entitled “The Trenchcoat Robbers.”