When we began work on the 2012 version of Lit 50, there were some 200 published writers on our long list. This year, there were 437. As always, trimming the list to a mere fifty writers required a certain kind of agony (and a few sleepless nights), but we’re proud of the list we gathered here, and we feel it celebrates the wealth of talent and diversity of Chicago’s literary community.
Close followers of Lit 50 will know this year’s list celebrates writers across all forms: novelists, essayists, poets, graphic novelists, playwrights. Our call to local literary folk yielded a wealth of celebratory news: overseas teaching offers, sealed book deals, hard-earned fellowships and awards. It also introduced dozens of writers that were not already known to us. We’re proud that this year’s Lit 50 includes seventeen writers who are making their first appearance on this list, including Chris Abani, the Nigerian-born writer who escaped a death row sentence in 1991 and now teaches graduate students at Northwestern University. We’re thrilled to add Lindsay Hunter, Cristina Henriquez, and Kate Harding, women whose voices we’ve long admired and whose forthcoming books we’re impatient to read. We’re also eager to welcome a handful of poets, including Roger Reeves, Parneshia Jones, and Roger Bonair-Agard. It’s our crazy hope that in 2016, the “short” list will have doubled once more. But someone’s going to have to bring us some whiskey. (Naomi Huffman)
Lit 50 was written by Liz Baudler, Brendan Buck, Brian Hieggelke, Alex Houston, Naomi Huffman, Megan Kirby, Micah McCrary and John Wilmes
All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux on location at Spertus Institute/Venue SIX10
When Stuart Dybek started writing flash fiction when he was in high school, it wasn’t even called that. Dybek can remember a time when “the only place you could publish them were in poetry magazines, where people were thinking of them as prose poems.” After writing and publishing very short form fiction, “or whatever they’re calling it now,” for decades, the writer of such beloved story collections as “Coast of Chicago” is fulfilling a longtime dream of publishing a collection solely comprised of it named “Ecstatic Cahoots” this month. He’s doing this at the same time that he launches another long-in-the-making collection, “Paper Lantern: Love Stories.” Despite his name being associated with the short story, both collections are a departure for Dybek, who freely admits “that at my heart I am a writer of place… that being Chicago.” The author’s works have long been associated with the city, particularly the Near Southwest Side. But even if Dybek has found new unifying factors for his collections, he remains a Chicago writer at heart.
When Gillian Flynn lost her job as a television critic at Entertainment Weekly due to the recession, she’d already published her first novel and had a second on the way. “Dark Places,” like “Sharp Objects” before it, was a gothic Midwestern thriller that would receive critical accolades and nods. However, little did anyone know that her loss of a job and relocation back to Chicago would serve as the inspiration for her breakout hit “Gone Girl” in 2012. “Gone Girl” received lavish praise from every corner and dominated the New York Times Bestseller list, holding its #1 spot for eight weeks. All three of her novels are currently in development in Hollywood. While two will hit the screens this year, most of the hype is reserved for the “Gone Girl” adaptation starring Ben Affleck, directed by David Fincher, and penned by Flynn herself. The movie, which Flynn says will diverge from the novel, comes out this October.
If you ever want to feel inadequate, read up on Veronica Roth. At only twenty-five years old, the Northwestern grad has one of the hottest YA series on the market: the New York Times best-selling “Divergent” trilogy. The books explore a dystopian Chicago split into five factions—Candor for honesty, Erudite for intelligence, Amity for kindness, Abnegation for selflessness and Dauntless for bravery (or stupid risk-taking, depending on who you ask). The first installment of the four-movie series hit the big screen in March 2014, and starred a cast of fit, young stars (most notably, recent it-girl Shailene Woodley). Whatever Roth chooses to do next, she has a massive fan following at her bidding. The young writer keeps up a lively social media presence, sure to soon be promoting the July 8 release of her “Divergent” companion novel, “Four: A Divergent Collection.”
Chris Ware is considered one of the most innovative comics artists in the game, from the evolution of his long-running “Acme Novelty Library” series to the obsessively detailed pages of “Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth.” And somehow, he still managed to blow everyone away with the 2012 release of “Building Stories.” The graphic novel is a boxed collection of fourteen printed works—from a “Little Golden Book” to a fold-out newspaper—meant to be read in any random order. Ware’s Chicago ties run deep. His comics visit everything from the quiet tree-lined streets of Oak Park to the World Columbian Exposition of 1893. Off-page, Ware designed Quimby’s Books’ iconic rodent sign and 826CHI’s secret agent storefront for The Boring Store. “As halfway along the expanding westward timeline of our nation and halfway between the East Coast brain and West Coast genitals, it’s the heart and gut of America,” Ware says of Chicago. Currently, Ware is “glacially” putting together three different graphic novels and working on a monograph to be published by Rizzoli in 2016.
Most people are familiar with Irvine Welsh’s rise to internationally acclaimed author and screenwriter. The success of his 1993 book, “Trainspotting,” launched his career, which was further kindled by the release of Danny Boyle’s film adaptation in 1996. Since then, Welsh has written eleven other novels and short story collections, including “Filth,” which was released in 1998 (and adapted as a film in 2013 by Jon S. Baird, starring James McAvoy) and “Skagboys,” the prequel to “Trainspotting,” released in 2012. In May, Welsh’s latest book was released, “The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins.” Welsh divides his time between Chicago, Miami, London, and extensive international travel, but his Twitter feed reveals his love for Chicago boxing and the Blackhawks. We’re happy to call him one of our own.
To say the past year was a “good” one for Christine Sneed wouldn’t quite capture it. In October, the author of “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” and “Little Known Facts” received the 21st Century Award. “Little Known Facts” won the Society of Midland Authors Award for adult fiction, and was praised by the New York Times and Booklist, which placed it among the top-ten debut novels of 2013. This summer, Sneed will teach at Interlochen Academy Writers Retreat, the New Harmony Writers Workshop, and the Indiana University Summer Writers’ Conference. Her next book, “Paris Gare St. Lazare,” is slated for publication in mid-2015.
Though one of the nation’s top-selling authors these past few decades—last fall’s return to Kindle County, “Identical,” debuted at #2 on the New York Times combined bestseller list—Scott Turow’s become equally well known for combining his skills as a topnotch practicing attorney with the bully pulpit his literary success affords in the service of causes he believes in. This has included passionate advocacy against the death penalty and, most recently, taking up the fight on behalf of authors (he served several years as president of the Authors Guild) against the growing forces of consolidated control of information and intellectual property, most notably Google and Amazon.com. There’s an especially strong current of karmic injustice playing out right now, as Amazon plays a hardball game of monopoly against top publisher Hachette, who puts out Turow’s books. Turow, who’s now writing a novel set at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, is far from sanguine about the state of affairs. “All I can say about Amazon/Hachette is ‘I told you so.’ When the Department of Justice decided to side with Amazon on eBook pricing, they were just empowering a ruthless bully, who really doesn’t care if the publishers stay in business at all,” Turow says. “But this will come out of authors’ hides, too—it’s their books that aren’t being sold right now, and their royalties which will end up smaller if Amazon gets its way.”
Aleksandar Hemon once said, “Narrative imagination—and therefore fiction—was a basic evolutionary tool of survival. We processed the world by telling stories, produced human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.” And for years the MacArthur fellow and author of “Love and Obstacles” and “The Lazarus Project” did just that, turning such experiences as his upbringing in Sarajevo and exile to Chicago following the Bosnian war through characters who were not quite him, but contained him. Though Hemon is loath to call “The Book of My Lives” a memoir, his nonfiction debut finds pain and beauty by dropping that last layer of separation. Of particular note is the last piece of the collection, “The Aquarium,” which dealt with the death of his infant daughter. Instead of finding no words, Hemon tells us, “If there was a communication problem, it was that there were too many words, and they were far too heavy and too specific to be inflicted on others.”
Out of all the thriller writers working today, Chicagoan Marcus Sakey has got to be one of the most mercurial. Writing straight-up heist tales, such as “The Amateurs,” just wasn’t enough even though he was praised to the hilt for it. No, Sakey had to dabble in borderline dystopian sci-fi with his new “Brilliance” saga, and continues to reap the accolades and send readers on white knuckle-descents into chaos. The second in the series, “A Better World,” comes out this month. Hollywood is calling for Mr. Sakey, with Will Smith set to play the detective in the movie treatment of the first book, “Brilliance.” Then again, Sakey’s no stranger to screens—he hosts a Chicago-focused TV show, “Hidden City,” on the Travel Channel. This perpetual motion machine, with twelve books in six years, is on the verge of being bigger than his plots, and for a man who’s fictionally blown up the New York Stock Exchange, that’s saying something.
This year brought the much-anticipated release of Gina Frangello’s “A Life in Men” from Algonquin. People described the book as “original and fearless… a powerful portrait of human connection and individual triumph,” and Booklist called it “a quantum creative leap.” Frangello’s also the author of “Slut Lullabies” and “My Sister’s Continent.” Apart from her writing, Frangello is known as a fierce supporter of other people’s work. She’s the Sunday editor at The Rumpus, the fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown, and organizes Other Voices Querétaro, an annual international writing program in Querétaro, Mexico. She currently teaches at UCR-Palm Desert’s low-residency MFA program for Creative Writing.