Just Discuss: A New Twist on Book Clubs

Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.
Neil Gaiman

fullsizeoutput_3d36I love short stories. When my New Yorker arrives, I turn first to to the featured fiction. (Last week’s story, “Motherless Child”, by Elizabeth Strout, is wonderful — Olive Kitteridge is back!) I know not everyone shares my enthusiasm, but check out my sales pitch for short stories, 5 Reasons to Read Short Stories, and then read a really good story (I’ve 37569319included some suggestions at the end of this post) and maybe you’ll become a convert.

My second sales pitch is for a short story series in Chicago this fall. This project, my friend Alice Moody’s brainchild, has been going strong at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois. Now, “Just Discuss: For Literature Lovers” will be expanding to Chicago. Discussions will take place at the Blue Door Kitchen (52 W. Elm Street) on Mondays (with me as facilitator) and Wednesdays (with Alice as facilitator), from 10 am until noon, starting on September 16.

Fall M:W 2019Here’s how it works: you settle into a comfortable seat, perhaps with a cup of coffee or tea in front of you, and listen to a professional actor read a carefully chosen, thought-provoking story. You have no idea each week what the story will be. After the reading, we’ll discuss what we just heard.

Last winter, I attended “Just Discuss” at the Writers Theatre, and it was the highlight of my week. No screens, no phones, no distractions, just two hours of reflection and conversation with a diverse group of interesting people. I hope you can join us this fall– please email me (bksonthetable@gmail.com) or Alice (alice@platinumpenconsulting.com) for more information.

Stories performed and discussed in previous sessions include:

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver
The Enormous Radio by John Cheever
Community Life by Lorrie Moore
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris
L. Debard and Aliette by Lauren Groff
Brownies by ZZ Packer
A Perfect Day for Bananafish by J.D. Salinger
Leopard by Wells Tower
A Temporary Matter by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro
Prairie Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Chicxulub by T.C. Boyle
The Five Forty Eight by John Cheever
The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff
Adams by George Saunders
Roy Spivey by Miranda July


Novels for Art Lovers

After finishing  A Piece of the World, inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World” (reviewed earlier this week), I started thinking about novels inspired by paintings. Many favorites came to mind, from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch to Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. Ever since I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I’ve loved books that take place in the art world. (Today’s children can enjoy Blue Balliett’s wonderful art mysteries, starting with Chasing Vermeer, and Marianne Malone’s Sixty-Eight Rooms series, set in one of the most enchanting places I know — the Thorne Miniature Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago.)

meisje_met_de_parelIn a TED talk called “Finding the Story Inside the Painting”  , Chevalier describes the affliction of “gallery fatigue” that many museumgoers experience when overwhelmed by galleries full of dazzling art. Her solution is to be selective and to concentrate on one painting:

When I go into a gallery, first of all, I go quite fast, and I look at everything, and I pinpoint the ones that make me slow down for some reason or other. I don’t even know why they make me slow down, but something pulls me like a magnet and then I ignore all the others, and I just go to that painting. So it’s the first thing I do is, I do my own curation. I choose a painting. It might just be one painting in 50. And then the second thing I do is I stand in front of that painting, and I tell myself a story about it.

Chevalier found inspiration in art for two of her other novels — Burning Bright (the paintings and poetry of William Blake) and The Lady and the Unicorn (the medieval tapestries hanging in the Cluny Museum in Paris). So have many other authors — here are a few of my favorites:

y648The Fortunate Ones by Ellen Umansky
The boy in the painting was not pretty. He was too skinny in his red uniform, his face pasty and elongated. The paint was thick, thrown on; it looked as if the painter couldn’t be bothered to slow down and pay attention. Rose didn’t understand why her mother loved it so.
Rose Zimmer’s parents save her life by sending her on a Kindertransport from Austria to England in 1939. After the war, she desperately searches for her family’s Chaim Soutine painting, stolen by the Nazis. The search leads her to Lizzie Goldstein, whose father was the last owner of the painting — which has been stolen again, on Lizzie’s watch.

the_goldfinch_by_donna_tartThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2014)
. . .  If a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.
I know it’s probably longer than it should be, but if you haven’t read The Goldfinch , which is all about the enduring power of art, you’re missing out on a real treasure. For a complete list (with illustrations) of the many paintings referred to in The Goldfinch, check out Beyond the Bird: Art in The Goldfinch.

madame_x_madame_pierre_gautreau_john_singer_sargent_1884_unfree_frame_cropI Am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto
I had thought photography could reflect the truth of a woman’s beauty. But after seeing these horrible prints, I decided it was an imperfect art, impossible for the photographer and sitter to control. Painting, on the other hand, I began to believe, could reveal something greater than reality. In the right hands with the right chemistry between artist and sitter, painting could illuminate a higher truth. More to the point, it had the power to immortalize.
John Singer Sargent’s portrait of American beauty Virginie Gautreau shocked audiences at the 1884 Paris Salon, damaging the reputations of both artist and subject.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
She thought of all the people in all the paintings she had seen that day, not just Father’s, in all the paintings of the world, in fact. Their eyes, the particular turn of a head, their loneliness or suffering or grief was borrowed by an artist to be seen by other people throughout the years who would never see them face to face. People who would be that close to her, she thought, a matter of a few arms’ lengths, looking, looking, and they would never know her.
Based on a fictional painting by Vermeer, Vreeland’s novel moves through several centuries as the painting passes from owner to owner. Vreeland has built her career on fiction set in the world of art — Lisette’s List (Chagall), The Passion of Artemisia (Artemisia Gentileschi), Clara and Mr. Tiffany (Louis Tiffany), Luncheon of the Boating Party (Renoir) . . .

painted-girls_ffThe Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
We are the daughters of sewing maids and fruit peddlers, charwomen and laundresses, dressed up and painted to look like something we are not. All the years of practicing, the sweat and toil, the muscles aching at the end of the day, it comes down to learning trickery—to leap with the lightness that lets the theatergoers think of us as queens of the Opéra stage instead of scamps with cracking knees and heaving ribs and ever-bleeding toes.
Buchanan imagines the lives of ballet dancer Marie van Goethem, the model for Edgar Degas’ sculpture, “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen”, and her sisters.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
Without light nothing can be seen. And with it, still so much is unobserved.
In 1990, thirteen paintings and drawings were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  The crime has never been solved, and if you visit the museum today, you’ll see blank spaces on the walls where the works of art should hang. In Shapiro’s entertaining and enlightening novel, one of the paintings apparently resurfaces.

One Willy H. Smith, commenter on the Washington Post‘s book blog, is not a fan of novels based on paintings:

This is a terrible trend. You can’t see the paintings in the National Gallery for all the novelists trying to find a source for their next romance novel. You’d think the review somewhere would mention that this has been done to death. And speaking of death, I think I’ll write a lad’s adventure story about the guys who are getting shot in Goya’s “The Third of May”. Anybody got any purple prose to spare?

I think maybe Willy hasn’t read the female-written “romance” novels he disparages. The only purple prose I’ve encountered in an art-related novel can be found in a novel written by a man — Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

stolen-beauty-9781501131981_hrI’ve just started reading Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese, about Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer, the “woman in gold” who is the subject of two of his most famous paintings. So far, so good — and my husband highly recommends Anne-Marie O’Connor’s nonfiction account, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

An exhibit based on “Whistler’s Mother” has just opened at  the Art Institute of Chicago. Whistler actually titled the portrait “Arrangement in Grey and Black” and said, “Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?” I’m willing to bet there’s a story in there . . .

10 Hurricane Books

I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening clouds . . .
William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Along with millions of others in the southeastern United States, my mother was told to evacuate her home as Hurricane Matthew approached. Once I found she was safely in a motel 150 miles inland, I had one important question for her: did she have enough reading material? She assured me she did, and then told me she couldn’t wait to get back to The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware. I guess that when faced with a hurricane, some people escape with psychological thrillers. Others might want to read about catastrophic storms. Here are ten books featuring hurricanes — both fiction and nonfiction — to pick up when you’ve watched enough swaying palm trees and crashing waves on the Weather Channel. None of these is a new book, but they’re all worth your time if you haven’t read them.

Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey
I didn’t apprecitime_of_wonderate this lovely, poetic book as a child — like my own children, I much preferred Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal — but now it’s my favorite McCloskey book. (And Robert McCloskey, along with E.B. White, is my favorite children’s author.)

Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going. It is a time of quiet wonder – for wondering, for instance: Where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger
Actually, The Perfect Storm isn’t about a hurricane — it’s about a real-life tempest caused by the confluence of three storm systems. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the book is well worth reading. It’s great narrative nonfiction, combining science with human drama.

220px-isaacsstormcoverIsaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson
Isaac Cline, chief of the United States Weather Bureau’s station in Galveston, Texas, failed to anticipate the deadly strength of a hurricane that barreled through the Gulf of Mexico, killing an estimated 8,000 people — the largest loss of life in a weather-related disaster in U.S. history. According to the New York Times, Larson “weaves together the terror and stoicism of ships’ captains, housewives, children and forecasters, infusing their tales with palpable tension. Few historical reconstructions sustain such drama.”

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
On a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, a murderer has escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane. Federal marshals search for the dangerous patient as a hurricane  bears down on the island. The story is complicated, filled with twists and turns that I defy you to predict.

220px-zeitounZeitoun by Dave Eggers
When I read Eggers’s account of a New Orleans family devastated by Hurricane Katrina, I thought it was his best book so far. The New York Times reviewer said: “My guess is, 50 years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
The author is a physician and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s written a gripping account of the life-and-death decisions medical staff at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans were forced to make during Hurricane Katrina

13618100Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
The 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction, set in Mississippi just before and during Hurricane Katrina and loosely based on the author’s own experiences, has “the aura of a classic”, according to Ron Charles of the Washington Post.

Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Rise and Fall of the Spectacular Railroad That Crossed an Ocean by Les Standiford
Flagler, one of the founders of Standard Oil and the visionary who developed Florida as a vacation destination, built an engineering marvel: the Key West Railroad, crossing 150 miles of open sea. It was destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. Standiford, who’s also a novelist, has written a fascinating chronicle of a man, his accomplishments, and his era.

jamaica_200-4607c185a1e675e24bc7b743396f781e879f40f3-s300-c85A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
This is one of those neglected classics that deserves to be rediscovered. Written in 1929, and still in print, it’s the story of a group of children whose homes are destroyed in a Caribbean hurricane. When the children are sent to England, pirates seize their ship. It sounds like an adventure story, but it’s more of a psychological drama. In an NPR segment, Andrew Sean Greer said, “To say A High Wind in Jamaica is a novel about children who are abducted by pirates is to make it seem like a children’s book. But that’s completely wrong; its theme is actually how heartless children are.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Another classic (published in 1937), perhaps more widely read than A  High Wind in Jamaica, Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in Florida in the early 20th century. The Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 figures prominently in this beautifully written coming-of-age novel.

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!

Shakespeare on aging:
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come
And let my liver rather heat with wine,
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.
The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 1

26006301576_219ac0ac69_oApril 23, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Historians believe that Shakespeare, in a bit of poetic serendipity, was also born on April 23. The Guardian lists some of the celebrations taking place worldwide:

It’s 400 years since the bard’s death this weekend and it’s also his 452nd birthday – as, legend has it, his birth and death were on the same day of the year. Hundreds of events to mark the occasion will be taking place in the UK and around the world – from Shakespeare’s Globe projecting 37 short films across London, to walks in “Shakespeare suburb” Shoreditch, to Shakespeare-inspired baking workshops, via late-night karaokes, promising-sounding “human sonnet jukeboxes” and hip-hop at the British Library, a Shakespeare parade in Stratford-upon-Avon and a fireworks display in Chicago.

Chicago’s fireworks display tomorrow is only one of 850 events the city is planning this year to commemorate Shakespeare’s “vibrancy, relevance, and reach”. Shakespeare 400 Chicago, spearheaded by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, hopes to be “the world’s largest and most comprehensive celebration of Shakespeare’s enduring legacy”. Chicagoans and visitors can enjoy many unofficial Shakespeare events as well — how about heading to the Fizz Bar and Grill for “Fifty Shades of Shakespeare”?: “Be prepared to question everything you thought you knew about sexuality and Shakespeare as we tease out the Bard’s most provocative scenes. 23 roles, 12 scenes, 3 actors, and 1 DJ dance party to follow.”

In Chicago and around the world, April 23 is also “Talk Like Shakespeare Day”. Here are a few suggestions from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater:

Instead of cursing, call your tormentors jackanapes or canker-blossoms or poisonous bunch-back’d toads.
When wooing ladies, try comparing her to a summer’s day. If that fails, say “Get thee to a nunnery!”
To add weight to your opinions, try starting them with methinks, mayhaps, in sooth or wherefore.

the-childrens-shakespeare-e-nesbitWhen I was eight or nine, someone gave me a book called The Children’s Shakespeare, by E. Nesbit (author of The Railway Children and many other classic children’s books) which summarizes each play in “words that little ones can understand”. In the introduction, Nesbit describes trying to read a A Midsummer NIght’s Dream to her young daughters, and having them complain they couldn’t understand the language:

“You said it was so beautiful,” Rosamund said reproachfully. “What does it all mean?”

“Yes,” Iris went on, “You said it was a fairy tale, and we’ve read three pages, and there’s nothing about fairies, not even a dwarf, or a fairy godmother.”

“And what does ‘misgraffed’ mean?”

“Stop, stop, ” I cried. “I will tell you the story . . . You will understand when you grow up that the stories are the least part of Shakespeare.”

I loved that book and read it until the pages were falling out. I still have it, and I’m embarrassed to admit that whenever I go to a Shakespeare play, I read the story first in The Children’s Shakespeare. That way, I can focus on the language and not on the plot — which, as we know, can be awfully confusing. Here’s how Nesbit introduces Romeo and Juliet:

Once upon a time there lived in Verona two great families named Montagu and Capulet. They were both rich, and I suppose they were as sensible, in most things, as other rich people. But in one thing they were extremely silly. There was an old, old quarrel between the two families, and instead of making it up like reasonable folks, they made a sort of pet of their quarrel, and would not let it die out.

thomas_keene_in_macbeth_1884_wikipedia_cropI can’t remember which Shakespeare play was the first one I ever saw, but I can tell you the first one in which I appeared — Macbeth. This is also the last Shakespeare play (or actually, any play) in which I’ve performed. My sixth grade teacher at Peck Elementary School, Mr. Baxter, assigned Macbeth to our class. He correctly guessed that sixth graders would love the violence, insanity, treachery, and witchcraft in the play. (E. Nesbit did not include Macbeth in The Children’s Shakespeare. She had a hard enough time with Romeo and Juliet’s suicides, failing to mention that Juliet stabs herself.) I recall a classroom discussion about why Macbeth killed Macduff’s innocent wife and young children:

All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Thinking back on it now, I’m surprised there was no parental outrage. Mr. Baxter directed our class in a shortened production of Macbeth. For the auditions, we had to memorize a soliloquy; I chose Macbeth’s final speech: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage . . .”. I had hoped for the part of Lady Macbeth, or at least one of the witches, but my audition must not have gone too well, because I was cast as Fleance. I had only one line to learn, and I felt I delivered it perfectly: “The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.” When my son played Oberon in a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I went to all three performances. I was very impressed he had more than one line.

Aimagelthough I’m not much of a performer, I am an excellent audience member. Along with several dear friends, I’ve been a loyal subscriber to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater for many years. It’s a beautiful theater, built to evoke the design of the Globe Theater in London. No one throws rotten fruit at the stage as they supposedly did in Shakespeare’s time, although I once had the misfortune of being seated next to a heckler. (He didn’t care for Barbara Gaines’s modern interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew.

Next month, Chicago Shakespeare will present what it’s calling the “ultimate game of thrones”: Tug of War: Foreign Fire, which is a six-hour adaptation of Edward III, Henry V, and Henry VI, Part I. (The drama continues in the fall, with Tug of War: Civil Strife.) Thank goodness the marathon production includes a meal break and several intermissions!

My friend (and fellow Shakespeare buddy) Madonna gave me a little Shakespeare birthday book, with quotes for every day of the year. I love the quote for my birthday, which is from Henry V: “A good heart is the sun and the moon; or rather, the sun and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes.” I’m looking forward to hearing those beautiful words.

Mob Wives Chicago: Renee Rosen’s Dollface

I recently met Renee Rosen at a Palatine Public Library event called Writing the Past– a panel discussion with three historical novelists. Renee and two other Chicago-area writers (Charles Finch, author of the Charles Lenox Victorian mystery series, and Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife, Mrs. Tom Thumb, and Alice I Have Been) talked about the challenges and rewards of writing historical fiction. I’d just finished reading Dollface and was especially interested in Renee’s perspective on historical fiction.

816Several years ago, when Renee published her first novel (Every Crooked Pot, a contemporary novel), I recommended it again and again to both teenagers and adults. Renee’s portrayal of the relationship between a young girl with a disfiguring birthmark and her complicated father has remained one of my favorite coming of age stories. At first, I was surprised that the same Renee Rosen wrote both Every Crooked Pot and Dollface. But both books are about young women who feel like outsiders, struggling to belong and to find out who they are. Vera Abramowitz (a.k.a. “Dollface”), the title character and narrator,  just happens to be a gun moll.

In a Chicago Tribune review, Rick Kogan says:

There are few local writers who are more determined than Rosen. Her first, the novel Every Crooked Pot, was published in 2007, and she has spent the intervening years immersing herself in local history and polishing her style. These have been years well spent and excitingly realized in Dollface.

In the panel discussion, Renee mentioned that her original manuscript focused on male gangsters of Prohibition-era Chicago. In a post on her blog (“The Original Bad Boys”), Renee points out that these deadly criminals were very young men:

When you think of bad boys, they didn’t get any “badder” than Al Capone and Hymie Weiss.  In fact, Hymie Weiss was so bad that even Capone was scared of him.  And yet, in reality these original bad boys were indeed really just a bunch of boys.  During the Roaring ‘20s, the average age of a gangster was probably twenty-five and most of them were gunned down before their thirtieth birthdays.

imagesEveryone knows that Prohibition was a colossal flop that did more to accelerate the consumption of alcohol than curb it. But it was also a breeding ground of opportunity for young street thugs, safe crackers and petty thieves. Practically overnight these kids went from scuffed up boots and soft caps to doubled-breasted suits and fedoras. They suddenly found themselves with money, power and broads. Girls everywhere chucked their corsets, defiantly bobbed their hair and flocked to these dashing young men who were just as forbidden as the hooch they were bootlegging.

Renee followed valuable advice from an editor to “move the men to the sidelines and give your women their due”.  We’re all familiar with Al Capone and his contemporaries, but the story told from the point of view of the female characters is fresh and imaginative.  Vera wrestles with the morality of loving a gangster:

I looked at the others and wondered how they could live with it — knowing what their men had done. I thought I’d found a way to justify it. I told myself that Shep was different from other gangsters, that he would never hurt anyone unless it was in self-defense, that underneath it all, he was a kindhearted, loving man. But what was I supposed to tell myself now that he’d been arrested and was out hunting Capone?

After listening to the panel discussion, I had many more questions for Renee — here’s the Q and A.

I loved your debut novel, Every Crooked Pot. (I’m always on the lookout for adult novels that appeal to teenagers — I’m not a fan of the “YA” genre.) Your second novel, Dollface, is historical fiction and clearly a departure from your first novel. What inspired you to move into historical fiction?

I actually started working on Dollface before Every Crooked Pot was published. I always loved history, especially the 1920s. I was drawn to that era even before Boardwalk Empire and the remake of The Great Gatsby came on the scene. I figured if I was that interested in this time period, maybe others would be, too.

For you, what is the line between fiction and fact? How much liberty do you think a writer of historical fiction can take with the facts? Is Vera Abramowitz based on a real person?

Great question. I’ve talked to other authors about this very thing and I admit that it is something I wrestle with. In Dollface I really tried to be as historically accurate as possible and spent a lot of time on my author’s note in the back to point out wherever I deviated from a timeline or a historical fact. I also tried to indicate what really happened because fact is definitely stranger than fiction, which is one of the great joys of conducting research.

As to how much liberty I take depends in part on how much information is available. For example, in my next book, What The Lady Wants, there was very little written about Marshall Field and Delia Canton’s personal lives so I’ve had to fill in the blanks. However, when I do that, I’m very conscious of basing it on other information that I’ve uncovered.

And lastly, Vera, the main character in Dollface is purely fictional, but again, I tried to make her true to the time.

Which current-day authors do you most enjoy reading? Do you read historical fiction? I read an interview with another historical fiction author who said she never reads historical fiction, only fact, because she is afraid she will then get fact and fiction confused in her mind. 

The usual suspects instantly come to mind: Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, Donna Tartt. And yes, I do read historical fiction, though I can see why some would shy away from it. When I started researching Dollface there weren’t a lot of novels based in the 1920s so bleeding fact with fiction wasn’t really an issue. I’m finding many more novels set in my new time period from 1870s – 1900s and I’m loving it. I personally love getting a history lesson in while I’m reading.

If you had lived during the 1920s, what sort of life do you imagine you would have led?

I’m certain that I would not have had half the excitement that Vera has. And that’s a good thing! But knowing me, I’m sure I would have gone to speakeasies and I’m probably just enough of a rebel that I would have bobbed my hair and worn lip rouge. Probably would have flashed a kneecap or two as well!

How long did it take you to write Dollface — and how much of that was spent on research?

I worked on Dollface for about 10 years and the research was ongoing. I found that as the story evolved, I needed to learn more about a particular aspect of that era. I spent a lot of time meeting with people, everyone from Al Capone’s great niece to local historians as well as digging up old newspaper clips from the 1920s. It was really thrilling. I loved every minute of it!

As I’m sure you discovered with the publication of your first book, a whole new phase of a writer’s job begins when the book is published. How do you feel about that? Do you enjoy promoting the book, which involves networking and public speaking?

I’m actually loving it, mostly because I love the material so much. The gangsters and the Roaring Twenties were just fascinating so it’s very easy for me to talk about. I also have a background in advertising and marketing so for me, promotion is second nature. I know a lot of authors struggle with this and for me the most challenging aspect is finding the time to do it all and still continue working on the next book. Because there’s always a next book in the works!

The characters in Dollface are vivid and three-dimensional. Do you identify with any particular character — or with more than one? 

Another really terrific question! I definitely didn’t base any of the characters on myself but I can relate to aspects of their personalities. For example, given her background, I can appreciate why Vera is seeking security and a more glamorous life. I also can understand Evelyn’s insecurities and I feel for her when she tolerates Izzy’s abuse. I loved Shep’s diplomacy as much as Basha’s brashness. And something all the characters do is justify and rationalize their lot in life. I think many of us can relate to that, even if we don’t approve of their choices.

What are your favorite books set in Chicago (besides Dollface!)? (Mine would have to be The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen . . . I also loved Crossing California by Adam Langer.)

I’m with you on The Devil in the White City. I’d also add another non-fiction book, Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott.  I adore Sister Carrie and The Jungle and for a fascinating historical overview of the city, I don’t think you can beat City of the Century.

Do you belong to a writers’ group? Do you see yourself as part of the literary community in Chicago and how would you characterize that community? 

I do have a critique partner but I’m not currently part of a writer’s group. However, I would say that I’m fairly involved in the Chicago literary community, which is vibrant and very much alive. There’s an ever-expanding group of folks here comprised of writers, booksellers, reps and agents that meet once every other month for Publishing Cocktails that Keir Graff and Javier Ramirez started up. It’s always at a different location—sometimes we’ll do a cash mob at a bookstore and then move on to a local watering hole, other times, we’ll do a book swap. It’s always great fun.

Something else that has kind of taken on a life of its own is our All-You-Can-Eat-Sushi Lunches. And I know, no one should look for a bargain when it comes to sushi, but we’ve found a great little place (best kept secret in Chicago) and once a month we meet and eat and drink and talk for hours about books and writing and reading. It’s our version of the Algonquin Round Table.

What are your favorite places to go in Chicago — for example, any special parks? museums? restaurants? 

I do adore the Chicago History Museum and the Art Institute. I’m also fortunate enough to have the lakefront within walking distance from my home and there’s nothing better on a beautiful day. Another great thing about Chicago are all the wonderful restaurants—new ones popping up and old favorites you can always count on.

Gang violence continues to plague Chicago. How would you compare the violence that took place nearly 100 years ago with the violence that’s happening today?

Wow, that could be a thesis! I’m sure there are many people more qualified than I am to answer this, but I’ll try. Sadly, there are still a lot of parallels in terms of loyalties, the oath of silence, territories, bloodshed, etc. But, I will say that in the Twenties there were far fewer innocent people and children who became victims of gang violence. I also think that the gangsters of the Twenties saw themselves as businessmen first and foremost. They were much more likely to mingle and do business with other legitimate, established businessmen and even celebrities. Some gangsters, like Capone, even became a celebrity of sorts in his own right.