Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Meet Sean Chercover

Today's guest is Sean Chercover. Chercover, a former real-life Private Eye, chose Chicago as the setting for his first novel, Big City Bad Blood (HarperCollins, 2007). The Chicago Sun Times described the book as "Sean Chercover's love letter to Chicago. . .a multilayered tapestry," and noted: "Chicago comes alive in this book." I have this one in my "to read" stack. I'm looking forward to it!

Chercover's second book, Trigger City (HarperCollins, 2008) also takes place in the Windy City. Both books star a Chicago detective named Ray Dudgeon.

Trigger City comes out in paperback TODAY!

Read more about Sean and his books at his website.

Q: When did you first realize that you wanted to write for publication?

Sean: I was in the 5th grade when I first had the idea that I might grow up to write fiction. But it took me a long time to get up the gumption to try it seriously, and I was 40 when my first novel hit the stores.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Sean: The first work of fiction that I showed to anyone was a short story I wrote in the 5th grade. The assignment was to write "What I Did On Summer Vacation" but I took it as an opportunity to write fiction. So I wrote a story of two inmates at a summer camp that was run like a prison. The inmates were my best friend Greg, and me. We staged a daring escape, and at the end I was shot in the back by one of the guards. The last line was "And then, I died." The teacher told me that you can't write a story narrated by a dead person. She was wrong. You can.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Sean: Three college professors were very encouraging: Franklin Ashley at the University of South Carolina, and both Fred Guardaphe and Paul Carter Harrison at Columbia College Chicago.

Q: In addition to writing books about Chicago, what other ties do you have to the city?

Sean: I first moved to Chicago in 1987, to attend Columbia College. Later, I worked in Chicago as a private detective. I absolutely love Chicago. It's a great city to live in, and a great city to write about.

Q: How does your previous occupation as a private investigator help or hinder you in your writing?

Sean: It helped enormously to have the experience first hand. I learned a hell of a lot, and it provided me with the knowledge to get all sorts of authentic details into my work that most PI fiction gets wrong. The downside is, I often have the urge to strive too hard for realism. Ultimately, the needs of the narrative come first, and you shouldn't let the desire for authenticity to get in the way of that. So that's something I keep an eye out for. But the experience helps more than it hinders. Way more.

Q: What was easy about writing Big City Bad Blood? What was difficult?

Sean: The section of the book that takes place in Hollywood wrote very easily and quickly, and action sequences are always fun to write. The most difficult thing was just getting the critical voices inside my head to shut the hell up.

Q: Of the scenes you wrote for Big City Bad Blood, what is one of your favorites?

Sean: The "swimming pool" scene is the one that readers most often mention, and it was a blast to write. One of my other favorites is the "underground garage" scene, and the police interrogation that follows.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in Big City Bad Blood, choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Sean: Of course I hope you'll meet my protagonist, Ray Dudgeon, but that's too easy an answer. I'll go with Gravedigger Peace. Gravedigger is a former mercenary who now works as head groundskeeper in a Chicago cemetery. He's a violent man with a violent past, who now strives for peace. After Big City Bad Blood, I wrote a short story about Gravedigger, which was nominated for an Edgar Award. And he returns in Trigger City.

Q: What would you like us to know right now about your second book, Trigger City?

Sean: Right now, I'd like you to know that Trigger City comes out in paperback on August 25th. I'm happy to report that it won the Dilys and Crimespree awards, and it is nominated for the Anthony, Barry, and Macavity awards.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Sean: Just my thanks to everyone who has read my books and helped to spread the word to others. Word-of-mouth has brought me many new readers, and I appreciate it more than I can say.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Radio Interview

Be sure to check out my interview on WJBC Radio!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

We have a winner!

For answering all five questions correctly, the winner of a free, autographed copy of It Happened in Chicago is B. Hoffmeister! Congratulations!

* * * * * *

The correct answers for

Quizzical Quotes about Chicago

1. "My son was not a gangster. He was always a good boy, until he got to going around with that North Side gang."
(b) Josephine Schwimmer in 1929

2. "In this as in many of its public endeavors, the methods of Chicago are noisy and more or less offensive to dignity and good taste."
(a) The New York Times in 1889

3. "Chicago was attractive in its ugliness, grim and begrimed, a city that still had the spirit of frontier days."

(c) Charlie Chaplin in 1915

4. "I have struck a city - a real city - and they call it Chicago. . . . I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages."

(c) Rudyard Kipling in 1891

5. "Chicago is not the most corrupt American city. It's the most theatrically corrupt."

(d) Studs Terkel in 1978

Meet Karen Abbott!

Today's guest is Karen Abbott, author of the New York Times bestseller, Sin in the Second City, described by the Chicago Tribune as "the most engaging, thoroughly researched work to be published on its subject… a rousingly racy yarn.”

Sin in the Second City provides a meticulously researched yet highly entertaining portrait of the most famous brothel in American history: the Everleigh (pronounced ever-lay) Club. The book takes us back to early 20th century Chicago, where we meet the famous and the infamous, the prosperous and the poor, the scandalous and the straight-laced. It's a trip well worth taking, and Abbott is a phenomenal tour guide.

I read Sin in the Second City as part of my research for It Happened in Chicago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am delighted and honored that Karen Abbott accepted my request for an interview.

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

I began writing as soon as I learned to read, at age four, but I never wanted to “be a writer.” Simply put, I didn’t think that was a job someone could grow up to do. It seemed unfathomable to me. I majored in English in college with the intention of going to law school. Around junior year, I realized that a) I was sick of school, and b) I couldn’t afford to add law school debt to my already daunting student loans. On a whim, I applied for a summer internship at Philadelphia magazine, and got it. Within a week, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I was 21 years old and I found that atmosphere incredibly intoxicating, even though I spent a good bit of my time running errands and fact-checking rather mundane bits of information. I was lucky enough to work as a journalist in Philly for six years before trying my hand at book-length narrative nonfiction. I feel badly for current college students who are interested in newspaper and magazine jobs; they’re just not there anymore.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

I started with fairy tales—witches that melted and shape-shifting creatures, that sort of thing. Then I became obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe and tried to write poems that “answered” his. (I’m still a rabid fan; one of my African Grey parrots is named “Poe,” and the other is “Dexter,” after the novelist Pete Dexter). When I was thirteen I took a mystery writing class, and afterward I began sending awful short stories to Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock featuring murderous matrons and cross-dressing grandmothers and all sorts of sordid, sick cameo characters. I’m surprised my mother didn’t put me into therapy. Then again, I spent my entire life in Catholic school, and I guess she thought the nuns would straighten me out.

Q: Whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Two of my favorite writers also happen to be two of my best friends: the novelists Sara Gruen and Joshilyn Jackson. I honestly couldn’t write books without them. Not only are they invaluable readers and critique partners, they also sustain me on a daily basis. Writing is an incredibly solitary and lonely job, and if you don’t have people to yank you out of your own head and force you to engage with the rest of the world, you’ll go insane. I can literally go eight hours without saying one word out loud, to anyone, and most of the people I do “talk to” have been dead for a very long time. So we check in with each other during the day, help each other set goals, let each other rant. A few times a year, we have a writers’ retreat at Sara’s house. We each hole up in a different room, and only after we achieve our predetermined goals are we allowed to “play.” And by “play,” I mean drink enormous filthy martinis and eat yummy bad things. It’s great fun, and I’m so lucky to have them both.

Q: Obviously you have written a book about Chicago. What other ties to Chicago do you have?
I had never been to Chicago before I began researching SIN, but do have an oddly personal connection to the city. In 1905, my great-grandmother and her sister immigrated to the United States from Slovenia. They settled in Pittsburgh, but one weekend the sister took a trip to Chicago and was never heard from again. I was always intrigued and haunted by this bit of family lore, and as I began looking into stories of “disappearing girls” at the turn of the 20th century, these tales really captured my imagination. Chicago was a thrilling but dangerous place to be during that time; there were even guidebooks that warned people about which streets to avoid and which establishments to be wary of, and many young women did, for whatever reason, end up working in houses of prostitution. I never did find out what happened to my missing relative, but I do hope she would’ve been Everleigh Club material…

Q: What was easy about writing Sin in the Second City? What was difficult?

I was so intrigued by the characters and the setting and the story that I could’ve happily researched that book for the rest of my life. So the research was easy. I’d say the hard part was assembling all of my endnotes. I’d never had to compile endnotes before, and I stupidly failed to keep track of many facts during the writing process; I was too interested in telling the story to be bothered noting where various pieces of it came from. I paid for that, dearly, when I stayed up nearly a week straight in a coffee-fueled panic to hand them in by deadline. I learned my lesson for the second book.

Q: Of the places mentioned in Sin in the Second City, what is one of your favorites?

The Everleigh Club, absolutely! I spent a thrilling day at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s special collections room, where they have one of the original advertising brochures that Minna Everleigh mailed out across the country. It was amazing just to hold a piece of history like that in my hands. The Everleigh Club looked so fantastic to me, so magical and gaudy and over-the-top, that at times I could scarcely believe it existed. It’s why I included so many photographs in the book; words couldn’t do the place justice. Although I think the Chicago Tribune put it well when they called the Japanese Throne Room “a whore’s idea of what a Japanese parlor might look like.” I would give anything to jump into a time machine and spend a week at that brothel. Hell, even an hour.

Q: Of the people mentioned in Sin in the Second City, choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

I’d have to say Minna Everleigh, of course—she was the heart and soul of the whole operation (sister Ada, I think, was the brains). And I’d love to get to the bottom of the sisters’ numerous secrets and hear more about the wild things that went on behind the Club’s doors. But the sisters’ main nemesis, Madam Vic Shaw, would be a close second. I’m really interested in women who make their own lives, who aren’t fortunate enough to have lives handed to them, and I understand exactly where Vic Shaw was coming from, and why she hated the sisters. She scrimped and clawed and scraped to became Queen of the Levee (dubious though that title may be) and she was not about to let a pair of haughty, aristocratic sisters saunter in and steal it without a fight. Her schemes to dethrone the sisters were both ridiculous and hilarious, and I'd love to chat about them with her.

Q: What is one of the most surprising pieces of information you uncovered in your research for Sin in the Second City?

I was really shocked by the findings of the Chicago Vice Commission. This was a detailed, graphic compilation of exactly what a street-level prostitute in Gilded Age America had to endure just to survive. One girl charged five cents for intercourse, and had nearly $5,000 saved up in the bank. You do the math. It was horrifying, and it really made me appreciate the reformers’ point of view.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

I just turned in the manuscript for my second book, American Rose, a portrait of the legendary Gypsy Rose Lee and Depression-era America. Gypsy was a fascinating, immensely complex woman, by turns tragic and triumphant, and her life story really is a microcosm of America through the 20th century. Gypsy was brilliant at adapting to changing times and reinventing herself, and managed to remain relevant long after she stopped stripping off her clothes. She’s a true American icon, and the famous movie and Broadway play are fairy tales that have little to do with who she really was and how she became that person. I’m having great fun with her, and I look forward to spilling all of her secrets. You can get a sneak preview of some of them on twitter:

Friday, August 14, 2009

The "battle" of Fort Dearborn

Having written about the 1812 "incident" at Fort Dearborn in my book, I was surprised by the decision to rename the event a "battle" after it had been called a "massacre" all these years. I'm surprised because to me (as Dennis Byrne says in his article, link below), a "battle" involves two sides of combatants pitted against each other.

What happened just outside Fort Dearborn in 1812 involved the slaughter of innocent, unarmed women and children, along with armed Native American warriors and soldiers. The whites were leaving the fort because they could no longer be certain of receiving provisions. They were on their way to another fort, escorted by the Native Americans who then attacked them.

It seems that the word "battle" is used in history books to describe incidents where Native American women and children were slaughtered by whites. So perhaps renaming the Fort Dearborn Massacre is justified. Or perhaps we need to revise the history books. The truth is, both whites and Native Americans did slaughter the innocent. What are we really trying to accomplish with this name change?

I encourage you to read the articles and commentary in the Chicago Tribune before commenting.

Massacre? What Massacre?

The outrageous PC whitewashing of the Fort Dearborn Massacre - Dennis Byrne's Barbershop

Win a free copy of IHIC - Quiz #1

This is the first in a series of quizzes about Chicago that I will post from time to time. Everyone who answers all five questions correctly will be entered in a drawing to win a free, autographed copy of It Happened in Chicago.

The deadline for entering this first contest is Tuesday, August 18.
Just post your answers to the Quiz in a Comment and make sure you provide a way for me to contact you. If you prefer not to post contact info publicly, you'll have to check back here next week to find out if you won. If you win, you can email me privately with your snail mail address.

There is no penalty for guessing! So go on and give it a whirl. You know you want to.
Good luck to all! Ready? Set? GO!

Quizzical Quotes about Chicago

Who said:

1. "My son was not a gangster. He was always a good boy, until he got to going around with that North Side gang."
(a) Al Capone in 1927
(b) Josephine Schwimmer in 1929

(c) Oprah Winfrey in 1984

(d) Mike Ditka in 1985

2. "In this as in many of its public endeavors, the methods of Chicago are noisy and more or less offensive to dignity and good taste."
(a) The New York Times in 1889

(b) Charlie Comiskey in 1901

(c) Richard J. Daley in 1966

(d) Hugh Hefner in 1971

3. "Chicago was attractive in its ugliness, grim and begrimed, a city that still had the spirit of frontier days."

(a) Jane Addams in 1890
(b) Herman H. Kohlsaat in 1895
(c) Charlie Chaplin in 1915

(d) Abbie Hoffman in 1968

4. "I have struck a city - a real city - and they call it Chicago. . . . I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages."

(a) René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1683

(b) Mary Todd Lincoln in 1875

(c) Rudyard Kipling in 1891

(d) Billy Sianis in 1945

5. "Chicago is not the most corrupt American city. It's the most theatrically corrupt."

(a) "Shoeless" Joe Jackson in 1919

(b) Nathan Leopold in 1924

(c) Judge Julius Hoffman in 1968

(d) Studs Terkel in 1978

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Meet Laura Crawford!

Today's guest is Laura Crawford, author of several children's books. Her picture book In Arctic Waters (2007) was published by Sylvan Dell Publishing, which also published my recently released picture book One Wolf Howls.

I am interviewing Laura because of her book Postcards from Chicago (Raven Tree Press / 2008). Written for ages 6-12, Postcards from Chicago takes us on a tour of Chicago with a girl named Anna, who shares her travels through a series of postcards. Each page includes additional facts about the places Anna visits in the Windy City.

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Laura: I was about 30 years old when I decided to become a writer!! That surprises some people. As a child, I liked math and science. As an adult, I like to write about social studies. I’ve changed direction over the years! I was inspired to write children’s books when I was getting my Master’s Degree in Reading at NIU.

Q: Whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Laura: Three Illinois authors have made a significant difference in my career as an author. The first is Steve Layne, a professor I had when I attended NIU. He was so excited about the book he had written and recently had published. Something in my head said ‘If he can do it, so can I’. It took a few years, but I enrolled in writing classes with Carmela Martino and Heidi Roemer. Both are very talented and patient teachers. Their guidance and support have made my books possible.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Laura: The first book I wrote was Postcards From Washington, DC. I wrote it when I was taking a class at a local community college. At that time, I was a second grade teacher. I had been looking for a book to use in my classroom to teach young students about the interesting places in our capital. I could not find one, so I wrote one. After a long time of submitting, I finally got a call from Raven Tree Press saying they would like to publish my book….and would I like to do two more? Of course I would! I was ecstatic.

Another one of my early works turned into In Arctic Waters from Sylvan Dell. This book was inspired by a trip to the Shedd Aquarium with my Dad. The beluga whales were hilarious- they swam up, squeaked and splashed us. At that time I was teaching a unit on the Arctic animals, so I came home and wrote a book starring a beluga whale. That book went through many, many revisions and rejections before being picked up by Sylvan Dell.

Q: Obviously you have written a book about Chicago. What other ties to Chicago do you have?

Laura: Not too many! I live in the suburbs of Chicago and don’t go downtown very often. As I started researching, I learned so much—there are so many fun and historical things to do. I realized that I should be taking advantage of all of the fascinating sights since I am only an hour away!

Q: What was easy about writing Postcards from Chicago? What was difficult?

Laura: One of the hardest parts of doing the Postcard series is coming up with 14 places for the main character to visit. For Chicago, it was not as hard since I had been to so many of these places. The list for New York, on the other hand, was quite difficult!

Q: Of the places mentioned in Postcards from Chicago, what is one of your favorites?

Laura: Well that is a funny story. In the original version of Postcards From Chicago, I had included a page about Wrigley Field and the ‘curse of the goat’. I am a huge Cubs fan, so that was the first page I wrote. As the book progressed, the editor said they could not find pictures of Wrigley Field that they could use, so I had to take it out. I offered to take the pictures myself or have my photographer friend take them, but they said no. Unfortunately, they wanted a postcard about Soldier Field instead. I hate football!! So….to answer the question of what is my favorite (instead of what would have been my favorite) I will say the Shedd Aquarium. I love those belugas!

Q: Did you take the photographs used in Postcards from Chicago or are they actual postcards or photos taken by someone else for the book?

Laura: Everyone asks me that, and the answer is no. I always say that it took 4 people to make this book. I wrote it, Bonnie Adamson illustrated it, someone took the pictures, and someone translated the sidebars into Spanish. One of the unique things about Raven Tree Press is that they always incorporate Spanish into their books. It was a group effort. And if I had been in charge of the pictures, page one would have been Wrigley Field!

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Laura: Yes, this book holds a special place in my heart because I dedicated it to a coworker, Kim Corcoran. We taught third grade together in Sleepy Hollow, Illinois. She died unexpectedly and never got to see this book. We were planning on going down town to do research at the time of her death. Also, her favorite animal was the polar bear, which is pictured on the page for the Lincoln Park Zoo. Since that was unplanned, it is kind of a cool little tribute to her!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

An Interview with Adam Selzer

This is the first in a series of interviews I hope to do with authors who write about Chicago.

Today's guest is Adam Selzer. I met Adam at the 2009 Young Authors Conference at Illinois State University this past spring. Adam is the author of many books, including a number of books for young people. Check out his web site for a complete list.

My purpose in interviewing Adam here is because of the book
Weird Chicago: Forgotten History, Strange Legends & Mysterious Hauntings of the Windy City. Described on the cover as "The Ultimate Book of Chicago Ghosts & Mysteries," the book was written by Adam Selzer, Troy Taylor, Ken Melvoin-Berg, and Willie Williams.

Okay! Here we go, following a traditional Q&A interview format.

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

Adam: 7 or 8, I think. I still wanted to be a baseball player at the time, too, but I found that I was pretty good at writing.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

Adam: "The Great Monkey Hunt" was a picture book about lions looking for monkeys to keep as pets. I was in second grade, I think. I had this idea that I could write a book and get it published, and figured it ought to be about monkeys.

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Adam: I can name any number of teachers who really encouraged me - especially in grade school. After that, there wasn't a lot of creative writing in class. I hardly ever got to write a story after about seventh grade.

Q: Obviously you have written a book about Chicago. What other ties to Chicago do you have?

Adam: Well, I live here! No deep-rooted ties or anything, though. I get a lot of crap from people on the tours for being born in Iowa, for some reason. I guess one of the other tours in town is making a big deal about being "native born Chicagoans," which is just ridiculous. These are the same people who criticize me for writing a children's book based on Watergate because I wasn't born when Nixon was president. Do these people bug Shakespeareans for not being old enough to have known Shakespeare? Or not being from Stratford-on-Avon?

Q: When writing Weird Chicago, did you and your co-authors each "sign up" for certain topics, or did you collaborate on topics?

Adam: That's pretty much how it worked, yeah. We made a list of topics. I'm especially proud of the "adam says..." and "Ken says..." sidebars - there are a lot of famous chicago ghost stories we sort of HAD to include, but the sidebars allowed us to mention it when we thought the story was nonsense.

Q: What was easy about writing Weird Chicago? What was difficult?

Adam: The easy part was finding the stories, and the hard part was editing it down to fit in one book! It's about the size of a phone book as it is, but I think the first draft was about twice as long.

Q: Of the stories included in Weird Chicago, what is one of your favorites?

Adam: I really like the story of Lillian Collier, the teenage flapper who ran a tea room called "The Wind Blew Inn," and was arrested for holding "petting parties" there. She and her friend insisted that "there is no snugglepupping at the Wind Blew Inn," and the judge sentenced her to read a book of fairy tales. I've been trying to find out whatever happened to her for years now!

Q: Of the characters mentioned in Weird Chicago, choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

Adam: Jane Addams. I think spending an hour with Jane Addams would probably make me a better person. I get the impression that an hour with Jane Addams would make ANYONE a better person.

Q: You have a new book coming out in December: The Smart Aleck's Guide to American History. What would you like us to know about it right this minute?

Adam: It's uncharted territory - a young adult nonfiction book that isn't about "your changing body!" A lot of people are thinking it's going to be one of those awful books that tries to make Abe Lincoln look like a racist by taking quotes out of context, but it's not. It's not an idol-smashing book, it's just a hilarious textbook. It had to be funny, obviously, but I also wanted it to be ridiculously informative.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

Adam: I have another book coming out about life as a ghost buster in Chicago: Your Neighborhood Gives Me the Creeps. It sort of goes behind-the-scenes of the Chicago ghost tour industry -- which is one wild industry, let me tell you!