Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Meet Author Peter J. Spalding!

My guest today is Peter J. Spalding, author of the eBook 1871: A Novel of the Great Chicago Fire. Peter has done about every form of writing, including journalism, poetry, and commentary, for which his work was picked up by The New York Times.  He has also worked in various capacities on both stage and film, including two stage plays and six screenplays.  1871 is his first novel.

For more information about Peter J. Spalding and his book, visit and

Welcome to "It Happened in Chicago", Peter!
Q: In addition to writing books about Chicago, do you have any other ties to the city?

I live in California now, but I grew up in Illinois-- I was born in Park Ridge, actually. The one time we moved away was when my dad got a job in upstate New York.  It was my first real move, and I guess my mom was trying to make things easier on me, so she got me a picture book called "There'll Be A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" by Robert Quackenbush.  It was basically a kiddie version of the Chicago Fire-- it was completely inaccurate of course, but who cares.

I think she ended up ruing that day!  I was one of those kids who always wanted the same bedtime story every night, so I probably drove her crazy reading it over and over.  By the time we moved back to Illinois, I was hooked, and I've been obsessed with the fire ever since.

Q: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?

That's like asking me when I realized I had brown hair-- I've known it as long as I can remember!  I actually started writing before I could read, because I used to tell stories to my mom, and she'd transcribe them.  As soon as I was old enough to read and write, I started doing it myself.  I wrote all kinds of short stories as a kid, and I wrote my first full-length play at the ripe old age of ten.  By the time I got to high school I was running the gamut, writing prose, poetry, drama-- you name it.

Q: Please describe one of your earliest works (go back as far as you can remember). Who or what inspired you to create it?

The earliest thing I know of was a thing my mom put in a scrapbook.  It was a retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood."  I must've been about two.  The way I told the story, she went through the forest and had all kinds of crazy adventures.  It was a little like "Alice in Wonderland."  The Big Bad Wolf was hardly in it; I guess I didn't think he was important.  So that was my two-year-old mind at work!

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

Well, I come from a long line of writers, because every generation of my family has had at least a few.  My great-grandmother was a wonderful poet and a great storyteller, and I think she gave my grandmother a lot of her genes.  Both of my parents have written nonfiction-- in fact, my dad has a book coming out this summer about Lafayette.  So this stuff kind of runs in our veins, and needless to say, my folks have been great.

In school, I had three great teachers who stick out in my mind: Mrs. Ash in sixth grade, and Mrs. Rush and Mr. McCoy in high school.  But they're just the tip of the iceberg.  I've had so many great friends and mentors over the years, I can't possibly name them all.  I've learned something new every day, and I still do.

Q: What type of books do you read for pleasure?

I read anything that's smart and exciting.  My all-time favorite writer is Mark Twain, although Steinbeck and Fitzgerald are up there too.  But sometimes I shy away from so-called literary fiction, because it can get dull and pretentious.

My favorite books of the last few years have been "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold and "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger-- say what you want about their movie versions, but the books are great.  I also read a lot of nonfiction, especially history, which probably won't come as a surprise.

I love sci-fi and fantasy too.  I have a weakness for Marvel Comics, especially Spider-Man.  And I think J.K. Rowling is brilliant, but not just because she wrote a fun series and sold a lot of books.  She got a whole generation of kids to love reading, all over the world, even though conventional wisdom said young people don't read books anymore.  I defy anybody to name another writer in the last hundred years, who has inspired so many millions upon millions of people.

Q: What was one of the easiest things about writing 1871: A Novel of the Great Chicago Fire? What was one of the most difficult?

The easy part was telling a story that I cared so much about, and that was really personal to me.  I hope that doesn't sound like a BS answer, because I really do mean it.  Very often, it's hard to pinpoint what your story is really about; and if you're not careful, if you're not personally invested in it, then it can come across as dull or cliched.  That's one of the biggest pitfalls for any writer, myself included, but on this book it was never a problem.

I felt like I'd had this story in my head for years, and I just needed enough writing skill and experience to be able to do it justice.  I drew from my own life too-- I've never lived through a huge disaster, thank God, but a lot of the characters' conflicts and feelings were based on things I'd gone through myself.  So, for better or worse, this is a story that comes straight from my heart.

The hard part was working out all the technical stuff.  Some of it was pretty routine, like setting up the story and making sure all the details are consistent, because the book does have a lot of subplots.  But to be honest, I made it harder for myself than it needed to be.

I swore I'd make the story 100% historically accurate.  Even though it's fiction, I wanted to make sure the story could've happened in real life.  That's a lot easier said than done.  It forces you to do a huge amount of research, so I can't tell you how many months I spent in libraries and archives, just digging through microfilms and yellowed books and whatnot.  And a lot of the time, eyewitnesses gave different stories, or one piece of evidence contradicted another, so I couldn't say for sure what had happened-- I had to make my own judgment calls about what I thought was most likely.

Then came the hardest part of all: I had to to tell a compelling story, and get readers to really care about the characters, while staying within those limitations.  Sane writers don't do that.  The real world doesn't follow nice conventions like three-act structures, so most writers will use artistic license to change whatever they want.  I'm all for that, because it obviously worked for Dickens and Tolstoy and who-knows-who-else.  But on this book, I was bound and determined to do it my way.

I think it worked out in the end, because I do think historical accuracy helped the story, but it still gave me a lot of gray hair.  Oh well-- such is life.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in 1871: A Novel of the Great Chicago Fire, please tell us about one you would like to meet and why.

Does Abraham Lincoln count?  He's only in a couple of flashbacks, but I'd love to meet him! I'm only half kidding, actually.  That's why I wrote about the Lincolns: they're just fascinating people, and I wanted to get to know them better.

The more I found out about them, especially at that stage in their lives, the more they seemed downright Shakespearean.  Robert was so much like Hamlet: he was grappling with the legacy of a dead heroic father, and he was struggling to find his own place in the world.  And Mary was kind of like Lady Macbeth, with her ambition and whatnot, although she obviously never plotted a murder.  Their stories were so packed with drama that as a writer, I couldn't resist.

Q: Can you share with us anything about the fire that you feel most people don't know?

Well, that ties right into the last question, because most people don't know that the Lincoln family lived through this.  Most books don't even mention it, and if they do, it's just in passing.  I was floored when I found out about their story-- I couldn't believe that nobody had written about it before.  So I was pretty excited to be the first (as far as I know).  Obviously, since I was doing fiction, I did have to invent some details when the historical facts were unclear.  But the Lincolns' basic storyline is real.

In a broader sense, though, I don't think people realize how heartbreaking the fire was.  The city's boosters tried to gloss over that stuff because they didn't want to scare off investors.  But the truth is, it really was hard on people who lived through it.  For example, the whole North Side was wiped out-- it was like the Lower Ninth Ward during Katrina-- so if you lived in that part of town, you would've almost certainly lost your home.  You have to think of that in human terms, because statistics don't do it justice.  That's why eyewitness accounts are so important: they make you realize how crushed the survivors really were, and how profoundly their lives were changed.  And not everybody made it.  For example, Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard was one of Chicago's founding fathers, but he lost practically everything and never recovered.  So it really did take a lot of heroism and fortitude; and when I wrote the book, I wanted to honor that spirit.

Q: What led you to decide that the novel should be published as an eBook?

It was a combination of things, but the short answer is, I think eBooks are the way of the future.  They're still kind of a niche market, but they won't stay that way for long, considering that iPads and Kindles are selling like hotcakes.

I do have to say, I think paper books are great, and they're never going away.  I love curling up on the couch or sitting on a park bench or what have you.  But you do have to stay up to speed with the times, and frankly I think the publishing industry is still stuck in the twentieth century.  Most books don't sell enough copies to cover the author's advance, but publishers pay those advances anyway.  And if retailers can't sell enough copies, the publishers buy them back.  That makes it almost impossible for them to make money.  They have a really hard time adjusting to change, which in this day and age is a serious problem.

I'm not a doomsayer, by any means, but I do think publishers need to adapt, and the quicker the better.  It's kind of like what happened in the fifties, when movie studios had to deal with the advent of television.  It was painful in a lot of ways; they had to completely rethink the way they did business, and some companies got through it better than others.  But movies eventually found their place alongside TV, and nowadays they coexist pretty well.  I think the same thing will happen in the publishing world, where paper books will find their place among eBooks and other new media.  But it may take a while, and the old rules of the game won't necessarily apply.

Anyway, I knew eBooks were a growing market, and I wanted to get in on the ground floor.  A lot of other writers have done the same thing; Stephen King published "Riding the Bullet" as an eBook years ago.  I think it's going to become more and more mainstream as time goes on.

After all, we've all gotten used to downloading music and reading newspapers online.  So why not download a book?

Q: What would you like us to know about your current work/s in progress?

I'm working on a book about an old movie theater, which by the way is another passion of mine.  And I'd love to write more about the westward movement, especially the California Gold Rush, and about the space program.  I have a couple of ideas for those, but I'm still in the early stages of writing.

I'm also working on a few stage plays and screenplays.  Some of them grew directly out of "1871," because I learned so much about Chicago history that I found more stories that I wanted to tell!  I want to do a movie about the Leopold and Loeb murder, among other things, but that's a tough sell in Hollywood.  So you'll have to wish me luck.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

People always ask me how much of the book is fictional, and how much of it is real.  I usually dodge that question, because I want people to enjoy the novel as is, without worrying about the behind-the-scenes stuff.  And if I've done my job, they won't be able to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

Even so, if you want to learn more, I do encourage people to read up on the fire.  I think it's an amazing piece of history, and there was only so much that could fit into the book.  There are a lot of great resources out there.  I posted some links and recommendations on my blog, and there's more where they came from.  So by all means, check it out!


  1. Great interview, Scotti and Peter! Tried to check out Peter's blog, but the link is broken. I'll do a search! Thanks for spot-lighting the Fire!

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