Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Meet Author Nnedi Okorafor!

My guest today is Nnedi Okorafor, award-winning novelist and author of numerous award-winning short stories, plays, magazine articles, and essays. Her first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker, was published in 2005 by Houghton Mifflin. An illustrated version was published in Nigeria in 2008 by Kachifo Ltd. The novel takes place in a highly technological world based on Nigerian myths and culture. Nnedi’s other novels include The Shadow Speaker (Hyperion Books, 2007), Long Juju Man (Macmillan UK, 2008), Who Fears Death (DAW Books, June 2010), and Akata Witch (Penguin, 2011).

To learn more about Nnedi and her work, visit her web site at

Welcome to It Happened in Chicago, Nnedi!

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

NNEDI: Well, I’ve lived in the area since I was about seven. First, my family and I lived in the south suburb of South Holland. In the 80s, this area had a serious racial problem. My family was one of the first black families to move into this neighborhood. The white residents didn’t take well to this. Let’s just say my siblings and I were lucky to be born fast runners…I’ll leave it at that. When I was about twelve, we moved to the south suburb of Olympia Fields. I currently still live there.

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

NNEDI: I didn’t write a story until I was a sophomore in college at the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana. Before that I always thought I’d be a veterinarian or an entomologist. I loved the sciences and excelled in math; I never showed any great propensity for English or literature. The only hint was that from the moment I could read, I LOVED doing it. I spent a lot of time in the library and I consumed books like candy; science books or fiction, it was all delicious. I also had a very very big imagination. As a kid, I had my entire first grade class believing they were shape shifters. I believed that just beyond the playground was another world full of dragons, horses and sentient rabbits. I remember during art class in 2nd grade creating a giant butterfly out of construction paper and then being terribly upset when it did not fly. Stuff like that.

When I was twelve, I started reading Stephen King. The first novel I read was It. That opened the world of storytelling to me, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I came from very scientific medical immigrant parents. My father was a cardiovascular surgeon, my mother a registered nurse and midwife with a PhD in health administration. They weren’t wired to push an imaginative daughter toward the arts. So, only after taking a creative writing course in my sophomore year in college (which my boyfriend at the time had encouraged me to take) did I realize that I had a knack for and an interest in telling stories. From that point on, I never stopped writing.

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

NNEDI: I vaguely remember trying to write a story when I was about six. It was called Donald Duck and the Sand |Witch. It was about Donald Duck making friends with a witch on an island that looked like a…sandwich. OMG, I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this. LOL!! I have no idea why I wrote it and I never wrote another story until I was 20 years old.

The first story I wrote in that creative writing class was called The House of Deformities. It was a story set in Nigeria and involved pink ducklings, bull dog puppies, an ancient old woman with a cleaver, looming vultures, fly-riddled raw meat, and a very ominous outhouse -- yes, it was a true story (I was about 8 when we stopped at this mysterious roadside restaurant in Nigeria)….except for the black hole to hell in the outhouse floor. It really was a pretty good story. :-)

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

NNEDI: My professor at U of I, Professor Jean Thompson (also a great author) was pivotal in my early days as a writer. She was the first person to pull me aside and say that I was good and should keep going.

Q: I understand that many of your stories take place, either literally or figuratively, in Nigeria. Can you tell us a little about your “Nigerian connection”?

NNEDI: Both my parents were born and raised in Nigeria and from a young age they have been taking my siblings and me back to Nigeria to get to know family. So along with my American experience, I had a sort of parallel Nigerian experience. My parents were the type of immigrants who wanted to become American AND remain Nigerian, and they passed that on to my siblings and me. Thus we are both American and Nigerian citizens, make sure we visit often and have ingested both cultures in our own unique ways.

Q: What was one of the easiest things about writing Zahrah the Windseeker? What was one of the most difficult?

NNEDI: Of all the books I’ve written, Zahrah the Windseeker was the easiest. It came to me whole, from beginning to end. I knew the story immediately. The most difficult part was paring it down. There were so many tangents that I wanted to go on. I loved the world of the story and I loved the field guide. I actually had to take out several scenes for this reason. Like the Bush Cow Party Zahrah witnesses one night while in the jungle -- did you know those thieving little bush cows can play drums? :-). I’ve since returned to Zahrah’s world. I wrote a short story called From The Lost Diary of Treefrog7 that is about two of the explorers who contribute to the book that Zahrah uses to navigate the Greeny Forest. I’m also working on a Zahrah the Windseeker graphic novel with illustrator John Jennings.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in your novels, please tell us about one you would like to meet and why.

NNEDI: Papa Grip/The Desert Magician/Long Juju Man/Aro…each of these characters is actually the same guy…or creature…or deity, whoever he is, they are all him. In Zahrah the Windseeker, he is Papa Grip the quirky town chief who wears hot pink caftans, loves to dance and gives Zahrah poignant words of wisdom. In Long Juju Man, he is a tricky annoying trickster ghost who eats rotten mangoes, smells like pepper, is fond of butterflies and teaches Ngoli bits of wisdom. In The Shadow Speaker, he is a deity of the crossroads who proclaims himself “Jesus’ General!” and shoves Ejii toward her destiny. In my forthcoming adult novel, he’s a very traditional rigid-minded but very powerful sorcerer who can change into a vulture.

I know this character, in all his forms. He insists on appearing in all my stories; it doesn’t matter if it’s a central role or a cameo appearance. He must be present. I’d love to sit down to dinner with him (I imagine he’d want to eat at an Ethiopian restaurant…somewhere where he could eat with his hands. He’d order something spicy with beef or goat meat) so I could ask him who he is, what he wants with me, how to make Nigeria’s roads safer and what the question to Life the Universe and Everything is, since the answer is apparently 42. ;-).

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

NNEDI: I have an adult novel coming out in June titled Who Fears Death (DAW Books). It’s, I guess, what you’d call African magical realism or as my editor likes to call it, African magical futurism. It is linked to my previous novels but in a way you won’t expect. I’m very very proud of this one.

Then I have a YA novel from Penguin Books coming out sometime in 2011 titled Akata Witch. This is a fantasy novel set in present-day Nigeria and involves some utterly insane Nigerian juju and mystical creatures. Sunny, the main character, was born in the United States to two Nigerian parents. When she is nine, she moves back with her family to Nigeria. Oh, and to add to the cultural complexity, Sunny is albino. “Akata” is a derogatory term for African Americans or foreign born-Nigerians, it means “bush animal”. It’s a name Sunny is called quite a lot by her classmates. In other words, the book is also about culture conflict and otherness. But it’s also about a girl who becomes a witch.

I’ve also got a YA short story coming out in an anthology called Life on Mars (Penguin Books). It’s my first alien story. It’s set in the desert of Niger and my alien has a special relationship with Nigerians. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m working on a graphic novel version of Zahrah the Windseeker which will be different from the novel. It’ll show more angles to the story and we’re going to have some fun with the visual aspects of it. Lastly, I’m working on a Disney Fairies chapter book. The character mine will focus on is Iridessa, the light-talent fairy. The tentative title is Iridessa and the Fire-Bellied Dragon Frog. That’s supposed to come out later this year or in 2011.
Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

NNEDI: That’s about it. Thanks for interviewing me. :-)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Meet Author Terry Spencer Hesser!

My guest today, Terry Spencer Hesser, is a writer and documentary filmmaker who has received several Emmy nominations and awards for her work, including an Emmy award for Treasures of the Art Institute (2001) and A War on All Fronts: The Life and Times of Robert Rutherford McCormick (2005). She has worked with Audrey Hepburn, Oprah Winfrey, and R. Kelly. Her play, Christmas with Elvis, was described by FOX-TV as "the funniest show in town."

A lifelong resident of Chicago, Terry has written two books. Her debut novel, Kissing Doorknobs (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 1998) won an American Library Association award and has been translated into five languages. Her latest book, I Am a Teamster (Lake Claremont Press, 2008), is a biography of Teamster Union Organizer Regina V. Polk.

For more information about Terry Spencer Hesser and her work, visit

Welcome to It Happened in Chicago, Terry!

Q: Please tell us a little about your personal ties to Chicago.

TERRY: I grew up in the lawless area just west of Chicago known as Cicero.  As an adolescent one of my favorite activities was taking the el downtown and walking to Old Town to buy love beads and patchouli oil but mostly to visit the Wax Museum and examine the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.  I think it was the beginning of my interest in Chicago’s roaring reputation and history.

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

TERRY: I never took my writing seriously until college when I saw the power of a uniquely told scenario,  scene, and finally story.

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

TERRY: I made villages out of buttons at my grandmother’s house…its what you play with when there were no toys to play with.

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

TERRY: My ex-husband Dennis Hesser was extraordinarily significant in my personal growth and for that I will always be grateful.

Q: What was one of the easiest things about writing I Am a Teamster? What was one of the most difficult?

TERRY: The easiest was finding Regina’s point of view – she was very straightforward.  The hardest was making her come alive with only interviews and research – without the opportunity to hear her talk about herself.

Q: What is one of the things you admire most about Regina Polk, the heroine of I Am a Teamster? Are there any similarities between the two of you?

TERRY: I admire her ability to act on instinct…and if not instinct then flawless execution of a plan.  I share her concerns for humanity, for women, for personal freedom and maybe even her warrior spirit.

Q: Would you tell us a little about the "road to publication" of I Am a Teamster?

TERRY: It is a short  story.  We took it to Sharon at Lake Claremont Press and worked out the details.  Our mistake was rushing it into print for a conference of teamsters and bypassing some publicity as a result.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in Kissing Doorknobs -- a novel about an 11-year-old girl with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) -- please name one character you would like to meet and tell us why.

TERRY: I would like to meet the main character Tara because she is a fictionalized version of myself as a child and give her a hug.

Q: Your have written about and filmed many Chicago people and places. Can you tell us briefly about some of these?

TERRY: I did a profile about Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick for WTTW and told the history of Chicago from the standpoint of the Auditorium Theater Building.  I’ve done publicity for R. Kelly and worked with Oprah on a documentary about Paul Adams and Providence St. Mel.

Q:  A brief bio I read about you says that you "searched for vampires in Transylvania." What was that all about?

TERRY: For an A&E series called “The Unexplained” we investigated the vampire myth from Bram Stoker’s book to the Transylvanian mountains and goth bars in Beverly Hills.  It was such bloody fun!

Q: What are you working on right now? What has been the biggest challenge of this project so far?

TERRY: I am working on a book about the town of Cicero and my family – the biggest challenge is integrating my family into essentially a history book – and sometimes sacrificing unverifiable stories.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

TERRY: I am just very lucky to be able to interpret this continually surprising world.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Meet Author Stephanie Kuehnert!

My guest today is Stephanie Kuehnert, author of the YA (Young Adult) novels I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone (MTV Books, 2008) and Ballads of Suburbia (MTV Books, 2009). The Chicago Sun-Times notes: "With her first two novels, Kuehnert has created vivid pictures of teenage lives that lie in that borderland that abuts adulthood. It is a fertile, confusing and intense place, and Kuehnert never holds back. But like a good ballad, she keeps the stories taut and precise, with a touch of heart thrown in for good measure."

I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone was picked as one of eight “Young adult books that rock” by the L.A. Times. Ballads of Suburbia is set in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. Stephanie says that she decided to set the novel in Oak Park: “Because I love reading about the Chicago area during different eras and wanted to capture my corner of Chicagoland in the era I came of age in, the early nineties.”

For more information about Stephanie and her books, visit her web site at

Welcome to It Happened in Chicago, Stephanie!

Q: Please tell us a little about your ties to Chicago.

STEPHANIE: I moved to Oak Park, IL, a suburb right on the Western border of Chicago when I was eight years old from St Louis, IL. Since I was born and raised a city girl, I wasn't all that happy being in the suburbs, but I always loved venturing into the city of Chicago and definitely consider myself a Chicagoan. My mother's family has been here since they immigrated from Poland and she is the one who taught me to love the city of Chicago. I left the area right after high school because I was unhappy in the burbs, but I found my way back, ultimately attending Columbia College Chicago for both my BA and MFA in creative writing. Going downtown for my classes are what truly made me fall in love with this city. Though I've always loved it for its culture, especially the musical culture. I spent my teenage years basically living at the Metro, Fireside Bowl, Aragon, etc seeing punk shows and I still love seeing live bands and supporting local bands in particular. Currently I live in Forest Park, which is another western suburb right on the end of the green line. It's a working class town and I relate to the culture here much more than I did Oak Park; I love living in Forest Park.

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

STEPHANIE: As soon as I learned to read. My mother's favorite story to tell about me is how I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder so much when I was five, I insisted on being called Laura and I always had to dress in my "frontier dress" and moon boots because it was as close as I could get to how Laura would dress . I kept a journal from a very early age because I planned to document my life like Laura did.... but my life wasn't very interesting so I quickly turned to making up stories.

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

STEPHANIE: I remember two short stories I wrote circa third grade. One was about a colony of space cows. I'm not sure where that come from... I've always loved a wide variety of stories, sci-fi included, and I've always been an animal lover. The other was a sad tale of a baby who was so sick because her mother drank while she was pregnant (see, third grade and already writing about the heavy issues). That one was inspired by my mom--- not because she was a drunk, far from it! She was a neonatal nurse and would tell me be about her "sick babies" and nursing them back to help. And she has always been my biggest inspiration and cheerleader.

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

STEPHANIE: My mother, who always encouraged me to purse my dream. I tried to go to college for sociology and dropped out because it wasn't my true passion and she was the one who said I should go to school for writing because I've always loved it and I should pursue my passion and we'd figure out how I'd pay my bills, lol!

But also several of the teachers I had at Columbia College Chicago, especially the chair Randy Albers. He really nurtured my talent and pushed me to do my best. Professor and acclaimed Chicago author Joe Meno also had a huge influence on me. I saw what he'd done at such a young age and coming from punk sensibilities like me and I thought, there is a place for my voice out there and if I work even half as hard as Joe (because that man is one of the hardest working writers I know), I might have a shot.

Q: What was one of the easiest things about writing Ballads of Suburbia? What was one of the most difficult?

STEPHANIE: The easiest thing was setting up the place. I set the novel in Oak Park during the time I grew up because I knew it so well and, selfishly, I wanted to remember it exactly as it was to me, so why not set a book there. I love books like Crossing California by Adam Langer, The Book of Ralph by John McNally, and Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno that capture a certain part of Chicago during a certain time and I knew it would be so so so much fun to do that for my own neighborhood. I had a blast doing that. Umm but the subject matter was rough. It deals with drug addiction, depression, and self injury. I had to revisit dark places from my own past. I used to self-injure, I struggled with depression, I dabbled with drugs and I lost friends to full blown serious addiction. I had to tap those old dark emotions in creating my characters and bringing emotional truth to the story and it was honestly the hardest thing I've ever done as a writer, but I'm glad I did it. I've never been more proud of anything I've done than Ballads of Suburbia. And I hope it reaches a lot of teens who need it.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in either of your novels, please tell us about one you would like to meet and why.

STEPHANIE: Man, I feel like I know them all too well and all of their struggles come from either a part of me or my past. I'd probably have to say Emily, the main character of my first novel, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, though. She's a total rock star and just the girl I've always wanted to be.

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

STEPHANIE: Mostly YA. It really is my favorite genre of fiction. I love a good coming of age story. I love stories that are honest and real in regards to the human condition and the human spirit and I think currently the YA authors of the world are handling that best!

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

STEPHANIE: They are pretty top secret. One, another YA novel, is based in Greek Mythology. It's kind of a revenge novel, but more so a learning to deal with grief novel. The other will probably be an adult/upper YA novel. It's my bartender novel since tending bar is my day job and has been since grad school and I have lots of stories. It's about a mom who has to learn to finally grow up with her teenage daughter.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

STEPHANIE: Nope, would just like to say thank you for having me!