Lindsay Hunter on the Chicago Literary Galaxy
Welcome to Chicago Literary Galaxy where you will see planets of reading series, moons of publishers, star clusters of authors, black hole bars, sun-sized universities and a comet-like literary festival that comes around once a year. Your guide will be Lindsay Hunter, author of Daddy’s, Don’t Kiss Me and Ugly Girls. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the multitude of brilliant literary constellations you are about to see, please increase the output on your oxygen tank and breathe slowly and deeply. If at the end of the tour, or anytime during, you feel you can’t handle the awesomeness, simply crack open your helmet and say Goodbye. We will all miss you.
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Chicago is a big city, but it’s a city of neighborhoods. I mean that in every sense of the word. Each neighborhood has its own culture, its own complexion, and when you meet a new person and you ask, “Where do you live?” you are asking because the answer will inform your impression of this person. If he says “Lakeview,” home of Wrigley Field and bro bars, inside you’ll smirk, unless he then says “I like living close to iO,” which means he’s a hopeful improviser. Slightly better news for him. If your new friend says, “I live in Uptown,” you’ll feel afraid for her; it’s in the process of being gentrified and there is violence. If your new friend says, “Pilsen,” you’ll nod and think, “Ah, a hipster.” If he says, “the south side,” you’ll nod solemnly or say “Oh awesome!” because the north side and the south side are still way too segregated, and you live on the north side and feel ashamed for not living or venturing to the south side. Unless he says, “Hyde Park,” at which point you’ll think “Ah, he wants to brag that he lives on the south side, but he lives in fancy-ass Hyde Park, so whatever.”
Overall, though, and maybe this is because of the harsh, relentless winters we face year after year, Chicago’s neighborhoods feel like the many bedrooms in the same, huge, ramshackle house. This is especially true for the lit scene. There are, I think, millions of reading series here. Maybe billions. There are fantastic small presses. There are universities with cutting edge staff and ideas. There are bars upon bars that love hosting readers (we drink a lot and sometimes what we read is pretty entertaining). There is a man who’s come into almost every reading I’ve ever been to, holding two huge red bags filled with handmade, hot food, muttering Tamales, tamales, tamales. Tamales? The other day The Tamale Guy even came to my work. And all of this is offered to writers—new, seasoned, unsure, confident. Chicago is welcoming, excited, ready for everything. There is no real proving ground; that only exists in the space between you thinking, “I’m going to write something” and, “Maybe I’ll read it out somewhere.” Perhaps this was my own presupposition about a big city, but I assumed the traditional formula must apply: You must be working on some greater, poetry-or-fiction opus; you must wear a blazer in public; you must never utter the word hybrid; you must read for 45 minutes at the LEAST (your audience should have blood dripping from their eyes by the time you’re done); you must toil for years and years before anyone will pay you any notice. I am revealing my own paranoia here, but the point is still that I assumed I wouldn’t be granted entry into the lit scene, and then one day I realized I was standing in the middle of it talking to a bunch of other writers and creators. The lit scene in Chicago is wherever you are.
Admittedly, I am not as involved as I once was. I am laughing as I type because that is a huge understatement. Motherhood and full-time work has rendered me unwilling to leave my home once I’ve returned after work at night. Crossing the threshold from inside my home to my backyard, then walking to the car, feels like an impossible possibility that I don’t have the strength to face. Like a variety of lavas might immolate me and then what’s the point? Wow, I am truly letting my freak/exhaustion flag fly in this piece. But if I were to venture out, here are the Chicago lit entities I’d hope to encounter:
Jac Jemc, author of My Only Wife and A Different Bed Every Time. Master of twisty, poetic prose and using the exact, perfect word. I wish I could give you a comparison but there is no one like Jac. She is who writers will compare to.
Samantha Irby, author of Meaty (published by booming Chicago small press Curbside Splendor), co-host of “live lit for the lionhearted” reading series, Guts and Glory. G&G takes place at Schuba’s, a live event venue and bar. Sam Irby, if you aren’t familiar, writes about sex, dating, Crohn’s disease, pants-shitting, Chicago, and the indelible mark your childhood leaves upon your psyche. Seeing her read live is one big reason I (and many others) feel lucky to live in Chicago.
Jacob Knabb or Victor David Giron, Senior Editor and Founder, respectively, of Curbside Splendor Publishing (link above). This press is on fire right now. Some of the recent books they’ve published that bring me immense excitement are Halle Butler’s Jillian, James Tadd Adcox’s Does Not Love, Megan Stielstra’s Once I Was Cool and Tim Kinsella’s Let Go and Go On and On. Their taste is impeccable; they take risks; and they put out tons of books a year.
Kathleen Rooney, poet and Rose Metal Press founder/editor, might be out and about with her novelist husband Martin Seay. I always say something terrifically awkward to her, and she always forgives me. Rose Metal Press’s most recent book is the fantastic My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form by Chris Bower, Margaret Patton Chapman, Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, and Aaron Teel. They also have a chapbook contest each year, the results of which never fail to debut amazing writers I’m so happy they discovered.
Kyle Beachy and Christian Tebordo, Assistant Professor and Director of the MFA Program, respectively, at Roosevelt University. People often ask me about the writing programs in Chicago. I attended the MFAW program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, whose motto should be “anything goes” (one of its alums published seven blank pages in the graduate lit journal, then peeled and ate oranges during her “reading”), and lots of great weirdo writers are emerging (Margaret Patton Chapman, Megan Martin, Jac Jemc…and Sara Levine, author of the great Treasure Island!!! teaches there!). But Roosevelt is consistently pumping the goods into the lit scene. And the inspired addition of known weirdo/genius Christian Tebordo as director feels like Roosevelt just became the luckiest university in town.
Mostly, I would hope to run into newer writers, of which there are floods upon floods. Students, recent graduates, people giving it a shot finally after years of fearing the various lavas. These new writers, creators, exciters, they are what keep Chicago alive. Like how a snake must shed its skin again and again. And they are what Chicago protects and preserves and encourages, because we need them. We need that new skin.
I could go on, but I’m way over my word count. I haven’t even told you about Mason Johnson! Bah. Suffice it to say you should come visit, whoever you are. And bring that notebook of yours. We want to know what’s in it.