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BLOG-O-RAMA (not to be confused with Illinois's disgraced governor)


Q and A with Kathleen Rooney about LILLIAN BOXFISH TAKES A WALK (now in paperback)

From the book jacket: "She took 1930s New York by storm, working her way up writing copy for R.H. Macy’s to become the highest paid advertising woman in the country. It was a job that, she says, “in some ways saved my life, and in other ways ruined it.” Now it’s the last night of 1984 and Lillian, 85 years old but just as sharp and savvy as ever, is on her way to a party. It’s chilly enough out for her mink coat and Manhattan is grittier now―her son keeps warning her about a subway vigilante on the prowl―but the quick-tongued poetess has never been one to scare easily. On a walk that takes her over 10 miles around the city, she meets bartenders, bodega clerks, security guards, criminals, children, parents, and parents-to-be, while reviewing a life of excitement and adversity, passion and heartbreak, illuminating all the ways New York has changed―and has not.

"A love letter to city life in all its guts and grandeur, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney paints a portrait of a remarkable woman across the canvas of a changing America: from the Jazz Age to the onset of the AIDS epidemic; the Great Depression to the birth of hip-hop. Lillian figures she might as well take her time. For now, after all, the night is still young."

1. Your novel’s structure is both present-day, of-the-moment action interspersed with many detailed flashbacks; was this structure with you from the beginning or did it evolve as you progressed farther into the writing of Lillian Boxfish?

KR: Outlining is my jam. I can’t imagine writing a novel without an outline—to me, that would be like trying to build a house without any blueprint. So I knew from the outset that the book would be built around her New Year’s Eve 1984 walk, and I quickly made a Google Map into which I kept dropping pins for the major incidents of both Lillian’s past and present. The map that’s on the frontispiece of the finished novel is actually a (much more artistic and attractive) version of that initial map 

2. Your title character is based on a real person, Margaret Fishback, a poet and highly successful ad woman who worked for many years at R.H. Macy’s—many of the scenes in the novel are imagined, i.e. works of fiction, I’m guessing—though perhaps I’m wrong: are most of them based on events you read about in Fishback’s journals?

KR: I got to be the first non-archivist to work with the archive of Margaret Fishback, the real-life inspiration for Lillian Boxfish. And while the majority of the incidents from the book’s “past” portions (from 1926- the early 1980s) are largely based on real incidents, a lot of them are not. For example, the scene where Lillian marches into her boss’s office and demands to be paid equally to the men at Macy’s is pure fantasy on my part. Ditto the cocktail party scene where she has her verbal showdown with her co-worker Olive. And all the 1984 walk encounters are totally made-up. The walk, really, was the fictional key that let me unlock the story, and write it in a way that would be engaging as fiction (and not just inert reportage of actual events).

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Q and A with Patricia Ann McNair about her essay collection AND THESE ARE THE GOOD TIMES

Tell us a little about your new book.

And These Are the Good Times is a collection of essays and brief memoir pieces; riffs, I like to think of them as. Dancing to the jukebox in dark taverns; saying goodbye to my father on the last morning of his life; having sex in the backseat of a car at a drive-in movie; drinking scotch in a nightclub in Havana and coffee at my kitchen table in Paris; making up stories on the run; flirting with boys on summer nights on a Chicago beach; finding the perfect sentence; gathering the entirety of my recently deceased brother's things in two plastic garbage bags—these are some of the moments I consider in these pages. Perhaps the subtitle sums it up best: “A Chicago gal riffs on death, sex, life, dancing, writing, wonder, loneliness, place, family, faith, coffee, and the FBI (among other things).” 

1. In these essays, which are masterworks of voice and tone, you write about family, travels, sex, coming of age in the Midwest--when did you begin them? And did you see these essays from the start as distinct parts that would form the whole of a book?

First, can I say thank you so much for your kind words? I am so pleased that you find the voice and tone affective for these pieces. So many of them started in my journal, where I have a practice of sort of talking to myself; I guess that is where the voice evolves from. The first piece that I finished of these is actually the title essay, “And These Are the Good Times.” I started that piece in the late nineties, putting words on the page while I was listening to Michael Steinberg, one of the founders of the journal Fourth Genre. Michael is a sort of godfather of the type of creative narrative nonfiction I am fond of, and I was lucky to have him come and speak to a class of mine at Columbia College Chicago once. I don’t remember exactly what he was saying or reading, but it sparked this line in my head: “My father didn’t believe in jukeboxes.” And I had to write it down in that moment so I wouldn’t forget it (I forget much more than I commit to the page, I think.) And then the next line and the next led me to an exploration of the days from my childhood when I would meet my dad at the tavern around the corner from our house. And from that, how neighborhood bars always felt comfortable to me.

I did not know then that I would write a full collection. I wasn’t even that drawn to writing creative nonfiction; fiction has always been my favorite genre to write. I am a devotee of journal keeping, though, and sometimes—as I’ve alluded to—the things I start in my journal become these nonfiction pieces, these riffs. I would finish one or another and find a home for it, or I would get an invitation from someone to contribute an essay here or there. This collection is the work of about twenty years. But I don’t want to say it took me twenty years to write this book, because that isn’t exactly the way it happened. I’m not that slow.

But you know how it goes, Christine, as an industrious and prolific short story writer yourself. You look up from the desk one day and you realize that you have enough pieces to make a collection. And once you figure that out, you look at how you might revise them, rework them, gather and arrange them in order to make something that might read like a real book. The next step for me after I’d arranged and rearranged the ones I wanted to use was finding the holes in the narrative and in the content. What hadn’t I told yet? What wasn’t yet in these pages? And then I had to write those pieces.

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1. Tell us a little about Making Friends with Death.  

This book is simply a how-to/guide book on how to die well (or at least try!). I wanted it to be funny (because difficult conversations could always use a bit of humor). I wanted to look at all the uncertainty that precedes this certain final act. Most of all, I wanted it to be a mix of practical how-to advice and lists and wisdoms and research, all in one spot—so that basically, if you do the activities in the book, and handed it to someone, they’d have a pretty darn good idea of what you want. And I mean this practically (the technical and medical stuff); logistically (the type of ceremony, what should be done with your body), and heart-stuff (who you were as a person, what you stood for, what you’re most proud of), and everything in between.

2. What inspired you to write this book, which I'd describe as a guide to preparing for a good death? 

Two things happened at once: One, I was helping friends and family die, and what I witnessed was pretty lousy. I’m just being honest—but man, they were bitter affairs, with families torn apart and the dying person suffering in all sorts of ways. On top  of that, I was in a health care crisis of my own. I was in extreme pain all the time, the doctors couldn’t figure it out, and then at one point, it ceased to matter. It just felt like I was going to die. And I didn’t have any good examples of what a good death looked like. I didn’t know what was wrong with me—and wouldn’t for several years—but I kept thinking ut-oh, I better get ready here. Of course, I didn’t want to die. I had young children, a writing career that was just taking off, a good life.  I found myself suddenly seeking some wisdoms, and fast. But there was no help. At least, not that I could find that were really practical and applicable.

That whole mess is better now, but one thing it taught me was this: It’s absolutely contingent upon us to prepare while we are healthy and calm. That way, when the shit hits the fan, we are better prepared to work with it all—and to have a good death.


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Q and A with Don Tassone about his debut novel DRIVE 

1. Tell us a little about your novel: 

Drive is a story about Nick Reynolds, a highly successful food company executive who’s also a bully — feared by his employees and estranged from his wife and children.  After his latest blow-up at work, Nick’s boss orders him to take the summer off and sort himself out.  Angry and despondent, Nick sets off, alone, from his home in Chicago for Bar Harbor, Maine.  This is the story of what Nick experiences, learns and chooses along the way.  It is a portrait of a man who must rediscover who he is and decide whether he can go on.

2. Nick Reynolds is having what I'd have to say is a mid-life crisis: leaving his high-powered job, hitting the road, trying to come to terms with aspects of his life and personality that trouble him--what inspired you to create this character and tell this particular story? 

In my career, I saw hundreds of men like Nick Reynolds.  Seemingly successful men who struggled with society’s expectations of them and their own self-identity, who were burned out, who lost their way.  These men are everywhere.  Yet there are few contemporary novels devoted to such men and those who care about them.  So I wrote this book.  I hope it will speak to a lot of people and serve as a reminder that, no matter our challenges, there is always an opportunity for renewal.

3. You've published a collection of short stories and now are publishing a novel--what were some of the challenges of writing long-form fiction, as opposed to the short story?  

One challenge was simply devoting the time required.  This book took me a year and a half to write.  I’ve written short stories in a day.  Another challenge was the complexity — subplots, conflicts, flashbacks, location changes and many more characters.  Drive is much more layered than any of my short stories.

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Q and A with Rebecca Entel about her debut novel FINGERPRINTS OF PREVIOUS OWNERS

1. Tell us a little about your novel.

Here’s the jacket copy:  At a Caribbean resort built atop a former slave plantation, Myrna works as a maid by day; by night she trespasses on the resort’s overgrown inland property, secretly excavating the plantation ruins the locals refuse to acknowledge. Myrna's mother has stopped speaking and her friends are focused on surviving the present, but Myrna is drawn to Cruffey Island's violent past. With the arrival of Mrs. Manion, a wealthy African-American, also comes new information about the history of the slave-owner’s estate and tensions finally erupt between the resort and the local island community. Suffused with the sun-drenched beauty of the Caribbean, Fingerprints of Previous Owners is a powerful novel of hope and recovery in the wake of devastating trauma. In her soulful and timely debut, Entel explores what it means to colonize and be colonized, to trespass and be trespassed upon, to be wounded and to heal.

2. You mentioned at a recent book event that you originally wrote half the novel from the POV of a white college girl from Wisconsin and half from Myrna's, a Bahamian woman, but eventually realized that the story needed to be told mostly through Myrna’s POV.  How did you come too this decision?  

I’d known for a while that Myrna’s portion of the book was stronger overall than the other narrator’s, but I’d started with that narrator and hadn’t thought about giving her up. I’d just been revising with an eye to strengthen that half of the book. The idea to let Myrna tell the whole story originally came from a conversation with my editor, and was supported by some other readers. It seemed impossible at first to make such a drastic revision – especially after so many years of writing – but within a few hours of tackling the opening of the book from Myrna’s point of view, I knew it was the right decision. And it’s been educational for me to recognize that even more than five years into a project, there might still be a totally new way to view it.

3. Related to the above - how did you settle on the structure of Fingerprints? You have short “bench story” sections in the voices many of the islanders your main character Myrna knows, along with chapters told in Myrna’s voice.  

I’m a slow writer, and the structure took a while as well. When I first worked on the bench stories, they were grouped together in one chapter toward the end of the book. That didn’t quite work, though, since the chapter became really dense and threw too much at the reader late in the game, I think. Some of the material from those stories ended up integrated into the main narrative, and then I worked on choosing a few stories that could be scattered throughout the book. I changed my mind about which stories should go where too many times to count. I have some strange notes from when I was trying out different orders that almost look like sudoku boards.


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