• Little Known Facts: A Novel
    Little Known Facts: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories (Awp)
    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories (Awp)
    by Christine Sneed

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

Monday
Oct132014

Q & A with Jim Elledge, Author of Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist

A summary from the jacket copy: “Utterly unknown during his lifetime, Henry Darger led a quiet, secluded existence as a janitor on Chicago's North Side. When he died, his landlord discovered a treasure trove of more than three hundred canvases and more than 30,000 manuscript pages depicting a rich, shocking fantasy world—many featuring hermaphroditic children being eviscerated, crucified, and strangled.

“While some art historians tend to dismiss Darger as possibly psychotic, Jim Elledge cuts through the cloud of controversy and rediscovers Darger as a damaged and fearful gay man, raised in a world unaware of the consequences of child abuse or gay shame. This thoughtful, sympathetic biography tells the true story of a tragically misunderstood artist. Drawn from fascinating histories of the vice-ridden districts of 1900s Chicago, tens of thousands of pages of primary source material, and Elledge's own work in queer history, Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy also features a full-color reproduction of a never-before-seen canvas from a private gallery in New York, as well as a previously undiscovered photograph of Darger with his lifelong companion William Schloeder, or "Whillie" as Henry affectionately referred to him.”

What initially interested you in Darger's story? 

I went to an exhibit of Darger’s paintings in April 2002 and was captivated by an image that appears over and over in his work: the “little girl with a penis,” as it’s been called. Sometimes Darger placed the figure in an Edenic setting, but often the figure is being tortured—strangled, eviscerated, crucified—by male adults in a forest or a battlefield. The figure of the tortured child had caused writers before me to believe that Darger was a sadist, serial killer, and/or pedophile. I don’t know why they came to that conclusion, but I didn’t buy it for a second, and I set out to discover what the figure actually meant.

How did you go about gathering information and organizing the narrative in a coherent manner? (It's so narratively adept and reads like a novel).  

My research took ten years, mostly in the Darger Archive at the Museum for American Folk Art in Manhattan, the University of Chicago’s special collections, and the archives of the Chicago History Museum. The last couple of years of that decade I spent writing the book, but I was doing research right up to the moment I sent the manuscript to my editor. I became pretty much a Google expert during that period, too. Luckily, I’m very organized, and so, with the help of my trusty laptop, keeping track of medical articles from the 1800s and census records from the 1920s, for example, was relatively easy. For the narrative, I just followed the chronology of Darger’s life, a very typical structure for a biography, except for the opening chapter. I wanted to open the book with the most important event in Darger’s life, and that, I believe, was the day his father and a local doctor filled out an application that allowed them to send Darger, a twelve-year-old, to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. In those days—this would have been in 1904—children could be confined in an institution for being truant, for talking back to parents, and in Darger’s case, for masturbating. Darger wasn’t even there when his father signed the application and changed his son’s life irrevocably.

 

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Friday
Sep122014

Q & A with Louise Aronson, author of the story collection A History of the Present Illness

1. Tell us a little about your book.

With A History of the Present Illness I wanted to take readers into the real lives of real and often overlooked people - all of whom might be described as either patients as doctors, among many otherm mostly more important characteristics - in the hugely varied neighborhoods, hospitals, and nursing homes of San Francisco. Among the stories are: the elderly Chinese immigrant who must sacrifice his demented wife's well–being to his Americanized son's authority, the busy Latina physician whose eldest daughter's need for more attention has disastrous consequences, the psychiatrist who advocates for the underserved but may herself be crazy, the gay doctor who learns very different lessons about family from his life and his work, and the young veteran whose injuries become a metaphor for the rest of his life. I wanted to show the humanity of many different sorts of people, to be honest about life and medicine, to make people laugh and cry. I also wanted to explore the role of stories in medicine and offer a portrait of health and illness in American today that was different from what was already out there, and completely honest.

2. You write with extraordinary sympathy about so many different people  - the elderly and the very young, immigrant families from all over the world, young medical students, experienced physicians.  I'm guessing that as a practicing MD, you have treated people who might or might not resemble your characters.  How do you immerse yourself in these different perspectives and voices? 

I write about all the different sorts of people I have met as a medical student, resident and practicing doctor, though my characters are never representations of those people. The characters often start because of a real person or event but then they take on a life of their own informed by all the other people I’ve met and by what’s going on in the story. It is a total privilege to have had such intimate access to so many different people’s lives; it’s one of the most incredible and wonderful things about being a doctor, at least for me. I wanted to capture that and use it to tell true stories through fiction.

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Tuesday
Sep022014

Q & A with Karin Lin-Greenberg, author of the new story collection Faulty Predictions 

In Karin-Lin Greenberg’s excellent first book, the Flannery O’Connor Prize-winning short story collection Faulty Predictions, young characters try to find their way in the world and older characters confront regrets.  In “Editorial Decisions,” members of the editorial board of a high school literary magazine are witnesses to an unspeakable act of violence. Two grandmothers, both immigrants from China, argue over the value of their treasures at a filming of Antiques Roadshow in “Prized Possessions.” In “A Good Brother,” a sister forces her brother to accompany her to the Running of the Brides at Filene’s Basement. A city bus driver adopts a pig that has been brought onto the bus by rowdy college students in “Designated Driver.” 

The stories in Faulty Predictions take place in locales as diverse as small-town Ohio, the mountains of western North Carolina, and the plains of Kansas. The collection provides insight into the human condition over a varied cross section of geography, age, and culture. Although the characters are often faced with obstacles and challenges, the stories also capture moments of optimism and hope.

I was so impressed by the many different characters and situations in these stories - you're clearly not writing the same story twice.  There's the son of a talk show host, a recovering alcoholic who drives a bus, a man who opens a trendy restaurant in a small, Midwestern town.  Which story was the most fun for you to write? 

KLG: Thanks, Christine. I love writing short stories because they allow me to jump into the lives and minds of so many characters who are different from each other. The most fun story to write was probably “Half and Half Club” because of the shifting point of view and how I had to figure out how to balance telling the overall story of this group of kids with individual stories of each character’s struggles. I had fun choosing what scenes to depict from each character’s life.

 

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Sunday
Aug242014

Q & A with Ru Freeman about her second novel On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and To Kill A Mockingbird, On Sal Mal Lane is a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil was. 

On the day the Herath family moves in, Sal Mal Lane is still a quiet street, disturbed only by the cries of the children whose triumphs and tragedies sustain the families that live there. As the neighbors adapt to the newcomers in different ways, the children fill their days with cricket matches, romantic crushes, and small rivalries. But the tremors of civil war are mounting, and the conflict threatens to engulf them all. In a heart-rending novel poised between the past and the future, the innocence of the children—a beloved sister and her over-protective siblings, a rejected son and his twin sisters, two very different brothers—contrasts sharply with the petty prejudices of the adults charged with their care. In Ru Freeman’s masterful hands, On Sal Mal Lane, a story of what was lost to a country and her people, becomes a resounding cry for reconciliation.

1. You’ve structured On Sal Mal Lane into five sections, each a consecutive year, beginning with 1979, which works so well to show the changes in Sri Lanka and the families on Sal Mal Lane that you write about during a period of civil war.  Was this a structure you conceived of before you began writing or did you try others first?

RF: No. The story was first written start to finish with numbered chapters. Then it became divided by character, with each chapter focusing on one or the other of the Herath children, and the story moving forward within each of those sections. Eventually I divided it into the five years and titled each chapter. It was an organizational structure that presented itself after the book was written. During each successive set of edits I would add a new chapter, or divide one chapter into two or more chapters, but the years framed the whole. 

2. Your first novel, A Disobedient Girl, is also set in Sri Lanka, and in it you also write beautifully and candidly about powerful themes: class, poverty, war, family, and friendship.  Was one novel more challenging to write than the other?  

RF: Not really. If anything was a little more intentional, it was writing the story of Biso (the older woman in the first novel). Her story was so full of need - for a better, safer, life - and yet so hopeless due to circumstance and, to a certain extent, the content of her own character, that it was sometimes hard to return to her story when I’d finished writing a chapter that dealt with the young girl, Latha. And yet, in order to give them equal space and equal attention - in order not to get carried away with one over the other - I had to force myself to get back to her story. 

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Sunday
Aug172014

Q & A with Rebecca Makkai, author of the new novel The Hundred-Year House

1. Tell us a little about your new novel.

It’s the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told backwards over the 20th century. We start in 1999 with Doug and Zee move into the grand estate’s coach house. (Zee’s mother owns the whole place.) Doug is fascinated by the house’s previous life as an artists’ colony, and hopes to find something archival there about the poet Edwin Parfitt, who was in residence at Laurelfield in the twenties (and whose work happens to be Doug’s area of scholarship). When he learns that there are file cabinets full of colony materials in the attic, Doug is anxious to get to work and save his career—but his mother-in-law refuses him access. With help from friends, Doug finally does access the Parfitt file—only to find far stranger and more disturbing material than he bargained for.

Doug may never learn all the house’s secrets, but the reader does, as the narrative zips back in time from 1999 to 1955 and 1929. We see the autumn right after the colony’s demise, when its newlywed owners are more at the mercy of the place’s lingering staff than they could imagine; and we see it as a bustling artists’ community fighting for survival in the last, heady days of the 1920s.

Through it all, the residents of Laurelfield are both plagued and blessed by the strange legacy of Laurelfield’s original owners: extraordinary luck, whether good or bad.

2. The Hundred-Year House is so different from your first novel, The Borrower (though in both you balance both the serious and the comic with such aplomb) - what was the inspiration for The Hundred-Year House?  Were there any novels (mysteries, for example) you were thinking of when you began drafting it? 

I did think a lot about books like The Haunting of Hill House and The Turn of the Screw and Rebecca – ones that are more about rattled people than rattling chains. I love that space between skepticism and fear that allows so much to happen. It’s the same space where there’s room for us as readers.

These books weren’t the original inspiration for the novel, though, so much as touchstones. In the beginning there was no mystery at all, and no legend of a ghost. I just had this idea of two couples crammed together in the little coach house of a huge estate. And I wanted it to be a short story. (Oops.) As it grew into a novel, these other themes emerged and became the keys to the book: the artists’ colony, the ghost, the reverse chronology, the question of fate.

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