• Little Known Facts: A Novel
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  • Paris, He Said: A Novel
    Paris, He Said: A Novel
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  • The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories
    The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories
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BLOG-O-RAMA (not to be confused with Illinois's disgraced governor)


Q & A with Mark Caro about his and Steve Dawson's songwriting book, TAKE IT TO THE BRIDGE 

1. Tell us a little about Take It to the Bridge: Unlocking the Great Songs Inside You.

It’s a songwriting book for people who love music and being creative and aren’t necessarily looking to monetize (I hate that word) this passion. So much public discussion of songwriting revolves around hit-making, but my experience — and that of Steve Dawson, my co-author — is that many people enjoy making up songs for the sheer joy of making up songs. They’re not aiming first and foremost to be rock stars, but they might perform these songs at an open mic or for friends in a living room or on a recording, or they’ll simply feel good about having added music to the world.

That’s how I feel at any rate. Our hope is this book will encourage creative expression —everyone, after all, needs to express her or himself creatively, especially in times of stress — and jump-start people’s songwriting while offering inspiration that extends beyond music.

2. How did you and musician Steve Dawson (frontman of the folk/rock band Dolly Varden) end up collaborating on this book?

I’ve loved Steve’s songwriting and performing ever since I first saw his and his wife Diane Christiansen’s band Stump the Host around 1990 when I had a local music column, Home Front/Local Heroes, for the Chicago Tribune. They disbanded Stump, formed their current, wonderful band, Dolly Varden, more than 20 years ago, and I’ve continued to enjoy them as musicians and friends over the years.

Eventually I took Steve’s songwriting class at the Old Town School of Folk Music a few times, and it was fantastic. I’ve written songs on the side for years, but many went unfinished. Steve would offer a creative, fun assignment each week — write, say, a Monkees song or something that involves a certain approach to chords, words, rhythm or melodies — and we’d return the following week with a new song. Boom. You’d write a song a week for eight weeks, and I really liked how they turned out, and I also enjoyed the wide range and surprising quality of my classmates’ work.

One day Steve said to me, “People keep telling me I should make a book of my songwriting assignments. You’ve taken my class, and you’ve written a book. Would you like to work on it together?” Collaborating with such a generous, talented guy on such a labor-of-love subject was a no-brainer. So we got to work.

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Q & A with Shawn Shiflett about his new novel HEY LIBERAL! 

1. Tell us a little about your new novel:

Thirteen-year-old Simon Fleming, the white son of a Civil Rights activist minister, is sent to a predominately African American high school in 1968 feeling charged by his parents to carry out the family’s commitment to the “community” and school integration.  Here, he is dropped into a world where gang warfare, drug abuse, and violence are rampant. Simon’s journey for survival brings him into conflict with a Cobra Stone gangbanger, takes him through a failed student boycott organized by community leaders, and also through numerous race riots. 

Along the way, he meets friends and mentors: Clyde, a former gangbanger turned black political militant; Louis, a brilliant, self-destructive boy; Juan, who perilously chooses to belong to a white gang, Corps, instead of the more powerful Latin Kings; Clark, an intimidating racist police officer who vies for Simon’s allegiance in return for protection at school; and John, a communist biology teacher who educates Simon as much about politics as about science. Throughout the story, Simon’s love for Dia goes from an awkward crush to maturity.  Hey, Liberal! exposes an out-of-touch education system and the universality of racial violence amidst a nation moving, inch by hard-fought inch, toward a more culturally diverse and inclusive future.

2. Hey Liberal! is a book that you worked for many years - how did you begin?

I was an eighteen or nineteen years-old creative writing student at Columbia College Chicago.  I was behind in my assignments for the semester and desperate to find new material to write about, so I thought why not write about my experiences during high school?  I think I turned in twenty or thirty pages of typed writing, all very rough draft.  Within those pages was what would eventually become the chapter “Drivers’ Education” and a few other story moments that survived to the final manuscript years later.  Anyway, after “Drivers’ Education was read out loud to the class, the teacher, John Schultz, asked everyone, “So who wrote that?” First, students guessed all of the black men present. Then they guessed all of the black women, and finally (I still don’t fully understand why) they guessed all of the white women.

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Q & A with Alex Higley about his new story collection CARDINAL

In Cardinal and Other Stories, Alex Higley’s debut, a man returning a tuxedo suddenly follows a parking lot attendant home; a volunteer recovery worker finds himself re-enacting a deadly fire; a husband parses the meaning of his wife's online banking password; a hack musician travels to a German math institute. Post-Facebook, post-subprime crisis, the fearlessly deadpan characters in Higley’s stories navigate the bleak and surreal suburbs from Phoenix to Chicago with minimal instincts for self-preservation­—and with quietly explosive results. 

Stylish, perfectly controlled, and pleasurably shocking, Higley’s brilliantly subversive portraits of a lost generation reconfigure and reinvent the increasingly complex relationships between art, life, and the people we love. 

1. There's a sort of half-menacing, half-comic David Lynchian quality to stories such as "Tom's Wrong," "Surfers," and "Cardinal”—would you say that even when you're writing about characters on the verge of a serious emotional reckoning, you're most interested in the strange, the ironic, the humorous?

I would say that’s probably true. That’s how I experience the world in my day-to-day life. Always wanting to turn to a friend, co-worker, my wife, and say “Did you see that?” or “Did you hear that?” Strange, oddly funny moments or bits of phrasing are often what I enjoy most in the books and movies I return to. You mentioned Lynch. It’s certainly there in his work, even in the quiet moments. Like in The Straight Story when Alvin Straight says, “What’s a Miller’s Lite taste like?” Hard to explain why a slightly misspoken corporate brand name can be beautiful other than specificity shows attention and dignifies the characters in their particularity. Great concern for the specific in fiction, or any art, matters to me and I think has much larger ramifications in our daily lives than is immediately obvious.

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Q and A with Hal Ackerman about his new story collection The Boy Who Had a Peach Tree Growing Out of His Head

Tell us a little about your new book.

The stories follow characters approaching the end of a relationship or enduring its immediate aftermath: relationships between lovers, between parent and child, among a family of rabbits.

You've written novels, a popular guide to screenwriting, and this new story collection too.  Do prefer one form over the other?   

I love writing fiction.  Theater, too.  The immediacy is a exciting.   I recently wrote and performed a one-person play called Testosterone: How Prostate Cancer Made a Man of Me.  I describe it as Tootsie, but with prostate cancer instead of a dress. 

You taught for years in the prestigious film school at UCLA - how has a lifelong fascination with film informed your fiction-writing?    

Screenwriting imbued me with an inherent sense of structure.  When I finished my first 'soft-boiled' murder mystery, Stein, Stoned, I was surprised to discover it had a perfectly proportioned three-act structure.

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Q and A with Jaimee Wriston Colbert about her new story collection WILD THINGS

Wild Things began in that post 9/11 decade where everything felt (and still feels!) like it was falling apart: wars, terrorism, the unconscionable disparity between the rich and the poor (and of course rural America has a large share of these poor, particularly post-manufacturing areas that have lost so many jobs), drug addiction and the scourge of crystal meth, climate destruction and the absolutely terrifying rate of species extinction in our world. Wild Things is a linked collection that explores these losses, personal, environmental, and economical. Set in twenty-first century, rural America, there are various thematic threads that unify the stories: drug addiction, job loss, the economic free-fall of the middle and working classes, along with accelerating environmental damage. The stories take place in (or are linked to) upstate New York, in a fictional, dying, post-manufacturing town on the Susquehanna River, where nature, both benign and devastating, becomes an emotional refuge for my characters. The abduction of a young girl that happens early into the story cycle is at the heart of the overarching “plot,” providing unifying moments in a community of otherwise disparate lives: lonely, yet not without grit, humor, and moments of grace.

2. The range of characters and situations in Wild Things, despite some of the stories being linked, is very impressive. Where did you begin, with setting, a character, a situation - all of the above? 

I think it was with "Ghosts,” and the characters of Jones and Loulie. I had written a couple of the other stories before that one, but “Ghosts” focused on the abduction of Loulie by Jones, where he believes he is, in fact, rescuing her instead of abducting her. That started to make me realize I was in the bigger territory of where (and how) stories are connected, rather than in a collection where the stories are more independent of each other. In fact, for a little while, I wondered if I needed to write it as a novel. But the growing relationships between the characters and where they lived made me start to see it as a "story community." That was how I was originally thinking about "Ghosts," because once it ended, with the girl still tied up in that trailer, I knew I had to revisit it. You don't leave someone tied up and feel done! Then, as a story community, I began thinking about others who would live there; how their lives would manifest, being affected by the economical and environmental challenges of this community, along with their own struggles, losses, and triumphs. Thus the range of stories with different characters, all united by the place itself.

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