Today I speak with a young Chicago literary legend-in-the making. He is the author of the books Hairstyles of the Damned, Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, How the Hula Girl Sings, and Tender as Hellfire. He was the winner of the 2003 Nelson Algren Award for short fiction and is a professor of creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. He has a new book out, called The Boy Detective Fails, published by Akashic Books, who calls him “the hottest indie author in America.” He also asked me to mention for my Chicago readers that October 19, he will be doing a reading at the Book Cellar, so mark your calendars.
You’ve had good experiences with a smaller press. How do you advise writers discern whether a small press will do right by them?
I think whether you work with a small or corporate press, the important thing is to have realistic expectations, in terms of sales, promotion, and the work you have to do as an author promoting your novel. Most novels, put out by small or corporate presses, don’t really sell that well, usually a thousand copies or so. Working with a small press, you have to be willing to book reading tours, plan events, make contacts with other small press authors, and find new ways of getting word about your new work out there. For me, it comes down to wanting to be in control of the process. As an author on a corporate press, you have a lot less control over the finished product. I figure if I spend a couple years writing something, I want to be able to decide what the cover looks like and how it’s going to be presented.
What would be your primary words of advice for a rookie creative writing teacher?
The best thing a new writer teacher can do is to get his students to write, to read a wide variety of authors, and to get students to understand how important re-writing is. As a teacher, my goal is to get students to feel excited about what they’re working on and to emphasize what in their writing is strong. Focusing on the weak parts is usually a lot less helpful. It shuts students down. In order to develop as a writer, the student has to write, a lot, they have to practice their writing by writing. The best way to get a student to do that is by helping them identify what is working.
What are your strategies for multitasking projects and work without burning out or getting too stressed out?
I think the best thing you can do as a writer is to try and be adaptable. I think if you limit yourself to only one form or only one kind of story, you stop taking risks, and you stop developing. In order to get better, you have to be willing to fail, and badly. If you understand everything you write as a kind of experiment, whether it’s a short story or novel or play, a chance to try something new, to learn about the actual technique of writing, you’re less worried about “getting it right” and less likely to get burned out.
How do you know which of your stories have merit as full-length works versus short stories or plays?
I think the only way to figure out what material has novel length potential is to try it out. I’m not the kind of writer who ponders a whole lot about things. I believe the answers are always found in the writing. Even when I think I have things figured out, as soon as I start actually writing, those answers begin to change. I’ve started a lot of novels, written entire books, that hopefully will never be published. For me the only way to know if the material you’re writing is any good is to write it.
Have you ever felt that living in Chicago was a liability as a writer?
Yes and no. The world of corporate publishing is centered in NYC, and there’s definitely a lot of amazing things in literature that come out of New York, but I’d be terrified of being just another writer in New York writing about living in New York. Chicago has an amazing literary history, from Nelson Algren to Saul Bellows to Stu Dybek. What makes my work my own is where I’m writing from. And I feel like I have a million stories to write about Chicago.