On Writers Reading Chicago-style ~ A Conversation with Julia Borcherts

Julia Borcherts is a writer’s best friend. In fact, she is many writers’ best friend. Particularly Chicago writers. For many years now, she has been instrumental in gathering writers together to form communities around the experience of live readings and other literary events. She’s a writer herself, and a teacher, and–dare I say?–one of Chicago’s literati. And even though she is busy coordinating and hosting two reading series, Reading Under the Influence and The Chicago Way; teaching part-time in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department; mentoring young interns and racking up the freelance gigs, Julia took the time to answer a whole bunch of questions for my Conversations series. AND she sent along a picture of her favorite workspace on a Chicago rooftop, so I am going to add this to my View From the Keyboard series as well.

PMc: Julia, you have been part of the Chicago literary scene for some time now. You’re a coordinator and founder of  local readings and literary events, write about writers and writing for various publications, teach writing at Columbia College Chicago. Can you tell us a little about some of the literary events you are part of these days? How were they started? Why do you consider them important to the literary landscape of this city?

JB: In the last few years, the lit scene in Chicago has just exploded, but when we—Amanda Snyder, Rob Duffer, Joe Tower, Carly Huegelmann and I—started Reading Under the Influence (http://www.readingundertheinfluence.com) in 2005, there weren’t really any prose reading series going on around town. Writing can seem like such a solitary pursuit and after awhile, you can start feeling like the crazy lady in the attic or the geek in mom’s basement. We wanted to establish a place where we could read our work and invite others to get out of the house and share, too.

We were influenced by the “collaborative-not-competitive” attitude prevalent in the Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department, where we were all grad students at the time. The idea of community has always been really important to me and that’s always been my aim for RUI—to have a place where writers and book lovers could gather together and get to know each other without the formality and constraints of a library or bookstore reading.

Rob and I are still co-hosting RUI, but we’re now joined by local writers Jesse Jordan (author of the forthcoming “Ghost Hollow”) and Pilcrow Lit Fest founder Amy Guth, as well as our three new fiction writing interns, Erin Nederbo, Kyle Chaney and Ray Lumpp. We usually feature four authors per month and the authors read original work and host themed literary trivia rounds where we give away books and other prizes. And since it’s called Reading Under the Influence, the authors toast the crowd with a shot before they read.

The Chicago Way (http://www.chicagowayseries.com) is different, but also community based. Crime author Michael Harvey (“The Chicago Way”) is a co-owner of the Hidden Shamrock bar and he asked his public relations manager, Dana Kaye, to recommend someone to host a salon-type literary series there. Dana and I are in a writing group together, so she hooked us up. The other co-founders are Columbia College fiction writing MFA alums Mary Beth Hoerner and Scott Miles as well as local author and web designer extraordinaire Quinn Stephens and Columbia fiction writing students Emily Witte and Michael Mullen. We feature different Chicago authors in a “reading and conversation format.” To break the ice, we have a different literary-themed game each month where audience members can win new books by the featured authors and other prizes.

PMc:  Many of the events you work with are held in local pubs and bars. Why these venues?

JB: For better or worse, neighborhood-tavern-type bars engender a sense of community. And while we also attend lots of readings at bookstores and libraries, we realized that there’s an inherent sense of intimacy in a bar that’s harder to achieve in other venues.

When we were starting RUI, the late great Ric Hess—who was a Fiction Writing student at Columbia at the time—offered up the back-back room in his bar, Sheffield’s. At Sheffield’s, we’re able to do a lot of things to break down the barriers between the featured readers and the audience that we couldn’t do in more formal settings. The audience is right at the author’s elbows. We have interactive trivia for prizes where audience members shout back their answers at the authors. We invite audience members to announce their own readings or upcoming book release parties or new lit journals where people can submit and we encourage everyone to pass out cards and flyers. I’ve noticed that all of these things contribute to a community vibe—audience members are no longer shy about approaching authors and people are making friends with other writers or book lovers that they’d never met before that night. And no, it’s not all hook-ups—most of the time, everyone’s talking about stories. Although I did once run into two very attractive young women from the audience who’d just met each other and were making out in the Ladies’ Room. Their romance ended when one of them ran into a stall to throw up.

At The Chicago Way, the Shamrock’s back room has this low stage/platform with couches where we can host conversations with the authors each month after they do short readings so that audience members can get to know them a bit. The authors always make their way around the room, too, to say hello to people and talk books over a beer, and I think that goes a long way towards building a community, too.

PMc: Do you want to talk about the connections you see between books and beverages?

JB: Well, there are the obvious connections to the legendary hard-drinking writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Bukowski, Tennessee Williams, Hunter S. Thompson and Dorothy Parker, whose habit of meeting up for cocktails at the Algonquin Round Table with her contemporaries sounds to me like a great way to start a day.

But in our experience, booze and books make a great combination for a really lively party. But in truth, we’ve had plenty of featured authors and audience members who don’t drink. If I’m on the bill to read at RUI and I’m driving, I’ll toast the audience with a shot of Diet Coke. When Carly Huegelmann was pregnant, we set her up with shots of milk.

PMc: Do you have a funny (or maybe not so funny) story about something that happened at one of your bar-based readings?

JB: We always have loose monthly themes at RUI, and once–when we ended up with six men on the bill–we chose the theme of “All Male Revue.” Best-selling author Marcus Sakey (who incidentally is hosting a crime series on the Travel Channel this winter) got up first, shoved a giant cucumber down his pants in honor of the theme and proceeded to read his work.

On the other side of the coin, when we were first starting out, a writer from one of the daily newspapers who hadn’t attended RUI wrote up a nice but inaccurate story about us and one of the fine-happy watchdogs from the City of Chicago read the article. They slapped a fine on Sheffield’s, claiming that RUI was promoting alcoholism and demanded that RUI be banned.

At that point, Ric Hess showed us what a true hero to the literary community he really was. He fought the charges and refused to stop hosting RUI. We (the co-founders) wrote letters explaining that we were actually promoting literature rather than drunkenness by hosting book release parties, giving away books, partnering with  lit organizations and libraries, providing a platform for established authors and introducing emerging authors to the community. 

It cost Hess $500 in lawyers’ fees but the City eventually said that they would not (ever) prosecute the bar for hosting RUI. We tried several times to give Ric $250 but he wouldn’t accept it. And when Ric passed away last January and I kept thinking about all the great things he’d done in his life, that moment kept coming back to me. We were unknowns; he was our champion.

PMc: What a remarkable man he was. One of the things that is particularly honorable about the work you do is that you use a lot of writing students as interns and helpers for the literary events. How do you choose these emerging writers and what impact does their involvement have on their creative lives?

JB: When I was new at writing, there were so many people in the community who reached out a hand to help (and still do). Hosting these lit series is one way to give back to the community, and I think that mentoring the next generation is a good way to give them a platform to succeed and also to involve them in a really fun way to give back.

For both series, we posted opportunities through the Fiction Writing internship program at Columbia College and looked for students who were not only strong writers but also had the potential to become top-notch contributors to the local literary scene. We’ve showed them the ropes and they help us with all the tasks, including press releases, social media, curating and co-hosting. At both series, we’ve already had one night where the entire evening was produced solely by the interns and we plan to do more of them.

In particular, I’ve noticed that all of them have become more confident—reading your work in public and hosting a forum to bridge authors and audience tends to do that—but I thought I’d ask them about the impact this experience has had on their creative lives.

Ray Lumpp, who’s also taken on the documentation of RUI with some really amazing photos, said, “At first I was just happy to have a reason to pick up my camera again. But the feeling of being a part of an artistic community has given me confidence as a writer. Hearing many different storytelling voices and their effect on a captive audience has influenced my awareness when voicing the words on the page, when talking to strangers. In photographing the audience’s reaction, I’ve felt when humor and authority are pulling people, tried to capture that feeling in their faces. Through RUI I’ve also been given two opportunities to read my own work, which is a startling experience, but externalized that I was a writer. Sometimes I forget the power of spoken words over silence; RUI reminds me that tone, melody, beat and rests are not just musical ideas, that writing is artful communication. I almost made a joke about a picture being worth a thousand words.”

Erin Nederbo said, “I guess RUI has impacted my creative life because, through its wide range of guests and the readings that they do, it’s shown me more of the range of what modern writing can be. I’ve been trying to read a lot of literary magazines lately but RUI gives an immediacy in getting to see what kind of work is being published and by what presses or magazines.  

“As I’m starting to prepare for graduation, I’ve realized that the comfort of a writing workshop (that requires you to produce 60 pages of work) is going to be gone soon. At RUI, it’s helpful to see working writers be successful. To see how the guests that read and the people who attend RUI are able to balance life and writing, that [has] really been helpful.”

The first intern I “hired,” Emily Witte, who helped co-found The Chicago Way, wrote this amazing essay about how she hadn’t felt the need to develop a community outside her workshops to become a writer, but once she decided to dip in her toe, all these amazing things happened. I’ve excerpted a little bit here:

“Since the first event back in March, our readings have been structured with blocks of Q&As, open mics, and audience participation; and while the ‘reading’ portion still exists, it doesn’t take up the majority of stage time. The audience of theChicago Waydoesn’t really have time to be bored with one thing, because we’re quick to move onto the next thing. As it tends to turn out, the Q&As quickly bring listeners in, so few seem to mind if these run long.

“As summer began with the home stretch of my four years ofColumbia, I started attending readings. I of course went to RUI, but also Neutron Bomb, Two Cookie Minimum, the experimental and upcoming Brinksman Press, and later Paper Machete, a salon outside of the Columbia-influenced circle that, while less on the fiction side, still featured culturally-relevant nonfiction. Not only did it feel like an expectation of my internship, I realized that I hadn’t really witnessed my writing peers outside of the classroom.Readingsfostered a different environment—everyone was crammed and jostled together in a crooked bar to listen to a handful of unknowns and semi-knowns read their carefully crafted prose. These were the elements of necessary camaraderie and healthy competition in action.

“Like any literary event compared to another, the Chicago Way held a different vibe. It wasn’t taking place in a dive bar with PBR specials and malfunctioning bathroom sinks, but it was still authentic. It was still about writing. During each event I sat at a table like a regular ole’ audience member and jotted down tidbits from the featured guest that I wanted to remember…The lists I came home with could have easily been mistaken for classroom notes on process and craft and story structure. 

“I applied for this internship because I thought an internship was a thing you did during college. I’m pleased that I didn’t get stuck with the cliché tasks of taking coffee and completing grunt work for free. What this internship gave me was a step in the right direction. It was an introduction of one very particular aspect of the writing world. I can hardly call it an industry, because nobody’s involved in these readings to pay a mortgage. The audience is here because they want to be, and that’s a heavy expectation to live up to. It’s the same expectation I have when I spend money on a book. It’s the same expectation I have when I read or hear the first line of a story. I’m reading and I’m listening because I want to hear a good story, and I’m writing because I want to tell them.”

PMc: It looks like the work these young writers are doing is important to them, something they will value for sometime.

Writers often have to negotiate with family, career, hobbies, etc, in order to find the time and space to write. You are a writer yourself, Julia, but you also have many other hats you wear: teacher, lit events coordinator, newspaper contributor, mentor. How and when do you find time for your own creative work?

JB: You know, I’m like everybody else. Once I’ve gotten done with all the things I “have” to write or read over or edit for others, the last thing I feel like doing is sitting down and dredging up all that creative energy again, especially when there’s no guarantee that there will ever be any gratification or reward for the effort. So I have to discipline myself to make time to do that. Through my experience with journalism deadlines–and my fiction writing training–I’ve learned that if I just force myself to write even when I don’t feel like it, I’ll eventually hit a groove.

One thing that’s worked well for me is to journal when I have a few minutes and think about current or historical events or memories or observations or reactions to art that are taking my attention and start asking myself questions about them—what would it be like to be a married dad who’s questioning his gender preference; or, what kind of woman would have tattoos of both the grim reaper and Eve sitting under a cobra eating an apple that looks like a heart; or, what could be happening in that moment when a woman realizes that she’s a failure as a mother? When I try to answer those questions on paper, it sometimes leads me to a scene, which almost always leads to a story.

PMc: What sorts of exciting things can Chicago literary followers expect to see from you and your various projects in the future?

JB: My favorite thing about Chicago is that we have a literary scene unlike any other city and that everyone—whether they’re a best-selling, celebrity author or an emerging writer or just someone who loves stories and books—is welcomed into that community. I’m lucky enough to have been invited to read my own work on November 13 at Two with Water RX, a bi-monthly series with an open mic component at Beauty Bar and also with 2nd Story sometime in their 2011-2012 season. I also enjoy collaborating with Bill Hillmann every spring on the Golden Gloves edition of the Windy City Story Slam, where we work with these legendary boxers and trainers to tell their stories.

At RUI on November 2, out guests are Literary Death Match champion Jill Summers, This Much Is True host Scott Whitehair, Two Cookie Minimum host John Wawrszazek and jazz musician Cortez Bryson. We’ll also be hosting a special RUI at the SHoP (Southside Hub of Production), the newHyde Parkcultural center that’s been converted from an old mansion.

And at The Chicago Way, we’ve got thriller writer Jamie Freveletti (“Running from the Devil”) and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Bryan Gruley (“StarvationLake”) on tap for October 23rd. On November 20, we’re hosting fantasy writers Tina Jens, C.S.E. Cooney, Patty Templeton and Jeanine Vaughn. And on December 18, we’re hosting Frank Calabrese, Jr., because nothing says X-Mas like “Operation Family Secrets.”

PMc: Sounds great, Julia. Good luck with it all. And thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

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