It’s Tuesday night, AWP starts tomorrow, and the literary happenings are starting to happen in Chicagoland. We just got back from a fabulous release party for the brand new book by Stacy Bierlein, A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends. There were beers and wine and goodies and books and t-shirts and people. Lots of folks gathered around a few rooms of a really gorgeous house in Evanston owned by Amy Davis (The Writers Workspace) and Lee Nagen (Fisheye) and we celebrated the new book, its author, and publisher (also mine) Elephant Rock Books. Stacy read the title story; we laughed and we sighed, and it was really a very, very good time.
And here’s the thing. Stacy Bierlein was a student at Columbia College Chicago in the Fiction Writing Department some years ago. We had a class together when we were both younger women. Amy Davis took classes there, too. In fact, Amy was involved in a really fine literary journal called Fish Stories, the first lit journal I was ever published in back in the day. Lee printed the journal. Jotham Burrello, the founding father of Elephant Rock Books, came to Columbia College as a graduate student in Fiction Writing after having worked for The Atlantic Monthly. Dan Prazer, editor for Elephant Rock Books was a graduate student in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College, too.
You might think that what I am getting at here is something akin to nepotism. But that is not my point. Not at all. My point is this: the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago grows great writers, publishers, editors, and literary folk. It was so very many years ago that I was in class with Stacy, years and years since Jotham and I became colleagues. Amy published me in the 1990s. But it isn’t like we’ve been all hanging out together smoking dope in a basement and putting out little newsprint paper zines full of a bunch of half-baked stories by our buddies. We’ve grown up. We teach and we write and we cultivate writing communities in Chicago, in California, in Connecticut. We make good and real product. Books that are reviewed well, work that we are all very proud of.
You may recently have become aware of some confusion around the future of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago; you may have heard that the long-time chair of the department, Randy Albers (a mentor to so many) recently was informed that his chair contract will not be renewed. There is no scandal here, by the way; Randy has been praised highly by the administration and by his colleagues and his students.
But I don’t really want to get into any of this right now. What I am really trying to say is that I sat in this living room with a bunch of folks I have known for a long time, and some I’ve only come to know recently (Bill Shunn of Tuesday Funk Reading Series, Mare Swallow of Chicago Publishes podcasts), and some I don’t know at all, and we all leaned in to listen to Stacy read, to hear her story, to witness this first book launch of a fine debut. And it dawned on me that we were all there because of the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. We might have become teachers and writers and publishers even if we hadn’t gone to Columbia, but we did, and we are. And as Amy added to Stacy’s thanks to us all for coming, she mentioned this Fiction Writing connection, and really, I hadn’t thought of it before then. But then I thought how much I wished that Randy might have been there to celebrate with us (he had his own presentation going on at Columbia tonight) and how good it would have been if our college dean knew about all of this fine and important publishing stuff by past students, how good it would have been for the provost to hear, too, and the president. Because this is what happens when you have a good, strong, writing program. You help produce good, strong, writers, publishers, editors.