The Writer’s Handful With Justin O’Brien

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Mondays + Writers = Finally something to look forward to

Fifty years ago this summer, the Democratic National Convention came to Chicago. I was just a little girl in 1968, but I remember watching this on our black and white television: the boisterous goings-on inside the convention center, and the scary, dangerous goings-on outside in Grant Park and up and down Michigan Avenue. My office view today looks over this very spot, but it is hard for me to imagine what it must have been like on those long-passed days and nights. BUT, Chicago Yippie! ’68, by Chicago native–and now Wisconsin resident-Justin O’Brien, puts it all in focus again. This book, Justin’s story and found and snapped photos, is part celebration, part explanation of a time of turbulent hope and essential unrest.

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Recently, Justin was able to take a few minutes away from his writer’s desk for The Writer’s Handful. Welcome, Justin!

Did you write today? If yes, what? If no, why not?download

I’m a dabbler. So, yes, in my odd fashion, I wrote today, as I do every day. There’s the socially obligatory Facebook posts, including fielding questions about my new book, Chicago Yippie! ’68 (garretroom.com), an account of my experiences as a 17-year-old Chicago kid caught up in the Democratic Convention riots of 1968. I also answered a question on an internet forum about  Chicago blues musician Little Smokey Smothers and his connection to the Paul Butterfield Band (I have been writing about Chicago blues music for forty years). Then there are questions I’m preparing for an interview with a Chicago blues musician for a feature article. And I revisited some of my notes on what I hope will be a long piece or a small book on The Beats and what they meant to me and my hitch-hiking friends back in the 1960s and ’70s.
 
What’s the first thing (story, poem, song, etc.) you remember writing, and how old were you when you wrote it?
As part of a science assignment in perhaps the fourth grade, each of us was asked to write about the cycle of a water drop. I wrote a first-person story about a raindrop falling in a lake and being evaporated back into the atmosphere and coming back to the ground somewhere else as snow, and on and on. I remember feeling the freedom and surprise of creative writing. I may still have that paper somewhere.
 
What are you reading right now?
I’m a dabbler, as I said, and I am juggling all non-fiction at the moment: The Rogue’s
March, which tells the story of Irishman John Riley who defected with thousands of other Irish-born soldiers from the U.S. Army to fight with Mexican forces in the 1840s, an annotated collection of some of Mark Twain’s unfinished fiction, and also a book on Wisconsin geologist/naturalist Increase Lapham. As this suggests, I cannot bear current events at the moment.
 
What’s the most important advice you ever received? (Writerly or otherwise.)
“When you know you’re going to meet an interesting person, think of some good
questions to ask them.” My dad said that to me and my brothers in the car one day when we were boys. I think it was when we were on our way to see a client of his who had been blinded by mustard gas in World War I. That was an interesting day, which I have written about.
I wasn’t a great one for taking advice, but I always remembered that bit. And it served me well throughout the years. In my early teens, when I decided I was going to be a writer, a friend and I were always contriving ways to meet famous people, like Robert Vaughn (“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”), Senator Hubert Humphrey, tap dancer John Bubbles, and comedian Frank Gorshin (the original Riddler on the Batman TV show), who was gracious enough to allow us morons to “interview” him at the Drake Hotel in Chicago as he drank his tea in the dining room. Nothing came of that. But I did go on to interview scores of blues musicians over the years for feature articles as well as for the “Speakin’ of the Blues” interview and performance series that the Chicago Public Library held for many years at the Harold Washington Library and broadcast on local cable TV. I hope I have asked good questions over the years.
 
If your writing were an animal, what animal would it be? Because…
It would have to be an alligator that I am perpetually wrestling. Perhaps a small, tame one, because I don’t feel defeated by the effort—it’s always a good and challenging—though sometimes scary—workout, with plenty of thrashing around, if mostly mental.
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Justin O’Brien is a freelance writer who received his bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Illinois at Chicago. For most of his 42-year career, he practiced the craft of typography, a subject that he also taught and wrote about. Concurrent with his 9-to-5 job he wrote extensively about blues music over a forty-year period, and for several decades has been associated with Living Blues magazine of the University of Mississippi. His writing—on blues and other subjects—has also appeared in Juke Blues, Sing Out!, Irish Music, UIC Alumni News, Chicago Parent, The Typographer, Digital Chicago, Southern Graphics, and The Minneapolis Review of Baseball. He was a contributor to the Encyclopedia of the Blues (Routledge Press, 2005), Armitage Avenue Transcendentalists (Charles Kerr, 2009), and Base Paths: The Best of the Minneapolis Review of Baseball (Wm. Brown, 1991).
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