The Writer’s Handful With Justin O’Brien


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.


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 (, 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.
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).

The Writer’s Handful with Giano Cromley

Cromley Bio Photo

Mondays + Writers = Finally something to look forward to.

A couple of months ago, I met Giano Cromley at Hyde Park’s famous Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap. He was there for a reading, a double book launch party for him (What We Build Upon the Ruins) and Joseph G. Peterson (Gunmetal Blue.) I didn’t know him or his writing before that day, and man, I gotta tell you, I am so glad that has changed. His work is haunting and smart; he creates the sort of characters you wonder over and worry about once the story has ended. What We Build Upon the Ruins is one of those collections that make a reader excited about short stories and their future.cover ruins And recently, Giano took a few minutes out of his busy book promotion to chat a bit. Here’s his handful.

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

Not to get too cute here, but it depends on what you mean by the word “write.” I’ve always taken a fairly hard-line stance on it, in which case, I have not written today. Even though it’s Friday as I type this (and Fridays are typically my most productive writing days), vet visits and dishwasher repair appointments have conspired to put the kibosh on any notion of fruitful writing.

If, however, you subscribe to a more generous definition of the word “write” (a definition first proposed to me by the great writer Ben Tanzer) — a definition that holds that any writing whatsoever qualifies as “writing” — then, yes, I did write today. I am writing. Writing about writing, in fact. (Ouroboros reference fully embraced.)

All that being said, the only writing I find truly rewarding is the kind that involves a blank page and the utter mystery of what will go on it. I liken that feeling to driving down a dark highway at night with no headlights. You never know what’s going to pop into view. I recently had a book come out so it feels like it’s been ages since I’ve done that kind of blank-page writing. Part of me is nervous for the next time I sit down to do it. Will I still be able to pull it off? Have I lost that ability? Those are the kinds of questions that haunt my mind, but they always make it more exciting when I prove to myself I still can.

What’s the first thing (story, poem, song, etc.) you remember writing, and how old were you when you wrote it?

The first thing I remember writing was in school, probably second grade. Our teacher would give us these big wide sheets of paper with the top half blank and the bottom half lined. We were supposed to draw a picture on the top half and write the story that went along with the picture on the bottom half. This exercise was pretty much the best thing I could ever be assigned. Complete freedom. Zero parameters. As such, I tended to write about the things my 9-year-old self found awesome at the time — typically dinosaurs. A frequent plot would involve characters on an expedition who came across a group of somehow-not-extinct dinosaurs, which they would then keep as pets. To this day, I maintain those stories probably are some of the best things I’ve ever written.Dinosaur Drawing

What are you reading right now?

Well… to be very honest, I’m currently reading Patricia Ann McNair’s collection of essays entitled And These Are the Good Times. Essay collections aren’t always the first thing I pick up when I’m looking for a new book. But I got the chance to hear McNair read this past fall and I so thoroughly enjoyed her reading that I had to get myself a copy. Then, a couple other books I had in line in front of it kind of fell flat, so hers quickly moved up the queue. And, boy, am I appreciative of that happenstance. I can hardly begin to explain how much I’ve enjoyed the collection so far. I think what I find so engrossing is the sense of place each piece inhabits. Whether it’s a steamy summer night on Foster Beach, an evening at the local bar with her father, or her collegiate office downtown, these essays feel so firmly rooted and confident of their locale that they give each piece an emotional heft that often leaves me squirming and gasping for breath. I’ve only got about 30 pages left and I already miss it. [PMc…awww…shucks. Thanks.]

What’s the most important advice you ever received? (Writerly or otherwise.)

So much good advice I’ve received. So much good advice I’ve ignored. Here’s something: It was my first job the summer after my senior year in high school. I was the delivery boy in a radiator repair shop. (The shop was owned by my friend’s father, which was the only reason I got the job, rather than any mechanical aptitude on my part.) The job was 70% driving around to various truck repair garages to pick up faulty radiators or deliver repaired ones. The other 30% of the job was basically hanging around the garage and doing whatever needed doing. Sometimes it was stripping radiators, other times it was cleaning out the chemical solvent vats, others it was running out to get doughnuts for the guys. One afternoon, it was a slow day at the shop, and I didn’t have much to do. Or, rather, I didn’t see much to do. My friend’s dad came wandering into the shop and saw me idly loafing. He looked at me and said, “Don’t just stand there. Do something.”

That line has always stuck with me. Every day we have a finite amount of time given to us to go out and accomplish whatever it is we hope to accomplish. Wasting time, doing nothing is one of the worst sins you can commit. Whenever I find myself putting off writing or generally procrastinating, I remember those words: Don’t just stand there. Do something.

If your writing were an animal, what animal would it be? Because…

If my writing were an animal, it would be an otter. Here’s why: They’re very approachable and friendly seeming. After all, these are the guys that swim on their back and carry their food on their bellies. “Hey,” you might say, “isn’t that otter so cute?!” But if you get a little closer and observe them for a while, you’ll also see that they’re pretty fierce little guys who don’t take much shit from anyone else in the animal kingdom. Those teeth are not joke. Otters are also pretty clever. They have to use rocks to open up their clams and mussels, or they don’t eat. I’d like to think my writing, on its better days, exhibits all those qualities.

buzzfeed otter
Image from Buzzfeed

Giano Cromley is the author of the novel The Last Good Halloweenwhich was a finalist for the High Plains Book Award. He is the chair of the Communications Department at Kennedy-King College, and he lives on the South Side of Chicago with his wife and two dogs.

The Writer’s Handful with Joseph G. Peterson

Joseph G. Peterson Author Photo

Mondays + Writers = Finally something to look forward to.

I first stumbled upon Joseph G. Peterson’s work with the publication of his novel, Wanted: Elevator Man. Joseph’s line-up of books (a half-dozen so far) is diverse (including a novel in verse!) and impressive. His most recent book, just released by the very fine Tortoise Books, is Gunmetal Blue. Kirkus Reviews calls Joseph “one of the Windy City’s best-kept secrets…” and says that Gunmetal Blue is “…a stark meditation on grief, Catholic guilt, and guns.” Intrigued? You should be.

Here is Joseph G. Peterson in response to The Writer’s cover gunmetal

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

I’m on vacation in a condo overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. A cold snap grips the north, but down here in southern Florida, all is sun, reflection of light off the water, and the greenness of palm trees, crabgrass, and shrub. Because I’m on vacation, I actually have an opportunity to spend a little time in the morning writing, and I’ve been doing so each morning I’ve been down here. Today, I was working on a comic novel about an old guy who lives with his mom. In general, I’m not a very systematic writer. I sort of noodle around in the small margins of the day and usually that means very early in the morning (5:30 am) I’ll have a moment or two; or very late at night >10:45 I’ll have another moment or two. With just a few moments here and there it’s amazing how much work can get done.

What’s the first thing (story, poem, song, etc.) you remember writing, and how old were you when you wrote it?

I probably wrote my first story when I was in first or second grade. It concerned a frog hopping around the log. I remember also telling stories in class very early on in my school career, and I was always appalled at how quickly my stories strayed from the truth. It wasn’t until later that I realized I just naturally liked to fabricate tall tales. My mother recently shared with me a prospective biography that I wrote when I was five or six years old and in that biography I had said I wanted to be a writer. I have no idea where that impulse may have come from, but it proved to be prescient.

What are you reading right now?

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. When I travel on winter break, I’ve discovered that this is a good time to read a classic. Last year at this time, I read a novel by Conan Doyle, the year before that I read James Farrell’s Studs Lonigon… a great book. I’m also enjoying the short book,300 Arguments, by Sarah Manguso.

What’s the most important advice you ever received? (Writerly or otherwise.)

When I was an apprentice writer, I used to search high-and-low for the holy grail of how to do it: how to write a novel. I read every Paris Review Interview there was, and I was most interested in understanding whether the writing process over the course of a novel was difficult, extremely difficult, or nearly impossible. For me, at the time, it seemed on the cusp of impossible. What those interviews taught me was that maybe persistence and doggedness might be the best tools for completing a novel. As to all the rules that writers liked to espouse in those interviews: show don’t tell, tell don’t show, use the Oxford comma, don’t use adjectives, write first thing in the morning, use a number two pencil, keep the iceberg submerged, &c.;  I never found one that was useful for me. As a rule, rules about writing bug me. At the end of the day the only writing rule that I subscribe to is this one: It doesn’t matter how you do it… whether you stay on the track of the customary way or veer far off course… all that matters is that the final product works.

If your writing were an animal, what animal would it be? Because…

Was it Isaiah Berlin who divided writers into two camps: Foxes and Hedgehogs? In any event, I like this binary classification, and as such I would put myself into the hedgehog camp. First of all, I like hedgehogs. There used to be quite a lot of them out along the Des Plaines river where I liked to fish, and I liked to watch them root around near their holes. Second of all, I think I’m the sort of writer that doggedly roots around his subject. You might even say, all of my books (six published so far) are an intensive rooting around the subject of what it means to be tossed out of the group or cast-out as the case may be. I study this subject mostly as it pertains to guys who have fallen out of the economy, fallen out of relevance, falling out of family, etc. I think of my broader work as concerns “The Life of Man”–and what interests me is what that life is like once the old social norms of white male status and privilege give way to a loss of power and marginalization, which, in this day and age is itself a subject that is getting cast to the margins of our literature.

Oliver Wilks Images


Joseph G. Peterson grew up in Wheeling, Illinois. He worked in an aluminum mill and in the masonry trade as a hod carrier and he attended the University of Chicago. He is the author of five novels: Beautiful Piece, Inside the Whale, Wanted: Elevator Man, Gideon’s Confession, and Gunmetal Blue. He is also the author of the short-story collection, Twilight of the Idiots. His stories have appeared in numerous anthologies including, The Pleasure You Suffer: A Saudade Anthology, and Daddy Cool: An anthology of Writing by Fathers for & About Kids. He works in publishing and lives in Chicago with his wife and two daughters.