A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends ~ Another Wonderful Book by a CCC Fiction Department Alum

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-BoyfriendsThere 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.

Congratulations, Stacy. Congratulations, Elephant Rock Books. Congratulations, Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago–you did it again.

Come Home Chicago ~ Matt Martin’s View From the Keyboard

Chicago is full of small and large literary delights, and on the eve of the AWP conference in our fair city, I thought it would be good to introduce you to a guy who had a hand in starting one of the truly great reading series held here, Come Home Chicago. Matt Martin is currently a candidate for the MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction at Columbia College Chicago who is also working a full-time job, and yet he feels compelled to make the time to help produce a highly entertaining and exceptional quality lit show; last month’s guests included Stuart Dybek, Rick Kogan, Christine Sneed, Don De Grazia (co-founder of Come Home Chicago) and many others.

Oh yeah, and the guy writes, too. And this is where he does it, along with a little taste of his work.

Matt: I live alone in a one bedroom apartment in Andersonville, and since I don’t do a lot of entertaining, this dining room table has turned into a desk. I picked this space because of its excellent view of my neighbor’s blinds, those things need some dusting! I try to spend at least an hour here a day. The books in the middle separate the table in half, because of my book shelf being over crowded. Radioactive Homer sits across from me (his head is chopped off a bit), but if I ever get really stuck, I look to him, and he usually has some pretty pertinent advice! “All right Brain, you don’t like me, and I don’t like you. But let’s just do this, and I can get back to killing you with beer.”

I wrote a piece about my experience with gout at this space  and do a lot of reading here as well. One of my favorite books that people might not be able to see from the photo is Live From New York—a history of Saturday Night Live—so many of my memories of childhood can be found in that book! Also if you look hard—in the middle there—an autographed copy of The Temple Of Air is chillin out!

I co-host and co-founded Come Home Chicago with Don De Grazia and I’d just like to thank everyone who came out for the last one, and whoever comes out for the next one—It’s a party, ya’ll!

An excerpt from work in progress

It’s complicated. It usually is. There are extenuating circumstances that come into play. You’ll have to trust me on that. This was something that external influences caused. I mean, I am partially to blame, don’t get me wrong. I am ready to take the brunt of the criticism. They say somewhere in a 12-step program that acceptance is one of the steps. I’m not sure which one, because the one time I went to a meeting I didn’t really pay attention. I did it for her. To get her off my back.

Now things were getting bad. It was getting out of control. Now I found myself here. In a ground floor room in the same Vegas hotel that O.J. Simpson got arrested in, the Palace Station. The same hotel/casino that offered “Las Vegas’ Largest All Drag Revue.” I tried to open my eyes. A sliver of light had somehow managed to creep through the middle of the crusty shades and land directly on my eye lids. I peeked one eye open. I nearly threw up.

I rolled over and slammed the pillow over my head. I felt something on my cheek. It was sharp. I didn’t really care to move, so I went back to sleep.

I dreamt of things. I dreamt of home. My grandmother. My childhood. I slid down reflective slides. I smiled. I ran around the bases as grown men played 16 in. softball on a diamond at Oriole Park. I ran through the grass and ran up to a hot dog stand and looked up and my uncle was wearing a white paper hat and spinning bright blue cotton candy.

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→Matt, thanks for letting us in for a peek. And go Cubs, yeah? – PMc←

Blizzards, Brothers, and What’s in a Name?

Snow-ly Cow! The Blizzaster! The storm to beat all storms! History in the making!

I’m sitting on the couch under a blanket with a cat at my side looking out at the whiteness that the Chicago sky is becoming. They say this will be a winter storm unlike any other. Harumph. Like many of my writing and reading friends, I was supposed to be on a flight to Washington, DC, tomorrow (Wednesday) to participate in the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (awpwriter.org) annual conference.

Alas. United has cancelled all flights out of O’Hare through Thursday morning. I will miss the first panel I was scheduled to be on—Trading Stories with the Enemy: Navigating the Cuban/American Literary Landscape. (Ever notice how all academic panels have to have a colon somewhere in the middle of the title?) I’m hoping my co-presenters Achy Obejas and Kristin Dykstra will make it on time though. Noon on Thursday. If you are there at AWP-DC, go give them support.

I hate snow. I mean, I really, really hate snow. And today I am reminded of why. I can remember the 67 blizzard here in Chicago (gives you an idea of how really old I am.) My brothers and I were home alone for a while because our folks could not get back from their jobs. Was it a night? Two nights? Were we afraid? I don’t remember that, but I do remember a snow drift that swept up the side of our house nearly to the second story window. I didn’t know quite enough to hate hate snow just yet, and I thought that—a house-high drift—was pretty cool. Thought maybe I could slide down it. Lucky for me my older, wiser brothers probably knew that wasn’t such a good idea.

The first car accident I was ever in was because of that storm. We (Dad driving, Mom shotgun, me in the backseat with at least one brother) got snow-stuck backing out of our driveway in the path of an on-coming car. No real damage, but scary for a little girl who saw the other car coming and coming, unable to stop on the slick road before it plowed into the rear panel of our sedan. But cars were made of stronger stuff back then, so the panel concaved and that was it. I don’t remember that we were even bumped around much.

This would be the sort of anecdote that my brother Roger would say I got all wrong. Two years older than me, he was always certain his memory was better than mine. Maybe it was. He died five months ago—too soon, too soon—and I miss him greatly. He was a cab driver, and this would be the sort of day when he would either make bundles of money, or would call me from one of his dozen or so cell phones to complain about no one being out, no fares to be had. He was a remarkable snow driver. No fear.

My mother (Sylvia McNair, 1924 – 2002) would have remembered MY FIRST ACCIDENT differently than I do, too, no doubt. “That’s not how it happened,” she’d say. Still, when it came to my stories, I had no greater supporter. She gave me writing assignments when I was a little girl, gave me a prompt on her way out the door when she left for work: write about a cat with blue ears, a boy who loved dandelions. “You have to write that,” she’d say whenever I told her something. She even chose my full name, Patricia Ann McNair, by imagining it on the cover of a book.

It’s there now, Mom, on the cover of my story collection, The Temple of Air by Patricia Ann McNair.

I have a box-load of postcards with the book cover on them, ready to hand out to every person I see at AWP. You, friendly blog reader, can have one, two if you want. If only I can get there.