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May 2011 Archives

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I’ve adored Conor Robin Madigan since the day I met him, both of us first year students at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It wasn’t just the snake tattoo entwining his bicep, the rambling play about windup toys in an attic room he workshopped, or his deceptive composure that intrigued me. Even in an MFA program in which another student stripped naked in class and circled the room before leaping a chair to flee down the echoing hall, Conor stood out. Now, just a few years after graduation, his novel Cut Up hits the stands—or whatever it is novels hit. The disquieting story of a young couple restoring a falling down farmhouse, the book cultivates a sense of low-lying alarm. Let’s review: tattooed, creative, vaguely menacing. Yep, he’s totally my type. No wonder Conor Robin Madigan is June’s Chicago Crush!

Hometown: Evanston, Illinois
Profession: Guitar repairman
Hobbies: 16mm film, collecting books, typewriters, writing music, gardening, pruning trees at the end of winter

Our Town When did you realize writing was your destiny?
Conor Robin Madigan Early on, my mother took me to the Gettysburg battlefield. We got lost in the orchards and I suffered heat stroke. We walked to a part of the battlefield where a bull was kept in a large field. [He] sat under a big tree and drank muddy water. I made the decision that grunting at the thing was very smart and soon the bull was up and crooning, quite distressed. The farmer came out with a stick and ran [us] away. Back home in Evanston, I had a dream about a boy and his cat. They lived on the battlefield with ghosts and the boy was to stay with his farmer uncle and aunt for the summer. He'd go out at night with the cat and walk with the ghosts. I wrote it on my father's PC in the basement. My oldest brother read it and told me I needed to learn how to spell. I wanted to prove him wrong.

OT Which writers have influenced your concept of the world?
CRM Cervantes was read to me by my mother. [It’s] the only writing that has truly, deeply made a difference in the way I see the world. Henry Green, Muriel Spark, Leonard Michaels, William Trevor; these are the writers who have influenced how I write.

OT What inspired Cut Up?”
CRM One night, a girlfriend wanted me to tell her a story. I was so flattered, I took the task very seriously. The windows were open and the El rattled a few or ten blocks away. Something romantic and quiet came to me. It began with Sheri and Liam walking on a dusty road to market to trade in all of the dead husband's things for fruit.

OT Who is your dream reader?
CRM A teenage man from the Midwest, maybe thirteen, picking up his first novel and his first girlfriend or boyfriend.

OT Do you listen to music when you write?
CRM I listen to Liszt, Mozart, Arvo Part, Wayne Shorter, Dusty Springfield, The Zombies, and in the last five years I've been listening to the music my brother and I write. We wrote a song a week individually, for a while, and I'd listen to the songs as I drafted and wrote.

OT The MFA in Creative Writing is an increasingly pursued degree. Is it necessary?
CRM The MFA is an important experience, [offering] writers the space and time to become highly critical of their writing, but more, to read and read. You need to read the right work. 100:1 [is] a good ratio, book to written piece. MFA programs attached to English departments are a different game. It's risky for a writer to have anything to do with English professors. I kept falling in love with them in college.

OT Where do you find inspiration?
CRM I don't write from inspiration. I write like a turbine spins. I find inspiration to read. And that inspiration is coffee. Maybe I like to print out what I write. In a way that inspires me to edit, which makes me write more.

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Did Erik Larson tell the quintessential Chicago tale? How about Sandra Cisneros? Or David Mamet, or Stuart Dybek or maybe Carl Sandburg? According to Theatre Seven Artistic Director, Brian Golden, no single story could showcase the Windy City. Instead, his Chicago Landmark Project strives to provide a sampling, divided by zip code and accessible to all. A production combining twelve world premiere short plays about famous Chicago attractions as well as lesser-known neighborhoods, the project unveils work by local writers such as J. Nicole Brooks, Brett Neveu and Marisa Wegrzyn. Our Town spoke with Golden about the Landmark project’s impetus and scope.

Our Town What moved you to create the project?
Brian Golden We wanted to tell the Chicago story from as many perspectives as possible, and create one piece of art that would bring a lot of artists together under one roof to contribute a new chapter to the great history of Chicago storytelling, in a way that would inspire a deeper sense of connection between our audience and a dozen different neighborhoods in this town.

OT Chicago has inspired many writers over the years, what’s the archetypal Chicago story?
BG Oh, there are so many and yet there really can't be just one. In Chicago, there is a profound sense of location and neighborhood. The need to tell and hear stories about neighborhoods and communities, both our own and others, is paramount. We wanted to tell the Chicago story from as many perspectives as possible, and create one piece of art that would bring artists together under one roof to contribute a new chapter to the great history of Chicago storytelling, in a way that would inspire a deeper sense of connection between our audience and a dozen different neighborhoods in this town. The quintessential Chicago story is a patchwork story like The Chicago Landmark Project. [Our] audience will, in addition to having a great time at the theatre, leave with a deeper sense of community and connection. There will be twelve new places in town, twelve street corners that may have been anonymous, but now will have a human story. That's a powerful thing.

OT How did you go about choosing plays?
BG We targeted playwrights first, the goal, to find a group whose voices represented the [Chicago’s] diversity. All the writers in this project were on our wish list, and the amazing thing is, every single writer we approached wanted to do it. We intended to include six plays, but we realized we had an opportunity and we went for it with all twelve. Each writer submitted a couple ideas [dealing with] how location informs relationship, and then [co-curator] Cassy Sanders and I sculpted the project, picking and choosing to ensure we were fulfilling the aims of the project.

OT Why offer staged readings near Chicago landmarks?
BG We thought it was important give residents all over town the opportunity to see a piece of theatre about the street where they live, totally free. The vision of the production is so essentially about communities, and art as a tool to engage and build communities, so we made a commitment to do it before we had any idea how to pull it off. We've been a presence in nine of the Landmark Neighborhoods so far, and the events have been unique to each neighborhood. We've had collaborations with Neighborhood Writing Alliance groups in Albany Park and Humboldt Park, the Grafton Pub in Lincoln Square, we read two plays on a Harbor Cruise from Navy Pier. It’s been exciting to connect with Chicagoans all over the city and get a sense of the pride they feel for their neighborhoods.

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I can’t be the only one. I can’t, because it happens to all of us. No, not getting Katy Perry’s "Teenage Dream" stuck in our heads. Death. I don’t remember how I found out about death, but from the age of four on, I feared it. Not a quiet terror, but a sobbing, sleepless, wake up the neighbors who call the police because they suspect I’m being hacked to death by my parents kind of panic. Now I knew that each person, each animal and tree and--God help me-- the planet itself held within it an expiration date, I couldn’t comprehend how my friends went on playing foursquare and eating glue.

Though my death fixation lasted a decade, ultimately, through some peculiar combination of imagination and denial I managed to force my dread to the periphery of my consciousness, where it reached up to bop me over the head only every few months. Recently however, the apprehension has sidled center stage again, upstaging my usual obsessions. While it’s a relief to no longer worry that the eunuch vampire from "Let the Right One" In lives between my washer and dryer, this mortality anxiety sure is taking up a lot of my time.

While very few people join me when I run nightly down Foster street screaming, “We’re all gonna die,” I know others like me exist and it’s for you I’ve compiled this list.

Things to do in Chicago When You’re Terrified to Die

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1. Attend A.J. Durand’s Queer Yoga Workshop at Yogaview.
Running every Saturday July 2-July 30 from 2:00-3:15p.m., this class is specifically geared to provide queer folks curious about yoga with a safe, supportive, and fun environment. If you’re lucky, the practice will lend you peace and clarity. If you’re like me, you’ll have to flee the room because shavasana means corpse pose.
(Note: Heterosexuals can achieve a similar state of serenity by drinking twenty beers at a Cubs game and then preventing the Clark bus from moving more than two feet at a time.)

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2. Visit XOJane, the new website launched this week by 90’s alternative women’s magazine darling, Jane Pratt. If you had a subscription to "Sassy" as a teenager, the familiar names of her contributors and editors will induce a form of nostalgia, which, if you are lucky, will fill you with awe as to how far you’ve come. If you’re like me, you’ll drop to the floor moaning as if trampled by time’s grime march.

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3. Come to A Taste of StoryStudio, an evening of wine, cheese, and StoryStudio classes designed to help students interested in honing their writing skills at this Chicago mainstay. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. sharp May 20. If you’re lucky, you’ll come away pleasantly buzzed and brimming with inspiration. If you’re like me, you’ll spend the night certain the end of the world is mere hours away.

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4. Sample free frozen yogurt at the opening of Red Mango’s new Loyola location. The giveaway runs 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., also May 20. If you’re lucky, you’ll enjoy a delicious, low fat desert in the vicinity of an institution of higher learning. If you’re like me you’ll convince yourself it’s possible to choke to on yogurt. Or maybe freeze to death from the inside.

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5. Adhere to out-of-touch-rich-celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow’s list of places to visit while in Chicago. (This item is kind of like if a genie granted you three wishes and you used one to wish for a bunch of extra wishes, because it allows me to refer readers to a slew of other Chicago options while technically not exceeding five selections. I’m very clever.) If you’re lucky, you’ll have a number of lovely dining experiences and learn how it feels to sleep on 100,000 thread count sheets. If you’re me, you won’t be able to afford any of Paltrow’s suggestions, but the smoldering envy you’ll experience just might distract you from your mortality.

A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by followingOur Town on Facebook and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez

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If I won the Pulitzer I might never recover. When I compose a particularly lucid text message, I’m not sure how I’ll top it, so I can only assume a post-Pulitzer existence similarly nerve-racking. But 2011 fiction winner Jennifer Egan, though no stranger to anxiety, hopes to take her victory in stride.

Hailed as a rock and roll novel, Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, does pay homage to the record album, but that’s just part of its aim. Influenced by Proust and "The Sopranos," Goon Squad’s time hurdling assortment of interlocking stories may have captured the imagination of music fans, but its truly notable for its fearless defiance of literary conventions. But then what is rock and roll about if not fearless defiance?

Our Town Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer. Now what?!
Jennifer Egan In a way, I’m not in a position to fully answer--and maybe this is the answer--since winning, I haven’t had time to work, so I’m not sure of the impact. The danger is one sits down to write and thinks, “I’m a Pulitzer winner, where’s the genius?” My hope is I can just relax a little bit. Not feel pressure because, pressure to do what, win a Pulitzer? The ideal way to react would be to say, “ok I got the big award, let’s just keep writing better and also have some fun." I [also] tend to be a fairly anxious person, so I’m used to feeling anxious as I work and having to deal with a fair amount of worry in the writing process. So while the nature of the anxiety may change, I’m used to functioning amidst that feeling.

OT You were born in Chicago. Any specific memories?
JE I lived there until I was seven, when my mother and step-father moved to San Francisco but I visited my father every summer and I still have two sisters there, so I feel very connected to Chicago, even the tiniest details. I love the way the brick is tinted yellow. You don’t see that on the East Coast, it’s always red brick. One place that’s meaningful to me is the Art Institute where I went as a little girl, such a lovely scale with all kinds of nooks and crannies.

OT To what degree does a writer’s geography shape her work?
JE Place is usually my entry point, time and place. The sense of slightly rusty, industrial decay--much less present in Chicago now, is incredibly evocative to me. I did a lot of research on the history of Chicago when I was writing my novel Look at Me, which takes place in Rockford. I was very interested in the industrial revolution as it hit the Midwest; the disappearance of prairie, the railroad, the changing of the landscape. One reason all that fascinates me is my physical connection. When we moved, I remember immediately being struck by the aesthetic difference between Chicago and San Francisco. Feeling that I was somehow from and, in a way, of two such very different places with such different textures and histories and qualities has been significant for me as a writer. I tend to like to write about more than one world at once. My books tend to have at least two—Goon Squad has a lot more than that—very diverse and often opposing landscapes.

OT Speaking of Goon Squad, did you anticipate reviewers’ emphasis on the album aspect?
JE The album—a full vision composed of discreet units of music-- was something I wanted to honor. [But the book] seemed to have been regarded as a rock and roll novel more than I would have expected. There are lots of chapters that really have nothing about music in them [yet] the overall impression many readers walk away with seems to be of a book really steeped in music and the music industry. When it was published, I don’t think we made any special effort to reach out to that whole market of music related publications because I don’t think anyone was quite thinking of it that way. I have no problem with anything that people focus on. I feel like you write it and then people are going to make what they want of it and take what they want from it and that is the nature of writing books. I would never quibble with that, but I was surprised by it.

OT Can writing be taught?
JE It’s funny to me when people say it can’t. Visual artists have gone to art school for hundreds of years so why would that not be possible with writing? I belong to a writing group and we read work aloud fairly regularly, which is not that different than a writing workshop. I don’t like to work in a vacuum because I did that the first time I ever tried to write a novella and I ended up with hundreds of pages of unreadable dreck, and it was very disappointing.

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Photo by Stephanie Richardson and Jeff Steinmetz

John Stamos may be tweeting backstage passes to Beach Boys fans and Lady Gaga personally Facebooking with followers, but in this moment of increasing celebrity accessibility, folk group Girlyman can honestly say they did it first and maybe with more integrity.

Formed in 2001, the band has always maintained a close relationship with their supporters, arguably grounds for their consistently swelling fan base. However, according to band member Ty Greenstein, it was member Doris Muramatsu’s 2010 leukemia diagnosis, that further solidified that unique connection. Now in addition to down to earth post-gig conversations and personally mailed CDs, the girly people have begun openly blogging about everything from body dysmorphia to musical self-doubt.

While on tour, Greenstein spoke with Our Town about Muramatsu’s positive prognosis, recent addition, JJ Jones and why the band will never change its name.

Our Town Most bands say the secret to maintaining a good working relationship is time apart, but Girlyman socializes on and off the road. Why does it work?
Ty Greenstein We really are best friends, soul mates who share a life path. The bond was personal first. Our lives lined up in this incredible way so we get to be in a band together and take our life lessons into our work. That's really how it happened, not the other way around where a band of random musicians gets together and hopes they have some personal chemistry. In some ways the band is a theater where we can play out all our dynamics and work through whatever comes up, which we're all committed to doing. If things feel good in the relationships, the music also feels solid, and if personal revolutions are happening, I think you can hear it in the music or see it in the shows.

OT Recently you added JJ to the group. Was the addition as seamless as it appeared?
TG It really was. I forget she's a newcomer; we all laugh at the same jokes, obsess over good food, and have long conversations about the meaning of life. Her vision for the band is very much in line with ours; we want to keep opening people up in all kinds of ways with music, and basically just have fun and keep growing. But she also has a freshness to her approach and a perspective that having done this for almost ten years, we sometimes lack. Sometimes we forget how lucky we are to have gotten this far.

OT You famously have a very open relationship with your fans. Any regrets?
TG After Doris was diagnosed in November, that kind of blew the whole thing open. We were all personally shaken and humbled. I was facing the mortality of my best friend of thirty years, plus the specter of an end to the band and my career. I didn't care anymore about arbitrary divisions between "performer" and "fan," and frankly, the fans helped get us through. They wrote to us, prayed and visualized for us, sent packages and donations and inundated Doris with love. Everyone should have that kind of support network when the sh*t hits the fan. We know how lucky we are, and how special our fans are.

OT How is Doris?
TG She's doing really great, responding very well to the drug she's on. She's active and for the most part, leads a normal life. This is largely thanks to the incredible advances in CML treatment over the past ten years. The drug she's on was only approved as a first-line treatment a month before her diagnosis, talk about being born at the right time. These targeted therapies have turned CML from a terminal disease where people had a few years at most, to a chronic illness that just needs to be managed. At her three-month checkup, Doris went from 100% leukemic cells at diagnosis down to 4%.

OT What was the personal and professional impact on the band?
TG In six words or less, it has put everything into perspective. Doris started keeping a blog about her health on CaringBridge, and then we basically turned our whole website into a blog where we post our thoughts about life in general, in addition to pictures and videos of the band in action and behind the scenes. I think the whole "fame" thing has been transformed in a great way with social networking and real time interaction via the internet. Everyone is just a person now, and we're sharing our lives.

OT What can fans do to help?
TG Please keep coming to the shows. And if you want to make a donation to Doris or to the band, you can do so at http://girlyman.com/donate/

OT Careers in the arts can be rife with disappointment. Any derailing early experiences you could share?
TG Plenty. Before Girlyman, when it was just me and Doris as the Garden Verge, we once played a gig where so few people came that not only didn't we make anything but we had to pay the sound guy his fifty bucks out of our own pockets. Then when Girlyman formed, there were plenty of places that wouldn't book us, even for free. Those early days can be pretty rough. I've blocked out a lot of it. We once played a whole show to one person. That was pretty special.


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Photo by Patty Nason

Remember how time felt when you were a kid? A year was the longest thing you could think of; so massive it barely fit between your ears. But as an adult, inevitable months, distinct and determined, line up and drop like stones. Perhaps novelty explains this shift; kids are flooded daily with new experiences, must constantly absorb fresh ideas and situations, whereas adults are on autopilot. We know what to expect. Maybe this also explains why, when I ask adult students to name an all time favorite book, most cite one read in their youth. But what if a young adult can’t find fiction that represents her particular race, religion or sexual orientation?

Malinda Lo Author of “Ash,” a lesbian take on the Cinderella story, wants to make diverse fiction available to all young adult readers. To this end, she founded “Diversity in YA Fiction,” a website to unite a positive assembly of readers and writers from all backgrounds. Now, along with friend and fellow YA writer Cindy Pon, Lo is personally conveying her message to readers across the US.

The Diversity in YA Fiction Tour which arrives at Chicago’s Barbara’s Bookstore, May tenth, brings together a mix of writers all determined to present YA fiction as diverse as its readership.

Our Town What inspired “Ash?”
Malinda Lo Cinderella was my favorite fairy tale when I was a little girl, and I always wished that Robin McKinley -- who has retold a number of fairy tales -- would retell it, but she never has. So, I decided to write the book I had always wanted to read. The lesbian aspect actually surprised me; the book started as a heterosexual retelling, but it became very obvious during revision that the main character was much more interested in another girl than in Prince Charming. That's when I decided to just go for it and write a lesbian Cinderella.

OT What other YA fiction inspired you growing up?
ML I was and still am a huge fan of Madeleine L'Engle, especially “A Ring of Endless Light.”

OT What books do you recommend for LGBTQ YA readers?
ML Julie Anne Peters has written some amazing books about lesbian teens. I especially liked “Pretend You Love Me,” and her novel “She Loves You, She Loves You Not,” which comes out in June. I also love Brent Hartinger's “Geography Club” and its sequels, and Sara Ryan's “Empress of the World.”

OT What was the catalyst for forming DIF?
ML My friend and fellow young adult author Cindy Pon and I decided to launch Diversity in YA when we realized we both would be publishing Asian-inspired YA fantasies at the same time. We had joked before about going on tour together, and this just seemed like a once in lifetime opportunity to join forces. We're so happy so many amazing authors have jumped on board with us!

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Whatever your political affiliation, no doubt yesterday was an historic day. But now that we’ve imposed artificial meaning on the fact that both Hitler and Bin Laden were announced dead on May first, now that we’ve scoffed at Donald Trump’s fixation on Obama’s birth certificate, now that we’ve scoured Twitter for Katy Perry's response, let us turn our collective attention to something truly vital: my May crush of the month.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, filmmaker and teacher Aaron Greer has developed a diverse portfolio of documentary, narrative and experimental films. His award-winning feature film, “Gettin’ Grown,” has screened at film festivals around the world and is currently being adapted into a web series, he has co-authored the award-winning screenplay "Fruit of the Tree," which was selected for the Tribeca All-Access program in 2007, and he is currently producing a documentary about Cuba, titled “Merchant in Havana.” All that and he still finds time to dodge my calls.

Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Profession: Filmmaker and Professor at Loyola University Chicago.

Hobbies: I’m a fan of professional football and basketball. I like reading historical fiction and listening to “This American Life.” Nothing else I do on a regular basis that could be considered a hobby.

Our Town What drew you to filmmaking?
Aaron Greer Acting makes me self-conscious; music requires carrying a tune or playing an instrument, and art requires you be able to draw or something. Film was the way I could figure to be creative without having much artistic talent. Also, I believe in the Hopi saying: “He who tells the stories rules the world.”

OT Which filmmakers inspire you?
AG My first filmmaker “crush,” the first director I thought of as an artiste was Spike Lee. I still see all his films. I don’t always like them, [but] I’m always glad I saw them. I was also inspired by the Cuban filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea [and] really dig Pedro Almodovar. Finally, I kind of want Clint Eastwood to make me his adoptive grandson.

OT What made “Getting Grown” seem appropriate to transform into a web series?
AG When we made the film—in fact, part of why we made the film—there were relatively few serious films for and about tweenagers produced in this country, especially inner-city kids. Unfortunately, that’s just as true now; so there’s an unfulfilled niche in the “marketplace.” Also, that age group is just as likely, more likely really, to watch stuff online. Making GGTV a web-series is a ‘taking the mountain to Muhammad’ kind of thing.

OT Explain how you’ll include viewer-generated content.
AG Each webisode has moments structured [to] include media, images, lines of dialog, sounds, provided by the viewers. Say there’s a scene with the main character talking on the telephone. That other person’s voice can as easily be recorded by one of our viewers as it can by us. In advance of an episode’s premiere, we’ll put out a call for specific kinds of [media] to include in that next week’s episode. Viewers [can] upload or send us that media and we’ll pick our top choices and drop them into the official version of the episode on our site. Once that particular episode premieres, viewers will be able to re-edit, remix and customize that episode.

OT How do you balance teaching, creative pursuits and family life?
AG The most productive I’ve been was when I was single, living alone in a new city and had no social life. It sucked, but I got a ton done. I work at a much slower pace now, but my life is filled, so it’s worth it. During the semester, I try to spend one full weekday with my son, the rest of the workweek dealing with teaching, creative projects, a couple hours on the weekends, evenings, during naps, etc. [During summer break], I go into full-time filmmaker mode. The hardest part of the balancing act is giving myself permission to be a less prolific filmmaker than I used to be.

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This page is an archive of entries from May 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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