Judith Kirscht is not only a fellow New Libri author, she is also a current Pacific Northwest resident and former Chicagoan, just like myself. Her book, The Inheritors, tells a story about a different era of Chicago than my Street Stories novels do, and a different societal structure. But her love of Chicago is the same as mine and her book brings the city alive just the way I hope my books do.
In today’s guest post, Judith reflects on how the city gets beneath your skin, even if you no longer reside there.
I’m a Chicagoan. After more than a half century away from the city, I still think of myself that way and hold the Chicagoan’s belief that “we” are more civilized than our competitors on the other coasts. Unlike New Yorkers, we don’t shove each other to get on the subway; unlike Los Angelians we don’t drive the freeways as though we won’t get there unless we beat everyone else. We are the heartland.
How I manage to sustain such beliefs in the face of the news from the murder-capital, I don’t know. Nothing in my experience leads me to believe it was less violent in the Thirties than it is now. After all, Chicago is best known for Al Capone, and Debra Borys’s Painted Black brings to life the raw underbelly of today’s city. Indeed, her story brings back the days I did casework in the city’s near South-Side.
In those icy winters I roamed the pre-housing project streets where open wires hung in the halls of ancient apartment buildings without heat, and I heard rats in the walls as I brushed cockroaches off the couches to sit down. At least one of those horrid structures burned to the ground every winter, killing scores. But I found stories there, just as Debra found them, among the homeless. The richest and most memorable were those pockets of hope that somehow survived, despite the dirt, the rats, the L thundering outside the window.
My own Chicago, in Hyde Park, was a gentler place, though just as cold and dirty, for the city then heated with coal, and frequently our six-flat was also without heat. I think both influences combine in the picture of Chicago that comes through in my book The Inheritors. The characters are neither the very rich, living in immunity on the Gold Coast, nor Painted Dark’s castoffs, buried under its overpasses. They are descendents of waves of immigrants who struggled to raise families in the burgeoning industrial growth of the Twentieth Century and are the result of that struggle.
They are the descendants, I hope, of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago, for he is, without compare, the voice of the city. I was, in fact, going to use his poem, “Phizzog” as a frontispiece for the book. I can’t reproduce it here, but “phizzog” is a Twainism for “face” and the gist of it is that we never asked for the face we got: “Here’s yours, now go see what you can do with it.”*
* Carl Sandburg, Good Morning America poems, 1928. Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1950, p.390.
I was born, raised, educated and married in Chicago, and raised my family in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I went back to school as an adult and began to write, winning two writing awards from the university—one for a novel and another for an essay.
Following a divorce, I began teaching academic writing at the University of Michigan and continued at the University of California, Santa Barbara where I was active in developing career paths for non-tenured faculty. Though I continued to write fiction during those years, I published largely professional articles and, finally, a textbook with colleague, Mark Schlenz.
I have now moved to Washington State to write fiction full time and have published several novel excerpts and short stories in addition to the novel and the essay that won the awards back in my student days. I share a house overlooking Puget Sound with an old friend, four basenjis and a drawer full of yet unpublished work.
Read more about Judith at www.judithkirscht.com