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October 2009

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Historical research makes these authors past masters

You can look it up. Author Richard Lindberg is on the record saying authors' research is fun.

"I think I write books only because I love the research," Lindberg said while appearing as a panelist at the Society of Midland Authors' regular monthly program on Oct. 13 at the Cliff Dwellers Club in Chicago. "When I do my research, the best time of book writing is in the middle of the story when you are really on to something."

Lindberg, a former SMA president, appeared on the panel with authors and SMA members Arnie Bernstein and Dominic Pacyga. The topic, "Chicago Writers Making History," was about how authors research books about the city's past. The program was recorded by Chicago Public Radio under a new arrangement that will allow the public to access SMA programs online.

Bernstein, whose most recent book, Bath Massacre, America's First School Bombing, tells the story of a 1927 school tragedy, said he did much of his research by traveling to the small Michigan community.

"I immersed myself basically in Bath," Bernstein said. "I spent many, many nights there. I interviewed a handful of survivors, two of whom have since passed. ... I went through old newspapers, things like that, family stories that were handed down."

Bernstein also used a 250-page transcript of the inquest that helped him construct a timeline of the event and even provided some dialogue.

"[The story] was a puzzle that was scattered that I needed to put together," Bernstein said.

Pacyga, a member of the Department of Humanities, History and Social Sciences at Columbia College Chicago since 1984, said he had done much of his research for Chicago: A Biography over 30 years of teaching about the city's past, but found he needed to distill the results of that research into tightly worded stories.

"One of the things that I learned was how to take a story and cut it, something that I think other people are better at than professors," he said. "We like to talk and talk and talk."

Lindberg said he has written 14 books, all of which have the word "Chicago" in their titles. (On a personal note, program emcee and SMA President Robert Loerzel said it was Lindberg's book Chicago by Gaslight that got him interested in local history.)

"The greatest joy is the research, the discovery of new facts, or forgotten history, as I call it." Lindberg said. "I want to try to avoid the well-beaten paths.

"The easy path out is to write books about familiar subjects," Lindberg added. "Or you can really go out and do some original research."

One member of the audience asked the authors how they respond when they run across evidence that challenges their ideas.

"The worst thing a writer can do is become set in his ways and cling to a theory that is completely ludicrous," Lindberg said. "And that does happen. You have preconceived notions about things, and real history is often not what history books say it is."

But Pacyga got a laugh when he jokingly responded: "I say destroy the evidence, and get on with your thesis."

Note: The Oct. 13 program may be heard in its entirety at

Burnham Plan is the focus of SMA November program

As Chicago celebrates the centennial of Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago, four local authors will weigh in with their thoughts on the plan's legacy at the Nov. 10 Society of Midland Authors program.

The panel will include: Aric Lasher and Robert Sam Roche, co-authors of Plans of Chicago; Janice Metzger, author of What Would Jane Say? City-Building Women and a Tale of Two Chicagos, and Donald Whitfield, director of higher education for the Great Books Foundation, which just released a new version of Burnham's Plan of Chicago.

Lasher and Roche are also members of the Architects Research Foundation.

Daniel Burnham and his co-author, Edward Bennett, reimagined the American city as a vibrant, interconnected whole. Their plan is responsible for much of Chicago's public character, including its open lakefront and expansive park system. Plans of Chicago, the inaugural publication of the Chicago-based Architects Research Foundation, uses the 1909 Plan as a precedent for reconnecting Chicago's center to outlying suburbs. As in Burnham's Plan, improved transportation and park systems will make Chicago both "the city that works" and a "City Beautiful."

Roche and Lasher begin with a careful assessment of the plan's implementation. Along the way, they identify Chicago's persistent planning problems, and then compare the Plan of Chicago to other proposals, including those by Frank Lloyd Wright, Jens Jensen, Walter Burley Griffin, Eliel Saarinen and Ludwig Hilberseimer.

This historical analysis is the point of departure for the book's second part, which offers a new plan for managing Chicago's future growth. The authors reframe the central city's relationship to the larger Chicagoland area, proposing new designs for Grant Park and Congress Street and new planning models for urban neighborhoods and the suburbs.

Roche has worked at Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge Architects since 2007. Lasher is an architect principal with Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge Architects.

Biblio File

Kathy Stevenson, who in January began the low residency MFA in Creative Writing program at Bennington College in Vermont, has an article in the October issue of The Writer magazine called "Making Readers Cry." It's about how to handle serious or sad topics without lapsing into sentimentality.

Paul McComas has won another film award: He flew to Portland, Ore., to accept the Best Short Subject prize in a national competition at the Alliance for Community Media's '09 Hometown USA Awards. Also, his 48-track, two-CD set "AMATEUR" – a collection of Paul's original music, 1980 to present – has been issued as a fund-raiser for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), on whose Leadership Circle Paul serves. At 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 16, he and three other singer/songwriters were scheduled to perform their original work at a "dirt-cheap" RAINN benefit concert as part of the monthly Folk You! series at The Horseshoe, 4115 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago. Check for an interview with Paul (It's primarily about Planet of the Dates).

Blue Balliett (who has just finished a new mystery that's due out in fall of 2010) received the Friends of American Writers Juvenile Literary Award last spring for The Calder Game (2008).

SMA President Robert Loerzel has contributed six stories as a freelance reporter for Chicago Public Radio WBEZ's "Eight Forty Eight" show since April, including reports about local history and music. In one story, he interviewed former SMA President Richard Lindberg about the history of Tommy guns. His most recent story included actual recordings of world music made at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Links to the stories are at

Deborah Blum is program chair for the World Conference of Science Journalists, which will be held in Cairo in 2011. And her new book, The Poisoner's Handbook, will be out in February.

Hope College in Holland, Mich., recently honored Milton J. Nieuwsma, an alumnus, with a 2009 Distinguished Alumni Award for his work on the Holocaust. The citation read in part: "Your thoughtful and inspiring recount of struggle, survival and hope has been recognized worldwide and has brought history to life. You have given a voice to the children of the shoah and have turned their experiences into a message that all need to hear and remember." The award ceremony took place in May.

David Radavich's play, "Human Rock," will receive its world premiere at the Charleston (Ill.) Alley Theatre on Oct. 9-12 and 16-19. "Human Rock" is the final work in a seven-play sequence on contemporary social issues collectively titled "On the Verge." Action is set in a cave by the sea, where a succession of refugees from modern life arrive and attempt to create a new, makeshift society, moving toward healing and redemption.

The first St. Francis College Literary Prize (a $50,000 award) belongs to Aleksandar Hemon for his book, Love and Obstacles (Riverhead Books). Accepting the prize on Sept. 12, Hemon said, "I was going to quit after this book. Now it turns out I'm mid-career."

The Aug. 9 Booklist said Suzanne Slade's new book, What's New at the Zoo? An Animal Adding Adventure, makes learning adding a "game more than a chore" for emergent readers.

Influential British literary magazine Granta devoted its fall issue to Chicago, with writing by SMA members Stuart Dybek and Aleksandar Hemon, among other local writers.

After President Obama's health care speech, John Wasik wrote on a posting that if meaningful health care reform doesn't pass, life in the United States will be inhumane and the nation will begin to look like Great Britain after World War I – "hobbled and facing unrelenting poverty." In other Wasik news, he was scheduled to discuss his book The Cul de Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream. Alumni Author Series: John Wasik Oct. 13 at the Richard J. Daley Library, 801 S. Morgan St.

In February in an interactive history lesson, storyteller Christine Mitchell, dressed in 1890s garb, will present a reenactment of Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriette Gillem Robinet at the Peachtree City, Ga., library.

Robin Marvel's Web site is changing to Her e-mail is changing to

Biblio File correspondent Craig Sautter sent along a Sept. 10 NPR piece by Sara Paretsky in which she says, "From early childhood, I've loved books about underdogs, where heroines only triumph after they've paid their dues. Nancy Drew didn't speak to me: Rich and omnicapable, her life bore no resemblance to my own. She could not compare with Jo March, Anne of Green Gables or Jane Eyre. Call me perverse, but I've always identified with heroines who suffer before they succeed."

This month, Poisoned Pen Press will re-release Libby Fischer Hellmann's third novel, An Image of Death, in trade paperback.

Stephen Kinzer was scheduled to be at the University of Central Oklahoma Sept. 28 to raise the question: "Turkey: America's New Best Friend?"

Linda Nemec Foster [See New Books, Page 5] is scheduled to do a number of readings and presentations for her new poetry book, Talking Diamonds. Libraries, bookstores, and colleges in the Midwest have invited Foster to read in the fall and spring. In the Chicago area, she will participate in a reading and panel discussion at Loyola University on Nov. 12 for an all-day colloquium on women, poetry, and faith.

You can go to the following link to watch a short preview of Jacquelyn Mitchard's latest novel, No Time to Wave Goodbye (See New Books, August/September Literary License) mitchard-notime.htm.

Lake Claremont Press is readying the second edition of Hollywood on Lake Michigan: Chicago and the Movies by Michael Corcoran and Arnie Bernstein. Publication is scheduled for end of the year. On Oct. 19, Bernstein and John Schultz were scheduled to be among the panelists for "Bring the Reader In: Fiction Techniques in Nonfiction" at Columbia College Chicago.

Past SMA President James L. Merriner is giving the fall lecture in the Edgar Speaker Series at Eastern Illinois University on Nov. 18. His speech asks, "Can Reform Ever Come to Illinois?"

George Castle is working on his 11th baseball book since 1998. It's an oral history of the game in the 1970s, a transformative decade that introduced free agency, the designated hitter, night World Series games, setup men in the bullpen and a host of other things. Lyons Press will publish the book, tentatively titled Baseball's Real Golden Age, at the end of the 2010 season. Castle admits he got lucky – his syndicated Diamond Gems radio show has featured numerous interviews on his subject, so he's "stealing" from himself in transcribing the oral history.

Rosina Neginsky is in Europe this month on a lecture trip. She says she is doing a signing and a presentation of her book of poetry in Paris and is giving two talks at conferences.

Here's the latest update in the battle between Stuart Meck and Jim Schwab to achieve greater fame than the other (Part I was chronicled in the previous Literary License): Schwab completed a one-week swing through the Gulf Coast in mid-October, visiting both Galveston and New Orleans. In Galveston, Jim spoke on Oct. 8 at the Texas Chapter conference of the American Planning Association on a panel addressing long-term recovery following Hurricane Ike, which devastated Galveston and nearby areas on Sept. 13, 2008. The following day he joined a tour of the city led by local planners explaining what had happened and what the city was doing. In New Orleans, Jim was working with the University of New Orleans on development of curriculum for a new specialization in hazards planning within UNO's graduate program in urban planning, and spoke to faculty and students at a luncheon about Hurricane Katrina and what could have happened differently. The next day he was the guest speaker for a luncheon at City Hall that included a number of top city officials and other guests. Meanwhile, Planning, APA's monthly magazine, published "Winds of Change," an article by Jim about planning for hurricanes and what we are still learning in places like Florida and Texas. Back in August, Jim also delivered a lecture at the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C., about planning for urban forestry, followed the next day by a Web cast on the same topic hosted by Alliance for Community Trees. On Dec. 5, Jim is also slated to talk about that topic in Monterey, Calif., for the American Society of Consulting Arborists. (Take that, Stuart.)

Here's Arnie Bernstein's report from the Celebration of the Book festival at the Grand Rapids Library: "Great day today. Did a panel with Mardi Link and hung with Kristina Riggle for a bit. When I was introduced before my panel discussion with Mardi, the moderator read from my bio that I'm on the SMA board. I did the Chicago-Grand Rapids-Chicago round trip in one day; thank you coffee, Diet Coke and Red Bull!"

2007 SMA Adult Fiction finalist Sam Savage has a new book out, The Cry of the Sloth (No, it's not about an SMA member who hasn't yet sent in the membership renewal).

Sean B. Carroll, who won the 2006 SMA Adult Nonfiction Award for Endless Forms Most Beautiful is author of Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species, which is up for a National Book Award. Carroll contributed an Oct. 20 New York Times Science Times article headlined: "For Fish in Coral Reefs, It's Useful to Be Smart."

An Uplifting Story about a Plane that went Down

Jeffrey Zaslow's new book, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters (William Morrow), co-authored with Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III, is an inspirational autobiography of the pilot who successfully landed a severely damaged US Airways plane in New York's Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew. The book came out on Oct. 13. Zaslow also is author of The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship, co-author of The Last Lecture and author of Tell Me All About It: A Personal Look at the Advice Business by "the Man Who Replaced Ann Landers."

Literary License: You already knew the central story when you started this project. Were there any surprises for you along the way?

Jeffrey Zaslow: The book traces how Sully's entire life and career – his upbringing, the losses in his own family, his attention to safety issues – led him safely to the Hudson River. It wasn't just a five-minute flight. All his experiences made him who he was, and able to do what he did. After the flight, he had post-traumatic stress issues. He couldn't sleep or concentrate. And what was most surprising and moving to me was that he came to realize: Like the other 154 people on the plane, he is also a survivor. He got to go home to his family. He wants to always remain aware of that. It was a gift.

Literary License: How did you get involved in this story?

Jeffrey Zaslow: Sully had read The Last Lecture and was looking for a co-author. We met, connected, and since the book had to be written very fast, we both jumped in and worked extremely hard – seven days a week – for about four months.

Literary License: Was it a challenge to write an entire book whose central incident lasted just five minutes, eight seconds?

Jeffrey Zaslow: Not really. Sully has riveting stories in his life, a lot of them very moving, and he's so articulate and thoughtful in telling them. I was touched by stories about his marriage and the adoption of his two daughters. His experiences as a military pilot and a commercial pilot are terrific also. It wasn't hard to connect his entire life to Flight 1549 ... including the loss of his dad to suicide. He said he has tried his best to save lives because he couldn't save his father.

Literary License: What's your favorite part of the book?

Jeffrey Zaslow: I think the 80 pages covering the flight and the aftermath move very fast and can't help but keep readers engaged. And I was moved by the stories of how the flight touched a lot of strangers. It was surprising to Sully how deeply his story resonates with people, and it was meaningful to describe this in the book.

Literary License: Do you know yet what your next project is?

Jeffrey Zaslow: I'm back at the Wall Street Journal. I probably will write another book, though I'm not sure yet of the topic. I've just been involved in three books – Highest Duty, The Last Lecture and The Girls From Ames – so I'm a little weary. But it really was an honor to work on all of them.

New Books

Ted Kooser's new book (Sept. 1, Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press) recounts family stories that had been handed down until, as his mother lay ill and dying, he felt an urgency to write them down. Kooser said writing this book is the most important work he has ever undertaken.

'S' is for Story: A Writer's Alphabet (Sept. 9, Sleeping Bear Press, ages 9-12) is Esther Hershenhorn's new book. On Sept. 12, the Chicago Tribune said of the book, "Hershenhorn is experienced as an author and writing coach; that experience shows."

Of Losing Season (Sept. 30, Cavankerry) by Jack Ridl, SMA member Richard Jones wrote: "Losing Season isn't just a great book of poetry, for it is much more than that – it is more like the Great American novel we have long hoped would grace our literary landscape."

In Steven Burgauer's new book, In the Shadow of Omen, it's Year 2433. Mars is caught in the throes of early colonization. For 1,000 years every gulag has been the same. The same drawn faces. The same haunting vacant stares. Then comes Carina Matthews. Rebellious. Feisty. Intelligent. And her crime? Upsetting the status quo.

CityFiles Press is back again with a new book: Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home. Richard Cahan and Michael Williams have uncovered a new story, that of a Chicago artist who used recycled material to turn old homes into works of art. This 400-page book, with an amazing number of color photos, sheds light on a man who is a legend in the Chicago architectural community. His four apartment complexes have changed over the decades, but much of his work and the spirit he brought to each home remains.

Many people probably have never heard of Edgar Miller, but then they never had heard of Richard Nickel, either, the subject of Cahan's 1995 book They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture.

Stephen G. Bloom's nonfiction The Secret of Pearls (November, St. Martin's Press) is described as "a swashbuckling Indiana Jones saga that takes readers around the globe on a dazzling adventure to seek the world's most dazzling gems." To research the book, Bloom worked as a pearling deckhand in the Timor Sea and tromped through Philippine jungles.

Here's what Bloom told Literary License: "Tears of Mermaids is a rough-and-tumble nonfiction detective story – which actually began 25 years ago when I was a reporter for the Dallas Morning News and wrote a quirky story about a year in the life of a tuxedo jacket.

"The jacket, model 18214, had gone on four Caribbean cruises, not just a few weddings, and a slew of proms. One man, Renter 46, told me he'd worn 18214 while on an Alaska cruise with a woman who was not his wife. He asked me to withhold his name, a request I honored.

"Years later, I wondered if my direction had been wrong. What would have happened had I moved backward in time – to where the jacket's fibers had been grown, who gathered the crop and how, where it had been spun into cloth, who had sewn on the buttons?

"That's what I tried to do in Tears of Mermaids: Tracking the hopscotch world route from creation to consumption. Who were the nurturers at whose hands any object took shape? What kind of lives did each along this global assembly line lead? Did the goods they produced have any meaning to them? After the goods were manufactured, how many middlemen traded them along the way, and by what amount did each hike the price? What were their stories?

"But why pearls? I've carried a torch for these luminescent orbs ever since I was a little boy.

"My favorite book was The Pearl, which I must have read 20 times. I had (and still have) a wild crush on Holly Golightly, the Audrey Hepburn character in the 1961 film "Breakfast at Tiffany's," bedecked in those exquisite pearl strands while peering into Tiffany's window on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. Princess Grace, Jackie Kennedy, and Princess Diana were beautiful women, yes, but what sealed their sophistication and charm for me wasn't their looks, it was the pearls they wore."

A Short History of Oak Park: Volume 1, 2004-2005 (a Blithe Spirit Publication) by former Society of Midland Authors President Jim Bowman is available now at $5 to download, $14 for the book. It's based on his Wednesday Journal columns of those years. They drew on his lifelong affiliation with Oak Park, the world's once-largest village and home of Hemingway, Rice Burroughs and Ray Kroc.

USAF Interceptors: A Military Photo Logbook (1946-1979) (November, Speciality Press) is David R. McLaren's 12th book and his third book co-written with Marty Isham.

Claude Walker's Seminole Smoke (September, iUniverse) tells the story of Paul Turtle, a 19th century Seminole who rises from translator to guerrilla strategist to diplomat. Spanning 54 years, the saga takes place in Florida swamps, Mexico's hills and the corridors of Congress.

J. Patrick Lewis' new book is Countdown to Summer: A Poem for Every Day of the School Year (July 1, Little, Brown Young Readers).

Linda Nemec Foster's ninth collection of poems, Talking Diamonds, was published in September by New Issues Press (Western Michigan University). Lisel Mueller writes, "In this luminous new book ... Linda Nemec Foster shows us that there are no 'ordinary' lives, that each life is meaningful and even magical, whether we know it or not. The brilliance and power of Foster's language, which has been evident in earlier volumes, is even stronger in this book." And Stuart Dybek adds, "... Foster has demanded from her poetry an artfulness that engages ... life. With each new book, her work has continued to mature, deepen, console, surprise, and Talking Diamonds is as wise as it is lovely."

Barbara Garland Polikoff's eighth book Bones: Poems and Photographs for Kids and Other People (AuthorHouse) was published in June. It is a collection of favorite poems among her children, grandchildren and students in Chicago Public Schools, where she has taught creative writing as a volunteer for 25 years.

It is her second book as a photographer as well as a writer.

Publishers Weekly said: "Effervescing with humor. ... This little book packs quite a wallop!"

Not to be outdone by Barbara Garland Polikoff, Alexander Polikoff also has a new book: The Path Still Open (June 24, 2009, Dog Ear Publishing), in which he argues there is still time to bring peace, justice and beauty to the world.

Using the metaphor of passengers on a boat, he considers both the condition of our warming planet and – from the Big Bang to Iraq – the triumphs and failures of its passengers.

This look at an imperiled vessel and a history pervaded by the scourge of war leads to a bleak prognosis.

But Jonathan Schell offers an explanation for those occasions when superior force has succumbed to the "lesser force" of common people, and Paul Hawken, finding millions of common people already hard at work confronting despair, power, and incalculable odds.

Though it's a long shot, Polikoff concludes that if the strongest passenger can step back from empire, embrace a new consciousness, and lead the others toward Schell's "cooperative power," there is still time to bring peace, justice, and beauty to the world.

Thorough Book Research is hard to do without Flail

For banjo players, there's a strumming method called frailing.

For years, author Luis Alberto Urrea employed a similarly named method for his research: flailing.

"I was not trained to do research," says Urrea, who needed 20 years of digging to gather material for his novel The Hummingbird's Daughter. "I flailed. It's probably one of the reasons it took 20 years."

Urrea, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who teaches English and creative writing, is a prolific author of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. His most recent book, Into the Beautiful North, is his 12th, and that doesn't count additional work that appears in anthologies.

So how did he accomplish so much despite the flailing? Well, he did have one advantage.

"One of the great blessings for me is that Cindy, my wife, is an investigative reporter," Urrea says. "She has those journalism techniques down."

But Urrea also learned another technique on his own that other authors can employ even if their spouses don't know how to dig for facts.

"I learned to rely heavily on local experts," says the Tijuana-born Urrea, who came to Chicago in 1999. "It took me a while to figure that out."

The Hummingbird's Daughter is a sweeping historical novel that tells the story of Teresita, who is based on the true story of Urrea's great-aunt Teresa. Filming will begin on the movie version in January, and Urrea is working on a sequel scheduled to come out in 2010 or 2011.

"I did a lot of legwork in El Paso," says Urrea, who was nominated for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for The Devil's Highway. "I did some historical snooping in St. Louis. Most of the research is looking for a little telling detail.

"Some cool stuff shows up. It turns out she hung out with a guy who was kind of comedic figure, an ineffectual Mexican spy who was trying to be the first man to make an airplane. He was always out in the desert with these bizare machines trying to make them fly."

Those kinds of details, Urrea says, add richness to a story.

In New York, Urrea went to a library and ran into an about-to-retire librarian who was a New York history buff, providing helpful information. Similarly, when Urrea went to a church that Teresa had visited, he had the good fortune to run into the church historian.

A running theme in Urrea's works is the U.S.-Mexico border. Urrea was born in Tijuana, Mexico, studied in California and Colorado and taught in Louisiana and Harvard before coming to Chicago. He draws on his own experiences as well as research.

For example, the movie theater in Urrea's new book is based on a real theater in the hometown of his father's family.

"We used to go down there to spend time [even though] it is kind of insane to go south of the Tropic of Cancer at the hottest time of year," he says. "This movie theater was really cheap because the people didn't have a lot of money. It had a double feature about every two days.

"They would show weird dubbed or subtitled versions of movies. I remember seeing 'War Wagon' with John Wayne, dubbed in German.

"It just stuck with me. When I was thinking about the novel, that moment came back to to me."

In the book, a showing of "The Magnificent Seven" at the Mexican village's theater inspires the characters to head north from the bandido-beset village in search of the men who have gone to the United States.

The bottom line you are flailing, when you'd rather listen to a banjo's frailing? Effort in research will unearth good stories that strike the right chord.

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