A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to make it into a special, yearlong writing class offered through StoryStudioChicago, a writing center located in the Windy City. The class, called “Novel-in-A-Year,” was to be led by one of my writing heroes, Rebecca Makkai, author of the hit 2018 novel THE GREAT BELIEVERS.
Prospective students had to submit ten pages of their WIP (that’s writer-speak for “work in progress”) to be considered, and we learned during our first class session there were a whopping 55 applicants—which means Makkai had to read 550 pages in order to narrow the group to just thirteen. Having “made the cut,” she told our cohort, we should not question ourselves as writers.
Each month from August 2019 to March 2020 I rode AMTRAK’s California Zephyr from Osceola, IA (a 40-minute drive from Winterset), to Chicago’s Union Station to attend a three-hour, in-person session in StoryStudio’s cozy parlor. We discussed fiction in general, absorbed craft wisdom from Rebecca, and critiqued each other’s work. We met up in bars before class and sometimes rode the el train together afterwards. By the time the global pandemic shoved us into Zoom we knew each other pretty well.
Getting one’s book-length fiction published is no easy feat, but it’s been happening recently for members of my Chicago writing clan. THE LOST SON, a novel by classmate Stephanie Vanderslice, is the story of protagonist Julia Kruse’s quest to find the son who was kidnapped as an infant by his father and the baby’s nurse. Julia’s journey takes us from Depression-Era Queens, New York, to the German front lines during the last days of WWII. I sped through the book from cover to cover, anxious for Julia to succeed, eager to learn just how she might. THE LOST SON is excellent historical fiction.
I devoured cohort-member Ryan Elliott Smith’s collection of short stories, FLY OVER THIS, STORIES FROM THE NEW MIDWEST, as I traveled to Chicago a couple of weeks ago to attend StoryStudio’s fundraiser, StoryBall. I knew I would see Ryan at the event and could get his autograph in person. I opened FLY OVER THIS as my plane lifted off in Des Moines, kept my place with my thumb as I hurried to the Blue Line station at O’Hare, and had my nose back in it as I jostled to my stop downtown. I loved all of Ryan’s stories, but especially the opener, “That Day Where You Live,” and the sweetly sad closer, “A Parent Life.”
You can purchase both of these titles from my favorite independent bookseller, Fair Isle Books, located on Washington Island, WI. Fair Isle is one of the smallest bookshops in the world, but its owner (Deb Wayman), has access to over 7,000,000 titles and will happily source and ship your order to your address. Just type the title in the search bar at the top of the page linked above.