Monday
Dec082014

Maxine Clair Q&A

We just published Maxine Clair's wonderful memoir/guide to creativity Imagine This--here is more from Maxine about her remarkable career journey and the story behind her new book.

Photo credit: Carol Clayton Photography

Your books always drew from the well of autobiography, to some degree, but Imagine This is the first that contains overtly autobiographical sections. Did you ever imagine you would write this?

My life and how I have experienced it is what I know. Memory and imagination are very closely aligned whether I’m writing actual fact or fiction. That familiar ground informs my writing process and the content. In my character-driven stories, the characters, events, and situations are invented. But their emotional and psychological responses to life come through the filter of what I know: as a maker, how aware I am of realistic possibilities. Stories flow from that. Universality flows from that combination. I am always pursuing expansiveness for my characters whether we call it “coming of age” or “coming to terms with life.” Inner conflict gives rise to outer conflict, and resolution follows the same inner-outer pattern. At some point, I wanted to go beyond the mental or psychological inner conflicts and explore metaphysical principles as the deeper cause and effect. The nonfiction form seemed to be the best fit, and so I chose it for Imagine This. In writing the book, I got to play just as deeply in language as I do in fiction. Though memoir can get dicey when I tease out what is and is not relevant to the work at hand, autobiography offers no such choice. For me, that’s the good news. Autobiography is necessarily a voluminous venture. I never imagined that I would not write memoir. And I never imagined that I would not find a way to include the metaphysical. 

Did you find the shift from fiction to nonfiction difficult? Has it affected your prose or identity as a writer?

There was a clear hiatus in my writing, a time when I wondered if I would ever write another conflict-resolution story. With Imagine This, the difficulty in navigating the shift to nonfiction had more to do with sustaining coherence between the narrative slices of memoir and exposition that includes how-to exercises and examples. I did not consciously adopt other stylistic elements; my voice is my voice and I trust that that will always come through in the prose. Usually there is a moral imperative, and I must find a way to tease it out. I was aware of reining in my imagination when it wanted to take over the narrative. There seems to be a little more leeway for poetic elements to creep in as I write stories. Yet, in writing Imagine This, I found a sufficient degree of “poetic” freedom—it is hoped—to ward off any persistent infection of flat prose.

As far as identity is concerned, I am a writer. The marriage of content and form is a foundational notion to which I subscribe. The form is determined by what I wish to convey. These days, as long as the work is interesting, few readers outside the academy care what genre terms we use, or how we mix the elements. Critics, too, are probably willing to stretch definitions and hyphenate labels.

Who are your influences, in writing and life, and how have they made their presence felt in Imagine This?

I never like this question, because I don’t believe I can know all of the influences. Much of what influences us is unconscious. I am born into a certain place and time, and ideas and ways of expressing them can be pervasive throughout my sphere of living. But I will say what I have said many times, music is at the root of my love for language, and putting that together with any moral imperative, any idea that begs exploration can be put down in one form or another. Allowing that flow is my love for writing. My mother’s creatively-expressive music was my greatest conscious influence. Her gospel cadences shot through with jazz are still like cell memory, and that can never be lost. Improvisation finds its own way in language—consider the cross-over of scat-bob and rap. It found its way into my own voice. So maybe it’s in the DNA. When I encountered the women writers of the Black Arts Movement, like Toni, Alice, Lucille, N’tozake, Maya, June, Sonia, Nikki—I purposely omit surnames to illustrate the iconic stature of these women—there was a clear resonance. Rather than “influence” I believe I took permission from them. Yes, I stand on their shoulders, but at the time, they conveyed to me that it was entirely correct and life-affirming to make art of whatever you want to say in your own unique way, and let the power of it stand on its own merits. They expanded the canon for me when my vision of a canon was limited. Lo and behold, my voice was what having a “literary canon” was all about.

Did you find it difficult to wrestle concepts like creativity into practical, reproducible terms?

“Challenging” is a more accurate term for this undertaking. I was compelled to return again and again to my own simple, fundamental definition of creativity: bringing a no-thing into existence as something. Obviously this makes open-ended any discussion of the concept of creativity. It provides a platform from which I could marry the idea of creative expression as a portal to personal transformation, and some of the principles involved in manifesting anything in life. And since I could never put a dent in the volume of writings about such sweeping concepts, I could share my own experience of this avenue to transformation, which I see as a sacred journey. I believe that if Imagine This resonates with readers at all, it is because they are at a similar juncture in life. When you feel that there is more living inside of you than your life can contain, your life gets bigger. My conviction is that creative expression in any of limitless fields is a sure-thing avenue to a bigger life. I have spelled out ways of personal fulfillment and collective enrichment that come with such a venture.

Any final words of advice for struggling dream-seekers?

I want you to know that every life is uniquely remarkable. We can live making conscious choices about how we spend our time and energy or we can believe that life just happens to us. The choices you make about the work you would love to be doing are always tied to your life purpose, and will bring fulfillment. Finally, you create not what you want, but what you believe, and what you can accept. Wake up to wherever you are right now. Get clear about your passion. Keep going. The way to arrival and success is shorter now than it has ever been. 

Tuesday
Nov252014

Justice While Black: more today than ever

Today, the morning after the announcement of the grand jury proceedings over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it seems apropos to hear from Nick Chiles and Robbin Shipp, Esq., the authors of Justice While Black, published here just last month.

The events in Ferguson are once again shedding a harsh light on how police treat young black men. What does your book offer readers concerned about events like the shooting of Michael Brown?

Our book is entirely preoccupied with the incredibly hostile and sometimes deadly relationship between the African-American community and law enforcement in America. It was that hostile relationship which created the environment in Ferguson that led to the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson. Justice While Black delves into the history of the American police force, showing how it grew out of slave patrols, particularly in the American South. A reading of the history reveals that the police in America were created to control African Americans, not protect and serve them. This perspective puts the events in Ferguson into the proper historical context, showing that throughout the last century there have been regular explosions of black rage in response to outrageous police conduct. But Justice While Black also offers guidance to African Americans about how they might better protect themselves from police.

Why did you decide to write this book?

We began having discussions about the need for this book because Robbin was so disturbed by what she saw in her work as an attorney in Georgia. She felt she needed to do something to stem the never-ending flow of young black males she saw coming through the criminal justice system. After the death of Trayvon Martin, our urgency increased exponentially. We felt that we could write a book that would arm young males and females before they even stepped out into the street. If more of them were aware of the motivations and methods of the police, the ways the system works against them at every step, and how knowledge of their legal rights could protect them in encounters with the police, then more of them might arrive home alive.

How do you think readers should use this book?

They should read over the entire book to gain a thorough overview of how the system works. Then they should return to the chapters on racial profiling and the traffic stop and commit much of that information to memory—because these are often the situations where young African Americans will most likely succumb to the ploys used by law enforcement to get them in handcuffs. If we can instill in all of our young people a working knowledge of their rights, we might be able to start dismantling this country’s prison industrial complex.

What are some common mistakes people make when interacting with the police? 

Often, young people in particular relinquish their constitutional rights. For example: A police officer stops a vehicle with a busted taillight for operating with faulty equipment. When the driver is an African-American male, the officer will often ask to search the vehicle—whereas many non-African-Americans simply receive a ticket for the busted taillight. Rather than asserting their right to not allow the search, too many young people consent to the search. If drugs or weapons are found in the vehicle, they then embark on an odyssey into the criminal justice system.

What kind of mistakes do people make when faced with the prosecution? 

Our human nature makes us want to attempt to talk our way out of everything, in order to make things better, to make problems go away. This is a huge mistake. Mistakenly believing that they can outsmart the system, young people think that if they tell investigators a good enough story, everything will go away. So they talk. And that talking too often gets them more entangled into whatever they are alleged to have done. They ignore the admonishment that they have the right to remain silent, and all of the other attendant rights associated with the right to remain silent.

Why was it important to include the chapters on the history of policing action against African-Americans and the prison industrial complex?

It is crucially important for readers to understand the historical context of the over-criminalization of the African-American community. Once you become aware of the historical role of the police in American society—which in many regions was to protect wealthy white Americas from the dark and angry hordes they feared were always on the verge of insurrection—it’s not difficult at all to understand how we reached the time and place where the murder of Michael Brown could happen. In this context, the police’s perceived need to quell explosions of racial outrage is clear. And once you understand how the prison industrial complex is a multibillion-dollar profit-making and employment system, you can see why the system seeks to put as many bodies behind bars as possible in order to sustain itself.

Robbin, you’ve been a defense attorney for a long time. Was there anything you learned while writing this book that took you by surprise?

To practice criminal-defense law as an African-American woman and mother for almost twenty years, I learned early on that I had to (for self-preservation) divorce myself from my emotions and merely represent individuals based upon the facts of their cases and the applicable laws. I was surprised to learn about the historical depth of the negative relationship between African-Americans and the police. Coupled with my increased understanding of the modern-day corporate imperatives that effectuate policing abuses around the country, this new knowledge destroyed my carefully constructed emotional distance, and caused me to see anew how African Americans are mistreated by our criminal justice system.

How have things changed over the 20 years you’ve been practicing law?

Things are more stressful. Courts have fewer resources to tap for alternative sentencing solutions. Numerically, more and more conduct by young people is being criminalized, not least because the prison system requires more young people in order to succeed.

Monday
Nov102014

Rosalyn Story on Maxine Clair and Imagine This

This week, Agate Bolden is publishing the latest book by acclaimed fiction writer Maxine Clair--the memoir Imagine This: Creating the Work You Love. I was introduced to Maxine by Rosalyn Story, whose own two novels are published by Agate Bolden, and who, I learned, has a life-long connection to Maxine and her family. What follows is a brief essay by Rosalyn about the impact Maxine's career and story has had on her own brilliant work. I can't think of a better and more meaningful way to mark the publication week of this important new book.
   
Maxine Clair, photo by Carol Clayton Photography
When I read Maxine Clair’s new book, Imagine This, I was struck by many things. The beauty and grace of a woman I have known since childhood. The fluid expression and craft of a brilliant writer and storyteller. And the evolution of an extraordinary life.

I met Maxine when I was about ten on visits to her house, around the corner from mine, in the all-black section of Kansas City, Kansas, immortalized by her award-winning first work of fiction, Rattlebone. Her younger sister and I were best friends. I’d come to the house for meals on “chalupa” night, when Maxine’s mom would cover the table with all manner of great food—hand-made flour tortillas, red beans, cheddar cheese, chili seasoned beef, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and sauce—to be pilled up and rolled into a gigantic, unwieldy, and wonderfully messy one-dish meal.

Maxine was already away at college by then, a star student at the University of Kansas, bound for a brilliant career as a medical technologist. On her visits home, I’d watch as she breezed in from a night with old high school friends, always with a genuine smile and kind words of acknowledgment to me, her kid sister’s buddy. My friendship with Linda put me in Maxine’s company many times during those years, and from a distance, I watched her develop into a beautiful, intelligent, confident young woman. I watched her rise in the world, and as little sisters (even honorary ones) do, wanted to emulate her.

When she married after college, Linda and I would sometimes babysit her young children. We’d put them to bed early and while the night away raiding the fridge and plowing through her phenomenal collection of jazz recordings: John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, and so many others.

Sometime after she moved to Washington, D.C. I learned of her struggles. A marriage that caused her pain, physically and mentally; four children to raise; and long hours of work in a field that was yielding less and less fulfillment, and becoming more and more bereft of joy.

Then something amazing happened: Maxine divorced, went back to school to study writing, and published a book of poetry.

Later she would not only receive a master’s from American University in writing, produce two more books—Rattlebone, winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland award, and October Suite— but also take on a full-time associate professorship in creative writing at D.C.’s George Washington University.

How she did this, with little money, no husband, four kids, and little encouragement from a world unkind to those who in mid-career opt for the risks of the creative life, seemed a mystery to me.

But I’m sure it was not as easy as it seemed. I’m sure there were moments of self-doubt, second guessing, and discomfort. I was never sure how she did it, but the fact that she did do it was enough to inspire me.

After Maxine’s first novel, October Suite, I was so inspired that I began to do something I’d always wanted to do: become a writer of novels myself. I was not unhappy in my job as a classical symphony violinist, but I knew that as a creative spirit, I had more to say. October Suite gave me the courage to set out on my own writer’s journey. And within a few years, Agate published my first novel, More Than You Know.

After reading Imagine This, I now know that Maxine’s evolution was not a function of luck or genius, or mystery. It was the result of challenging work—the work of daring to create your own reality. Imagine This is no ordinary self-help book. Using her own very touching and very personal story, Maxine shows how it is possible to live fully and consciously, fully immersed in that which gives you passion and joy, no matter how much or how little you have, no matter what you are going through, and no matter where or when you start.

Rosalyn Story

Monday
Oct272014

Jesmyn Ward, Heartland Prize winner

Here at Agate, we have special place in our heart for both the Heartland Prizes (Agate president Doug Seibold reviewed for the Tribune, and recommended to its prize committee, the first-ever Heartland fiction winner, Eric Larsen's An American Memory) and Jesmyn Ward, whose debut Where the Line Bleeds was published by Agate in 2008. Jesmyn Ward was just announced as the 2014 Heartland Prize winner for nonfiction for her most recent book, the memoir Men We Reaped, and this coming Saturday she'll be discussing the book with yet another Agate author, the Tribune's Pulitzer-winning columnist Mary Schmich, as part of the Chicago Humanites Festival. It should be a terrific event if you are in town to see it.

 

Tuesday
Oct142014

Indian for Everyone!

Today we're publishing Indian for Everyone, the third book by Anupy Singla, the bestselling Indian cookbook author of this decade. Here is a Q&A with Anupy to mark this publication date, where she talks about the new book, her earlier titles, and her new TV cooking show.

Why did you write Indian for Everyone?

I wanted to create the go-to Indian cookbook—the one you come home to once you’ve eaten that amazing meal at an Indian restaurant and you want to figure out how to replicate it. This is also a cookbook that I tried hard to design for everyone, regardless of eating preferences or dietary restrictions. My home is typically Indian-American in that we have lots of different dietary points of views. I am largely vegan-vegetarian. My husband eats meat. My kids are somewhere in the middle. Our friends are all over the place with their food choices. I wanted to write a cookbook that brings us all together, rather than one that divides us based on those kinds of food choices. This book celebrates diversity at the dinner table. Every recipe that typically showcases meat is also presented with a vegan alternative, along with tested cooking times and ingredient swaps. I wrote the book basically to fit with my own and my family’s lifestyle. I hope it’s one that many other families will also benefit from for years to come.

How do you think this book fits in with your previous two cookbooks, The Indian Slow Cooker and Vegan Indian Cooking?

I somehow wrote the niche books before writing this more general one. I like to think that this is the more evolved cookbook, the one that helps you deconstruct everyone’s favorite Indian recipes, shows you how to make them well, and then shows you ways to make them healthier. There are tips on making recipes vegan and even gluten-free. The other two books are definitely complementary. If you think about it, no day is truly exactly the same as the previous day. Maybe you uphold meatless Mondays in your home; maybe Tuesdays are extra-hectic, so you need to throw something into a slow cooker; and maybe, come the weekend, you want to sit down to a more elaborate meal. I like to think that my books will help you be any kind of cook you want to be on any given day, and help you get healthy, home-style Indian food on that dinner table for you, your family, and your friends.

What is the most common misconception about cooking Indian food that you’ve heard, and why is it wrong?

So many people think Indian food is complicated to make. This is truly not the case. The learning curve primarily has to do with getting your arms around the various spices and spice blends. Though some recipes have more steps or seem more complicated, the processes are similar. Once you figure out how to make a basic stir-fry or a curry, you often simply swap out key ingredients and a few spices for different dishes.

What advice can you offer to novice cooks of Indian food?

Leave behind your preconceived notions about Indian food. It has very little to do with curry powder or layers of cream. Indian food is flavorful, light, and incredibly healthy. I think most Americans are just beginning to discover how amazing it is. The health aspects of the spices alone are a great reason to include Indian food into your regular diet.

What role does food play in your own life? In your daughters’ lives?

I’m the kind of person who wakes up planning what I will eat for lunch and dinner. My girls are the same way. We are rarely satisfied with quick fixes from the supermarket—we like to enjoy homemade Indian food all the time. The fact that my girls like to take leftover dal (beans and lentils) to their teachers says a lot about how they feel about our cuisine and about their cultural roots. It’s something they take a lot of pride in—which was very much not the case with me when I was growing up as one of three Indian-Americans in my town outside of Philadelphia in the 1980s. For that reason alone, it’s been well worth developing my interest in traditional Indian cooking and writing these books.

What’s next for you?

I am developing my own cooking show, one that not only highlights great Indian food, but that does so from the specifically Indian-American point of view. As the Indian-American community has continued to grow, in numbers and prominence, I think there is a real opportunity there. I want to continue to develop more authentic Indian spices, spice blends, and simmering sauces and get them on grocery shelves across the country. All in all, my aim is to inspire everyone to cook and enjoy great, healthful Indian food at home.

 

Saturday
Oct042014

The greatest hot dog joint ever

Yesterday Hot Doug's closed, as has been widely reported in the local and national media. There have already been some great tributes and reflections on the glory that was Hot Doug's, and many are sure to follow. We're very proud to have been the publishers of Hot Doug's: The Book, the creation of which gave us plenty of opportunity to reflect on what made Hot Doug's so special.

I'm a sausage fan myself, so appreciating Hot Doug's was never a big stretch for me. I worked at a great hot dog place when I was in high school, and when I first came to Chicago in the late 80s, I lived two blocks or so from the original Gold Coast Dogs during its great run. When Hot Doug's came along, I couldn't have been more enthusiastic about Doug's just-right, serious but lighthearted approach to the humble glory that is the Chicago red hot.

Over its storied history, I think Hot Doug's ultimately achieved its greatness in fulfilling the ideal of what a true Chicago hot dog joint might be. One of the keys to its success is that Hot Doug’s never pretended to be anything else. But the Chicago hot dog joint is a wonderful thing. And to be the greatest hot dog joint ever is a ticket to deserved immortality.

What does this mean? There are a lot of other hot dog joints that in many respects are very similar to Hot Doug’s, with similar layouts, similar decor, and even similar basic menus (we’ll get to those fabled specials in a minute). Anyone who’s ever gotten a hot dog in this town is familiar with the format. What Doug did is set a standard that maybe no other hot dog purveyor has even aspired to, let alone reached.

Anthony Bourdain famously decreed that Hot Doug’s was one of the “thirteen places to eat before you die,” but when he did so, he wasn’t trying to suggest that patrons at Hot Doug’s would have the same kind of experience diners have at places like Alinea, Per Se, or Noma. He meant that what Doug brought to his work was the same kind of passion and joy that all great chefs bring to their restaurants—and that to find this kind of passion and joy hidden away in a neighborhood hot dog joint was a true wonder.

When I was working on Doug’s book last year, I was also working with Sanford D’Amato on his book, Good Stock, about his own legendary career as a nationally celebrated chef. I heard Sandy stress more than once that when it comes to making great food, what matters is the passion and commitment the cook brings to its preparation, more than the particular dish. Every dish is elevated by what its cook brings to making it. At the same time, I was also working with Paula Haney on The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie, which reveals what happens when a great pastry chef decides to devote herself to that most familiar of desserts.

In the end, it came down to the food, as it should for any great restaurant. Hot Doug’s reputation really took off when Doug famously began exploring the rococo outer dimensions of exotic and game sausages, served with extravagant complements--toppings, condiments, and buns--to match. Like everyone who ate there over the past decade or so, I waited in some very lengthy lines to get my meal, and that meal never failed to gratify. I never had a meal at Hot Doug’s that wasn’t well conceived, well executed, and well served. Hot Doug’s deserved every accolade it received. It fully lived up to its reputation, a reputation Doug Sohn never stopped earning every day its doors were open. It was the greatest hot dog joint ever.

 

Thursday
Sep182014

Clarence Page, "culture worrier"

This week Agate is publishing Clarence Page's career-spanning collection Culture Worrier: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change, and to mark the occasion we offer this Q&A with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. Keep your eyes and ears peeled: Page will be making appearances a variety of television and radio shows, as well as at venues in Chicago and Washington, DC in the weeks ahead.

You’ve been writing your column for three decades now. How much has your perspective evolved over the years?

I used to be troubled by negative mail. Then I learned to stop taking it personally. When a person who castigates me like pond scum one week praises me as a national hero after I’ve written something with which they agree, I realize that it is my opinion that they are responding to, not to me. Let ‘em vent. It’s cheaper than therapy.

What do you think gives your column such a broad appeal?

I’m pleased when readers say, “I don’t agree with you much, but I appreciate knowing where you stand.” I think when people turn to the opinion pages sof their newspaper, they expect to read some opinions—strong, clearly defined, and offering enough information and insight to help them form an opinion of their own, whether they agree with mine or not. I try to include a few laughs where appropriate, too.

There’s so much information exploding all around us every day through different media, I’m delighted to hear a reader say they liked a column so much they pinned it to the door of their refrigerator. That’s great. That’s the place for the most important messages in many family’s households—like mine. I call it the Refrigerator Pulitzer. Every columnist wants to connect with their readers with that deep degree of passion.

You’ve garnered a reputation as an unbiased critic unafraid to strike at either side of the aisle. How do you maintain this balance in your writing and TV appearances?

I try to set my moral compass to what’s best for America’s families, not what’s best for a particular political party or interest group. That can be tough sometimes, not when I’m criticized by the relentless grumps but when I am criticized by someone from my own opinion tribe who says, “I thought you were on our side.” I assure them, “I am on your side, even when I offer bitter medicine. It may be hard to swallow but it’s good for you.”

My perspective hasn’t changed much, but the world has. I’ve always portrayed myself as a good Midwestern, middle-of-the-road voice for the sensible center. I am amused when people paint me as a hard-core liberal or hard-core conservative, based on the same column!

But as true right-wingers have gotten a stronger voice in Congress and the media, I am often viewed as a liberal simply because I don’t call myself a conservative. I still defend a lot of conservative ideas when I think they offer a reasonable alternative to what liberals are offering. But I have learned better than to expect many conservatives to give me credit for that.

How has your identity as an African American informed the politics of your column?

It’s interesting to me that I and every other black columnist I know get occasional complaints from conservatives that we write about race “all the time.” I don’t write about race all the time, but the very fact that so many people seem to see race in my columns tell me just how intensely feelings about race, among other tribal considerations, inform everybody’s politics—whether they want to acknowledge it publicly or not. As an African American who grew up in the last days of Jim Crow segregation and the hard-won victories of the civil rights revolution, I write about racial issues more often than most white columnists do. But when I write about climate change, mortgage defaults, student loans, the obesity epidemic, the future of public education, are those racial issues? Maybe not on the surface, but my experience informs my awareness of how differently those issues play out in white communities compared to communities of color.

Similarly, growing up in a black, low-income community but attending integrated schools helps me to understand that you don’t have to be black to be poor in America. In fact, white poor outnumber black and Hispanic poor, even though a lower percentage of whites are in poverty. Yet you’d hardly know that from the coverage that poverty usually receives in daily news reports. As a result, I can’t mention that fact on a radio program, for example, without hearing from some white person who wants to know my source for that, as if they can’t believe it. My source is the Census Bureau. But growing up black in America has made me more sensitive to the value of facts against a flood of rumors and the importance of empathizing with disadvantaged people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, or other background.

Have you found it difficult to try to keep ahead of the curve after over thirty years in journalism?

It is rather unsettling to have your world shaken up as much as the world of media has been rattled in recent years. I thought, for example, that I would never squeeze my bulging imagination into the tight little girdle of Twitter. But, counseled by my millennial-generation son, I love it now. It’s not only fun but an easy way to direct people to my column to get a longer read. Of course, my growing appreciation for Twitter means that my son and his crowd are doing what they did when us boomers took over Facebook. They’re moving onto something newer that I don’t understand—like Instagram.

But what I find reassuring is that the fundamentals of journalism remain in place. Whatever the medium of conveyance might be, people still want reliable news and opinions. They’ve only got so much time to spend with their media, so we in the media still have to compete for their valuable time and loyalty. Even though the competition grows increasingly fierce, I find it’s invigorating. It keeps me young—maybe young enough to figure out Instagram.

Who are the journalists you most enjoy reading today?

I’m surprised and saddened by how many of them are dead. Mike Royko, Molly Ivins, James Baldwin, Louis Grizzard, Art Buchwald and Erma Bombeck are a few of the columnists that excited and amazed me over the years with their fresh points of view, lively wit, and most significantly, their ear for the language, issues, and attitudes of the people and communities that nurtured them. Reading Royko you could almost hear the voices of the Eastern European men in his father’s tavern hashing out the issues of the day over shots and beers. Reading Baldwin’s essays you can hear the voice of a black kid who grew up with more religion than money in the Harlem ghetto of his time, trying to hash out the ethical contradictions of the world around him. Voices as old as Damon Runyon and Frederick Douglass that shaped my own approach to writing still amaze me with how robustly they live long after their creators are gone.

Among the living, I’d say I admire David Brooks for his tireless search for new ideas regardless of the politics involved, Nicholas Kristof for calling attention to stories the rest of media ignore too often (like the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls), Kathleen Parker as a witty outside-NYC counterpoint to Maureen Dowd—whom I also love to read—and my Pulitzer-winning pal Leonard Pitts who has breathed new life into the column-writing trade at a time when his voice is very much needed. This is, of course, not a complete list.

Wednesday
Sep172014

"Difference is not deviance"

A terrific interview with Charles M. Blow, the New York Times columnist whose new book, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, is just coming out.

Monday
Sep152014

How to flourish in any role at work

Four simple tips, courtesy of the young entrepreneur Katrina Lake, as seen at the Tribune's Blue Sky business and innovation portal. I'm not always a fan of this kind of short, sweet professional advice, but these are admirably crisp.

Wednesday
Sep102014

The employment economy for English and writing majors

This subject is broached in an appealingly world-weary essay at The Millions by Cathy Day, though it's compromised a bit (just a bit) by the little flash of sentiment at the end.

Yes, the humanities are worth studying, devoting one's life to, etc., etc., says this English major (whose own two children are studying or planning to study literature in college). But can't we do better when it comes to preparing these students for the reality of the work world?

This should not be an either/or proposition. Agate's internship program has, over the years, evolved into a training program for future publishing professionals, and we spend a lot of time talking to our interns about the nuts and bolts of the intellectual property economy in general, and the publishing work world in particular. It's astonishing how little they seem to know about this sort of thing before they get here. Perhaps that's what programs like Agate's internship are for--to train and inform these new professionals in just this way. But wouldn't everyone involved be better served if students learned more about these issues when they prepare to declare their majors? I hope this responsibility doesn't fall solely on teachers like Cathy Day, to be delivered student by clueless student--though clearly, she is up to the task.

Monday
Sep082014

What we're looking for right now

Interested in submitting book ideas to Agate? Here are the things we're most interested in considering this fall:

1. For our Bolden imprint, which is devoted solely to African-American writers: memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies for our "Bolden Lives" line, as well novels with strong literary voices that are alert to readers' appetite for great storytelling.

2. For our Midway imprint, nonfiction about the life and culture of Chicago in particular and the Midwest in general.

3. For our B2 imprint, we're always looking for books about improving workplace experience and improving workplace performance, but right now we're particularly interested in books about workplace culture, and peoples' experience of work.

4. For our Surrey imprint, health-oriented cookbooks are our staple, but right now we're also interested in books about food culture.

We welcome hearing from you! Please feel free to email us (no phone calls or hard-copy mailings, please) with your ideas, proposals, and manuscripts.

Friday
Sep052014

Kiese Laymon's Long Division wins Saroyan Prize

In recognition of this richly deserved award, we're re-posting this Q&A with Kiese Laymon, whose Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America were published by Agate in summer 2013.

What inspired Long Division?

Like most of the kids I grew up with, I wanted to spend most of my time outside playing football or basketball, or wrestling. Unlike most of the kids I grew up with, my mother wouldn’t let me go outside unless I read “classic” books—A Tale of Two Cities, Treasure Island, and later, Absalom, Absalom! Then I’d have to write essays about what was so great about those books. I got good at it not because I liked those books but because I wanted to go outside and play with my friends.

            By the time I was 18, I’d read all those classic books my mother made me read, and I’d also read a ton of books by black Southern writers. I loved some of those books but I was also hypercritical of them. I had a professor, Calvin Hernton, who said the best way to critique art was through the creation of alternative art. The book was born from this impulse. I had started two different stories, both of which were ultimately concerned with the limits of love and history. I wanted to create a book within a book that was really two love stories, possibly told from the same consciousness. I also wanted to create a book that was in conversation with Kindred, Invisible Man, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Bluest Eye, The Catcher in the Rye, The Color Purple, Black Boy, The White Boy Shuffle, and all those “classics” my mother would make me read before I was allowed to go outside.

What does being a Southern writer mean to you?

Being a Southern writer means that I write to and from a group of people that a lot of other American writers neglect. I feel a responsibility to the richest artistic region on Earth. In my opinion, Southern literature and Southern music have shaped America more profoundly than work from any other region. 

Who are your heroes, on the page and elsewhere?

B.B. King, Alice Walker, Mahalia Jackson, Richard Wright, Jesmyn Ward, Outkast, William Faulkner, Catherine Coleman, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin, and all those kids who died fighting for my freedom in Mississippi.

Your 2012 Gawker essay, “How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” received a huge amount of attention when it was first published. Why do you think it struck such a chord among so many people?

I thought a lot of people would enjoy the essay because of its musicality, content, and pace, but I didn’t think it would stick with so many people. I knew it was something that we haven’t seen a lot of on the Internet, especially in terms of my decision to write it in present tense. I also think that people were really ready for a different expository approach to the American gun and race narrative. 

How much of your own experience is reflected in the novel?

My mother had me when she was pretty young, and I was sent to my grandmother’s house in rural Mississippi whenever I was too much for my mother to handle. I spent a lot of time at Grandma’s just watching, listening to her interact with the craziest, most amazing folks I’d ever met. I also spent a lot of time playing in the woods across the road from her house. One summer, I found this hole that I convinced myself was a time tunnel. I was too afraid to really explore the hole, but I was sure that it was my portal to the future. The grandmothers in the book are really different from my own grandmother, and I’m really different from the City characters we meet, but the woods in Long Division are the same woods I played in as a child.

What was the most difficult part about writing Long Division?

The most difficult part was finding the right way to distinguish the 1985 City from 2013 City. The narrative voices needed to be similar but they also needed to differ due to changes in pop culture, technology, and the passage of time. I wanted their relationships to the language of love and heartbreak to be fairly distinguishable. There’s a point early in the book where City says to the reader, “That felt like love to me.” Simple sentence. The 1985 City, who’s much less rhetorically sophisticated, just isn’t capable of that kind of absolute earnestness, at least not initially. The second most difficult part was writing the final scene with Baize. It scared me. I didn’t want to write it.

What role does humor play in the novel and in your writing in general?

I don’t trust people or writing that are afraid of laughter. I think this book is dark in many ways, filled with critiques of race, gender, geography, and the nation as a whole. But I also hope people will think it’s a crazy funny book. Some of the humor is “look at me” stuff, but most of it, I hope, grows organically out of the character and narrative. There’s this really serious part in the book where Coach Stroud says to City, “You walk around here like a li’l head buster. Just remember that you got a head, too.” Coach is so sincere. And in that moment, City is genuinely afraid Coach is about to chop him in his esophagus. I’ve reread and rewritten that section hundreds of time, and it’s still funny to me, though neither of the characters think it’s funny at the time.

Who is this book for?

This book is for Americans who were teenagers in 2013, 1985, or 1964. It’s a book for lazy writers, ambitious readers, and all those people who feel like they’ve never been written to before.

Friday
Aug292014

Jazz!

With Chicago's great jazz festival unfolding this weekend, it's a great time to direct your attention to Agate Digital's newest ebook release, Portraits in Jazz, a collection of pieces by the Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich, which Howard himself recently announced in a wonderful feature in the Tribune. We loved Howard's idea to put Ella Fitzgerald on the cover--a great way to recognize the underappreciated contribution women have made to this music.

Tuesday
Aug262014

Swearing at the office

One thing we always tell new interns at Agate is that the staff people here are fairly unrestrained when it comes to profanity. This article has some interesting things to say about the whole phenomenon of swearing at work, but doesn't go into great depth as to how profanity--who uses it, when they use it, why they use it--affects the office environment at large. We try to be reasonably judicious about this kind of thing--usually, it's deployed as an effective means of releasing one's frustration with a difficult set of circumstances--but I find myself of two minds about it. Agate is a pretty informal place, and I hope it's a place where people feel comfortable saying what they think. But in an informal workplace, it can often be difficult for new people (especially those new to the workforce overall) to get a good feel for the unwritten rules that shape office culture. It's important for people to learn where the boundaries are--whether one is inclined to push those boundaries or to ensure one steers clear of them all together. After 30 years of contemplating these things, I find it's typically better to default to discretion and good manners, if not outright formality, when it comes to oral communication, and we encourage new people here to keep that in mind--even as we let them know that on occasion they might overhear some ear-melting invective issuing from a few desks over (and maybe even mine). Like most matters of language usage and communication, whether you use profanity is all about knowing your audience.

Thursday
Aug212014

The four-day work week

Monday
Aug182014

Charlie Trotter Day

The legacy lives on. Learn more about the highs and lows of the chef who transformed Chicago dining, and whose work helped shape culinary culture across the US.

Thursday
Aug072014

Meet O.H. Bennett

The new novel by O.H. Bennett, Recognition, was just released by our Bolden imprint a few weeks ago. It's already earned high praise from Publishers Weekly, and we think it's a terrific summer read--a twisty, engrossing story about a woman who, while passing a panhandler in her car, thinks she recognizes the face of the long-lost husband she's believed dead for the past decade. Below find a brief Q&A we did with Bennett, the author of four novels (two published by Agate Bolden) who lives outside Washington DC.

O.H. BennettWhat inspired you to write Recognition?

Recognition came from two ideas merging. One came from an article I’d read about a woman whose husband had disappeared. She never learned if he had been murdered or just walked away. I saw another news story about a mother who’d abandoned her family; she dropped her kids off at school, turned the car down the school driveway, and then kept going. Her family didn’t hear of her again for a dozen years. That sets you to wondering why people choose to kill their own lives. I walk to work from Union Station down the streets of DC and see the homeless, some sleeping under plastic tarps, some engrossed in conversation with what looks to the rest of us like air. We’ve all wondered how they got there, what it would take for us to be there. I imagined, what if I saw a homeless person one day and knew exactly who he was?

How did writing this book compare to your previous works?

This story stayed in my head without more than a sentence or two being put on paper for a very long time, years in fact. Then suddenly it wanted to be written and all other projects were pushed to the side. I think this book is a faster read than my other books. There’s only one viewpoint in Recognition and it zooms, or so my wife says.

Did you do any research for the book?

The research was conducted in pieces over a long period of time. It entailed volunteering in a soup kitchen, speaking with homeless individuals, and knowing of people who have vanished. I’ve seen homeless men cleaning up in the bathrooms of libraries and sitting on the same street corners day after day. I have known of people who drop out and fall off the radar as Warren Reynolds did. One always wonders how people get that point.

Who have been some of your own writing influences?

I have a host of favorite authors, but to the extent that they’ve influenced my work, I don’t know. I sure hope so. I am an admirer of the works of Edward P. Jones, Jesmyn Ward, Richard Bausch, and Ernest J. Gaines.

What’s next for you?

I hope ghosts are next. I’ve written a ghost story in which we find that ghosts, like the proverbial sound of a tree falling in the woods, need receptors in order to really exist. Someone has to make them real. I guess we choose, in this way, whether to be haunted or not. And I’ve also begun the biggest project of my writing life—but it is in the first trimester and so it is much too early to make any announcements. I believe in jinxes when it comes to novel writing.

Monday
Aug042014

James Brown, American genius

When I was editing the first book ever published by Agate, Jill Nelson's electrifying Sexual Healing, Jill and I spoke frequently, and reverently, of the unique power of James Brown's work, and the depth of his influence on American music. This terrific video from Slate illustrates, joyously, the impact of Brown's work as a dancer--which should be recognized as every bit as significant as his impact as a musician and bandleader. I am very happy that the new film Get On Up is bringing Brown's work the spotlight it deserves. There should be a national James Brown Day for celebrating his achievement.

 james brown 01

Tuesday
Jul222014

Rick Kogan on Chicago gangsters

Yes, it's a cliche, Rick Kogan of the Tribune says, but Chicago's association with violent gangsters in the public imagination seems immutable. Kogan has graciously contributed a foreword to our upcoming Tribune collaboration Gangsters & Grifters, which is coming in November and which is a followup of sorts to last year's Capone. These collections of archival, often rare or never-before-published photos from the 20s, 30s, and 40s bring that association to vivid, often grisly life.

Monday
Jul212014

On Sardinia, writing, and eating

The New York Times ran a lovely article about D.H. Lawrence's travels in Sardinia a few weekends back, and I've been meaning to share it here ever since reading it. Sardinia is a remarkable little place with a unique culture and history--as I learned when we decided to publish Viktorija Todorovska's IACP Award-nominated The Sardinian Cookbook last year.

Viktorija TodorovskaLike all of Viktorija's books, this one illuminates the traditions and landscapes of her subject while first focusing on its food. If you like this amusing article's story of how a present-day writer followed in Lawrence's footsteps while visiting Sardinia (in which I also learned that many of the classic 1960s spaghetti westerns were filmed in Sardinia), I hope you will like The Sardinian Cookbook, for what it has to say about this special Mediterranean island.

And yet somehow it has retained its thorny, intransigent, particularity--"lost between Europe and Africa, and belonging to nowhere," as Lawrence put it. It's that very betweeness, at once central and marginal to history, that drew him.