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Book Club Mon Nov 09 2015

All Lit Up: Mare Swallow (Part One)

All Lit Up features Chicago's "literati" discussing their work, lives, and favorite Chicago books at their favorite Chicago bookstores. This is the first part in a two-part conversation with Mare Swallow, Andersonville-based writer, public speaking coach, and founder of the Chicago Writers Conference. She brought Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott and The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai. We sat down for coffee at The Book Cellar in the heart of Lincoln Square.

I'm so glad you chose to meet here at The Book Cellar, my local bookstore. Why is this your favorite bookstore in Chicago?

I started coming here since they first opened in 2004. At the time, I lived in Ravenswood, and like you, it was nice to have something close to my house. When I suggest this to people, I always say "You know they have a wine bar there!" The owner, Suzy Takacz, has always been supportive of us. We're going to have two more events here in 2015. They host Essay Fiesta, they have local author nights, so that really speaks to me. I get a coffee and buy a book and close out the world.

And it has such a cozy atmosphere.

Yes, and it's smaller. It's like a curated bookstore. I tell my friends, "Imagine if there was a bookstore, and they got rid of all the crappy books. That's The Book Cellar." I like that their selection is great, and if they don't have a book they'll order it for you.

(As if on cue, Suzy appears to hand Mare an order of books.)

Through your work at the Chicago Writers Conference, you're exposed to many Chicago writers and local books. What made you choose Sin in the Second City?

The book is was un-put-down-able. It's about Chicago's most notorious brothel, which was owned and operated by the Everleigh sisters. I'm usually not a history person, though I do read nonfiction. I wish I knew more about history, but even when I try to read it, it doesn't stick with me. Afterwards I think, What was that about Thomas Jefferson? But reading this book is like hearing a story about house of prostitution, while also getting a lesson in Chicago history. I remember exclaiming, "Oh my god, politicians back then were exactly the same!" The corruption, the underhanded deals, the hanky-panky. All the stuff the politicians were doing in the early 20th century, they're doing now. It was great to read about it, but also disheartening to see how things don't change.

If you're a history buff, or if you like historical fiction, or if you want to know about the dirt that went down in Chicago in the early 20th century, read this. Even if you're a fiction fan, this reads like a novel that--for better or for worse--is not fiction.

Speaking of fiction, what drew you to the The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai?

Makkai is a masterful storyteller. This is a story told backwards, from the years 2000 to 1900. At first I was reluctant to pick it up, even though I'd heard a lot about it, because it's a book about a house. It sounded a lot like history, and I don't like historical fiction. But it's not-- it's a story about the people who lived in the house. On the land is an artist's residency [filled with] writers, visual artists, and dancers. There's all these secrets. That's really what the book is about. Since it's told backwards, there's some secrets that are unanswered at first, secrets that are a total mystery, and you find yourself going, Tell me the secret! What is behind that? You discover the answers as you go on.

She's also a master of really capturing the language and the way people spoke during a certain time. For instance, the book starts on New Year's Eve in 1999. There were so many things I forgot about that part of the '90s, like everyone being freaked out about Y2K, being afraid about the computers not working. There's a character who goes to Costco and buys up everything-- gallons of water, packaged tuna-- because he thinks the world's going to end tomorrow. It's also a joy seeing how people from the early part of the 20th century influence the people in modern day. I would recommend it to anyone. There's a lot of relationships and gossip in here, so that's also what kept me staying up at night.

Do you find that you always read as a writer? While reading, do you think about the technical aspects, like prose style, lyricism, syntax?

Only when I don't like the book. When I read 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, I stopped halfway through.

I actually finished that book because I thought, I've read this far, I have to read the whole thing. But I got to the ending and I was so disappointed. I love his earlier work.

Me too, and that's why I abandoned it. He includes all this unnecessary description, [showing] what's going on in [the main character's] mind, that doesn't drive the novel forward. I think his editors let him do it because he's Haruki Murakami. For anyone else, they would've said, "No, you have to cut 75% out." But usually reading is an escape for me. If I'm not sucked into a story I'll just abandon it. I think life is too short. I could be sleeping now instead of pushing through this book I don't like. So I don't read as a writer, but I do catch errors in the book. I send emails to the publisher and say things like "Do you know on page 45 you missed this?" But no one has ever responded to me.

Makkai and Abbott both spoke at this past year's conference. How do you choose the writers that you feature? Obviously, not every writer is a good speaker.

You're not kidding. I am picky--I have a background in public speaking and I've been an instructor since 1997. Two of my mentors had a mantra: create the conference you want to attend. [The writers] have to be good at what they do. If you've self-published a book about how cute your cat is, I don't want to talk to you, and that's who I hear a lot from. I do admire the effort--as a speaker, I'm always reaching out to people who might want to use my services. I want to see that they are accomplished, but they don't have to be Stephen King. Makkai and Abbott are my favorites, and that's part of it--do I like them, do I want them to be there. I also need to know that they can be comfortable in front of a room. If I haven't seen a person firsthand myself, I will cyberstalk them. I will see if they're on YouTube.

So you do a lot of background research to see them in a speaking role.

I do. But sometimes it's just a gut feeling, and usually my gut's right ten out of ten times. I am a stickler. I know sometimes my stickler-ish-ness turns people off, but that's what get things done. So it's background research, it's knowing them, and sometimes it's a gut feeling.

In my experience, sometimes writers I adore are just reading from their notes and I'm falling asleep, while other unknown writers are amazing speakers.
Exactly. We've made it a rule that you can't read from notes. It's good to have notes, but you shouldn't just be reading from them. You should just use them as a cue to spark your memory.

As a public speaking coach, and public speaker yourself, what recommendations would you have for writers who want to perform in reading series and live-lit shows?

I always tell writers, go to the reading series and actually watch it. If you feel like you don't jive there, you probably don't want to apply or submit there. Listen to what the other readers are saying, and listen to what doesn't work. Be very cognizant of what works. I always carry a notebook and will make notes like when you're talking about vacation, don't spend 20 minutes talking about what your husband is wearing. The best thing to do is to remind yourself what not to do.

Stay tuned next week for the second part of the conversation, as Mare discusses indie presses, how Chicago's literary scene compares to New York's, and how to balance writing and work.

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Book Club is the literary section of Gapers Block, covering Chicago's authors, poets and literary events. More...

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