It is a pleasurable thing to have drinks with Randy Albers and we have done so over the years at such saloons as, of course, the Billy Goat, as well as Stefani's 437, the Underground Wonder Bar and some joint in the South Loop whose name escapes me at the moment.
I just blew the chance to have drinks with Albers and David Eggers at a small gathering for Eggers's 826CHI, part of his nationwide non-profit organization that helps kids and young adults develop writing skills. But I took solace knowing that I will see Albers soon because Story Week Festival of Writers is upon us.
Story Week, which begins next Sunday and runs through March 22, was born 16 years ago, shortly after Albers was named chair of the Columbia College Fiction Writing Department.
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"I was casting around for some way of getting more writers to Columbia and remembered my senior year at Tulane, when they put on a Poetry Week featuring many of the Beats," he says. "[Allen] Ginsberg came to my classroom and sat cross-legged on a table playing a harmonium and singing [William] Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' in a high, quavering voice that was strangely effective. [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti came to the next class to play a zither and sing poems …but that's a story for drinks sometime. Those memories were the seeds of Story Week."
The first Story Week was only three days long but the response was enthusiastic and now here we are with events spread over six days at venues as varied as Metro, Buddy Guy's Legends, the Chicago Cultural Center and Schubas. The theme of this year's week is "Vision and Voice" and it will include conversations, panel discussions, workshops, readings and special events, all free and open to the public (colum.edu/storyweek).
"Our goal has always been to bring in the best, most diverse writers to showcase them in a variety of formats that appeal to people who might not come to the standard, dry-as-dust reading," says Albers.
The list of previous visiting writers includes Eggers, Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury, Hubert Selby Jr., Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Karen Tei Yamashita, Anchee Min, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Richard Price and Joyce Carol Oates.
Local lights such as Studs Terkel, Elizabeth Berg and Audrey Niffenegger have appeared. Others, some of whom might have been writing in crayons when Story Week began, we have watched grow creatively before our eyes: Joe Meno, Don DeGrazia and Sam Weller, all now Columbia faculty members.
Just some of the writers scheduled to appear this year are Sapphire, Gillian Flynn, Jane Hamilton, Emma Donoghue, T. Geronimo Johnson, Susan Hahn and Emma Straub. There will also be on hand agents, publishers, editors, Columbia College staff members and professors and musicians.
Since one can not predict good memories, I asked Albers to recall some of his personal highlights from years' past. He has many, but here are some:
•"In 2000, DeGrazia and I approached [Metro owner] Joe Shanahan about an idea for a literary event at his club, one that would mix readings with music. Joe, who has become one of Story Week's most enthusiastic supporters, embraced the idea, and that first year, we did a show called 'Bad Boys Night Out,' with three generations of writers famed for their stories of the streets, DeGrazia, Price, and Selby Jr. We drew more than 500 people that night, something that I found amazing at the time. This became the Literary Rock and Roll, our signature event for all the years since."
•"We invited Studs for a program at the Harold Washington Public Library with Stuart Dybek and interviewer Donna Seaman. Though Studs was only a few months past open heart surgery and, as he himself described it, 'deaf as a post,' he was in perfect form. I am sure that this interview was the easiest that Donna ever did. She asked one question, as I recall, and Studs launched into story after story in that distinctive, mesmerizing Studs voice. After 20 minutes, he stopped and asked Donna, 'What was the question again?' Before she could answer, he told her, 'You should ask Stuart something.' Stu, who had been watching the show with a smile, waved him off, saying, 'This is Studs' night. Go on.'"
•"Interviewing Rushdie not long after he came out of hiding and presenting Weller's interview with Bradbury when Mayor Daley had declared it Ray Bradbury Day in Chicago."
One of the newest additions to the Story Week calendar was concocted one night when Albers, Weller and I were sitting in the Billy Goat.
If memory serves, I said, "Why don't you ask 20 local writers or other folks in the literary community to each select a writer who has influenced their lives or work and then have them read a short — something no longer than five minutes — selection from that author's work?"
If memory serves, Albers said, "Brilliant … And you will host the thing."
And so I did, in 2011 at Lincoln Hall, last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art and will be doing this year in the Preston Bradley Hall at the Cultural Center.
Who will be there and what will they be reading?
I won't tell you. You should have the ability to be surprised.
Or, stealing more from Albers, "this year promises to be among the best ever … we have the makings of a festival that will entertain, instruct, and provoke — as any literary event worth its salt should do."
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun