Story Week Festival interview with Heidi W. Durrow, Patricia Ann McNai, John Sayles
John Sayles (clockwise from left), Patricia Ann McNair and Heidi W. Durrow will read at Story Week. (Handout)
Each year since 1996, the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago aims to change those perceptions with Story Week, a literary extravaganza where top authors from Chicago and around the world make stories come alive.
The centerpiece event—Literary Rock & Roll—features readings this year from a trio of America’s most visceral storytellers, all guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat: best-selling author and Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival co-founder Heidi W. Durrow (“The Girl Who Fell from the Sky”), Columbia College Fiction Writing Department acting chair Patricia Ann McNair (“The Temple of Air”) and author and filmmaker John Sayles (“A Moment in the Sun,” “Passion Fish,” “Lone Star”), followed by live music from orchestral pop band Canasta. We checked in with all three authors to find out what they’re up to.
Story Week Festival of Writers--Literary Rock & Roll: American Dreamers
Go: 6 p.m. Thursday at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St.
Tickets: Free (all ages); 312-369-7611; colum.edu/storyweek
From what are you reading at the Metro?
Patricia Ann McNair: "The Temple of Air," my collection of linked short stories in which a tragic accident happens at a summer carnival and starts the stories rolling. I’m not sure yet what story I will read—need to get just the right literary rock ‘n’ roll feel, you know?
Heidi W. Durrow: My debut novel, which is set in part in Chicago. It’s the story of two people dealing with grief and trying to figure out how they can create and define what family means anew.
John Sayles: My novel, “A Moment in the Sun,” which is an epic that takes place between 1896 and 1903 in various places in the U.S., Cuba and the Philippines. The story is told in a mosaic of different characters’ experiences and deals thematically with race and imperialism.
What inspired you to want to tell stories professionally?
HD: My mom. I think I wanted to live the dream she couldn’t. She was thrust into the role of single mom and dealt with a lot of financial struggle. I always believed in her. I wanted to show I believed in her dream by doing this for her.
PM: My parents were writers and after I rebelled for awhile and tried to be an actress, I finally followed the family path. Like a lot of folks, I meandered my way through my early adult years—bartending, waitressing, pumping gas, selling door to door, a runner on the trading floor—but found my way into a writing class and never really left.
JS: I think stories are how people define themselves, express themselves, explain themselves and try to understand the complex or the unknown. For me, this last function is most interesting—I write stories about things that I’m interested in but don’t fully understand—and the process of writing is as much about learning more as it is about telling other people what I think.
As an artist, what’s most interesting to you about Chicago?
HD: The Scandinavian history. And the fact that my “literary mother,” Harlem Renaissance writer and fellow Afro-Viking, Nella Larsen, grew up here.
JS: I’ve written six or seven screenplays set in Chicago—though none has ever been shot there—and always love the way the American story, with all its ups and downs, has been played out so passionately in that city. Chicago doesn’t bother being subtle about what it’s up to.
PM: Chicago is known for its art museums, its music, its theater. It should also be known for its literary community. We are descendants of some of the greats: Algren, Terkel, Sandburg, Brooks, Bellow … and today, this is a remarkable city of writers. Story Week, Reading Under the Influence, Come Home Chicago, 2nd Story, The Chicago Way, Two-Cooking Minimum, Neutron Bomb, Revolutions—hardly a night goes by that you can’t hear some lit out loud. A whole lot of writing going on.
What do you do to stimulate your imagination?
JS: I usually do a kind of “cross-training”—reading more books, fiction and non-fiction when I’m working on movies and watching more movies and television when I’m working on a book. I always listen to a lot of music while I¹m doing either, mostly stuff I get a strong emotion from.
HD: I read poetry. I am a frustrated (read: terrible) poet. When I’m stuck, I go to the geniuses who put feeling and thought and story into very few words: Carl Phillips, William Stafford, Rita Dove, Honoree Fannone Jeffers, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Audre Lorde.
PM: I think like a lot of writers—like a lot of people, probably—I’m always making up little stories in my head. On the train when you see the couple with their backs turned to one another, not speaking; on-line at the grocery store behind the guy with the five big bottles of mustard and one mango; on the street where the car with the curtains over the windows and flat tires is parked. These little images, moments, observations almost always make me want to write. Why don’t they speak to one another? What is he gonna do with the mango? Does someone live in that car? Chicago is a great place for story gathering.
What are you reading right now?
JS: Laura Esquivel’s “Malinche” (in Spanish) and “Clarence Darrow, Attorney for the Damned,” by John A. Farrell (in English).
PM: I always have a couple of things on the bedside table. Right now it’s “Fires of Our Choosing,” by newly arrived Chicago writer Eugene Cross and “The Coward’s Tale,” by UK writer Vanessa Gebbie. Cross’s book is tough and beautifully brutal, stories from blue collar Pennsylvania and Gebbie’s is a novel-in-stories told with considerable lyricism and almost poetic prose about the residents of a small Welsh mining village. They make a good contrast to one another.
HD: Not enough. I’m reading a lot of non-fiction; getting myself riled up in ideas. But I need beauty now. Suggestions?
JS: “Havana World Series,” by Jose Latour; “Bohemian Girl,” by Terese Svoboda; “Conquistadora,” by Esmeralda Santiago; “The Book of Night Women,” by Marlon James; and “Say Her Name,” by Francisco Goldman.
PM: There's a whole lot of beauty in our Story Week colleague Christine Sneed's “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry.” And you can't really go wrong by going back in time and reading “Mrs. Dalloway,” by Virginia Woolf. Just sayin’.
JULIA BORCHERTS IS A REDEYE SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR.