First, congratulations on winning the Heartland Prize. Are you excited to return to your hometown for the occasion?
Thank you, and yes, I am really excited to be coming back to Chicago, a city I really love.
How did growing up in Chicago shape your fantastical outlook on the world?
I think it made me realize that “fantastical” and “realistic” aren’t contradictory. When I was a kid, Chicago struck me as a beautiful hallucination that contained just about everything, and where the tragedy vs comedy binary was overturned every day—a place full of oversized characters and wild improbabilities and honorable criminals and corrupt authority. I was (am) a big Royko fan, and I think Boss is a crazy, comic postmodern novel—that is also all true, and probably even a little understated.
Lincoln in the Bardo ($28, Random House) is your first novel, but you’re a prolific short story and non-fiction writer. Do you purposely vary what you decide to write? And is there anything that is just easier or more fun to write?
I tend to steer toward whatever feels most energetic and fun at the moment. I find, too, that writing in different modes improves my abilities to execute my first love, the short story. That is, whenever I write in another mode, I learn something (at a deep, visceral level) that helps me write better stories.
You go to some dark places in your novel and short stories. Is it tough to go there and then come back out, and just do something normal and banal, like lunch with your family?
Not really, no. Lunch is always easy. Especially with my family.
For me, a story is like a scale model, and the idea is to make sure that the Good and the Evil are in there, and in some sort of authentic relation to each other. So, part of what I’m doing is giving darkness a presence in the story, at least. It’s a little like that old TV commercial, where the guy says, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” I can represent evil and darkness and bad deeds and all of that without experiencing some sort of Method Actor involvement, if you see what I mean. Just like, if I represent a character who is madly in love with his car….I’m not in love with my car. But I can sort of cobble together a simulacrum of that emotion by remembering other sorts of love I’ve felt, and then putting in there some memory of a specific car, etc., etc.
I’m just back at work on short stories. That is always my baseline position. I’m still trying to crack that beautiful form.
Heartland Prize, Oct. 27, 3pm, tickets $10-$25, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.