In summer 2002, when writer Eileen Favorite trekked up to Ragdale to begin work on a novel, she was coming off a terrible year. She'd lost a brother to cancer, her father-in-law had died, and her professional life seemed to be on hold: after a string of rejections she'd been forced to face the fact that the realistic coming-of-age novel she'd finished the previous year wasn't going to sell, and she'd already abandoned an attempt at another novel. She arrived at the Lake Forest artists' retreat with nothing more than the conviction that she wanted to escape from the details of her own life. "I really wanted to write something from the imagination," she says.
Favorite, who grew up Catholic, says her brother's death had her musing about the lives of the saints. Alone at her desk at Ragdale, under the influence of the sprawling house with its grounds of prairie and forest and its collection of transient occupants, she began to concoct a plot about a mother and daughter running a boardinghouse where a saint comes to stay. That quickly proved to be another dead end: "The saint was always doing the right thing," Favorite says, "and that wasn't very interesting." At the same time she was reading Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, in which characters from Irish myth interact with contemporary characters. "That's when it came to me," she says: "I'll have heroines of literature come back, because God knows they're flawed. Once I got that, the rest was just writing it."
That turned out not to be easy. After getting off to what felt like a good start at Ragdale, she had to shelve the project. Favorite, who was raised in the Chicago area and graduated from the University of Illinois in Urbana, had spent four years on the west coast in the publishing business before following her husband back to Chicago in 1994. By '99 she'd completed an MFA in writing at the School of the Art Institute and was teaching there and at the University of Chicago's Graham School—two jobs she still holds. In the fall of 2002, with grad-school loans to pay off, she also took a full-time gig teaching middle school in the suburbs. During the two years she held that job, her writing was limited to the occasional poem or essay. It wasn't until 2004 that she had time to revisit the story of the mother, the daughter, and the boardinghouse. In the summer of 2005 she spent a month at Catwalk, a New York estate affiliated with the School of the Art Institute. There, in a tower overlooking the Hudson River, she wrote through to the story's close, and by the spring of 2006 she was looking for an agent.
Favorite devoted most of another two-week stay at Ragdale (the novel's setting, turned into a boardinghouse) to the drudgery of submitting her work. She researched and contacted lots of agents, she says. But she had an inside track with one: Jennifer Rudolph Walsh of the William Morris Agency, who was already representing Favorite's friend Lisa Reardon. Within two weeks of getting the manuscript, by then titled "The Heroines," Walsh responded with the sweetest words a writer can hear: "I love it, I want it."
The first publisher who looked at the book took a pass but sent it back with advice on revision. At this juncture, so often painful for writers, Favorite says her background in publishing really helped: having been an editor, she says she "appreciates" editorial suggestions. She rewrote through the summer, and in September 2006 Walsh sent the manuscript out again, this time to several publishers. What happened next was amazing: within a week, Favorite says, five offers were on the table. The Heroines was published last month by Scribner, under the aegis of its top editor. Favorite won't reveal what they paid for it but says Walsh had told her a first-time novelist could typically expect between $5,000 and $50,000; she was floored to get "much more than that." Deals were also made for audio and foreign rights (for publication in Italy, Korea, Finland, and the UK), and it's being shopped around in Hollywood.
Movie money would be nice, but the book-to-film experience is not her "big dream," Favorite says. The attention she's getting now is unreal, she adds, "but that'll be over in a month. What I long for is to be back in the tower at Catwalk, writing." She won't be doing that for a while: another dream came true around the time the book sold, and Favorite now has a one-year-old daughter. These days she's working on other book ideas around the babysitter's schedule, but she's OK with it. She characterizes her story as "the total 'don't give up.'" Getting acceptance took a long time, she says, "in the face of a lot of rejection." In the end, "you gotta love writing more than getting published."
Filmmakers Without Friel
Has the emphasis at Chicago Filmmakers changed since program director Patrick Friel left at the end of the summer? The official answer, from executive director Brenda Webb, is no, but right now, in the second week of the winter season, it's looking a little bit like yes. Friel, who'd been in the job 11 years and had seen his duties expand to include a lot of administrative services as the staff shrunk to two full-time employees, says he was "burned out," ready to make a change, and wanted to focus on the experimental films and videos that especially interest him. He remains on good terms with Filmmakers and will continue to handle its fall Onion City Festival on a freelance basis, but this month he's launching his own "occasional" series, White Light Cinema, with a program of seldom-screened Stan Brakhage work from the 1970s. (The program runs January 27, 7 PM, at Cinema Borealis, 1550 N. Milwaukee; call 773-381-3102 for more info.)
Instead of replacing Friel with a new program director, Filmmakers hired Stacy Barton as a full-time director of education and filmmaker services and is looking to add a full-time manager for the Reeling festival. Webb says Friel's departure "created the opportunity to reconsider our programming and staff structure." Programming for the winter season, which opened last weekend, was done by an "informal" five-member committee spearheaded by Barton. Webb says this move away from the "curator model" is likely to result in more community involvement and more diverse programming. She adds that there's been a definite effort to funnel films and programs into "series formats," which will help audiences "get a handle on them" by creating context. The lineup includes a series of documentaries about art (starting this weekend with POPaganda: The Art & Crimes of Ron English) and the Dyke Delicious series. That includes Kansas City Bomber (1972), with Raquel Welch and Jodie Foster, slated for March. But Webb says Filmmakers, which runs roughly 50 programs a year on an annual budget of about $400,000, is as committed to experimental work as ever.
The city says it gave advance notice to the Chicago Building Owners and Managers Association before sweeping through downtown skyscrapers last month to check for business licenses. But Berger Realty Group says it doesn't belong to BOMA and got no warning about the sweep. Thirty tenants in the Fine Arts Building were hit with fines. . . . The Chicago Artists Coalition offers a CPA-conducted tax workshop Saturday, January 19, from noon to 4 PM at the Illinois Institute of Art, 350 N. Orleans. It's $40 for nonmembers, $20 for members; more info at caconline.org. v