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Chicago authors
share their secrets

Jeffrey Renard Allen, Tim Kinsella, and other writers with spring books coming out discuss combating writer's block and more.

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In line with the hush-hush theme of the Spring Books issue, we asked some Chicago authors—whose soon-to-be-released books involve secrets in some way—to spill the beans about everything from combating writer's block to exposing hidden information.

Jeffery Renard Allen

Jeffery Renard Allen
Author of Song of the Shank
(Graywolf Press)

The Chicago native and UIC alum, now a New Yorker, has been drawn to imposters and con artists in past work. In his new novel, which opens in the wake of the Civil War and is based in part on the life of the African-American piano savant Blind Tom Wiggins, secrets come in the form of impersonators, including the self-styled Original Blind Tom who tries to pass himself off as the real Wiggins.

What's your secret for fighting writer's block?

When I get stuck, I will pull a random book off a shelf, open a page, and start reading. I usually search for a sentence or phrase that strikes me, write it down on a sheet of paper, then start to improvise on it until I come up with something interesting that leads me back to my own manuscript. Recently, I was working on a short story and read the opening pages of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. This is my variation of the brainstorming technique in which a writer will let a bunch of words rain down on paper or the computer screen for a few minutes.


Tim Kinsella

Tim Kinsella
Author of Let Go and Go On and On
(Curbside Splendor)

The foundation of the Chicago musician-cum-novelist's second book sounds like directions for a writing exercise: pick an obscure actress; construct a story using the roles she inhabits and the worlds of the films in which she appears; do it all in second-person narrative. The result is an impressionistic, free-wheeling portrait of the screen selves of Laurie Bird, who appeared in Two-Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter, and Annie Hall before she fatally overdosed at 25.

Do you feel like our culture
of oversharing is changing
the nature of secrets?

I think it's probably easier to keep a secret now than ever before because the stakes have been made more clear. Social interaction has been warped by technological capabilities to the degree that now it's assumed everyone will share everything. So secrets have an added gravity in that they stand in opposition to these newly acquired values. I often get anxious because I can't remember why I feel anxious, and then I feel actual relief when I realize that I have nothing to hide. The profundity of that satisfaction inspires me to consciously work to keep things as simple as possible and limit the necessity for secrets.


James Klise

James Klise
Author of The Art of Secrets
(Algonquin Young Readers)

Klise works as a librarian in a Chicago high school, which is where much of the action takes place in his second YA novel. Unfolding from multiple perspectives, the book turns on the repercussions and investigation of a suspicious fire in a West Ridge apartment that displaces the family of the teen protagonist, whom we come to know mostly through journal entries. In one of many hyperlocal touches, Klise skillfully weaves in a narrative thread about the great Chicago outsider artist Henry Darger, the reclusive janitor from Lincoln Park who created an astonishing, epic body of work, all in secret.

What's the biggest secret you've ever kept?

In high school, in Peoria, in the 1980s, I was a closeted gay teenager—so that one wins the prize. I drew on that experience for my first book, Loved Drugged, about a closeted teen and how that ordinary secret controls the narrator's life, as it controls the lives of so many closeted people.


Scott Simkus

Scott Simkus
Author of Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950
(Chicago Review Press)

The Cubs loyalist's new book concerns the secret history of pro baseball: the thousands of men—and a few women—who played in dozens of minor leagues outside Major League Baseball. The best known are probably the Negro leagues, but there was also the Chicago City League (dominated by the Logan Squares); the Bloomer League, composed mostly of women but also a few future Hall of Famers in drag; and, weirdest of all, the House of David, bearded members of a cult based in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

How do you go about uncovering a secret?

Never assume anything. Keep digging. Many of the stories that ended up in the book I came upon by accident. I would find leads in newspaper stories, or see the same name over and over. Then I'd do searches and uncover stories I never would have encountered.

Spring Books: Secrets

Family secrets fill Julia Glass's successor to the National Book Award-winning Three Junes.

A pair of immigrant oral histories power Cristina HenrĂ­quez's The Book of Unknown Americans.

Kathleen Rooney's O, Democracy! is rooted in a disillusioning job in Illinois politics.

Colson Whitehead takes on the World Series of Poker in The Noble Hustle.

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