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In Print: confessions of an escaped mall rat

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After Sparrow L. Patterson finished writing the first version of her debut novel, she threw it away. "That was really hard for me," she says, "because it was done, but it wasn't right." It didn't accomplish her plan to "immortalize somebody and heal."

But Patterson, who's 30 and lives in Wicker Park, says that her second draft "was easy. The parts that aren't so fictionalized are very painful. It was very hard to write that, so I tried to fictionalize and change things around....It is fiction, but there is a lot there that hits pretty close to home."

Synthetic Bi Products, which was published by Brooklyn-based Akashic Books last fall, is a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of Orleigh, a bisexual 18-year-old who lives in west suburban Geneva in the early 1990s. Orleigh is promiscuous, manipulates her mother and friends, steals, uses cocaine, and generally finds suburban life boring. She's also a talented painter who's painfully aware of her own shortcomings and those of her friends. "Most of the people I knew were mall rats," Orleigh says in one passage. "They had no lives, no real friends, no loyalties to anyone or anything. They cared mainly about sex, liquor, and cars....All I could think was how the mall-rat mentality was getting inside me like flesh-eating bacteria munching away at my brain."

When asked how much of the novel is autobiographical, Patterson doesn't go into specifics but says there's "a thin, blurry line between truth and fiction." Like Orleigh, Patterson grew up in Geneva. Her father was an executive for AT&T, and her mother taught elementary school. "My mother was a huge influence on me," she says. "She read to me all the time. Reading was really big in our house and really encouraged me to be creative and tell stories." She says she's known she wanted to be a writer since she was four, and as she grew up she learned about morality from Dante and Shakespeare, got a taste for adventure from On the Road, and discovered an appreciation for romance after reading Kate Chopin's The Awakening.

After graduating from Geneva High School, she earned bachelor's degrees in English and psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1997 and then moved to Chicago. For two years, she was a member of the Hodgepodge Art Movement, a now-defunct group that produced and sold paintings to benefit shelters for battered women. Patterson chipped in artwork and read poetry at the group's openings.

In the novel, which Patterson finished for the second time in 1998, Orleigh starts to change after falling in love with an equally messed-up guy named Mark. During their ill-fated relationship, which includes a cross-country trip following the Grateful Dead, she gradually finds salvation. Patterson says, "I wanted to show people that no matter what happens, it can be fixed. It's not that your life is ruined or your life is over. She could have gone down a really ugly path. She matured through her experience. She prevails in the end. I think it's important, especially for young women today who get pregnant or get involved with the wrong guy."

Patterson recently completed her second novel, Diary of a Suicide Queen, and is working on a third, about a serial killer. Despite their subject matter, she says these projects haven't taxed her emotions like Synthetic Bi Products did. "I had to go back to an 18-year-old's mentality," she says. "It was weird for me to think on that level of immaturity. I tried really hard to remove my cynicism and my knowledge about things--I tried to take it all away and just make her fresh and young. That was hard, because I knew."

Patterson will appear with Daniel Buckman, author of Water in Darkness (also published by Akashic), and contributors to the Winter 2002 issue of After Hours magazine, including E. Donald Two-Rivers and Tara Betts, at 6:30 PM on Wednesday, January 16, at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. Admission is $5, $3 for students and seniors. For more information, call 773-227-6117.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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