Reading S.L. Wisenberg's stories, you can't help thinking that they must be about her. But when asked if her work is autobiographical, she says, "Remember what Flaubert said? 'Madame Bovary, that's me.'
"Or remember in The Miracle on 34th Street," she continues, "when Kris Kringle says, 'There's the French nation, the British nation, and the imagination'?"
And all that sex stuff? Don't ask, she'll just hit you with another literary reference. Her new collection of short stories, The Sweetheart Is In, is filled with them. The characters talk, think, and joke about books and the arts, about Eugene O'Neill, Carl Sandburg, W.H. Auden, Thomas Aquinas, Trotsky, Kafka, the Brandenburg Concertos, paintings at the Art Institute, van Gogh, Shakespeare, Gore Vidal, Dorothy Parker, the Torah, the Bible.
"I'm not very pop culture," she says. "Sometimes I feel really bad because there's no TV or drugs in my stories."
If that sounds highbrow, the stories themselves aren't. Many of them revolve around a Jewish family in Houston that's not unlike Wisenberg's own.
"I started writing in the first grade," she says. "I wrote poetry. When I was in fifth grade, I put my poems together and a friend illustrated them and we sent them to a book publisher. They suggested I try some publications like Highlights for Children. And I was really insulted, and then I got rejected by Highlights too."
She came to Chicago to attend Northwestern in 1974. "I came north for freedom," she says. "I thought, intellectuals: north." After graduating, she wrote for the Highland Park News for two years, then spent two years at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, then two years at the Miami Herald writing features. "I started thinking I was just going to do everything for two years." She took a leave from the Herald, came back to Chicago, "and then I just stayed."
Since 1985 she's patched together a living as a writer and teacher. Her stories and essays have appeared in Tikkun, the Chicago Tribune, the Progressive, Salon, the Forward, and elsewhere, including the Reader; she teaches writing through her own Red Fish Studio workshops and other organizations such as River Oak Arts.
Wisenberg says her book is "about women who want independence and satisfaction." But the "woman thing," she adds, is a bit of a marketing construct.
"Most of the characters happen to be women, because I know more about women. I didn't deliberately set out to write about women yearning for independence and satisfaction. It just kind of happened."
Many of the stories have been published before, including "Love," which appeared in the Reader's fiction issue last December. "Brunch" was published in the New Yorker. Several others have been anthologized--"Liberator" is in When Night Fell: An Anthology of Holocaust Short Stories; "My Mother's War" is in The Country of Herself: Short Fiction by Chicago Women; and "The Sweetheart Is In" appears in Common Bonds: Stories by and About Modern Texas Women.
Grinning, Wisenberg says she's a Texas writer "when it suits my purposes. For Jewish book fairs I want to be a Jewish writer, for Texas I want to be a Texas writer. For Chicago I want to be a Chicago writer."
She's been here so long that she now feels like a native. "My memory only goes back to 1974." she says. "But in a way I feel like I grew up here. I can remember how things used to be. I remember what used to be where. I feel like a Chicagoan with a little amnesia.
"There were times when I thought I'd move back to Texas," she says. "Back to Houston. But I can't see it now. I do want to go back to my old high school someday--Bellaire Senior High. I'd like to do a reading but I'm afraid the parents might get upset by the first story in the collection," called "Big Ruthie Imagines Sex Without Pain."
But she says that's not really the story she'd read. She'd read from the title piece, a coming-of-age story told through the eyes of Ceci Rubin, a 13-year-old girl from a Jewish section of Houston. It ends on the night of Kent State.
"I used to think that story was a cry for freedom from this very constricted upper-middle-class Jewish world," Wisenberg says. "This intellectual young girl didn't have a place and she's trying to find one. I thought it was a very feminist statement, and very condemning of society. But some people don't see that at all, and now I see it less and less. Maybe that was just my own projections of my feelings at the time."
Wisenberg will read from The Sweetheart Is In at 7:30 PM on Thursday, April 26, at Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark (773-769-9299). It's free. She'll also read at 7 PM on May 10 at the Highland Park Public Library, 194 Laurel in Highland Park. On May 30 at 7:30, Wisenberg and author Paula Kamen will host a joint book release party at the Guild Complex at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division. See www.slwisenberg.com for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.