Inside a puppeteer-novelist’s at-home creative workshop | Space | Chicago Reader

City Life » Space

Inside a puppeteer-novelist’s at-home creative workshop

Mary Robinette Kowal makes puppets and writes in a 1913 building in the Ukrainian Village.



A fire is roaring in the fireplace and sprays of bright red winterberry adorn a vase on the deco mantel. The scent of hot cider wafts through the air. What Victorian-era storybook scene have I stepped into on this chilly, gray day in late November? It's the home of Hugo Award–winning author, audiobook narrator, and professional puppeteer Mary Robinette Kowal, a spacious and stately 1913 apartment in Ukrainian Village that she shares with her winemaker husband, Robert, and their two cats.

  • Kerri Pang

"In 2012, we were moving from Portland, Oregon, to Chicago for my husband's job and were looking for a place that was comfortable and familiar," says Kowal, 47. "Ukrainian Village was [described online as] the most Portland-like [neighborhood] of Chicago. And it has, in fact, been very much like that." She and her husband rented the apartment sight unseen and have fallen in love with its stained-glass features, dark-wood beams, and built-ins. "We were just looking for someplace with trees, hardwood floors, a gas stove, and quiet," she says. "We sent a friend here to see it, and he looked around, went through our checklist, and e-mailed us and said, 'This is the nicest apartment I've been in in Chicago. Rent it now.' "

The living room - KERRI PANG
  • Kerri Pang
  • The living room

Most rooms of the house are dedicated to some sort of creative project. In Kowal's sewing room, just off the front parlor, she's busy working on a Regency gown out of blue shot silk (think Jane Austen), and a polar-bear costume for a children's theater in Iceland. The parlor, meanwhile, is home to the couple's books and antique typewriters. "When I met Rob, I had a typewriter, singular, and he had a typewriter, singular, and then we went to a yard sale together and found a third typewriter," Kowal says. "As soon as you have three of something, it becomes a collection."

One of Kowal's puppets - KERRI PANG
  • Kerri Pang
  • One of Kowal's puppets

In the months before they were married, they found that all of their conversations had something to do with wedding planning, and it had become overwhelming. "What we did was establish one of the typewriters as the nuptial typewriter, and it had red and black ink. If one of us had a question—he was red ink and I was the black ink—we would switch it to our color, type the question or the thought, and then the other person could go and look at it. It meant that you only had to deal with wedding stuff when you were in the right frame of mind. It was really nice." Suddenly, people started giving them more typewriters—"This was before the hipsters had discovered them," she says—and now they have nearly 20. Kowal does not recommend starting a similar collection. "Moving with typewriters is a really terrible idea. Dusting typewriters is really horrible."

One of Kowal's antique typewriters - KERRI PANG
  • Kerri Pang
  • One of Kowal's antique typewriters

A bookshelf in the master bedroom is home to copies of Kowal's many novels—Shades of Milk and Honey, Glamour in Glass, Valour and Vanity, and several others—while the back porch serves as her puppet workshop, aka "the dusty area." "It's where I have my bandsaw and drill and belt sander and those things," Kowal says. "People in modern America tend to think of puppets as Sesame Street, but puppetry has this very long tradition, and a lot of them are made out of wood or fiberglass or papier-mache." She's currently building science-fiction-like puppets for the House Theatre of Chicago production of Diamond Dogs by Alastair Reynolds.

The sewing room - KERRI PANG
  • Kerri Pang
  • The sewing room

Ultimately, her home is a reflection of a many-pronged career. "A lot of times when people are talking to me, they're like, 'Wow, you do so many different things,' " Kowal says. "But I feel like I actually only do one thing: storytelling. And I just happen to have a couple of different mediums I use to tell stories—puppets, prose, costumes . . . My job is to have a daydream and to use whatever medium to communicate that daydream to you."  v

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →