The Magic Touch
"I'm holding my breath," author Jim Kokoris said last week. Kokoris was calling from a hotel room in New Orleans, where he was conducting a focus group for Midas Muffler, but exhaust fumes had nothing to do with it. When we talked a few days earlier he had just returned from Boston, where he'd conducted a "Great Whiskey Debate" for Jim Beam. Gigs like these are part of his day job as a partner in JSH&A, an Oakbrook
Terrace-based public relations firm, and they're not what had him turning purple and crossing his fingers. In his spare time over the last few years, Kokoris has written and published two novels; the latest, Sister North, which came out in October, was slated for a review (must be short, he says) in this Sunday's New York Times. "They didn't review me the first time," he says. "I'm trying to analyze it. Would they pick an unknown midlist author if they're gonna rip it really bad?"
He's too modest. There's a way of telling Kokoris's story that makes it sound like one of those fluky overnight successes: 40-year-old businessman enrolls in a four-day novel-writing seminar and lands a contract with a major publisher, a best-first-novel award, and a film option. But that version is misleading. Kokoris, who grew up on the city's southwest side and now lives in La Grange, says he always felt he was meant to write. A speech major at the University of Illinois, he landed the humor column in the campus paper (written by Roger Ebert and Gene Shalit before him) and did so well with it that TV critic Gary Deeb brought it to the attention of the legendary Grant Tinker, who called one day when Kokoris was home on spring break and invited him to come to Los Angeles and try his hand at sitcom writing. Kokoris, clueless, took a pass--something he says he's thought about a few thousand times since. After college he worked briefly for Arthur Andersen (a fish-out-of-water desk-drawer novel came out of it), then put in a long stint at Golin Harris. He moonlighted on some comedy and restaurant reviews for the Tribune (always too positive, he says) and wrote a monthly humor column for USA Weekend, where "they were looking for a cheap Dave Barry." Then, busy with work and parenthood, he says, "I went dark for about six years."
Kokoris usually tells people he started writing again when he was staring down his 40th birthday and doing a lot of work-related travel that had him spending lonely days in hotels. But there was something else: the youngest of his three sons was discovered to have a chromosomal imbalance that, among other things, would severely limit his speech. Writing fiction was a way of dealing with the depression this engendered. Kokoris plunged into it, tapping out his first book, The Rich Part of Life, on a laptop in 33 different states. By June 1998 he'd finished a rough draft, which he took to a four-day beginner's course at the University of Iowa taught by Gordon Mennenga, a humorist who's written for Garrison Keillor. With Mennenga's occasional help, he spent six months revising. The following spring Mennenga recommended the manuscript to New York agent Lynn Franklin.
"Then we started collecting rejections," Kokoris says. About 20 publishers turned it down before Franklin gave up and passed it to a friend at William Morris to peddle to the film industry. "Lightning struck," says Kokoris. "Within a week we had two offers." He signed a deal with Columbia Pictures, and three weeks later St. Martin's Press offered him a two-book contract. The Rich Part of Life--the story of a widower and his two sons inspired, he says, by a lottery billboard and the Baby Richard case--came out in 2001, with a picture of a boy sporting red wax lips on its cover. "There were only seven or eight reviews," Kokoris says, "but they were all good." (The Tribune found the book "cohesive and poignant.") Soon he was on the book-club circuit, walking into houses where "they're all wearing wax lips." The Rich Part of Life, which won a Friends of American Writers award, has sold about 25,000 copies so far and been picked up by publishers in 20 countries. James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted) wrote the screenplay and wants to direct the film, Kokoris says. Columbia's option is up for renewal again this month.
Sister North, the tale of a quest undertaken by a despairing Chicago lawyer, is a more darkly comic story that Kokoris says was wrenching to write, in part because the protagonist is depressed much of the time, and in part because of the expectations--including Hollywood's--built on his first success. "I was worried that people would be disappointed," he says, but "I didn't want to write The Rich Part of Life over again." He's 15 pages into his next novel now, and determined to play this one for laughs. "If I'd known how hard [fiction writing] was going to be and all the luck you need, I don't know if I would have done it," he says. "I got a lot of breaks that fell my way. It could easily have gone another direction. I'm sure there are a million good unpublished novels out there." As for the Times: "I just hope they don't say anything personal, like they hate my hair."
A couple of the storefront theaters shut down after the city's license raid last month are playing musical chairs. WNEP announced that the shutdown was like being "kicked in the ass with a golden horseshoe." Founder Don Hall says the theater freed itself from a relationship with its landlord that was "strained at best," and it's making a soft landing at the Lakeshore Theater, thanks to Lakeshore's general manager, Chris Ritter, a member of the WNEP board of directors. They'll have to rustle up some bigger audiences: the old location had 44 seats; Lakeshore has 340. Meanwhile the Playground Theater leaped into the space at 3209 N. Halsted that WNEP vacated, announcing that the move was "the best way for Playground to secure the necessary license."...According to Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois head David Bahlman, former Sara Lee chief John Bryan popped for an additional half million dollars in the final hours before the Farnsworth House auction December 12, and once it passed the $6.5 million mark designated bidder Richard Gray was reaching into his own pocket. A round-trip ticket to Plano to anyone who'll out the anonymous bidder who ran the price up to $6.7 million and then vanished like a mist on the Fox River.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.