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July 12, 2005

Author2Author: Andrew Winston & Adam Langer, pt. 1

by Ron Hogan

How does an Author2Author conversation come together? Sometimes it's a matter of pairing writers by their chosen genres. Sometimes it's because they share a publisher as well as certain thematic concerns, making it that much easier to align their schedules. This week, the unifying factor is location, location, location. Andrew Winston's Looped and Adam Langer's Crossing California both take place in Chicago, though they're set decades apart. The conversation begins with the earlier of the two settings, as we temporarily jump twenty-five years into the past...

winston.jpgAndrew Winston: I am curious about your choice to set Crossing California in 1979-1980. What did the setting allow you to do that you could not have done setting the book in contemporary Chicago? Did you feel constrained by it in any way? Was it important to have access to elements of your own youth? What was most compelling about that material? (Please tell me that-- la Larry Rovner's Rovner!--you once formed a band called Langer!)

langer.jpgAdam Langer: Aside from having read Looped, I don't recall all that much about your background, so I don't know if you're a lifelong Chicagoan, older than me, younger than me, or about the same age, so it's hard to say how our experiences of Chicago might differ. But, to me, the most interesting period in contemporary Chicago history is the period between the Daleys--after Richard J. died and before Richard M. took over--the period that I treat in both Crossing California and my forthcoming book The Washington Years.

Aside from being the time in which I came of age, it was a time of great political upheaval and unpredictability when, as a teenager, I was actually fascinated to read about local politics. There were great villains and heroes: "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak, "Calamity Jane" Byrne, and, of course, the late, great mayor Harold Washington. I spent my summers in high school and college working for local papers and radio stations, where I would learn of the so-called "Council Wars" on a daily basis--researching Harold Washington for Chicago magazine, writing about gangbangers for the neighborhood Lerner newspapers, rewriting wire copy for WXRT News and WBBM Newsradio 78. Although I don't live in Chicago anymore, I do still read the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Reader online, and nothing seems to come close to that heady experience.

What interests me about the period of 1979 to 1981, when Crossing California is set is that as it represented a time of transition in Chicago, it was also a time of transition in the country, the fast move from the Carter '70s to the Reagan '80s. And, of course, that shift does have certain resonances with the present day. I find it fascinating how national crisis always seems to bring America together then split it apart. I remember a sense of unity during the Iranian hostage crisis--yellow ribbons around the trees of West Rogers Park, everyone gathering to watch Ted Koppel and Nightline--followed unfortunately by a period of greed, solipsism, and xenophobia. Sounds familiar.

That said, I have to confess to a certain lack of intentionality in terms of how Crossing California came to be. I know there are many writers who choose to write about a particular historical period in order to comment on the present day; Arthur Miller's The Crucible comes to mind. Also, when I was recently in Chicago to do a reading I caught a matinee of a play at Steppenwolf called Lost Land which commented on contemporary geopolitical conflict through the prism of early 20th-century Hungary. My style of writing is, for better or worse, much more serendipitous or seat-of-the-pants (kind of like this response I'm writing). I tend not to outline when I write, and I only knew Crossing California was set in Chicago when I typed the words "California Avenue," only knew what period about which I was writing when I typed the words "It was 1979." Which sounds like hocus-pocus when I think about it, but that's pretty much how it happened; when I outline, I lose interest, but when I don't know what's happening next, I keep writing to find out. So however many parallels I find between the lives of the characters in 1979 and our lives here in 2005, their existence is either coincidental or subconscious. I found the tight structure of the 444 days of the Iranian hostage crisis more liberating than constraining actually.

And I do have to say that it certainly was convenient for the young characters' ages to correspond to my own, for their experiences to mirror some of my own experiences--defending the Ayatollah before a nonplussed audience of 7th graders, delivering a purportedly erudite speech at a bar mitzvah, performing on kids' shows on NPR, crossing California Avenue every day to get to and from school. I regret to say, however, that I never did perform in a band called Langer! or anything else. I have written a bunch of crappy songs that I've never shared with anyone except my dog and, though I toyed with the idea of recording a demo to go along with the book, I chickened out and decided that the book should stand on its own.


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