Category Archives: Books

1993 interview with Gene Wolfe

Tor Books announced the news today that author Gene Wolfe has died at the age of 87. I interviewed Wolfe in 1993 when I was a reporter for Pioneer Press Newspapers in Chicago’s suburbs, visiting him at his home in Barrington. Here is my article, which was originally published in the Barrington Courier-Review on March 18, 1993.

The basement of the small Barrington house is overstuffed with books. Science-fiction novels line the walls, while hardcover reference books are piled on a desk, alongside stacks of paper. Gene Wolfe, an unassuming man in a plaid shirt, sits at the desk, using a typewriter.

Two globes hang from the ceiling over Wolfe’s head. One is a standard globe of the planet earth; the other shows the constellations as they appear from the viewpoint of someone standing on the earth.

But Wolfe’s mind wanders farther afield as he sits at the typewriter, imagining what the universe looks like from vantage points on distant planets and huge spaceships traveling through the emptiness of space.

This small basement room, where book and movie posters are taped to the ceiling, is the place where Wolfe wrote a series of books that was praised by the New York Times Book Review as “one of the modern masterpieces of imaginative literature.”

Wolfe shares his writing space with an exercise bicycle, an aquarium, a washing machine and a drying machine.

“It’s a combination office and laundry room, and exercise area,” Wolfe jokes.

When he takes a break from writing, sometimes he places a game of chess with a computer. A tally of victories taped next to the chess board shows Wolfe has won more games than the computer.

Most Barrington residents don’t know it, but their town is home for the man recently described by the Washington Post as one of America’s best unsung writers.

“The best novelist in America that you’ve never heard of, let alone read, because you don’t bother with ‘science fiction’ is Gene Wolfe,” the Post wrote. “His four-part ‘Book of the New Sun’ is as ambitious as Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ as intricate and beautifully written as Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire.'”

Those are high words of praise, but Wolfe has grown accustomed to high praise over the last 10 years.

Wolfe’s books aren’t best-sellers, and he isn’t even one of the best-known writers in science-fiction circles. Yet his books have attracted a small but loyal cult following.

”There’s a Gene Wolfe Fan Club in Europe,” he says. “But there isn’t one in America.”

Wolfe began writing fiction when he was in college in the 1950s, but it didn’t become his full-time occupation until about 10 years ago. While he wrote short stories and novels before work in the morning and after work in the evening, he spent 17 years as a mechanical engineer for Proctor and Gamble and 11 years as the editor of a Barrington-based trade publication, Plant Engineering.

Perhaps the most important inspiration or Wolfe’s career came one day when he was sitting on a panel at a science-fiction convention, discussing sci-fi costumes.

“I sat there listening and sulking, because no one had ever dressed as one of my characters,” Wolfe remembers.

So Wolfe came up with a character that would make a good costume for the masquerading fans at SF conventions: a bare-chested torturer, wearing black boots, black pants, a black mask and a black cape.

“Then I thought, ‘Who is this guy behind the mask? How did he get to be a torturer?'” Wolfe says.

At first, Wolfe planned to write a novella about the torturer. But pretty soon, it was long enough for novel. Wolfe says he discovered he couldn’t finish the story in one book.

Wolfe’s superficial idea about a black-leather costume turned Into the four-book “The Book of the New Sun” series, a story of baroque complexity. It was one of the most critically acclaimed science-fiction or fantasy works of the 1980s. He later wrote a fifth book, “The Urth or the New Sun.”

The story about the torturer and his travels is set so far in the future that present history is forgotten, and technology seems like magic.

As in other Wolfe novels, the science-fiction premise behind the story isn’t obvious at first. The story appears mote like a medieval fantasy than a futuristic tale. But gradually, the reader learns more about the structure of Wolfe’s fictional universe.

“It’s what’s called science fantasy,” Wolfe says. “It has the feeling of fantasy, but it’s science fiction.”

“The Book or the New Sun” was written in archaic-sounding language, sprinkled with strange and obsolete words: preceptress, pancreator, fusUs, jezails and falchions, for example.

Other science-fiction writers make up new words and names for the creatures and people they dream up, Wolfe says. But fictional animals are usually inspired by real animals, he says.

“In science fiction, you call a rabbit a smeep,” Wolfe says, quoting another science-fiction writer. In other words, if you imagine a creature similar to a rabbit on another planet, you make up a nonsense name to describe it.

“I said, ‘Why call a rabbit a smeep?’ There are plenty of other words for a rabbit,” Wolfe says.

Wolfe’s approach is to find real words to describe the pieces of his fictional worlds. When he was writing “The Book of the New Sun,” Wolfe began digging through the Oxford English dictionary and other books tor the perfect words.

“Often, you can find a Latinate or Greek term for something it you dig hard enough,” Wolfe says. “There are times I spent a whole day looking for the word I needed.”

Wolfe says he doesn’t expect readers to understand everything that Is going on in his novels right away. But he hopes they understand it alI by the time they reach the last page.

“I hate books that lecture me,” he says. “If I want lectures, I’ll read nonfiction. … If there are killer minnows in a creek, I want to see someone trying to cross the creek. If I want a lecture about fish, there are plenty of nonfiction books about fish I can read.”

Over the past few years, Wolfe has written several books that faIl outside the science-fiction genre, including the mystery novel “Pandora by Holly Hollender,” which is set in Barton, Ill., a fictional town patterned after Barrington. Wolfe says the Barrington Area Library’s Head Librarian Barbara Sugden recognized herself as a character in the book.

But now Wolfe is hard at work on a new four-book science-fiction series. “The Book of the Long Sun” is a follow-up to the “Book of the New Sun” series, and the first book, “Nightside the Long Sun,” will arrive in book stores next month.

The new series is set inside a massive generational spaceship, but the inhabitants don’t know they are in a ship. The “gods” of this spaceship, which is built from a hollowed-cut asteroid, are faces that appear on video monitors. The “long sun” of this world Is a plasma-discharge tube in the middle of the ship, Wolfe says.

But most of these details are only hinted at in the first novel, which recounts two days in the life of a priest, who tries to save his church and parochial school from the clutches or a wealthy buyer.

Wolfe’s loyal readers won’t find out until later who built the spacecraft, where it is going and why.

Although Wolfe’s books continue to garner good reviews, including comparisons to literary heavyweights like Vladimir Nabokov, Wolfe says he never sets out to write award-winning books.

“I don’t think people who write books sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a book that’s going to win the Nobel Prize,’ ” he says.

Wolfe remains modest when he’s asked about the high praise he has received from critics and his fans.

“I’m always surprised and pleased when that happens,” he says.

‘Now Arriving,’ a new book on Chicago airports

Pioneer Press, August 20, 2015 — There was a time when you could walk into airports without worrying about metal detectors. You could greet friends — or even celebrities — as they exited airplanes, coming down stairs right onto the tarmac. “It breaks my heart that that era has vanished forever,” says Christopher Lynch, who grew up near Chicago’s Midway Airport… Read the story.

Photo: Rotunno Family Collection

Celebrating a Century of Midland Authors

Society of Midland Authors Books Blog, May 5, 2015 — The Society of Midland Authors celebrated its 100th birthday on May 1 and 2, 2015, in Chicago… On Saturday, May 2, the Society held a free daylong event at University Center in the South Loop, featuring speeches by noted authors, panel discussions on literary topics and short readings… Read my report of the day’s events at the Society of Midland Authors Books Blog.

Photo of Steve Bogira, left, and Jonathan Eig by Robert Loerzel

A History of the Society of Midland Authors, Part 2

Society of Midland Authors Books Blog, April 10, 2015 — The authors who gathered at the Auditorium Hotel in Chicago on November 28, 1914, didn’t expect a free dinner. But they were somewhat stunned when the writer who’d invited them, John M. Stahl, picked up the tab for everyone… Read my post at the Society of Midland Authors Books Blog.

Chicago Tribune illustration

A History of the Society of Midland Authors, Part 1

Society of Midland Authors Books Blog, April 2, 2015 — As the Society of Midland Authors celebrates its 100th birthday, we present a history of the organization, starting with this look at its origins.

In 1914, Carl Sandburg called Chicago “Hog Butcher for the World.” Edgar Lee Masters, a Chicago lawyer born in Kansas, was giving voice to the common folk buried in a cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River. Other writers scattered around the prairies, like Kansan William Allen White and HoosierJames Whitcomb Riley, were drawing attention with the craft of their words. The Midwest was teeming with creativity… Read my post at the Society of Midland Authors Books Blog.

Photo by Robert Loerzel

Book review: ‘The Man Who Looked Books Too Much’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on October 11, 2009.

ManWhoLovesBooks_JKTF.inddThe Man Who Looked Books Too Much
By Allison Hoover Bartlett
(Riverhead)

John Gilkey is a convicted thief from California who bought stuff using other people’s credit-card numbers. There’s nothing especially dramatic or shocking about Gilkey’s crimes, although he did figure out some fairly clever ways of getting away with fraud for a while. If Gilkey had stolen something mundane like groceries or office supplies, we wouldn’t be reading a book about him. Ah, but books were the object of Gilkey’s serial pilfering. And not just any books — he stole rare first editions and antiquarian volumes that are worth thousands of dollars.

So what we have here is a book about a guy who steals books, who’s caught by an amateur sleuth who loves books. It sounds like just the thing you’d want to read if you were, well, a person who loves books. However, Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much does not turn out to be a solid addition to the true-crime library.

Bartlett keeps her story moving along at a good pace with clear, plain prose, but the narrative fails to deliver much in the way of actual thrills. She goes to great lengths to probe the motives behind Gilkey’s obsession with stealing books, constantly asking: Why did he do it? And why is he so interested in old books?

Gilkey’s own answers to those questions are not particularly profound. Bartlett senses that he wants to build a collection of old books as a sort of status symbol, so that he can impress people. Paradoxically, Gilkey can’t really impress anyone, since he keeps his stolen books hidden away in secret stashes. Digging deeper for more insights, Bartlett turns to other books about obsessive collectors and book thieves, and she finds a few relevant quotes.

Judging from her footnotes, Bartlett’s research was pretty thin. For example, instead of quoting directly from a 1985 collection of Sigmund Freud’s letters, she relies on a 2006 book that quotes the 1985 book. Bartlett pulls her most interesting details from other recent books about book collecting, especially Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness, which just makes you want to seek out those earlier works. And her footnotes reveal that she relied on interviews to construct the story of Gilkey’s crimes, without citing any police reports or court documents.

The great strength of Bartlett’s reporting is the access she received from Gilkey himself. Her interviews with Gilkey are the most fascinating aspect of this book, revealing a self-deluded man who continually finds ways of rationalizing his crimes. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much eventually turns into an intriguing psychological study of the relationship between the author and her subject. Does Bartlett get too close with Gilkey as she tags along with him on visits to a bookstore he had once robbed? Is it her responsibility to tell the police when Gilkey tells her details of his criminal exploits? Bartlett raises these questions without satisfactorily answering them. She seems to feel queasy about becoming a participant in the story she’s writing about.

In the end, no matter how much Bartlett tries to puff up Gilkey’s book thievery into a weighty topic, the story boils down to some rather obvious traits of human behavior: People like cool stuff. Some people become obsessed with cool stuff. Some people become so obsessed that they steal it. And if the stuff you steal is cool enough, someone just might a book about you.

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Book review: ‘I Shot a Man in Reno’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s fall 2008 issue.

ishot-coverI Shot a Man in Reno
By Graeme Thomson
(Continuum)

A few years ago, the Mekons’ Jon Langford told me about his fascination with old-time folk and country songs about death. He lamented the dearth of death songs on today’s charts. “And now pop music’s essentially sanitized to the point where there’s no drinking, cheating or killing songs on country radio—although the movies are full of fantasy, death and violence,” he said. “A lot of those folk songs were talking about real events. Maybe society is censoring itself. The mainstream cannot deal with this material anymore.”

After that interview, it occurred to me that Langford did not have it quite right. Maybe mainstream Nashville has shoved the murder ballad into the closet, but gangsta rap overflows with violence. And as Graeme Thomson proves with his book, I Shot a Man in Reno (subtitled “A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure”), the Grim Reaper is lurking in just about every genre of popular music. Over the course of this thoughtful essay, Thomson discusses hundreds of death songs. The author of previous books on Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson, here he carefully delineates all the varieties of musical death, from old-fashioned murder ballads to the car-crash sagas of the ’60s and the mortality-obsessed music of heavy-metal and emo bands.

Thomson is a surefooted guide through this musical graveyard. His writing is never dry or academic, but he smartly puts each song into its sociological and psychological context. It’s fascinating to see how concepts of death changed over the decades, as Thompson points out trends such as the explosion of death songs during the 1960s psychedelic era.

It would have been nice if Thomson had lingered longer over some of the significant songs he writes about, rather than flitting so quickly from one tune to another. And while this book is largely a work of interpretation rather than history or journalism, it would benefit from more of the stories behind the songs. Thomson does make excellent use of quotes from some A-list songwriters; he interviewed Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Will Oldham and Nick Cave, and he draws on other sources for remarks from other musicians.

At first, it may seem puzzling that songs on this grim topic have become hits and even popular standards, but Thomson persuasively shows that death very much belongs in pop music. If music is about the human experience, death must be in there, along with everything else. One of Thomson’s sources, Richard Thompson, puts it best in the book’s final chapter, saying, “The obvious thing to say is that a song about death is a song about life.”

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F. Lee Bailey Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on April 6, 2008.

Husbands suspected of killing their wives seem to be in the news almost constantly these days. A new book by defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey and Kenosha journalist Jean Rabe compiles some of the most famous spousal murder cases into one bloody roll call of botched crime scenes, outlandish alibis and celebrity trials.

When the Husband Is the Suspect: From Sam Sheppard to Scott Peterson — The Public’s Passion for Spousal Homicides includes short narratives by Rabe on each case, along with Bailey’s commentaries. The cast of real-life characters includes a few suspects Bailey defended, such as Sam Sheppard and O.J. Simpson, as well as Robert Blake and other recent headline-makers.

Bailey discussed the book in a phone interview from his home in Massachusetts.

Q. What common elements do you see in these cases?

A. The most common one in the assassinations — the so-called hits for hire — is that otherwise intelligent people seem to hire the biggest idiots in the world to do the job. I represented some really classy assassins, all of whom, in fact, were trained by the government, and they’re almost impossible to trip up.

Q. But the typical person doesn’t have access to these professionals.

A. They really don’t have access to any specialists in the art. It’s like going in to get your brain surgery done by your local practitioner.

Q. You book also includes husbands charged with committing the murder themselves. They often plan what seems like a “perfect crime,” but then they always slip up.

A. These guys … come up with some cover-up story, like the most typical: pushing the wife down the stairs and having her injured in all kinds of places. … I would call it dumb. You have to add in a quotient that there’s probably a strong emotional factor at the time of the killing, and a lot of this is cover-up. But it’s really shoddy cover-up, in most cases.

Q. What are the common motives in these cases?

A. It’s kind of a selfish alternative to divorce. The stupid mistakes suggest a psychopathic, very greedy person who doesn’t want to pay the legal fees or the spouse’s share and thinks that this is a good way to avoid the divorce — and in some cases, to inherit money that wasn’t his. Money is a large factor in my view. Very few people will kill their wives if they’re not feeling pretty greedy.

Q. Does it make a difference to you whether you believe a client you’re representing is innocent?

A. It does. If I can’t satisfy myself that the client is telling me a straight story, I will almost always suggest that the client go and take a polygraph test. That, probably more than any other reason, has enabled me to compile a much greater acquittal record than most other lawyers in the United States — because I’m picking and choosing innocent people.

Q. Many people believe O.J. Simpson was guilty of murder, despite his acquittal. When you try to persuade someone that Simpson was innocent, what do you emphasize?

A. There are three things that stand independently and are all inconsistent with guilt. The first is the timeline. [In the book, Bailey argues that Simpson did not have enough time to commit the murders, return home and catch a flight to O’Hare, as prosecutors claimed he did.] The second was the demeanor, which is extremely important in cases where people known to be non-criminals are involved in a murder case. And the third was his statement to the police, which I think … no guilty person with his background could possibly have pulled off. He spoke to them for three hours … and never slipped one bit. And a guy who had just killed two people the way these two were killed could never have done that.

Q. How has media coverage of trials changed since 1963, when you persuaded an appeals court that publicity prevented Sam Sheppard from getting a fair trial?

A. The quality of news coverage has diminished, because giants of the print media are no longer being nurtured properly. Television reporting is too often a snapshot. There just is no way to devote an evening newscast to the depth of reporting that would describe in detail what the witnesses had to say.

Q. Your book doesn’t include the case of Drew Peterson of Bolingbrook, whom police have called a suspect, but haven’t charged, in the disappearance of his wife, Stacy. What are your observations of that case?

A. There isn’t any question that the circumstances are suspicious. There also isn’t any question in my mind that, with all of the pressures on the police, they don’t feel like they’ve got enough to get a conviction. If they don’t catch a break, this case could go on forever.

Q. Police have not found Stacy Peterson’s body, but as you write in your book, other people have been prosecuted in murder cases without a body.

A. You don’t have to have a body if you’ve got enough circumstantial evidence, so that is not going to be a barrier to charging this guy. But I’ve got to tell you, when you go to a trial with no body, it’s a powerful argument to point to the courtroom doors and tell the jurors: “You can’t be sure the victim won’t walk through there, can you?”

Q. What advice do you give to innocent people who are wrongly accused on how they should behave?

A. The classic mistake is to put up a false alibi, thinking, “Well, since I didn’t do it, it won’t be any crime to give a cleaner explanation of where I was than the truth, which is: I was out with neighbor’s wife, banging the hell out of her.” This is not the kind of alibi you want to bring to a jury, so a false one is made up. Those inevitably crumble, once the police bring pressure.

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