Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It Happened in Chicago

Here's another link in which my book and I were featured:

Meet Author Peter J. Spalding!

My guest today is Peter J. Spalding, author of the eBook 1871: A Novel of the Great Chicago Fire. Peter has done about every form of writing, including journalism, poetry, and commentary, for which his work was picked up by The New York Times. He has also worked in various capacities on both stage and film, including two stage plays and six screenplays. 1871 is his first novel.

For more information about Peter J. Spalding and his book, visit http://peterjspalding.blogspot.com and http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/peterjspalding.

Welcome to "It Happened in Chicago", Peter!
Q: In addition to writing books about Chicago, do you have any other ties to the city?

I live in California now, but I grew up in Illinois-- I was born in Park Ridge, actually. The one time we moved away was when my dad got a job in upstate New York. It was my first real move, and I guess my mom was trying to make things easier on me, so she got me a picture book called "There'll Be A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" by Robert Quackenbush. It was basically a kiddie version of the Chicago Fire-- it was completely inaccurate of course, but who cares.

I think she ended up ruing that day! I was one of those kids who always wanted the same bedtime story every night, so I probably drove her crazy reading it over and over. By the time we moved back to Illinois, I was hooked, and I've been obsessed with the fire ever since.

Q: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?

That's like asking me when I realized I had brown hair-- I've known it as long as I can remember! I actually started writing before I could read, because I used to tell stories to my mom, and she'd transcribe them. As soon as I was old enough to read and write, I started doing it myself. I wrote all kinds of short stories as a kid, and I wrote my first full-length play at the ripe old age of ten. By the time I got to high school I was running the gamut, writing prose, poetry, drama-- you name it.

Q: Please describe one of your earliest works (go back as far as you can remember). Who or what inspired you to create it?

The earliest thing I know of was a thing my mom put in a scrapbook. It was a retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood." I must've been about two. The way I told the story, she went through the forest and had all kinds of crazy adventures. It was a little like "Alice in Wonderland." The Big Bad Wolf was hardly in it; I guess I didn't think he was important. So that was my two-year-old mind at work!

Q: Can you name someone whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Well, I come from a long line of writers, because every generation of my family has had at least a few. My great-grandmother was a wonderful poet and a great storyteller, and I think she gave my grandmother a lot of her genes. Both of my parents have written nonfiction-- in fact, my dad has a book coming out this summer about Lafayette. So this stuff kind of runs in our veins, and needless to say, my folks have been great.

In school, I had three great teachers who stick out in my mind: Mrs. Ash in sixth grade, and Mrs. Rush and Mr. McCoy in high school. But they're just the tip of the iceberg. I've had so many great friends and mentors over the years, I can't possibly name them all. I've learned something new every day, and I still do.

Q: What type of books do you read for pleasure?

I read anything that's smart and exciting. My all-time favorite writer is Mark Twain, although Steinbeck and Fitzgerald are up there too. But sometimes I shy away from so-called literary fiction, because it can get dull and pretentious.

My favorite books of the last few years have been "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold and "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger-- say what you want about their movie versions, but the books are great. I also read a lot of nonfiction, especially history, which probably won't come as a surprise.

I love sci-fi and fantasy too. I have a weakness for Marvel Comics, especially Spider-Man. And I think J.K. Rowling is brilliant, but not just because she wrote a fun series and sold a lot of books. She got a whole generation of kids to love reading, all over the world, even though conventional wisdom said young people don't read books anymore. I defy anybody to name another writer in the last hundred years, who has inspired so many millions upon millions of people.

Q: What was one of the easiest things about writing 1871: A Novel of the Great Chicago Fire? What was one of the most difficult?

The easy part was telling a story that I cared so much about, and that was really personal to me. I hope that doesn't sound like a BS answer, because I really do mean it. Very often, it's hard to pinpoint what your story is really about; and if you're not careful, if you're not personally invested in it, then it can come across as dull or cliched. That's one of the biggest pitfalls for any writer, myself included, but on this book it was never a problem.

I felt like I'd had this story in my head for years, and I just needed enough writing skill and experience to be able to do it justice. I drew from my own life too-- I've never lived through a huge disaster, thank God, but a lot of the characters' conflicts and feelings were based on things I'd gone through myself. So, for better or worse, this is a story that comes straight from my heart.

The hard part was working out all the technical stuff. Some of it was pretty routine, like setting up the story and making sure all the details are consistent, because the book does have a lot of subplots. But to be honest, I made it harder for myself than it needed to be.

I swore I'd make the story 100% historically accurate. Even though it's fiction, I wanted to make sure the story could've happened in real life. That's a lot easier said than done. It forces you to do a huge amount of research, so I can't tell you how many months I spent in libraries and archives, just digging through microfilms and yellowed books and whatnot. And a lot of the time, eyewitnesses gave different stories, or one piece of evidence contradicted another, so I couldn't say for sure what had happened-- I had to make my own judgment calls about what I thought was most likely.

Then came the hardest part of all: I had to to tell a compelling story, and get readers to really care about the characters, while staying within those limitations. Sane writers don't do that. The real world doesn't follow nice conventions like three-act structures, so most writers will use artistic license to change whatever they want. I'm all for that, because it obviously worked for Dickens and Tolstoy and who-knows-who-else. But on this book, I was bound and determined to do it my way.

I think it worked out in the end, because I do think historical accuracy helped the story, but it still gave me a lot of gray hair. Oh well-- such is life.

Q: Of the characters mentioned in 1871: A Novel of the Great Chicago Fire, please tell us about one you would like to meet and why.

Does Abraham Lincoln count? He's only in a couple of flashbacks, but I'd love to meet him! I'm only half kidding, actually. That's why I wrote about the Lincolns: they're just fascinating people, and I wanted to get to know them better.

The more I found out about them, especially at that stage in their lives, the more they seemed downright Shakespearean. Robert was so much like Hamlet: he was grappling with the legacy of a dead heroic father, and he was struggling to find his own place in the world. And Mary was kind of like Lady Macbeth, with her ambition and whatnot, although she obviously never plotted a murder. Their stories were so packed with drama that as a writer, I couldn't resist.

Q: Can you share with us anything about the fire that you feel most people don't know?

Well, that ties right into the last question, because most people don't know that the Lincoln family lived through this. Most books don't even mention it, and if they do, it's just in passing. I was floored when I found out about their story-- I couldn't believe that nobody had written about it before. So I was pretty excited to be the first (as far as I know). Obviously, since I was doing fiction, I did have to invent some details when the historical facts were unclear. But the Lincolns' basic storyline is real.

In a broader sense, though, I don't think people realize how heartbreaking the fire was. The city's boosters tried to gloss over that stuff because they didn't want to scare off investors. But the truth is, it really was hard on people who lived through it. For example, the whole North Side was wiped out-- it was like the Lower Ninth Ward during Katrina-- so if you lived in that part of town, you would've almost certainly lost your home. You have to think of that in human terms, because statistics don't do it justice. That's why eyewitness accounts are so important: they make you realize how crushed the survivors really were, and how profoundly their lives were changed. And not everybody made it. For example, Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard was one of Chicago's founding fathers, but he lost practically everything and never recovered. So it really did take a lot of heroism and fortitude; and when I wrote the book, I wanted to honor that spirit.

Q: What led you to decide that the novel should be published as an eBook?

It was a combination of things, but the short answer is, I think eBooks are the way of the future. They're still kind of a niche market, but they won't stay that way for long, considering that iPads and Kindles are selling like hotcakes.

I do have to say, I think paper books are great, and they're never going away. I love curling up on the couch or sitting on a park bench or what have you. But you do have to stay up to speed with the times, and frankly I think the publishing industry is still stuck in the twentieth century. Most books don't sell enough copies to cover the author's advance, but publishers pay those advances anyway. And if retailers can't sell enough copies, the publishers buy them back. That makes it almost impossible for them to make money. They have a really hard time adjusting to change, which in this day and age is a serious problem.

I'm not a doomsayer, by any means, but I do think publishers need to adapt, and the quicker the better. It's kind of like what happened in the fifties, when movie studios had to deal with the advent of television. It was painful in a lot of ways; they had to completely rethink the way they did business, and some companies got through it better than others. But movies eventually found their place alongside TV, and nowadays they coexist pretty well. I think the same thing will happen in the publishing world, where paper books will find their place among eBooks and other new media. But it may take a while, and the old rules of the game won't necessarily apply.

Anyway, I knew eBooks were a growing market, and I wanted to get in on the ground floor. A lot of other writers have done the same thing; Stephen King published "Riding the Bullet" as an eBook years ago. I think it's going to become more and more mainstream as time goes on.

After all, we've all gotten used to downloading music and reading newspapers online. So why not download a book?

Q: What would you like us to know about your current work/s in progress?

I'm working on a book about an old movie theater, which by the way is another passion of mine. And I'd love to write more about the westward movement, especially the California Gold Rush, and about the space program. I have a couple of ideas for those, but I'm still in the early stages of writing.

I'm also working on a few stage plays and screenplays. Some of them grew directly out of "1871," because I learned so much about Chicago history that I found more stories that I wanted to tell! I want to do a movie about the Leopold and Loeb murder, among other things, but that's a tough sell in Hollywood. So you'll have to wish me luck.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

People always ask me how much of the book is fictional, and how much of it is real. I usually dodge that question, because I want people to enjoy the novel as is, without worrying about the behind-the-scenes stuff. And if I've done my job, they won't be able to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

Even so, if you want to learn more, I do encourage people to read up on the fire. I think it's an amazing piece of history, and there was only so much that could fit into the book. There are a lot of great resources out there. I posted some links and recommendations on my blog, and there's more where they came from. So by all means, check it out!

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Fiery Passion

FYI, my book and I were featured in the Chicago History Journal last week:

A Fiery Passion

I like people of passion, particularly when it is manifested in a study of Chicago's history. I am passionate about what I do on my sites; I make no money from them, accept no advertising and no one is making me do it. The only other explanation is that I'm nuts! When I stumbled on a Facebook page dedicated to a novel about the Great Chicago Fire and written by a first time author and self proclaimed "dork," I had to know why. (The author sounded like someone I should know.) At the present time the book is only available as an ebook (Kindle; Nook, etc.)and that added more fuel to my curiosity (ya, I'm going to say it) fire. Since I do not own an ebook reader I really can't comment on the book's merits, but that really isn't what this post is about. We are talking about enthusiasm, ardor, and zeal for a topic. It takes a lot of work to write a book, dedication, and perseverance. We are talking passion.

Why the Chicago Fire Still Matters To Me

By Peter J. Spalding

I get a lot of questions about my book, 1871: A Novel of the Great Chicago Fire, and the most common one is why I wrote it in the first place. After all, there are already a lot of books about the Great Chicago Fire, so there wouldn't seem to be much left to say about it. And writing a book is such a huge commitment-- of all the things I could do, why should I spend so much time and energy on this?

My honest answer to that question is that I can't help myself. The fire is such a key moment in history, and it's so chock-full full of human drama, that it's catnip for a writer like me. And it's such a rich subject that there are still plenty of new things to say about it.

On the surface, the fire is one of those iconic events that everybody seems to know. We've all seen the pictures of the city in flames, and we've all heard the stories that have sprung up around it. (For the record, Mrs. O'Leary's cow didn't start the fire; that story was debunked while the ashes were still hot, but the legend has lived on ever since.)

Beyond that, though, very few people know much about the fire. In fact, it has been so mythologized that's easy to forget that it really happened. The city rarely commemorates it, and aside from the Water Tower, there are few visible signs of it left. But beneath the surface, its influence is all over Chicago; for better or worse, it turned the city into what it is today.

Most histories of the fire are pretty simplistic. Some people see it as a cautionary tale of carelessness, hubris, and ambition run amok. To others, it's an inspirational story of how Americans can overcome the odds, make a good situation of a horrible disaster, and generally triumph in the face of adversity. There's some truth to both points of view, but the reality is much more complicated. The fire did show humanity at its most foolish, but it also showed humanity at its most courageous. It taught America lessons in both what to do, and what not to do, in the face of disaster.

The fire's most important lesson was that catastrophes do happen. That may sound obvious today, but it wasn't obvious to people at the time. In fact, in those days the U.S. had never seen such a thing. Its biggest natural disasters up to that point had been the New Madrid Earthquakes, which had struck beyond the frontier and affected only a handful of people. The most destructive fires in memory were the so-called Great New York Fire of 1835, and the Civil War burnings of Atlanta and Richmond. The Great Chicago Fire dwarfed them all.

Since then, of course, we've seen plenty of other disasters-- most notably the Galveston Hurricane, the San Francisco Earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina-- so our perspective is very different. But 1871 Chicago was a product of its time. The city was built quickly and cheaply because its people thought that was the smart thing to do. In the Victorian era, Americans saw "progress" as inevitable, so they tended to look on the bright side of things and ignore naysayers. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, so it's easy for us to wag our fingers and call them foolhardy. But if we'd been in their shoes, we'd probably have done the same thing.

Having said that, Chicago's recovery was nothing short of incredible. To this day, it's the only U.S. city that has bounced back from disaster so well. Most of its rebuilding was finished within two years (in contrast to New Orleans, which is still struggling nearly five years post-Katrina). A decade after the fire, Chicago was booming even more wildly than before. In 1893, the city was chosen to represent America to the world by hosting the World's Columbian Exposition. Chicago has been the Midwest's biggest and most important city ever since. Compare that to Galveston, which lay crippled after its hurricane and never regained its former glory. Even San Francisco has its share of scars; it used to be the biggest and most important city on the West Coast, but after its earthquake, it took a back seat to Los Angeles and has stayed there ever since.

Chicago's rebuilding was certainly no picnic. The city's boomers and boosters tried to put a good face on things, and they pretended that the city was rising from its ashes like a phoenix. But that was a whitewash of the truth, and it didn't do justice to the fire's hundreds of fatalities, thousands of buildings leveled, and tens of thousands of families left homeless. The fire also bankrupted dozens of insurance companies; in the days before financial regulations, their collapses left most of their customers penniless.

To me, that made the survivors that much more courageous. There's no denying the energy, chutzpah, and downright heroism they showed in the weeks and months that followed. Chicago's leaders had grown up in pioneer days, so they were famously self-reliant; their generation had built much of the country from the ground up, prospected for gold out West, abolished slavery, and developed the first coast-to-coast railroads and telegraphs, among many other things. They were arguably the generation that turned the U.S. into a world power. Chicago was at the center of all that activity, so when the fire struck, it unleashed untold quantities of drive and ambition. W.D. Kerfoot set up the first temporary building within hours, and Chicagoans started planning the rebuilding while the ground was still hot.

All this happened with very little government help. There was no FEMA in those days, nor any real form of public assistance. The government just wasn't involved in its citizens' daily lives, aside from mail delivery and a handful of other services. So when disaster struck, Chicagoans didn’t assume that the authorities would bail them out. Instead, they collected private donations and distributed them through the nonprofit Relief and Aid Society. The government provided security through soldiers and police, but that was essentially it. That reinforced the survivors' determination, because it forced them to take their destinies into their own hands.

The results of all that can still be seen today. The Water Tower is just the tip of the iceberg; in fact, most of modern Chicago owes its existence to the blaze.

The city's architecture is the most obvious example. The rebuilding effort attracted groundbreaking architects like Louis Sullivan, who started experimenting with steel, concrete, and other new materials. Real estate prices soared in the burnt district, so businesses had to make do with small parcels of land. The result was a new building style, the skyscraper, which debuted with the Home Insurance Building. And neither Chicago's skyline, nor that of any other modern metropolis, would ever be the same.

The Chicago Tribune was also forged by the fire. The city's biggest paper used to be the Times; the Tribune was one of several smaller ones that are now mostly forgotten. The fire destroyed every newspaper office in town, but Tribune publisher Joseph Medill sought out temporary quarters right away. He had the Tribune back in business within forty-eight hours, long before any of his competitors. The Tribune became the only media outlet in a city starved for news, so it quickly became the city's paper of record. Medill became so powerful that he won the next election to become the city's mayor. His arch rival, the Times, struggled to regroup and eventually went out of business. (It bears no relation to the modern Sun-Times.)

A lesser-known fact is that the city's lakeshore also came out of this. Before the fire, Chicago was an industrial city without any major parks. The site of Lincoln Park was littered with graves, having recently served as a cemetery. The site of Grant Park was mostly underwater; the lakeshore ran along Michigan Avenue, and the Illinois and Michigan Railroad ran along a trestle offshore. After the fire, the city dumped its rubble into the water, which extended the shoreline outward. Many people wanted to develop that land for profit, but Montgomery Ward insisted that it be kept open for public use-- and the rest, as they say, is history.

The fire also left its imprint on the city's sporting life. Among other things, it destroyed the White Stockings' baseball field along with many of its players' homes. To rebuild, the team had to reorganize into a more professional outfit. That led to the founding of the National League and the birth of pro sports as we know it. The White Stockings later changed their name to the Cubs, and the White Sox were named in their honor.

The fire's biggest effect, though, was on the city's psyche. Chicagoans knew the magnitude of the ordeal they'd lived through, so they felt they could overcome anything. That can-do spirit had existed since the city's founding, but the fire hardened it like a piece of clay in a kiln. And the city was not shy about it; Easterners soon dubbed Chicago "the Windy City" because of its citizens' bragging and boasting.

So just think: anytime you stroll through Grant Park, take in a Cubs game, hear a Chicago politician bluster, or just look at the skyline, you're seeing the results of the fire. Other events have certainly shaped the city-- most notably Prohibition and the reigns of both Richard Daleys-- but they still pale in comparison. Chicagoans worked so hard and accomplished so much that we can never lose sight of their legacy.

So, getting back to the original question: I don't know of any juicier, more important, more dramatic, or a just plain more exciting subject to write about. If you know of anything, by all means let me know!