For a chunk of my early twenties, I had Brooklyn envy. The narrative in my head went something like I this: a “real” writer goes from college to a fascinating year abroad (Prague, maybe, or Moscow), then returns to earn her MFA at Iowa. After a year in California as a Stegner Fellow, she moves to Brooklyn to be with her boyfriend (a documentary filmmaker, of course, with curly hair). There she writes fabulous stories about New York. Agents and editors get all the inside jokes, love reading about their own neighborhoods, and leap all over the young writer, introducing her to other writers at loft parties. The New Yorker is thrilled to discover yet another fresh new voice from Williamsburg, and Jonathan Lethem gives her piggyback rides to the coffee shop every morning
Nowhere in this fantasy did I register that perhaps people—even New Yorkers!—might like to read about something other than New York. Nor did I understand that associating almost entirely with other writers might be less than inspiring. I just knew that all the writers lived on a magical island, and I was not on it. I didn’t, fates be thanked, pack up and move there. What I did—and maybe this is more embarrassing—is set an inordinate number of my stories there. Let me just stop here and say that I have never in my life, to this day, set foot in Brooklyn. And at that point in my twenties, I had spent maybe a grand total of sixty hours in Manhattan. So the details of my settings were carefully vague. People lived in “walk-ups.” They crossed “the bridge.” They met their Manhattan lovers outside “the Flatiron Building.” I had no idea what this building looked like or what it housed, but I didn’t need to: everyone who mattered in the literary world could already picture it perfectly.
I look back on this time as a sort of literary adolescence. It’s something I think we all go through in one way or other, and it mirrors so eerily that earlier, more acne-filled adolescence of the body and mind, when the imperative is to blend in, lest ye be mocked. In those early years as a writer, I was certain I’d be discovered at any moment for an imposter. If only I could become invisible, I might avoid expulsion. And so, like a sophomore at a senior party, I hid in the corners and taught myself unoriginality.
There was much I had yet to embrace about my own voice: my inclination to play with time and sequence, my urge to write about intellectuals, my obsession with unraveling the most composed characters. But reclaiming my identity as a Chicagoan had to come first. It was the most basic, the most obvious thing I was denying about myself. It was the curly hair the fifteen-year-old was straightening every day before school. And then one day (and I don’t particularly know what it was that changed for me, other than growing up a bit), I finally started setting stories in Edgewater, my father’s old neighborhood. I set them on the North Shore, where my mother still lives. I set part of my first novel in a tony apartment on Lake Shore Drive. (I’ve never lived in one of those, but I’ve at least seen one—a huge improvement over those mysterious Brooklyn walk-ups.) And suddenly I found I could write with authority, with voice, with distinctive detail. It was easy, in a good way.
As those stories got published, as I met other writers and attended their readings, as I peeled myself up from my own chair and started to look around, I discovered, lo and behold!, a vibrant literary landscape. It was like opening a door in your grandmother’s basement and finding a speakeasy. Here were thriving college writing departments, strong independent bookstores, theaters willing to produce new work, world-class literary magazines, supportive local newspapers and radio and blogs, the Printers’ Row Lit Fest, StoryStudio Chicago, Story Week, the Ragdale artists’ colony, readers in abundance, writers in droves: native writers, imported writers, writers just passing through. It’s not a cliquish literary community, not obsessed with itself. People haven’t, for the most part, moved here in order to take themselves Very Seriously. And when I hear about another Chicago author, I’m genuinely excited: “Oh, that guy’s from Evanston! No way!” I can’t imagine a New York writer getting so excited about another New York writer. (“No kidding! Chelsea? What are the odds?”)
Of course, the literary Chicago should not have been so hard for me to find. It’s not as if Printers’ Row is held underground. The bookstore readings don’t require passwords, and you can’t swing a cat in a Starbucks without hitting a writer (or getting arrested).
I regret that I discovered these local riches too late to take full advantage. Because I live in the suburbs with two small children, you will not find me, alas, either on stage or in the audience at a hip reading series in a bar that used to be a butcher shop after it was a church. I’ll cede such festivities to those who, unlike me, figured it all out early, when they had energy and time, and no toddlers demanding Cheerios at six a.m.
And the city is full of those eager young writers. And there are more coming.
This summer on my paperback tour, I did a local TV appearance in a small city in Ohio. The arty young intern in charge of shuttling me around backstage was clearly out of place in that town: scrawny with cool glasses and skinny jeans and big dreams of writing screenplays. He found out where I was from. “Oh, God! Chicago!” he said. “That’s where I want to be. As soon as I can afford it, that’s where I’m gonna go.”
Rebecca Makkai's first novel, The Borrower, is available in paperback from Penguin, and her short fiction has been featured for the past four years in The Best American Short Stories. This year, she is teaching StoryStudio Chicago's "Novel In a Year" workshop. She lives north of the city with her husband and two daughters, and she is at work on a second novel—one set entirely on the North Shore.