The Soon To Be Famous Illinois Author Project recently announced the 2016 winner of its annual writing competition, and now your list of “must-read” books is officially one title longer. Choosing from the best self-published fiction Illinois writers have to offer, librarians throughout the state selected Geralyn Hesslau Magrady as this year’s winning author for her excellent historical novel Lines–. Set in 1870s-era Chicago and filled with incredible period detail, Magrady’s book explores the historical struggles for workers’ rights and gender equality while tracing the life of Livia Haas – a young German woman who experiences first love and terrible loss while surviving both the Great Fire and the Haymarket Affair. Though her summer is packed with statewide book readings and signings, Magrady recently paused to speak with us via email about her contest experience, her real-life inspiration for Livia Haas, research at the Berwyn Public Library, Emily Dickinson, and what she hopes readers will take away from Lines–.
Evanston Public Library: First off, congratulations on being selected as the winner of the 2016 Soon To Be Famous Illinois Author Contest. Can you tell us about your experience? How did you decide to enter your novel Lines– in the competition, and how did it feel to be chosen for the top prize?
Geralyn Hesslau Magrady: Thanks, Russell. This is an exciting time for my writing. I heard about the STBF initiative when it was first announced a couple of years ago, and I remember thinking it a genius concept. I knew early on that my story would travel the self-publishing route, so I planned on submitting my work to the project whenever the novel was ready. When I finally pressed the “publish” button on December 15, 2015, the STBF deadline of January 4, 2016 was right around the corner, and I took a chance on meeting the deadline. I’m grateful to Josephine Tucci from the Berwyn Public Library who took the book, read it, and completed the paperwork for my submission. In February, when the semi finalists were announced, I was on cloud nine! I had just experienced a well attended book release celebration at Friendly Coffee Lounge in Berwyn. The celebration boosted my confidence and lessened my insecurity of having people read Lines–, but I still wondered about readers outside my personal circle—how would it be received? When deemed a semi finalist and then “Finalist,” WOW! Author fairs popped up, newspaper articles were written, a bookstore signing was in the works, and before I knew it, I was sitting at my Friendly spot when a coffee guest walked up to me and said, “Are you the author?” Ultimately, being named Winner of the 2016 STBF Award has brought more attention to Lines– than I ever dreamed possible, and I’m honored to be working with the STBF committee along with the Illinois Library Association and Reading Across Illinois Library Systems (RAILS) organizations who are truly dedicated to this project.
EPL: Could you give us a window into your writing process for Lines–? Where did the idea for the novel originate? How much of the book was pre-planned, and how did it evolve over time?
GHM: The idea originated over a decade ago with my genealogy research. After realizing that my great-great- grandmother, Livia Haas, was in Chicago pre- and post- fire, I wondered what she and my other ancestors had to have gone through. I researched the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 while writing short vignettes, and the research eventually delved deeper into the German experience, and then the labor movement. The story was evolving into something more than snapshots. That’s when I started to form a sketchy outline. I didn’t stick with the outline, however, and just moved in directions that the research and writing took me.
EPL: Could you tell us more about the research required to bring Livia and 1870s-era Chicago so vividly to life? What role did your local library play in the process? How difficult was it to weave other real life characters and events like Albert and Lucy Parsons, the Great Chicago Fire, and the Haymarket Affair into the narrative?
GHM: The research was endless. I was still referring to text and online sources up until the last week of revisions, checking and double-checking the facts and language, etc. The onset of research took place at the library with general history go-to references like City of the Century, The Encyclopedia of Chicago, and Nature’s Metropolis. At the Berwyn Public Library, my section was in the back corner, which was perfect because I could just take a seat and spread out with more books just an arm-length away. When the research got more specific, I went to the Chicago History Museum and did online searches. These avenues brought depth to my writing, inspiring sensory details I didn’t find in factual resources. There were several times when I went to the Haymarket Monument in Forest Park and Haymarket Memorial in the city; I visited St. Michael’s Church in Old Town and St. Boniface Cemetery on the north side; I walked the streets of the Prairie Avenue Historic District. I was surprised at how the real life pieces blended so naturally. Once I had a grasp on the historical people, places, and events, I placed Livia in the time period, and her relationship to it all just worked. I think that’s why I stayed motivated. The characters talked to me with a line of dialogue or image of a scene coming to me at any given time. I’d take those little notes to the coffee house and spend hours, sometimes days, fleshing them out into chapters.
EPL: Can you tell us about the poetry you included in the novel? Was the real-life Livia a poet, or was her poetry your creation? Why did you include the Emily Dickinson poem?
GHM: I truly know nothing about the real-life Livia, but I’m the only person I’m aware of in my family with this inside voice and passion for writing. I’ve always been fond of poetry and have experimented with different forms. I gave Livia this fondness, too, to explore a part of her character with which I could identify without research. It was innate. And Emily Dickinson, who is one of my favorite poets, was alive and writing during Livia’s time. The poet died shortly after the Haymarket Riot took place, and her work felt like an appropriate choice for inclusion. Livia leads a difficult life, but she is very in tune with the concept of love and devotion. I think Dickinson’s words would have struck a chord with this character, with an understanding of the poem that others might not find.
EPL: Throughout Lines– you explore a variety of important historical issues related to workers’ rights, unions, immigration, and feminism that still resonate today. What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?
GHM: We tend to hear about the movers and shakers behind historical events and movements, but rarely do we meet those average people who attend and support. When it comes to workers’ rights, I often wondered about the protesters who believed in the need for the eight hour day but didn’t have an extremist bent. Although membership in an organization assumes agreement with a message or mission, it should not assume agreement with all words and actions of those who are the lead voices. Livia couldn’t possibly promote violence. She couldn’t even do that when it came to her beloved brother’s military enlistment. Yet, Livia supports the eight hour day movement which is driven by people who are known to be anarchists. Is that plausible? I think it is. After all, she is also Catholic without supporting every representative of her church. These are the struggles that people go through when forming opinions about any issue—social or political or religious. To be honest, I never knew I was speaking on so many historical issues until I reread my work. I guess I was searching for a story that brought to light the life of an average person’s plight through a tumultuous time period, and what readers—who will be average people, too—take away from it will be different because of their own personal beliefs and experiences.
EPL: Can you give Lines– fans a sense of what you’re working on next? Can we look forward to another novel sometime soon?
GHM: I’m enjoying the book club circuit. Several local book clubs have read Lines– for their monthly pick, and I love attending the meetings, hearing others analyze my characters and writing style. I learn so much about myself, what’s working and what I need to improve. Most readers with whom I’ve spoken want me to keep writing with flashback dreams and letters. I’m thrilled by that response. When going through pre-publishing critiques, I learned that I missed a few event details that had readers doing their own research. That was good and bad. I liked the idea of stimulating further knowledge about a topic, but I didn’t think it should be necessary for readers to be distracted by a question to the point that they would stop reading my book in order to get clarification. (I went back and added detail for that very reason!) All of the group gatherings have concluded with, “Are you working on the next one?” Well, the original concept was three books that continued the family story through more decades of Chicago history. I have a list of events I want to research and a list of scenarios I want to explore for the characters. This summer I hope to attack some of that research and draft writing, but being a high school English teacher and mother of two, active teenaged sons, I don’t have a timeline for when such a book will be ready.
EPL: What types of books do you like to read? Can you share any good titles you’ve recently enjoyed, or better yet, what was the one book you read in the past year that meant the most to you regardless of the year it was published?
GHM: I like to read historical fiction (fancy that!), but I also like the book to have a true sense of mood and setting. Carlos Ruiz Zafon does this for me with Shadow of the Wind and so does Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief or Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White. Anything by Toni Morrison works for me, too. And of course, I love reading about characters and events that connect with Chicago, so The Jungle (Upton Sinclair), Sister Carrie (Theodore Dreiser), Devil in the White City (Eric Larsen), and Native Son (Richard Wright) are books that come to mind. This past year I was required to teach A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Rereading it to create curriculum meant picking it apart and analyzing it for sixteen-year-olds. As always with Dickens, I was again in awe at his style, language, and gift for detail, so I gave the book to Livia in Lines–. For this summer’s reading list, I’m trying to read works by local writers, so I’ve got five titles: David W. Berner’s new release Night Radio, Christine Sneed’s Paris, He Said, Kevin Koperski’s Amontillado, Dan Burns’ Recalled to Life, and Gint Aras’ The Fugue. I just like reading!
Interview by Russell J.