After Many Years, a Return to the Midwest–With Books

When I was a kid and an early adolescent, I lived in one of the plainer and more modest houses in the upscale community of Wilmette, Illinois. I moved away from the Midwest at age 14 and had never been back since — until this month. When the opportunity arose to do a few speaking engagements and book events in the Chicago area, Cleveland and Kalamazoo, my husband and I bought our plane tickets. Though Rory was tired from previous traveling and I was a little nervous,  we decided to take this trip with a sense of adventure. It turns out we loved our time in the Midwest, and much of that has to do with the old friends and new along the way.

Friends of American Writers, where I was a panelist with two other historical novelists. At the podium is Roberta Gates.

In Chicago and some of its suburbs, I spoke at a luncheon of the Friends of American Writers, at a meeting of the large and very well-read Flossmoor Book Club, at the Riverside Library, and in a gathering of readers in the home of my friend Roberta Gates.

Roberta, in fact, had arranged for me to speak at the other venues as well, and I am deeply grateful for her help. She is truly a “connector.” Besides setting up these meetings, she also e-introduced me to Steve and Susie Kovic, wonderful airbnb hosts in Oak Park, and set up a walking tour of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings with guide Lois Starbuck. She and her husband served us a lovely dinner in their home.

Oak Park Home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Roberta also took me to lunch with two friends, one of whom is Hungarian and cooked delicious goulash and palacsinta (crepes) for us. Louise Katona, the Hungarian, had read my book and told me that it had resonated with her as true, both in the facts and in the emotional nuances. It is hard to express how much her words meant to me. To write fiction set in a country not my own is to tell someone else’s story, and for much of the time I was working on The Songs We Hide, I kept asking myself, “Who am I to write this?” Louise’s comment was a great reassurance.

Another interesting conversation was with Christine Vernon, an Oak Park writer who has tirelessly advocated for the preservation of her town’s aesthetic ambiance. she drove me around town to show me what she was talking about. Both Christine and Roberta are people I “met” via email before ever meeting them face-to-face. As irritated as I may get with technology, I love the way it opens doors.

Rory in front of the model train set’s “Chicago.” At the other end of the line is Seattle!

While we were in the Chicago area, we drove to Wilmette, and finally (after 42 years of marriage) I got to show Rory where I used to live. We walked past my old house and down the alley where my brother and I played with the neighborhood kids. We drove by my old school, then we had lunch in the small downtown where some of the old businesses are still operating. We visited Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, talking about how our grandsons would love the huge model train set-up. It’s strange leaving a place as a kid and returning as a grandparent. Funny, I think I appreciate Wilmette and Chicago more now. When I was 10, the place was just big and flat. Now it’s big and flat and fascinating.


The Wilmette Beach

We walked the chilly Wilmette beach, and Rory had his first real view of Lake Michigan. He loved seeing a freshwater body of water so huge you can’t see across it. When I was a child it was easy enough to pretend it was the ocean.

After a few days in Chicago we drove to Cleveland, where I had a speaking engagement at the Cleveland Hungarian Museum. Historically, Cleveland has had a very large Hungarian population, and I was so glad to be able to present my book to people who would identify with it, ethnically and historically. The museum volunteers were very welcoming. One of them, Eva Szabo, opened her home to us. We spent the night there and enjoyed talking with her. The people who attended my presentation were a wonderful audience, asking great questions and adding observations of their own. 

Like Louise Katona, they were surprised that an American with no Hungarian roots would research and write their story. They said they felt honored. Again, I can hardly put into words how much their gratitude meant to me.

After Cleveland, Rory and I drove to Kalamazoo, where we stayed with our friends Walt and Gretchen Erhardt. Unfortunately, by this time in the trip I had forgotten all about taking pictures, so I don’t have a shot of them, but here’s a quick sketch: the Erhardts are recently retired teachers and lifelong Lutherans, and I have rarely met a couple who live out service and hospitality so naturally. Rory and I loved the goodness of their home and the long conversations at their dining table.

In Kalamazoo with Noel Seif (and thanks to Noel for this photo)

Gretchen had arranged for me to speak at a retirement community. She invited a number of her friends from outside the facility, and I was also delighted that Bob and Noel Seif from my old MFA  community also came. Whatever stereotypes may exist about people in retirement homes, this presentation turned out to be a gloriously lively discussion.

While in Michigan, we had dinner with another writer friend, Cynthia Beach, and her husband, Dave. Cynthia is a teacher and has a deeply encouraging way of interacting with other writers. In the spring she will publish a book titled Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process & Creative Soul Care. She and Dave will also lead a retreat combining writing and spiritual formation. Check out her website. 

Debbie King and I in Riverside, IL

Back in Chicago before we flew home, I had two more public book events, one at the Riverside Library and one with the Flossmoor Book Club. Both were a real pleasure, and in Riverside I had the added joy of seeing yet another friend from my MFA program, Debbie King. Debbie is an editor with Tyndale House and a sensitive writer of children’s stories, and  I look forward to following her career.

The Flossmoor group was amazing: a book club that has been meeting for decades, and they have about 100 members. They also keep an impressive library and do monthly book reviews. This group truly loves reading, and it was an honor to speak to them.

When Rory and I first embarked on this trip to the Midwest, it was with some trepidation. We didn’t know what to expect. Now, after our ten days there, we’re talking about going back. A road trip, we say. We have to see these people and places again. My deepest thanks to the friends old and new who helped us, welcomed us and made this trip so special.

What I’m Learning From My Book Events

My novel The Songs We Hide came out May 1, and since then I’ve done eleven book events. I’m using the term “events” loosely, because these gatherings have come in different sizes and taken different forms. I’ve presented at bookstores, with one gathering consisting of over 70 people and another consisting of four. I’ve spoken to a small writing group, a church women’s book club, and a whoever-wants-to-come group in a retirement facility. I’ve spoken in homes and in a business conference room. My largest number of sales was 44; my smallest, I think, was three.

Claire Gebben, a writer friend who’s been doing this longer than I have, wisely told me that book events usually aren’t money-makers, but they’re good opportunities to connect with people. That’s what I’m finding out. After these events, what I tend to remember is the dialog, the stories people tell me afterward, the questions they ask. I’ve talked with aspiring writers who feel confused and overwhelmed, and I’ve talked with Hungarians who still carry painful memories 60 years after leaving their homeland.

At times the conversation is more rushed and interrupted than I’d like: a few nights ago a man was trying to tell me about his Hungarian grandparents while someone else wanted me to sign the book she’d just bought. But I try to listen whenever I can. People need to know that their concerns matter to someone, and in situations like this, I am that someone.

Another thing Claire and other writers told me is, “People don’t just want to hear you read from your book. They want to hear your own story.” At first I didn’t know what to do with this. My story? What’s interesting about that? But I’m finding that the advice is true. People want to know what this process has been like. They want to know what has motivated and frustrated me. Recently one perceptive audience member asked how the writing process has changed me. What a question.

So I talked about learning to deal with criticism of my work. I spoke of putting myself into the mind and heart of my protagonists, which meant thinking like someone else, not just now and then but almost daily for a number of years. This has been a long season of setting myself aside–telling my ego to leave me alone so I can work, quieting my own self-talk so the voices of my characters could emerge.

This self-emptying was hard to put into words at the book event. But afterward a writer and an artist in the audience came up to me and told me they felt inspired. They wanted to go home and write or paint. My friend Claire was right: my inner story matters more than I know, not just to me, but to others as well.