Monthly Archives: October 2013

Local Author Spotlight: Adam McOmber Works in Concrete and Imagination

CBR_Logo2“Writing is always a mix of excitement and frustration.”

So says Adam McOmber, a transplanted Ohioan who now calls Chicago home. McOmber, author of the novel The White Forest and a short-story collection titled This New and Poisonous Air, teaches literature and creative writing at Columbia College Chicago, where he is also the associate editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika. Writing for him is both unfettering and work.

“I find writing in general to be liberating,” McOmber says. “To enter these fantastic worlds.”

McOmber certainly seems to know about fantastic worlds. Critics praised The White Forest as “absorbing,” “compelling” and “exceptionally well-rendered.” The novel, released last year and now available in paperback, was named as one of the Top Ten Most Highly Anticipated Sci-fi/Fantasy Novels of Fall 2012 by Kirkus Reviews’s “Book Smugglers.”

The story, about a young woman in nineteenth-century London who has a gift for perceiving the souls of inanimate objects, originated in some of the writing of one of McOmber’s favorite authors: Edgar Allen Poe. That and some other sources.

“My writing comes from a lot of research,” McOmber explains. “For The White Forest, I read Victorian comparative mythology and ghost stories and various things like that and mixed all of it up in the blender that is my brain.”

Inspiration, research, and imagination combined with concrete details, character development, and a good plot work together to serve as a foundation for a good story. That and a good editor. And knowing when to abandon things that aren’t working.

These are among the things McOmber teaches his students at Columbia, although he admits that he, too, at least in some ways is still a student himself. “I’m still learning,” he says. “I’m still experimenting.”


Author Adam McOmber

McOmber says he always wanted to write, but that it took him about seven years to actually learn to be a writer. A highly influential teacher in high school shared one of his early stories with the school principal, who lavished him with praise. “I felt like I had dome something special,” McOmber says, particularly in a world where everyone else was being commended for sports.

School was an important launching pad, but that’s not where McOmber truly learned his craft. “You won’t learn how to be a writer in school,” he says, “but you will learn what to read and how to develop relationships with writers. You learn how to be a writer by reading, and you learn more about writing just through the act of writing.”

With two published books under his belt and another in the works, McOmber seems to have the act of writing down pretty well. But that doesn’t mean he’s resting on his laurels. “I’m always trying to become a better writer,” he says.

Living and working in Chicago has done much to help McOmber forward on that path. “I feel energized by the city,” he says. “Chicago is a vibrant city, and I think it’s filled with places that fuel the imagination.”

From the city’s theater scene to its film scene to just about anything he sees on the street, Chicago sparks McOmber’s imagination, and various details from home find their way into the places in his stories. “I see so many different things here in Chicago that creep into my version of Victorian London.”

Indeed, McOmber’s version of Victorian London may not be exactly like the real version. Although he does a lot of research and looks up key details, it’s the feel and the sensibility of the place and time that is important to him. “Too much research can kind of constrict the imagination,” McOmber says. “It has to feel real to the reader.”

Indeed, McOmber always keeps the reader in mind when crafting his stories. “I am trying to provide an interesting escape for the reader,” he says. “Something that will excite the reader’s imagination in an intelligent way.”

Doing so may at times be exciting, frustrating work, but McOmber’s readers certainly appreciate that work and will look forward to his next book.

—Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about Adam McOmber


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Clues to the Uncapturable

CBR_Logo2Béla Tarr, The Time After
by Jacques Rancière
Translated by Erik Beranek

Someone famous once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, meaning that, describing one art form by means of another is ultimately futile. Yet, over and over again, writers attempt to do just that very thing. There are many reasons why one might want to write about someone else’s creative work: it may be a way of explaining it to oneself; a way to explain it to others; a way to advance or buttress one’s own ideas on the back of theirs; or countless other reasons. We all want to understand what we’ve experienced, and writers feel the added burden of putting it into words.

Two_Lessons_on_Animal_and_Man_UofMplateThis is the task Jacques Rancière has set himself with his Bela Tarr, The Time After. Rancière is a philosopher concerned with the plight of the proletariat, so it makes some sense that he’d take on Tarr’s films since they concern themselves with the era just before and just after the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc. Tarr’s films include The Turin Horse (2011), The Man from London (2007), and The Outsider (1981).

Because he’s a philospher, Rancière floats some theories about the inner meanings of Tarr’s scenes and even certain shots or camera movements. Some of these are more convincing than others, but Tarr’s films have so much space and silence in them, they practically invite interpretation and misinterpretation.

Tarr populates his work with people who often don’t know themselves, and he leaves us in rooms and landscapes with them for minutes and sometimes for hours at a time. Rancière tries mightily to explain these inchoate beings and even succeeds at times: “He does not want to look at the rain, he says, like dogs who await the puddles in order to drink from them.” Other times he gets stuck on concepts like huit clos (commonly translated as no exit, referencing Sartre’s work), and he uses them over and over to the extent that they lose much of their meaning. Tarr’s films are quiet, hulking things that mostly evade grasp.

At times one is left to wonder whether some awkward phrasing in the book is the author’s or his translator’s. The phrase “mediocre web,” which is used to discuss how a certain swindler unsuccessfully attempts to entrap his fellow villagers in one of his schemes, might make sense as a concept but stretches one’s patience as a description. In the end, though, we have to admire Rancière ‘s efforts to capture the uncapturable. There are moments when Tarr’s images spur him to share his own wisdom: “This is why it is pointless to believe that the world will become reasonable if we keep harping on the crimes of the last liars, but also grotesque to insist that from now on we are living in a world without illusion.”

This slim yet dense little book will make no sense to those who haven’t seen any of Tarr’s films, but for those who have and are reaching for some way to make sense of what they’ve seen, Rancière certainly offers a few useful clues.

Two-Star Review

July 2013, Univocal Publishing (distributed by University of Minnesota Press)
$19.95, paperback, 81 pages
ISBN: 978-1-9375-6115-4

—Reviewed by Dmitry Samarov

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Murder and Survival in 17th Century England

CBR_Logo2A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate
by Susanna Calkins

A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate by Susana Calkins, set in the distant, violent world of seventeenth-century England, triggers thought-provoking comparisons between the violence and prejudices of that era and those of twenty-first-century Chicago.

The story covers the efforts of Lucy Campion, a chambermaid forced to venture outside the strict rules of her position in order to prove the innocence of her brother. He is wrongfully accused of murdering a girl who was a good friend of Lucy’s and worked for the family that employs Lucy. Her brother is in imminent danger of being tried and hanged before Lucy finds the evidence she needs. Her journey takes her into raucous printers’ shops, secretive gypsy camps, the foul streets of London, and into the horrifying Newgate prison. Her path toward solving the murder is complicated by two great English disasters: the plague that killed thousands of people and, before the residents could recover from that, the Great Fire of London, which swept through much of the city. Running through all this are the stirrings of romance and Lucy’s dreams of what she would like to do in life if she were not just a chambermaid.

Murder_at__Rosamund¹s_Gate_revised_2Lucy is fortunate that the family for which she works is that of a magistrate who appreciates and encourages her questions and interests, which do not fit her lowly station in life.

Today’s Health Police would probably be upset by the magistrate’s enjoyment of wine with his breakfast kippers. Today’s legal thriller fans will be interested to find out that in Lucy’s day lawyers were not allowed to question witnesses directly. The accused had to ask the questions. These legal thriller fans will also notice that occasional attorney violation of this rule could go unpunished and that backstage activities sometimes helped influence the outcome of a trial. That’s familiar to twenty-first-century Chicagoans, right?

Historians report that religious and political upheaval, civil strife, and class and gender conflicts were rampant in seventeenth-century England. Sounds a lot like 2013.

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Author Susanna Calkins

A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate is Susanna Calkins’s first novel. Calkins is on the faculty at Northwestern University, associate director, Faculty Development, with doctorate and master’s degrees in history. She became fascinated with the seventeenth century while living in London and working on her doctorate.

Writing historical novels so the tone of the narrative is consistent with its time period throughout the book requires great focus and skill on the part of the author. Calkins does this extremely well, both in the way she handles the dialogue and how she moves the story forward. There are, though, a few instances in which the reader might wonder whether a particular incident would actually happen as Calkins describes. On the other side of that question, where is the evidence? Because all the action in the book takes place a few centuries ago, this is really a cold case in which many “facts” are difficult or impossible to confirm. They might all be true. But the book is such an entertaining read that an occasional quibble like that is no big deal.

Finishing A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate leaves the reader curious about what Lucy Campion will do next. An answer is available. Susanna Calkins’s second novel chronicling the adventures of Lucy Campion, Charred Remains, is expected to publish in April 2014.

Three-Star Review

April 2013, Minotaur Books
$24.99, hardcover, 352 pages
ISBN: 978-1-2500-0790-2

Learn more about author Susanna Calkins.
Read more about the author.

—Reviewed by Betty Nicholas

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