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.”

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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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