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Local Author Spotlight: For Kate Hannigan, It’s a Sweet, Sweet, Sweet, Sweet World

CBR_Logo2Kate Hannigan knows well two different worlds: pre-published and post-published. The former: agonizing; the latter: amazing.

“I had many years of writing and writing and writing and not getting anywhere with publishers,” says Hannigan, who calls Hyde Park home. “There’s a lot of writers out there who just throw in the towel—and I don’t blame them.”

So well versed in rejection had Hannigan become over the years of trying to get her full-length work published that she started collecting her rejection letters. She taped them together end to end, had them laminated, and turned the collection into a 65-foot “Scroll of Doom,” a show-and-tell prop that she takes with her when speaking to children about writing, persistence, and tenacity.

Hannigan sure knows something about tenacity. Indeed, any number of published authors can tell you that getting there takes a lot of time and—yes—a lot of tenacity. “And a whole lot of luck,” Hannigan says. “You have to hit when an agent or an editor is open to it.”

Author Kate Hannigan

Hannigan turned “agonizing” into “amazing” this past May with the publication of her first children’s book, Cupcake Cousins, one of a three-book series with Disney/Hyperion. Having started to write seriously in 2005, it took more than eight years of writing and submitting manuscripts and hoping to be published before she landed in the world of published authors.

Not that Hannigan was a stranger to writing and publishing. She had been doing some work-for-hire writing for local publisher Publications International, Ltd., and, years ago, she worked as a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News. As it happens, one of her former newspaper coworkers is now her literary agent.

A little bit of luck, a little bit of good timing, and a darn good story idea pushed Hannigan into the world of published authors, a world she loves because she gets to write about what she loves.

“You have to follow your heart, because if you follow the trends, by the time you find an agent, that trend has passed,” Hannigan says. “You don’t want to be coming out with a book that nobody wants. You have to follow your heart but still understand that it’s an industry, and publishers need to sell books.”

Writing children’s stories comes naturally to this mother of three who claims to still be a kid at heart. “I think a lot of people wind up writing for children because they have children, and suddenly you’re immersed in this wonderful world of literature. We tap into stories that really mean something to us,” she says. “But then you start thinking about your own stories. I just wanted to be part of this wonderful world.”

And now she is part of this wonderful world. Children’s book publishing in the United States is roughly a $3.5 billion market, with picture books and young adult titles like the Hunger Games and Divergent series driving much of that market.

Hannigan’s Cupcake Cousins, an adventurous story about two cousins, their dog, and “a misbehaving blender,” is geared toward middle-grade readers. Far from the dystopian worlds found in so many popular YA titles, Cupcake Cousins aims for an accessible, age-appropriate level of suspense. Hannigan wanted to write something fun and exciting but without so much darkness and tension.

“There are some great stories where the stakes aren’t so high. That’s what I wanted to tap into,” she says. “Something where there could be fun and thrills, but didn’t have to take such an emotional toll. [Readers] just want some escapism. I knew I wanted to write something sweet.”

Complete with easy recipes for yummy cupcakes, two adorable cousins, and a charming dog, Cupcake Cousins promises to be sweet. And in that, too, Hannigan has entered another wonderful world. “It’s the kid-lit world,” she says. “What’s not to love?”

Hannigan is finding there is a lot to love about being a children’s author. One of those being that she finds herself in a world with a lot of other great children’s authors, many of whom live in the area.

“You can’t throw a stick without hitting an author in Hyde Park,” Hannigan says. “And so many people write for kids, whether it’s an econ professor or a stay-at-home mom.”

With that in mind, Hannigan has pulled together some of those authors to form the Hyde Park/South Side Chicago Network for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which brings programming to Chicago’s community of children’s authors and artists. She also was instrumental in pulling together “Middle-Grade in the Midwest,” a group of six Midwestern middle-grade authors who meet to talk about craft, creativity, and the writing life and who visit bookstores together to discuss their books with fans and readers.

From fellow children’s authors to supportive family members to an amazing team of agent, editor, illustrator, and publisher, Hannigan has, indeed, found that persistence and tenacity—not to mention luck and a good idea—have paid off. This post-published world is one that this Hyde Park author has come to love.

“It’s been such a fun experience,” Hannigan laughs. “‘Giddy’ is the word.”

—Kelli Christiansen

Kate Hannigan is the author of Cupcake Cousins (Book 1: May 2014; Book 2: Spring 2015; Book 3: Fall 2016) and The Detective’s Assistant (April 2015). She will be reading from and signing copies of her book during “Middle-Grade Mania,” 6:30-8 p.m. Friday, September 26, at 57th Street Books, 1301 E 57th St, Chicago.

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Local Author Spotlight: Rebecca Makkai Has ‘Chicago’ Written All Over Her

CBR_Logo2“We’ve been blessed with some crappy weather, which is really nice.”

For a writer who counts among her greatest fears giving a reading to which only one person—her ex—shows up, it turns out that crappy weather is a blessing in disguise.

About the East Coast events during her current book tour, author Rebecca Makkai says that, “They’re going really well. Most of them have been kind of extraordinary turnouts. You never know what kind of turnout you’re going to get in the summer. If it’s really nice, no one comes because it’s summer.”

100yrhouse1Makkai is spending much of this summer promoting her latest novel, The Hundred-Year House. From Maine, New York, and Vermont to Arkansas, Colorado, and Minnesota, Makkai will be greeting readers and fans across the country. Of course, she’ll also be making a number of stops in Chicagoland, which she calls home.

The Hundred-Year House hit bookstore shelves earlier this month, to rave reviews. The novel centers around a couple living in a hundred-year-old estate north of Chicago, a house which once served as an artists’ colony. The story travels among 1929, 1955, and 1999 as the history—and mystery—of the house and its inhabitants unfolds. Early praise for the book describes Makkai’s writing with myriad positive terms, among them “expert,” “clever,” “lyrical,” “hilarious,” “heartbreaking,” “absorbing,” “spirited,” and “delicious.”

This effusive acclaim comes on the heels of the glowing reviews for Makkai’s debut novel, The Borrower (Viking, 2011), which Wendy Smith in the Chicago Tribune praised, noting that “Makkai’s probing novel reminds us that literature matters because it helps us discover ourselves while exploring the worlds of others.”

Author Rebecca Makkai

Author Rebecca Makkai (Photo by Phillipe Matsas, Opale)

Makkai herself has been exploring some new worlds: The publication of her novels has opened to her the world of publishing. And, although publishing her first novel left Makkai thrilled but terrified—a new experience that thrust her into the world of writers and editors and publishers and booksellers—the publication of her sophomore effort has left her thrilled and relatively relaxed. Relatively.

“This time I’ve had a better idea of what to expect, and I enjoy it. I can revel in this moment,” she says. “Everything’s been very exciting.”

Part of that ability to revel in the moment might well come from Makkai’s conviction that The Hundred-Year House is a stronger story than The Borrower—which was almost universally praised. But even so, Makki seems more confident about her second offering. “I really strongly believe that this is a better book than my first one,” Makkai says. “It’s a richer, more ambitious book.”

That doesn’t mean that there’s no pressure, however, with this sophomore effort. Expectations are a little higher. The measuring stick is a little taller. The fan base is a little bigger. But all of that has added up to something wonderful. “The really amazing thing about the second book is that people are looking for it,” Makkai says, a tinge of awe in her voice. “With this book, there were a lot of people who were looking forward to it, who asked me when it was coming out.”

borrower2Although she might have had a smaller fan base and she might have been something of a publishing outsider before the publication of The Borrower, Makkai is now in the thick of this new world with legions of fans and followers, reviewers and critics. And she didn’t even have to leave town to get there.

A Chicagoland girl born and bred, Makkai has spent most of her 36 years in the city’s suburbs, in Edgewater, and in the city proper. Her upbringing and her experiences here have shaped her work, and they play a big role in her latest novel. The Hundred-Year House, for example, not only is set in the area but “Chicago is very much a presence in it,” Makkai says, as is the culture of the North Shore, including its wealthy neighbors, its baronial estates, its coach houses, and its artists’ colonies.

Chicago has lent Makkai not only fodder for her novels but also a place to call home and a supportive community of cohorts and colleagues. “It’s an endless city,” she says. “But it’s small enough that there is cohesion in the literary community.”

That community is now one to which Makkai fully belongs. And it’s one that she’s liking quite a bit. “There’s something really cool about the way the Chicago press supports Chicago writers,” Makkai says. “I think there are enough major writers here, too, where people now see Chicago as a literary hot spot.”

Chicago is certainly a literary hot spot for Makkai. Not only does she live here, not only does she write here, not only are her books set here, but she also teaches here (at Lake Forest College and StoryStudio Chicago). And that’s not all: She promotes her books here, too; Makkai will be reading and signing and chatting about her books at a number of locations in the city and suburbs during the next several weeks. It’s something of a virtuous circle, and it’s one that Makkai is pretty pleased about.

“I really can’t see living anywhere else,” she says. “It’s a perfect place to be a writer.”

—Kelli Christiansen

Rebecca Makkai is the author of, most recently, The Hundred-Year House as well as the novel The Borrower. Her short fiction has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008; The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009; New Stories from the Midwest; and Best, American Fantasy.

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Local Author Spotlight: Robert K. Elder Loves Epiphany Moments

CBR_Logo2As we inch closer to Oscar night—otherwise known as the 86th Annual Academy Awards: this year to be aired March 2—it’s easy to shake our heads at the number of films we’ve missed during the past year. And the year before. Oh—and that great one from—what was it? 2012? We missed that one, too.

Local author Robert K. Elder could probably fill you in on a thing or two about all those great movies you’ve missed. In fact, his most recent title, The Best Film You’ve Never Seen: 35 Directors Champion the Forgotten or Critically Savaged Movies They Love (Chicago Review Press, 2013), uncovers some forgotten gems, from guilty pleasures to almost-masterpieces to “undeniable classics in need of revival.”

The book, something of a companion to Elder’s previous title, The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark, tackles what is really his first love: the movies. Elder, editor-in-chief for Chicago Sun-Times Media Local and founder of Odd Hours Media, LLC, notes two movies in particular that changed his life: Cinderella, the first film he saw in a theater, a treat from his grandmother, and—a far cry from an animated fairy tale—Reservoir Dogs.

Robert K. Elder

Author Robert K. Elder

Although the two movies couldn’t be more different, Elder sees in them the common thread of discovery. Both films struck him and have stayed with him over the years. “Disney always had that strong filmmaking stamp. They, better than any other film company, were able to capture that awe of film,” Elder says. “Tarantino is completely on the other side. The first time I saw Reservoir Dogs, it blew me away.”

Such is the power of a good story, and Elder is lucky enough to parlay storytelling and films into a career that includes not only authoring books about films but writing movie reviews and even working, for a time, in the film industry.

Elder spent a summer working as a production assistant for Warner Bros. on Without Limits, a biopic about international track star Steve Prefontaine starring Donald Sutherland and Billy Crudup. It was an educational, interesting experience—not least of which because Elder was nearly killed by the camera crane during filming. “It almost crushed me,” Elder remembers with a bit of an ironic chuckle. “Somebody grabbed me out of the way. I was oblivious.”

Shortly thereafter, Elder moved from Hollywood to work as an intern for the Chicago Tribune, home to one of the greatest film reviewers of our times. “Being able to review films at the same newspaper Gene Siskel worked at was an amazing kind of honor,” Elder says.

Best-Film-Never-Seen-thumbnail-BESTFrom the Tribune to the Sun-Times to a variety of other media, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Salon.com, Elder’s work has appeared in a host of places. It seems he is rarely without a pen in hand or a project in mind. In fact, The Best Film You’ve Never Seen is his sixth book, and he’s already thinking about his next project.

Not that Elder restricts himself to writing about the movies. His interests are as varied as the publications in which his work has appeared, from romantic dead ends to the death penalty to sex. The key, he says, is to select topics that are really of interest and to avoid becoming pigeon-holed as “the film guy” or whatever, especially when writing a manuscript can take such a huge chunk out of your life. “You have to decide whether you’re in love with this topic enough” to live with it for a few years, Elder says.

So many writers adhere to the old adage that you should write what you know—and Elder’s varied interests allow him to strike out in a number of directions. But it’s also important to write about what you love, and Elder seems to have no shortage of fodder there, either. Regardless of the subject or genre, there’s something fascinating to discover just about anywhere. “I love capturing epiphany moments—the moment when your life changes direction,” he says. “That was where The Film That Changed My Life came from.”

Elder’s writing life may well be made of a series of epiphanies that continually take his life in new directions. Perhaps in the movie version of his own life, he could be played by Brad Pitt, who has said that, “I always liked those moments of epiphany, when you have the next destination.”

—Kelli Christiansen

Read more about The Best Film You’ve Never Seen
Listen to Robert Elder chat with Carson Daly

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