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Chicago Author Spotlight: Joe Meno

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 7, 2011 6:20PM

2011_01JoeMeno.gif Joe Meno is an author who lives, loves and breathes Chicago. He published his first novel many moons ago after finishing his undergraduate degree from Columbia College Chicago. He’s since published quite a few many more novels, short stories, plays, fiction, and probably tons of other things. Chicagoist last chatted with Meno back in 2006, and after picking up his most recent book of short stories, Demons in the Spring we decided to check back in with him.

Chicagoist: You’ve published a lot of books, plays and short stories over the past 10 years. I read a review that described you as “genre-hopping.” Even so, are there some similar themes that are folded throughout all your work?

Joe Meno: The reason I started writing in different forms is that I am really impatient. I would start writing a story and feel it was interesting and send it out and wait… and then I would try it out as a play and then as a novel. That kind of became the way I worked. Almost all my novels started out as short stories and we adapted for the stage as plays. The characters and locations might be different. But it’s really just physical story telling. There are characters in a place and that mode of writing is the same in short story, a novel a play or even a screen play.

No matter what you try to do, you end up at similar questions that come from your own life. Even if you are writing about a character that is a different gender, age or sexuality, you are using those characters to try to come to some answers about your own life.

C: You published your first novel at a very young age. Now, more than 10 years later, what have you learned about writing and publishing?

JM: I was an undergrad and had finished my degree at Columbia. A couple months after graduating, I sold my first novel. At age 22, I didn’t know how the industry worked. I thought you write books, and you get published, and I had no idea how daunting and unfair the publishing world was. One of the best tools you have in your 20s is your ignorance. I didn’t own anything and I didn’t have any responsibilities, so I could just write and think about writing all the time. If you know how these different industries work or how being an artist works, you would just never do it. I think there is a little joy that gets lost, and I’ve definitely felt it, it’s less fun when you’re caught up with things about reviews of if the New York Time gives you an Editors’ Choice. It’s so far from why you started writing in the first place.

Now that I’m 36, I have a lot better understanding of this media and how the industry works. And if I had known earlier, I never would have done it. But it’s wonderful and rewarding and I feel totally lucky.

C: Do you feel like you've become or grown into a better writer since then?

JM: I don’t know if I’m better as a writer, but I think your ambition grows. You think “Well, I’ve tried this before and I want to try something new.” My last novel was the most ambitious book that I had ever written and the longest book I had ever written, with five main characters and it dealt with history and war and some bigger ideas or questions. I spent about four years instead of a year and a half or two years.

When I look bad at old things I’ve written, it’s not that I feel that it’s bad and it’s not worth someone’s time to read. It’s just so hard to see anything but your mistakes. Even if I’m reading my work out loud to an audience, I want to change things. It’s because it’s alive and it never stops being alive. Any time you interact with it, it’s alive again, and that makes you want to go back and change it. It’s difficult to not go back and see the blemishes or things you would do differently. That’s why I don’t. I really try to move onto to the next thing. I have friends who have been working on novels for 10 or 15 years. I’m just not that kind of a writer.

C: You’ve been in Chicago for a long time. You graduated from Columbia and returned there to teach. What so great about this school and this city?

JM: The story workshop method at Columbia reflected my own methods; In order to write one good story, you have to write a bunch of bad ones. And because it is an open admissions system, Columbia has a very diverse student body. We don’t have kids who will be at University of Iowa or Princeton, and it makes the students richer because of that. (As a professor), I work with both graduate and undergraduate students. The stuff that they write is as good as anything that you’d find in the New Yorker or McSweeney’s. It’s totally fearless. The older you get, the more guarded and fearful you become. I feel I learn as much from them as I hope they can learn from me.

In terms of Chicago, it is a really unique city in terms of the literary scene. It’s incredibly supportive. It feels every accessible, it doesn’t feel pretentious. Because it’s not on the coast and not where the industry is, you don’t feel you are always in the spotlight. No one is here to become famous. If you had that ambition as a writer, you’d go to New York or Los Angeles to write TV or film. People here feel a bit more earnest and authentic. I like this idea that you’re a writer because that’s who you are.

All these people put out magazines and contribute to each other’s magazines. Then there are the schools that are feeding ideas and stories into that scene. There is this interesting collision of institutions, whether it’s Quimby’s or a reading series or a creative writing program. It’s a really interesting mix.

C: Do you have anything in the works?

JM: I have a play that’s opening in two months at the Chopin Theater. The house theater is producing it. It’s shaping up to be something very interesting. It’s called “Star Witness,” and it opens in March. It’s a brand new and totally original script. I hope people get their socks knocked off. It’s not unconventional, but I think people are going to go and have a certain type of experience. The first part of the play is in one space and the second part of the play the audience moves to a different space.

The reason I started writing plays is I grew up playing in all these bands, and I missed working with all these people. I had never had interest in theater, but I love the joy of a being in a band and playing a live show. I love books and film but it’s this communal exercise and I think it’s really fun.