literary involvement

  • Essay in Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology

    Photo credit:

    I'm honored to have an essay in this excellent upcoming Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology. Editor Martha Bayne at Rust Belt Publishing has assembled a stellar batch of writers, WOW: Aleksandar Hemon, Zoe Zolbrod, Naomi Huffman, Kathleen Rooney, Kevin Coval, Eileen Favorite, and Bill Savage. The fiction, journalism, essays and poetry in the book explore how Chicago's "foundation of meat and railroads and steel" makes for a complicated political and cultural ecosystem. My essay, "Illiana," is about decades spent living on the Indiana/Illinois border, and includes the phrase, "feral Indiana girl with big hair."

    Even better than just buying the book, please consider PRE-ORDERING it, which helps small publishers enormously. Plus, you'll get a tote bag.

    Pre-order here

  • Northwestern University: "Navigating Freelance Writing" panel 5/30/15

    Northwestern University: "Navigating Freelance Writing" panel 5/30/15

    On May 30, I'm on a Northwestern University panel: "Navigating Freelance Writing," from 11-11:50am, with Kevin Davis and Julianne Hill. Come to the event to hear advice from 3 versatile, in-the-mix freelancers; (bios are below.) Free advice, open to the public!

    Kevin Davis is a freelance writer and journalist in Chicago and author of the nonfiction books The Wrong Man, (Avon) Defending the Damned, (Atria) and, forthcoming, The Brain Defense (The Penguin Press).

    Freelancer Julianne Hill's nonfiction work has appeared in outlets including "This American Life," "Morning Edition," Chicago Public Radio, PBS, The History Channel, Real Simple, Health, The Round and Writer's Digest. Hill received an MFA in creative nonfiction from Northwestern University, which named her work Distinguished Thesis. An award-winning journalist for more than 30 years, Hill served as a Rosalynn Carter Fellow, awarded to journalists covering mental health, and was named a National Press Foundation Fellow, examining the issue of HIV/AIDS. She has taught journalism at Northwestern University, Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy and Loyola University Chicago.

    Gretchen Kalwinski is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Stop Smiling, Time Out Chicago, Make Literary Magazine, and Featherproof Books. Her clients have ranged from Crate and Barrel, Orbitz, Imagination Publishing, University of Chicago, and the American Library Association. Kalwinski has appeared as a panelist on WGN radio and Chicago Tonight, and was awarded a Ragdale artist residency in 2009. Currently, she’s editing novels for Curbside Press, ghostwriting an e-book for a startup, and writing travel stories. In 2014, she earned a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. For more, see

  • Orbitz travel story about holiday reads

    In which I talked to a bunch of bookseller and booklover friends and scoured the 2014 year-end lists, and local bookstores, to come up with this list of books you've gotta read over the holidays, for Orbitz. 

  • "My Writing Process" blog post

    I was invited by the spectacular author/professor Goldie Goldbloom to participate in the "My Writing Process blog tour." You can read Goldie's entry here. Since I'm finishing my MFA thesis and completely reworking how I think about my writing, my processes have done a 180 in the past few months.

    1)    What am I working on?

    I’m in the last throes of completing my thesis for my MFA program at Northwestern University. After four years in the program, I’m ready to be done! It’s 150 pages--about 70 pages are short stories with an urban-decay setting and a magical-realism fairy-tale bent. The other 80 pages are an excerpt from my novel about a young woman who’s grown up at a radical flower farm commune founded by her parents.

    2)    How does my work differ from others of its genre?

    My work takes place in an urban, post-industrial setting but has this fairy-tale backdrop. I’ve been told that the combination of those two things is unusual, I think because most people don’t think of such a bleak setting providing a backdrop for magical elements. But I see the nature and potential for things like curses and spells to take place amidst factories and mills.

    3)    Why do I write what I do?

    The industrial landscape in this current work comes from my childhood in industrial Indiana, on the Chicago border. And I was a huge reader as a kid, devouring Grimm, folk tales, fables, and Biblical stories, so the writing that comes most naturally to me is basically an outgrowth of that.

    4)    How does your writing process work?

    I’ve learned a lot about “how I work,” in the past four years of grad school. I’ve gotten better about procrastination, which used to be a big problem, by doing Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” from The Artist’s Way. Doing the morning pages seems to clear out my mental clutter and get me ready to write the real stuff. I try to write daily, on the commute to my day job and it’s MUCH easier to get back into the work when I *am* writing daily.

    I’ve also recently discovered Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, and the “dreamstorming” process detailed in that book has been helping me a lot lately. It’s best for bigger projects, like novels, and is a way to both inhabit the “dream space” of a novel, while also making big decisions that help move the story forward. (It seems I’m not the only one who gets paralyzed when it comes to making major decisions that affect the whole storyline...but if you don’t make those decisions, you wind up with competing or contradictory threads.)  Dreamstorming is a great way to address this: It helps you tap into the subconscious and figure out what the story is “about” but also rein things in enough so that the amount of rewriting you have to do is minimized. I'm just sad I didn't discover it sooner.

    NEXT UP:

    Mark Rader's first published story was about a spunky one-armed cave boy named Little Runner who saves his clan from a bear attack. It was in a kid's magazine when he was a kid. Now a grown man, Mark's stories have appeared in Glimmer TrainEpochLIT, and The Southern Review, and been short-listed for a Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, and inclusion in the Best American Non-Required Reading anthology. He holds an MFA from Cornell University and currently teaches creative writing part-time at the University of Chicago's Graham School. He has a number of long-in-the-making manuscripts nearly completed, he's pretty sure. Look for his post at:

    Dana Norris is the founder of Story Club, a monthly storytelling show in Chicago, Boston, and Minneapolis.  She teaches at StoryStudio Chicago.  She has been published in McSweeney's Internet Tendency,  The Rumpus, the Tampa Review, and her stories have been featured on Chicago Public Radio.  You may see her upcoming performance schedule at, and she'll publish her post on her Facebook page. 


  • Networking Across the City, Across Genres

    Yesterday, I moderated a panel for Northwestern University's Career Day, titled "Networking Across the City, Across Genres." Krista Franklin, Mare Swallow, and David Welch were the (amazing) panelists and we spent a lively hour discussing:   

    • "Networking" as a dirty word
    • Attending readings and performances
    • Working with other kinds of creative artists
    • Chicago being a city of often divided neighborhoods, and breaking down some of those boundaries to participate in other lit communities besides our own
    • The Conference, founded by Mare, and how it brings people together

    Career Day Schedule Flyer

  • The Next Big Thing blog chain

    Writer and friend Colleen O'Brien recently tagged me in her post for The Next Big Thing, a blog chain in which writers interview themselves about a project-in-progress. Here are my answers to the ten questions.

    Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

    What is your working title of your book (or story)? It's tentatively called "Ode to Purgatory," but the plot has shifted so much over the past eighteen months that I'm not sure the title even applies anymore. I still dig "Ode to Purgatory" on an objective level, though -- because it refers to the idea that "purgatory:" i.e., biding your time and carrying on while things aren't good, or you're not in a place where you want to be while you work to get to the other side--the working and waiting and figuring out--is actually a gift. It's the opposite of immediate gratification. And whatever else this story is or isn't, I'm pretty sure that at it's core, it's still about that.

    Where did the idea come from for the book? The story idea came straight from setting, and the setting came from a barista in a Chicago bakery I frequented years ago. The bakery itself had meaning for me; it was a Polish one my family had gone to for decades and it was newly gentrified. The barista was talking about this small ghost town in southern Illinois he'd visited the past weekend. He described the town as feeling medieval because it had levees and floodgates completely surrounding it. I immediately went to work and Googled it. My fascination was because it was so perfectly in sync with things I wanted to explore about my own hometown, an Indiana rustbelt town bordering Chicago but psychologically isolated and worlds away from the arts, culture, and beauty I craved. I soon learned he'd been talking about Cairo, on the very tip of the southern Illinois peninsula, and the story just cracked open from there.

    What genre does your book fall under? Literary fiction. At least I hope. During the rough draft phase, let's just say my writing is REALLY rough, and in those moments it feels like bad children's literature. But then, I dig into the language, explore metaphor and hone my dialogue and it does get much better with each draft.

    Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? Honestly, it feels like jumping the gun/ jinxing the project to even consider this. I'm 90 pages into the story and still learning about the characters.

    What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? A young woman with a singular sense of smell begins to suspect an ecological disaster is headed for her southern Illinois commune.

    Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  I'm still deeply engaged in the creative process, so I don't want to make the mistake of thinking too much about the audience or marketing, rather than the work itself. That said, I imagine it ending up with a small-to-mid-size publisher who'll see my vision and let me use an illustrator I love. Maybe someplace like Akashic Books? Back Bay Books? Curbside Press? Featherproof Books? Dzanc Books/Other Voices? Verse Chorus Press? Chiasmus Press? Red Hen Press? But, you know, if Random House or Penguin came knocking, and wanted to have a conversation, I'd entertain that. I plan on scoping out small presses at this year's AWP Conference in Boston.

    How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? I've been working on this for the past 2 years, (since Winter 2011), but honestly, much of that time has just been making mistakes, exploring, figuring out how to take on such a huge project in the first place. It's only in the past 6 months that I've laid out a solid outline of the project, gotten serious about mapping my setting, etc. I'm working steadily on it now, and plan to have a full first draft by June 2013, which means writing about 4 pages per day for the next four months.

    What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? I AM VERY UNCOMFORTABLE PUTTING THE BELOW BOOKS IN THE SAME PARAGRAPH WITH MY STORY. That said, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is a gorgeous novel that I admire deeply and that story also has a female protagonist seeking to escape an isolated, stifling landscape. Also,  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Kate Chopin's The Awakening, for the coming-of-age aspects of those novels. And, people who know the plot of my story say I should check out Arcadia, a commune-centric novel by Lauren Groff.

    Who or what inspired you to write this book? I had a story I wanted to tell about overcoming inertia to leave behind the worlds you've known, propelling yourself into unknown arenas, and discovering your community, all things I relate to as a result of growing up as an awkward, self-conscious/shy, secretly bookish person in the industrial, sports-crazed, non-arts-friendly town where I was raised.

    What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? Since the story is set on a radical flower farm that produces essential oils and natural botanical perfumes, I'm having a great time exploring and writing about those interests. I don't think I'm alone in being fascinated by the sense of smell and how it affects our memories and experiences. Also, Cairo itself is so fascinating. It's a ghost town now, (see above photos), but it's loaded with rich, historical details. It was an important Civil War location, and it was supposed to become a metropolis in the early 1900s. But it never really resolved its post-Civil War racial issues, and now it's crumbling and decrepit, with a population under 3,000. What's bizarre, though, is that a huge percentage of the town is on the National Register of Historic Places.

    Next up, (in alphabetical order):

    Mairead Case is a Chicago-based writer, editor, teacher, and grad student with recent work in The Unified Field and at Bright Stupid Confetti.

    Nashville-based Todd Dills is the author of the 'Triumph of the Ape' (2012) collection of shorts and the 'Sons of the Rapture' (2006) novel, and he edits and publishes THE2NDHAND online magazine.

    Susannah Felts is a fiction writer, freelance writer, teacher, and the author of one novel, This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record (Featherproof Books, 2008). She was awarded the Tennessee Arts Commission's Individual Artist Fellowship in Fiction for FY2013, and was named a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference, 2012. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and daughter.

    Rob Funderburk is a visual artist in Chicago. His work extends from gestural sketch illustration to large site-specific installations, art prints, and publication design.

    Megan Stielstra is the author of Everyone Remain Calm, a story collection, and the Lit Director of Chicago's 2nd Story storytelling series.

  • Chicago's new Cultural Plan

    I've been attending meetings for the new Cultural Plan for Chicago, and was quoted today in the Chicago Tribune, in Howard Reich's article, "Chicagoans Respond to Draft Chicago Cultural Plan." An excerpt: "When everything was flashing on the screen, it seemed very vague to me," added Gretchen Kalwinski, a writer. "We need specifics. As the group dissected the draft plan's recommendations for attracting and retaining artists, they dug into those specifics. Kalwinski and the others, for instance, ardently supported the plan's recommendation to "create a comprehensive system to accommodate space needs for artists and creative professionals. "My husband and I are both artists, and we may have to leave Chicago, because it has been so hard to find space to live and work (in) here," Kalwinski told her group. "My friends are leaving every week."



  • "Changes in Reading and Writing" at Printers Row

    I just participated in a Printers Row Book Fest panel "Changes in Reading and Writing." It was moderated by the great Donna Seaman, longtime Booklist editor. The other panelists were J.C. Gabel (The Chicagoan, Stop Smiling), and Wailin Wong of the Chicago Tribune. We talked about how technology is changing publishing, the increasing link between advertising and editorial, and how important it is to edit final copy on paper (not onscreen, dear god.)  Gapers Block covered our discussion a few days after the event; they praised the discussion but also called it "a little depressing." Which seems appropriate, given the publishing industry's current struggles. We weren't there to sugar-coat.

  • Writing from the senses 1-day class

    Tomorrow, I'm teaching a one-hour class as a requirement of the teaching seminar for my MFA studies at Northwestern. The class is one I designed, titled "Writing from the Senses." My class, and about 10 others taught by my classmates, will be offered free of charge to the public, since it's a way for us to practice our teaching skills, so the crowd will be a friendly, receptive one. Still, I'm nervous, so I'm easing my anxiety by WAY over-preparing. Before we do the writing exercises, I'll distribute sensory prompts; i.e.,  so I'll pass around essential oils, a box filled with tactile objects, some music snippets, a number of odd images, and a few flavorful nuts and seeds. We'll also read some Proust aloud, natch.

  • Triquarterly Blogging

    Now that I've settled into a new, full-time copywriting job, I thought it was high time to get more involved with my graduate program; (I'm in the Masters in Creative Writing program at Northwestern University). To that end, I recently started contributing to the blog associated with their literary magazine, Triquarterly Online

    I will be posting one blog entry each week, and it'll go up on Mondays. I've done four posts so far--about NanoWrimo, the Baffler's resurgence, online writing tools, The Chicagoan Magazine, and the Occupy, Writers movement. So far, what I like about this gig is that it's forcing me to keep up with the stuff I'm interested in; i.e., literary and publishing news, and the fiction, poetry, and criticism being published in literary mags. And, having a weekly deadline helps keep me focused on reading the news I'm actually interested in, rather than, say, refreshing twenty times a day or searching incessantly for the perfect winter boot that is simultaneously stylish, warm, and has excellent, ice-grabbing traction. But if anyone's got a lead on that, do let me know.

  • Reader at WBEZ Event: "Don't Call Me Joe"

    I'll be reading tonight with several other writers at the largest traditional coffee "cupping" event to happen in Chicago (conducted by Intelligentsia). Don't know what cupping is? Neither did I, so I pasted some info from the WBEZ site below. The piece I'll be reading--and am still working on, oops--is an essay of my 20-year old coffee addiction, begun inelegantly with Mountain Dew, continuing with a brief, ugly Mini-Thin period in college, and now centered around my much more moderate, one-Americano-before-noon stasis.

    CHICAGO (March 15, 2011) –Chicago Public Media (WBEZ 91.5 FM) continues its live event series, the Off-Air Series, with an exclusive chance to participate in a new culinary conversation and learn just how little is actually known about tasting and brewing coffee. Designed to be the largest ‘traditional coffee cupping’ (aka tasting) ever held in Chicago, Don’t Call Me Joe, in collaboration with Chicago’s own Intelligentsia Coffee, will be held at Catalyst Ranch, 656 W. Randolph Street, on Saturday, April 9 at 7:00pm. The event has limited seating and is almost sold-out, but there will be a wait list at the door.

    Cupping is the industry standardized way of critically evaluating coffee; it is how Intelligentsia selects green coffee and is an integral part of their Direct Trade buying model. The standard procedure involves deeply sniffing the coffee, then loudly slurping so it spreads to the back of the tongue. The taster attempts to measure all aspects of the coffee’s taste including body, sweetness, acidity, flavor, and aftertaste. The amazing team of buyers, tasters and trainers from Intelligentsia Coffee, will educate about tasting terminology, coffee processing, and history, while cupping with some of Chicago’s most experienced staff: Baristas, Roasters, Green Coffee Buyers, and members of the Intelligentsia Quality Control team.

    In order to ensure full immersion in this culinary realm, the Chicago-based publisher Stop Smiling Books has arranged ‘Readings on Coffee’ for the listening pleasure. Participating authors include: Kyle BeachyPaul DuricaFred Sasaki, Gretchen KalwinskiMairead Case, and Sam Weller. “The Off-Air Series is designed to extend the WBEZ listening experience out into the community and allow people to come see what they’ve been hearing, or in this case taste,” said Event Producer Breeze Richardson. “Learning a little more about coffee – where it comes from and why it tastes the way it does – helps you appreciate it more. Just like a wine tasting, Don’t Call Me Joe is an opportunity to skillfully taste coffee with the experts. And the chance to create Chicago’s largest cupping ever makes this event even better!”

    Tickets to the event are nearly sold out, but there will be a waiting list at the door for those interested. More information is available at

  • Glorious Artist Residency at Ragdale

    In November 2009, I received a Ragdale Artist Residency and just spent a spectacular three weeks there, working on my short fiction collection in Lake Forest, Illinois, writing, thinking, dreaming. Some pics are attached, and here's a Literago post I wrote on my time there.

  • Press; Chicago Sun Times; Dollar Store Reading

    Chicago Lit: Out of dollar-store gimcracks, a rousing literary experience

    Chicago Sun Times; January 29, 2006
    By: Tom McNamee

    You figure the joint might be half empty. Who goes to a bar to hear people read literature? You walk into a crowd. The back room at the Hideout, at 1354 W. Wabansia, is standing room only, full of mostly thoughtful, bookish, beer-sipping twentysomethings, all striped sweaters, knit caps and undecided facial hair.
    You figure the sound system must stink and, because you're not twentysomething and blew out your ears at too many rock concerts, you'd better get up close. The sound system is excellent, designed for the bands that will take the stage later.
    Jonathan Messinger, who runs the Web site THISisGRAND, is your host. He explains the concept. This is the Dollar Store, he says. What he does, he says, is go to a real dollar store and buy "the most evocative crap" he can and gives this crap to various writers around town, people he really respects, and they go away for a few weeks and "make something wonderful out of it." And then, he explains, they show up here -- at the Dollar Store at the Hideout on the first Friday of the month -- and read aloud what they've written.
    You figure this can't be good. Who writes well for free? Actually, just about everybody at first. James Joyce, right? He must have scribbled like mad growing up in suburban Dublin. And Hemingway in Oak Park. Bet they had to call him twice to come down to dinner.
    Messinger reads a story first. His dollar store gift to himself was a tiny plastic woodpecker that pecks its way down a foot-long pole. He stands it on the table, lets the woodpecker slide down, pushes it back to the top and begins reading a short story titled "Winged Attack."
    "The American-born kung fu master does not have his father's respect," he reads. "The son is brawnier, tattooed up his arms and on his legs and handsome in a way that makes his female students dislike him."
    You can't follow the story completely, which is no knock at all. A short story, even a fine one, can be tough to track when being read aloud. You know that from listening to actors read stories on WBEZ. But it's got a nice pace, and it's visual -- the grandmaster goes for the throat -- and it's satisfyingly dark -- the grandmaster knees some hapless kid. And the theme matters to you, about the shifts in power and respect between fathers and sons. And there's that woodpecker, which Messinger, just for laughs, moves up and down the pole to punctuate turning points.
    Everybody cheers when Messinger finishes, and you think the Dollar Store is some kind of bargain. You're having a great time and all it cost was a $1 cover -- a dollar.
    Gretchen Kalwinski is up next. Her dollar crap from Messinger is a tiny ceramic knicknack of two cats, one cat holding up its left paw, the other its right. She explains that she did a little research online and learned they are called "Lucky Cats." One cat attracts wealth and other protects wealth.
    She reads a story titled "Spooky Action" about the evolving relationship between two teenage girls, not unlike two Lucky Cats, and once again you can't seem to follow completely, but who cares. Kalwinski has a lovely way with imagery and carries you along. She reads aloud: "That same night, Amy could have sworn that they were inhabiting bodies other than their own, bodies from Mexico or Russia that were drifting through the night air, needing to take form. An out of body thing was happening as the bed shook and the windows wailed and the neighborhood kids whooped and hollered in the old factory next door, clattering garbage tops and whistling bottle rockets."
    You figure one or two of tonight's five stories might be OK and the rest will be stinkers. But as reader follows reader, every story shapes up as at least half decent, and a couple are much better than that. But of course: This was a juried show, invitation only. These are writers Messinger admires. In the 15 months the Dollar Store has been around, he's featured many an unknown writer but also some definite knowns, including Elizabeth Crane, Joe Meno and Lisa Buscani, who is executive director of the Poetry Center of Chicago.
    You wonder on this night if Messinger might be saving the best for last, and that's just what happens. Jeremy Sosenko, who is also Messinger's new co-host, climbs up on stage with a magazine in his hand and explains that he didn't write an original story because he recently read that Pat Morita, the actor who played Mr. Miyagi in the movie "The Karate Kid," has died. So, in honor of Morita, Sosenko says, he thought he might read aloud from an Esquire interview with the man who wrote and directed "The Karate Kid," John Avildsen. The movie was based on Avildsen's experience growing up in California, and there really was a Mr. Miyagi.
    You think this is weird. In the Esquire interview, which Sosenko begins to read, Avildsen cautions that he had to change a few things about the real Mr. Miyagi for the sake of narrative in the movie. For example, there's "a thread about Miyagi's love for bonsai trees," when in real life Mr. Miyagi had no interest in bonsai or gardening.
    But as Sosenko continues to read, the Esquire interview turns surreal -- and tears-in-your-eyes hilarious -- as the real Mr. Miyagi is unintentionally revealed as a sadistic and racist monster. He in no way (he loved to inflict pain), shape (he weighed over 450 pounds) or form (he wasn't even Asian) resembled the lovable Mr. Miyagi of the movie.
    "He had a great sense of humor," Avildsen says of Miyagi in the interview. "He loved practical jokes, especially ones involving food. You know that novelty candy, you eat it and your mouth turns a certain color? He got such a kick out of those. He would offer me a piece of candy, next thing you know my mouth would turn blue or start burning with unimaginable pain."
    You remember then: Sosenko's dollar store crap from Messinger, which he mentioned when he took the stage, was a sucker that turns your mouth blue.
    Later that night, while driving home, you wonder why you found it so hard to believe that Sosenko -- and not some highly paid Esquire humorist -- wrote this perfectly tuned parody.
    Maybe because it was so good, and you didn't expect so much from the Dollar Store.
    And now you know better.
    The next Dollar Store is at 7 p.m. Friday at The Hideout. Featured writers will be Jimmy Vickery, Latoya Wolf and John Beer.
    Copyright CHICAGO SUN-TIMES 2006
    Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

  • Northwest Indiana Times, Book Feature, LaPorte, Indiana

    Published in the Northwest Indiana Times, on Monday, February 20, 2006

    An Outside Appreciation
    The book 'LaPorte, Indiana' offers a glimpse into the history of small-town Midwest

    BY: Gretchen Kalwinski
    Times Correspondent

    Only expecting a quick meal and cup of coffee when he first visited a LaPorte, Indiana diner in the summer of 2003, magazine editor Jason Bitner instead found himself with a new book project. B & J’s American Café is a classic slice of Americana with its authentic soda fountain, jukebox, wooden phone booth, vintage Coca Cola memorabilia, and standard diner fare like hamburgers, salads, peach cobbler, and rhubarb pie.

    After ordering one of the famed cinnamon rolls, Bitner took a look around the diner and happened upon a stash of thousands of photos tucked in the back room with a sign inviting patrons to peruse or purchase the images (available for 50 cents apiece). The photos were the remnants of the Muralcraft photography studio located on the 2nd floor of the same building and run by Frank and Gladys Pease from the late 40s to the early 70s. B & J’s owners John and Billie Pappas took the photos out of storage in the early 90s, planning to “clean out storage” but kept them around when they saw how much people enjoyed sifting through them, looking for long-forgotten photos of themselves, friends, or family members. Bitner was entranced by the discovery, and describes the images as, “an enormous visual survey of the Midwest a generation back.”

    To be sure, Bitner already had a propensity for this kind of project. As the co-creator of Found Magazine, ( “show and tell” magazine that publishes found photos, discarded school-kid notes, doodles on scraps of paper, and other found miscellany sent it by readers worldwide—he revels in such discoveries, which he calls, “the accidental archive of an entire town.” For Bitner, a fire had been lit, and he couldn’t get the photos out of his mind. Though he’d only planned to pass through LaPorte for the County Fair and demolition derby, he ended up spending two weeks in B & J’s looking through images in amazement at the magnitude of the archive, and the almost-painterly beauty of the photographs. The end result of Bitner’s enthusiasm is a book of selected portraits titled LaPorte, Indiana, which is being released by Princeton Architectural Press in April 2006.

    Bitner found the book idea to be an easy sell. “People love photos of other people,” he explains. “I was in New York, and stopped at a publisher who I knew was into photo books, and said ‘Hey, I’ve got something that you might like.’ I dumped out the envelope of images on the table, and at first, there were two people standing there, then three, four, five. Right away people got really excited and started trading them around the table saying ‘That looks like my grandfather! That looks like your boyfriend!’ That is also what it’s like at the diner, once you start looking, you just want to see more and more. It’s amazing—I’ve never gone to an archive where I saw photos all by one person.”

    Photographer Frank Pease was by all accounts a nice guy who enjoyed his job. He was also an excellent craftsman and as Bitner puts it, “an accidental historian.” One of Pease’s former clients remembers him as “really nice, down to earth, very patient.” His wife Gladys helped him in the studio by greeting customers in the lobby, and helping to prep them with grooming and makeup before they went before the camera. The photos themselves are interesting not only for their comment on the time and place (mostly 40s and 50s, in small-town Midwest) but because of their old-fashioned formality and idealism. The poses varied only slightly, with 8 or so poses for men and 8 for women, with a few variations for children and couples. Pease obviously had great technical skills, but it is clear that at some point, he zoned in on a certain “look,” and, Bitner notes, “didn’t waver from it in 2 ½ decades.” The poses and lighting are not natural ones but are instead traditionally classical—the men are wearing ties, the women often hold a flower, or tilt their heads in imitation of movie-star glamour.

    Bitner has spoken with several of the subjects of Pease’s photos, including Hugh and Kathy Tonagel, whose somber engagement photograph is at the forefront of the book. “Hugh told me that Pease was trying to impress upon them that this was a really weighty moment. Like, ‘You guys are getting married, and this is the photo that is going to represent that forever. This is a really important moment and I want you to be here and present and understand what it is you’re sitting for.’ [Pease] also had a process in place for setting up the studio, getting the lighting right, people getting their hair done just-so—there was a gravity to the process.”

    Part of the delight of the archive is that it is not limited to only the shots that ended up being used, but also the myriad, back-to-back proofs from the sittings. The mistakes and glitches are all there—a couple bursting out in open-mouthed laughter at the camera, an accidental wild-eyed grin from a teenage boy, and a young boy raising his finger in a politician’s pose. After Pease’s death in the early 1970s, much of his equipment was donated to the local high school or given away and Muralcraft Studios was eventually renovated to become a large apartment. Another striking facet of the archive is how idealized the images are, and that they seem to tell a story about the ideal way that each of the subjects wish to see themselves. “Nowadays, it’s different,” Bitner says. “There are so many cameras around and people are so comfortable in front of a camera. Back then, there was definitely a feeling that film was a little more precious, and I think that when people took a portrait, they were more interested in creating an image for public history; their public face. Nowadays there are a lot of cameras around and people are so comfortable in front of a camera, and that sense of a public face doesn’t seem as important as it was then. But these photos were definitely not intended to be private or intimate shots; these were shots that were intended for an audience.”

    LaPorte, Indiana contains about 150 images of LaPorte residents in the 50s and 60s in various stages of life. Some were taken for specific events like graduations, engagements, first communions, and anniversaries. Other people posed with objects that conveyed their individuality; a nurse or military uniform, a musical instrument, a radio microphone, or prayer book. Still others simply seem inexplicable, like the one of two elderly men in suits preening for the camera while one affectionately straightens the other’s tie. The end result of the book is a crossbreeding of several genres; because of the beautifully displayed images, it easily functions as a coffee table photography book. It is also of interest to history buffs and found-art aficionados alike. It contains approximately 150 photographs and a forward by both Bitner and writer Alex Kotlowitz who calls the images, “Distinctly middle American. Open. Unassuming. Sturdy.” Kotlowitz goes on to intuit that although the images were taken in a time when the country was perched on intense conflict, the people in these portraits “seemed impervious to the upheaval around them.” Famous Hoosier John Mellencamp weighs in on the book’s back cover, musing that “the grace and dignity one sees in their faces should be a source of hope for us all.”

    With about 22,000 residents, LaPorte is a small town. Incorporated in 1835, LaPorte’s business development began in the late 1850s, after the railroad came to town. The town has six surrounding lakes and some notable architecture, including the Romanesque LaPorte County Courthouse and the Door Prairie Barn, a “round barn” which was recently placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. While agriculture and manufacturing have been the primary industries, the current economy is increasingly relying on tourists who visit to enjoy the lakes and the famed LaPorte County Fair each July. According to Fern Eddy Schultz of the LaPorte Historical Society, LaPorte is going through a time of re-evaluation, “trying to make plans for what is best for it in the future and how to implement them.”

    But aside from water-recreation offerings, and an abundance of maple trees that have earned it the title of “The Maple City,” Schultz notes that LaPorte is otherwise “very much like most towns its age and size in the Midwest.” Indeed, residents and historians alike seem to agree that there is nothing terribly out of the ordinary about this peaceful Midwestern town. These extraordinary photos of mid-century Midwest, then, seem to be extraordinary for their very ordinary-ness. These are people carrying out their lives in the midst of a rapidly changing world. There is a father surrounded by wife and kids gazing worriedly into the camera, a toddler playing with his ears, a girl graduating from high school. These are optimistic portraits of real people with quirks and flaws who gain love and lose it, experience birth, death, and all the rituals of life.

    LaPorte, then, is all of us. We’d value this discovery from any town. But the people of LaPorte happened to have a better archive than most of us, along with the impeccable foresight to preserve it. It is of note that the images were made public via the enthusiasm of a non-native, a testament to the idea that we oftentimes overlook what is right under our noses. With his outsider’s perspective, it seems that Bitner was in a unique position to be able to see facets of the archive that were regarded as everyday by those familiar with them. He notes that, “I think that a lot of times it takes an outsider to make people appreciate what they have. If these were from my town, I know that I’d be looking for photos of family or friends, and I wouldn’t be so interested in the guy at the end of the block. When you’re so close to something you may not understand the greater significance.”

    Several hundred photos were purchased for the book, but most photos remain in boxes in the back room of B & J’s. The count has only dwindled down to about 17,000 from the original 20,000 and the archive is basically intact. “The vast majority are still there,” Bitner notes, “And they want them there; it’s a document of their community.”

  • Bad at Sports Interviews Literago!

    BadatSports sat down and interviewed Genie Williamson and I about why we started and what we hope to accomplish. Such great fun talking to these ladies! Listen / Article.

  • Chicago Tonight books roundtable

    A few hours ago, I had fun appearing on Chicago Tonight (as co-founder) to chat about books  to give/read during the holidays. My fellow roundtablers Professor Al Gini and author Brigid Pasulka had impressive lists to share and now I have WAY too many books on my "to read" list. The video is here, and all of our lists of recommended books are archived here.