Story Week tells another chapter

By Lisa Schulz

Hundreds of people swarmed Columbia’s campus and sponsors’ venues to sit back and listen to the fictional stories, conversations, concerts and advice from faculty and featured authors.

The 16th annual Story Week Festival of Writers encompassed 21 events from March 18–23 in locations throughout Chicago. Discussion topics ranged from gender differences in literature, Q-and-A sessions, music, publishing tips and more under the theme “Surviving the American Dream.”

“I just want to say again how much I love Story Week,” said Bonnie Jo Campbell, the festival’s 2012 artist-in-residence and author of “Once Upon a River” and “American Salvage,” at her March 19 reading. “It’s like nothing else anywhere. We get together for a week and tell stories, hear stories, share stories and figure out how the heck to write them.”

Campbell spoke at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St., at a Q-and-A session and conversation with hostess Donna Seaman, a reviewer and journalist from Booklist and Chicago Public Radio. Campbell thanked Fiction Writing Department Chair Randy Albers for bringing the program to life.

Albers founded Story Week to inspire artists and make Columbia’s fiction writing program known throughout the Chicago community, he said, as reported by The Chronicle on March 19.

Chicago Amplified, one of Story Week’s many sponsors, recorded the presentations. Other sponsors also offered venues to host the readings, including Buddy Guy’s Legends, 700 S. Wabash Ave.; the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.; and Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., in addition to the Library Center.

Campbell also read at a panel titled “Portraits of the American Dream: The Female in Contemporary Fiction.” Patricia McNair, Fiction Writing Department acting chair, hosted the conversation held at the Library Center with Columbia faculty writers Nami Mun, assistant professor in the Fiction Writing Department (“Miles from Nowhere”), and Samuel Park, associate professor in the English Department (“This Burns My Heart”). Christina Sneed, a creative writing professor at DePaul and Northwestern universities, also read from her novel “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry.”

After each five-to 10-minutes reading, discussion progressed to the gender of characters and its effect in stories. McNair said more results were found in a Google search for advice on constructing fictional male characters than female characters.

However, Mun said she does not single out gender traits when she writes.

“It’s not like I think, ‘Oh, I’m going to write a female character today,’ and put a little bow on her,” she said. “I’m just grateful any time I get a character, male or female. I’m just waiting for a character I can find. It’s like speed dating, trying to go through as many characters as possible.”

Playwright Young Jean Lee (“The Shipment”) discussed the relevance of gender in her conversation hosted by Theatre Department Chair John Green. Her new silent play, “The Untitled Feminist Show,” consists of nude dancers with “female-type” bodies, although the genders of the performers don’t have to be female, she said. She hopes the play is shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art within the next few years.

With an interest in politics, religion and comedy, Lee said her approach to writing stories comes from brainstorming the last show she would want to create. She books her plays two years in advance, and after marketing and casting actors, she starts on her script as deadlines near, she said.

“I basically will only write if it’s the day of the rehearsal,” Lee said. “It forces me to write, like I have no choice. I would just lose tons and tons of money if I didn’t write.”

For the business perspective, Story Week also had a panel, “Beyond the Dream: What It Takes to Get Published,” featuring publishing company editors Eli Horowitz from McSweeney’s and Kathy Pories of Algonquin Books.

Also included was Tom Roberge, publicity director of New Directions Publishing Corp. and a past Penguin Press editor, and literary agent Eleanor Jackson from

Markson Thoma. Literary agents are willing to help with the hardships a writer might encounter, Jackson said.

“We want to be part of a writer’s creative life,” she said. “Writing books is hard. You need someone to be on your side.”