Chicago author J. Adams Oaks catches us up on his latest.
Catch us up on your most recent work?
My first novel, “Why I Fight” recently came out in paperback. The book is a coming-of-age story about a unique kid named Wyatt Reaves who’s over 6 feet tall before he’s a teenager. He lives on the road with his Uncle, a traveling salesman and troubled soul. The first time you meet Wyatt, he’s on a bus, soaking wet with bloody knuckles, and he starts to tell you what he’s been through, how he became this tattooed brute of an 18 year old, forced to be much older than his years. When I first started writing the book, as Wyatt started talking to me, I became enthralled and couldn’t stop writing more to see where he’d take me.
I’ve had some interest in my next novel, which is also sort of young adult. It’s about a young guy from Chicago who moves to Spain as a knee-jerk reaction to not getting admitted to college. It explores how we figure out who we are once we leave our parents’ home to find our own. I did much of my own growing into an adult in Madrid, so I’m exploring that with this character. The only thing I need to do soon is take a trip back there, because it’s so long. I need to smell the smells and drink in the memories a bit. And enjoy some much-needed vacation in my old stomping grounds.
What is your favorite book "stuff" in Chicagoland?
My favorite bookstore is The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. They sell wine and beer and books! What could be better? Plus the staff is fantastic. My favorite place to write is New Wave Café in Logan Square, because the people are great, the plugs have electricity for my laptop. Metropolis coffee is stellar, and their sandwiches are named with 80s references that make me smile.
It’s so difficult to pick a favorite reading series, because there is such a diverse energetic selection happening currently, from the “Sunday Night Sex Show” to “Prose, Poetry and Pints” to “Reading Under the influence” there is something exciting happening almost every night of the week in this city. But I have admit that the one closest to my heart is “2nd Story” since I’ve been working on it for years now and am still amazed by the work that comes out of the collaborations with such creative artists.
I will never forget my best and worst moment at a reading. I ran this fun series with Margot Bordelon called “RE:Action” for Around The Coyote which took place in their gallery space. The writing was individual reactions to pieces in the current exhibit. This particular night was the show’s grand opening and reception. We used a microphone and stood on a Coca-Cola crate to be visible. Normally, we’d have 20 or 30 people show up, but because there was booze and food, the Wicker Park posers came out of the woodwork and they were so busy schmoozing and scoping the room, they wouldn’t quiet down. We had yell at the top of our lungs. One of our readers almost passed out. I called it the “guerilla reading.” After it was over, I realized if I could survive that scene, I could stand up in front of any crowd and read.
Lastly, my favorite place to read right now is anywhere when I can find time. Reading is such a luxury these days, though as a writer I see it as part of my job. With such a busy schedule, I savor novels and stories like chocolate lately.
What sort of writing rituals do you swear by?
I used to freak out about needing to have a set of writing rituals, because so many of my friends who write have them, but fortunately I’ve finally gotten that monkey off my back and I try new things all the time. I love reading poetry until it makes me want to jump to a blank page and get typing. Or I chew on a scene or an image in my head before bed and then need to hop up the next morning to get at it. I think the key is to constantly finding ways to make the words sing. The worst writing I’ve been tortured with is work that seems to come out of obligation and apathy.
What is the quintessential Chicago novel?
No fair. That’s too tough. As an adult, reading Chicago novels in Chicago is thrilling; I love having that additional layer of understanding even though the great authors like Sandra Cisneros give you the feel of their neighborhood, like Richard Wright gives you the south side or Don De Grazia gives you the north side. Each one gives the reader the flavor of their era and location in such detail.
I’d have to say the quintessential Chicago novel for me is still "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair. My grandfather gave me that book when I was young and was devouring any book I could get my hands on. This was well before I moved to Chicago and settled in, yet I can still retell moments from that book, images, the tone as I imagined it then. "The Jungle" helped make me curious to come to this city, explore, and eventually stay. Even though the slaughterhouses are gone, their legacy still influences what this city is.
What is your favorite novel?
I would have to say that I return again and again to Herbert Selby’s "Last Exit to Brooklyn" for permission to experiment and explore and push the English language. I just love it. In fact, when my editor Richard Jackson and I disagreed about my use of all caps to represent the yelling in “Why I Fight,” I sent him photocopies from that book to show him how it could work.
Find Chicago author J. Adams Oaks at jadamsoaks.com, on Facebook and on Twitter. Find his book "Why I Fight" and other titles at the Chicago Tribune Amazon store.
Amy Guth, firstname.lastname@example.org