BOOK & BLOG
January 28, 2007
Book of the Week: THE STORY OF CHICAGO MAY by Nuala OFaolain
One of the books I read this week was THE STORY OF CHICAGO MAY by Nuala OFaolain. OFaolain is best known for her books about her own life. This biography about a semi-famous prostitute and self-proclaimed bandit is the most delicate piece of writing Ive ever seen. I have to report that at first I really found CHICAGO MAY irritating, but I grew to love it before the story ended.
One of my difficulties when I first began the book was that I couldnt decide if OFaolain had made up the whole story, or if Chicago May was a real person and the documents OFaolain refers to were actual news items related to Mays life. That threw me seriously off-balance. As the book progressed, I came to believe in the reality of Chicago May (her real name was May Duignan). Having looked up some other reviews of the book, I can only tell you that if I have been fooled, so has Publishers Weekly.
Part of the reason for my confusion is the cover. Its a novel cover, not a biography cover. At least, thats how my mind categorized it. If the cover had been a photograph, instead of a drawing of a sexy hunk of woman, I would never have questioned the authenticity of the work. So, thats my fault.
OFaolain is very conscious more than any other writer Ive encountered of what the biographer brings to the table in writing another persons life. She doesnt glamorize May; in fact, her tabulation of how many men May probably had to service in one night is absolutely horrifying. But, as OFaolain points out, what else was she to do? And Mays dreadful choices in men are treated sympathetically, as well. Who is she going to meet on the bottom but other bottom-feeders like herself? Above all, May was a product of her times.
Im sure it wont surprise you when I tell you that all writers get asked some strange questions. I may have answered these questions at various times in the Q & A section, but Id like to collect a few answers here.
The strangest question I was ever asked, when I was writing conventional mysteries, was, Have you had any practical experience? No, I have never killed anyone. Yet.
Q: Do you have to pay the publisher to publish your books? Thankfully, no. The way it works: Either I go to my publisher with a proposal and the publisher says Yes, I want it for X dollars, and the agent and publisher go back and forth on that, or the publisher and I sign a contract specifying that Ill produce 3 more books in the series. Thats NOW, of course. When I was first starting out, I had to produce a lot of evidence I intended to write those books, including outlines and maybe sample chapters. But you never, never, pay the publisher. Thats only for vanity press publishing . . . which has its place, but not for me.
Q: What music do you play while youre working? Ive never understood why anyone would want to know, but an astonishing number of people do. I listen to movie soundtracks, mostly historical epics like Last of the Mohicans, Troy, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I also listen to bagpipe music. And Yo-Yo Ma. Make of this what you will.
Q: Do you have time to read? Oh, you betcha. What else would I do? Im no good at needlework, my two oldest children are gone from home, and I have a maid once a week now. Thank God. So, yes, I read voraciously. Maybe three books a week, sometimes less, sometimes more. I also cook and do laundry, though I am less excited about those. This year, Im also on the board of Mystery Writers of America, senior warden of my church, and president of the Softball Boosters Club. I did something really bad in my past life, obviously.
Q: When you get writers block what do you do? I sit in my chair in front of my computer and work, thats what I do. I have a job and deadlines. I review what I did last time I worked, and polish it. I write odd little bits that people ask for interviews via email, book jacket material, letters to my readers for the publisher, and so on. The Femme Fatale newsletter. Emails. And somehow, the pump gets primed, and I start working again.
This is the weirdest question of all. What do you wear while you work? Okay, why do you want to know? I wear fourteenth century French court dress, but I know other writers prefer blue jeans . . .
© 2009 Charlaine Harris