January 7, 2011
From Jonathan Messinger’s interview with Barry Gifford at Time Out Chicago:
Over the phone, Barry Gifford sounds a little sad about his place in the pantheon of Chicago writers. Though he was born in the city, and lived here on and off again through high school, the Wild at Heart novelist is best identified as a Southern writer, particularly with the success of the drug-fueled Sailor and Lula novels that made his name, and made him buddies with David Lynch.
But in his new book, Sad Stories of the Death of Kings (Seven Stories Press, $16.95), Gifford returns to the city of his youth. Across more than 40 vignettes, Gifford summons post–World War II Chicago through the eyes of Roy, a kid who exists along the seams of Chicago’s underworld. His father is involved in organized crime, but Roy’s engagement with that side doesn’t go too far beyond their oddball nicknames, and the coded dialogue he overhears. Though a work of fiction, Gifford admits the book draws heavily on his childhood.
“The funny thing is, most writers begin autobiographically, they start writing about childhood or their lives,” Gifford says. “I started in reverse. I didn’t write out of the Chicago side of myself until recently.”
The tales in Sad Stories almost read as fables, sometimes not extending beyond just a few pages. In the title story, Roy helps his friend clean up at a strip joint near State and Congress in the pre-dawn hours. An aging stripper bumps into him as he’s taking out the trash, and warns him against becoming one of her clients. In “The Swedish Bakery,” one of Roy’s friends seeks help from a priest when his brother and another boy wrangle him into a conspiracy to knock off the bakery where he works. Some function as snapshots of the city, while others almost as aphorisms, when Roy is granted wisdom from the adults in his life.
Gifford, who now lives in California, left Chicago after he graduated from high school. Now in his early sixties, he says he hadn’t been back much to the city since then, until he was in town in 2009 for a Nelson Algren centennial celebration at Steppenwolf. The writer had strayed fairly far from his Chicago roots: Most of his novels take place in the South, particularly New Orleans, and the Lynch adaptation of Wild at Heart immersed him in screenwriting (he co-wrote, with Lynch, the 1997 film Lost Highway). But Gifford says a concern for a disappearing Chicago—particularly, he says, a failure for American readers to give Algren his proper due—animated him to begin writing these stories.
“That version of Chicago is gone, or at least it’s disappearing or practically disappearing,” he says. “I wanted to preserve that Chicago, the way it was and the way people talked. I thought if no one else is going to do it, I’d better.
“I grew up in hotels, I was born in the Seneca Hotel. Guys often spoke in dialect, in this interesting, symbolic language. It was up to me as a child to decipher what they were saying, and it was the greatest education for incipient writer.”
In a huge departure from the books that have made up the bulk of his career, Sad Stories is being marketed to both adults and young adults, something that excites Gifford, though elicits a knowing chuckle. But for Gifford, it also feels like something of a homecoming.
“I’ve been thinking about identity, Where are you from? What is your home place?” he says. “The truth is that Chicago is the strongest, in my mind. It’s where I live in my mind, it was the most formative for me.”