Renee Rosen is the author of the new novel White Collar Girl. Her other books include the novels Dollface and What the Lady Wants. A former advertising copywriter, she lives in Chicago.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for White Collar Girl, and for your main character, Jordan Walsh?
A: After I finished What the Lady Wants, my editor, agent and I started brainstorming on what my next book should be.
We were all intrigued by the idea of the Chicago Tribune and the Daley Machine, but it wasn’t until I met Marion Purcelli, a woman who started at the Tribune in 1949 as a “copyboy,” that the story really began taking shape. Marion took me under her wing, sharing many wonderful stories of her days at the paper.
Jordan Walsh and her mentor Mrs. Angelo are both based on Marion Purcelli, and after meeting her, the book pretty much wrote itself. I really did not know what would happen from one chapter to the next. The characters took the story and ran with it and I was just along for the ride.
Q: You’ve written three historical novels about Chicago. How did the writing and research process compare this time with the previous two?
A: The biggest difference between this book and my previous novels, Dollface, which was set in the 1920s, and What the Lady Wants, set in the Gilded Age, is that many of my readers were alive in the 1950s. They remember first-hand many of the events that I was writing about so it was important to get the details exactly right.
That was a real challenge, and yet, the beauty of writing about the not too distant past is that I was able to interview people who could give me personal accounts of the very subjects I was researching.
Q: What do Jordan’s experiences say about women in journalism in the 1950s?
A: I think Jordan’s experience of coming up against sexism in the workplace wasn’t unique to journalism. I think women in the 1950s were treated as second-class citizens in just about every field.
They were rarely in management or positions of power and their careers were often stalled in the rolls of secretaries and coffee-fetchers and the like. It took courageous women like Marion Purcelli and Jordan Walsh to challenge their male coworkers and pave the way for the generations to come.
Q: How much were the stories Jordan covers based on real incidents?
A: Great question. Nearly all the stories she investigates in White Collar Girl were taken straight from the headlines. I literally scoured back issues of the Tribune in search of the most scandalous events I could find—and thankfully, Chicago has many of those to choose from.
In a few instances I did shift the timeline and set the events back in the 1950s, but things like the horsemeat scandal, whereby horsemeat was being passed on to the consumer as beef, actually happened. Same for the Summerdale Scandal, in which the cops were helping a burglar in his robberies.
Also, the issue of voter fraud that surrounded the Nixon/Kennedy election has been well documented and given today’s political shenanigans makes it especially timely.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve just turned in my new book, Windy City Blues, about the Chicago Blues and Chess Records, which was a tiny record label in Chicago that introduced the world to such iconic artists as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Etta James.
Even the Rolling Stones crossed the pond to come record at Chess Records. Chicago’s Michigan Avenue was once known as Record Row because of all the music coming out of this town, including the Beatles’ American debut.
And of course you can’t tell the story of the Blues without going into the Civil Rights Movement, the Payola scandal, and the British Invasion. So there’s lots of themes in this book and it’s told from three different points of view, which was something new for me.
Obviously I could go on and on about this. I’m just on fire about this book. It changed me more than anything else I’ve ever worked on.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m on the hunt now, looking for what I’m going to write about next. This is always an interesting journey since I know that whatever I pick, it’s going to have to be something that I can become completely obsessed with and live with for the next 18 months or so.
Right now I haven’t a clue as to what that next book will be, so wish me luck as I begin the process of searching for topics.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Renee Rosen, please click here.