Monday, April 24, 2017

Q&A with Renée Rosen

Renee Rosen, photo by Charles Osgood Photography
Renée Rosen is the author of the new novel Windy City Blues. Her other novels include White Collar Girl and What the Lady Wants. A former advertising copywriter, she lives in Chicago.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the Chess brothers and the Chicago blues in your new novel?

A: This was definitely a group decision made by my editor, my agent and myself. We all knew that we wanted to do one more Chicago historical novel and we needed a compelling anchor or backdrop.

It was my editor who first said, “What about the blues?” I honestly didn’t know that much about Chicago Blues at the time so I did some preliminary research and it quickly became apparent that any story about the blues had to include the Chess brothers.

I couldn’t have dreamed up better characters than Leonard and Phil Chess. I think what’s so remarkable about their story is that here you have two white Jewish guys, with zero musical abilities of their own, who go on to launch the careers of such icons as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, Chuck Berry and so many others.

Q: You have a combination of fictional and historic characters--how did you come up with Leeba, Red, and your other fictional creations?

A: Originally this was just going to be Leeba’s story—a young Jewish girl who falls in love with a black guitarist from the Mississippi Delta. I wrote close to 200 pages from her POV before I realized the book wasn’t working and trashed them all.

Those pages weren’t working because the story was too big to be told through one character’s POV. I needed three, someone to represent the music industry (Leonard Chess), someone to represent the bluesman (Red Dupree) and a young woman trying to follow her heart (Leeba Grosky). 

Leeba and Red’s story really takes center stage and both these fictional characters. and the others, sprang out of research. For example, I interviewed a famous deejay from Birmingham, Shelley Stewart. Shelley was a central figure during the Civil Rights Movement and after talking to him, Red Dupree began talking on new dimensions and his storyline grew and deepened.

Leeba is a combination of many women from that time period that I read about, including Carole King. Her memoir gave me some insights into how someone like Leeba would become a songwriter.

Q: Did you learn anything in the course of your research for this book that especially surprised you?

A: Great question! I learned so much. It would be impossible to convey it all here, but some of the key points would be the parallels between Jewish immigrants and blacks in Chicago during this time.

I was also surprised to learn about how important blues music was to the Civil Rights Movement.

Most surprising of all however, was realizing how timely this story is. Even though it’s set in the 1950s and 1960s, we find ourselves facing the same issues today: racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination against immigrants.

Q: You've written several books now about different periods in Chicago's history. How does this period compare with those you've focused on before?

A: I think the 1950s and 1960s played a more crucial role in terms of social change and perhaps because we’re still dealing with these issues today, it makes this time period more relatable than say the Gilded Age or the Roaring Twenties.

Those time periods seem so far away, so quaint and foreign to us whereas, I don’t think you can read about the ‘50s and ‘60s without feeling the significance of what was happening and feeling like you’re still part of what was started 50 or 60 years ago.

As far as writing about this time period, it’s tricky. Many of the people and places you’re writing about are still around and many of your readers lived through the very time period you’re basing your story on, so you have to get it right.

No one’s going to know if you fudged something back in the 1870s or 1920s, but you’ll absolutely pull the reader out of the story if you get even a single fact wrong in this case. It’s a great challenge and very rewarding when I hear from readers who say the book brought back memories for them. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Very excited for my next book about Helen Gurley Brown and how she resurrected Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1965. It’s told from the POV of her secretary. Now, you might be thinking it sounds like The Devil Wears Prada, but HGB was no Anna Wintour. In many ways, she was the polar opposite.

This novel will be a departure for me on several counts. It’s my first historical novel set outside of Chicago. This one takes place in New York City and unlike my other books which have spanned a few decades, this will be more concentrated—just one year.

One of Helen Gurley Brown’s greatest contributions to women was removing the stigma about female sexuality and that’s great fun to write about! I’m having a blast with it—bring on the go-go boots and Nehru jackets. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love being a writer. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, from the time I was a young girl. I’m truly grateful that I get to spend my days surrounded by words and books and fellow book lovers.

I’m sure everyone’s TBR piles are at least as high as mine and I know there’s a likelihood that we’ll never get to read all the books we want, and so I never take it for granted whenever someone chooses one of my books to read. I hope that when the last page is turned they feel their reading time was rewarding. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Renée Rosen, please click here.

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