Today we’re launching a new series at the Chicago Review of Books: a behind-the-scenes look at how the city of Chicago inspires the writers who live and work here. We asked dozens of Chicago authors to tell us about one place, object, or event in the city that inspires them creatively.
Our first writer is Jessica Chiarella, author of And Again from Touchstone Books, her debut novel about an experimental medical procedure (at Northwestern Memorial Hospital) that provides terminally ill patients with brand-new, healthy bodies, thanks to a little cloning and consciousness transfer (our fiction editor, Lauren Stacks, loved it). Chiarella is a Chicago native who completed her MA in Writing and Publishing at DePaul University with Rebecca Johns Trissler.
Jessica Chiarella: As a writer, I am constantly inspired by the pull of history. I recognize the feeling from my Catholic childhood, as something usually reserved for places of religious significance. It’s the sensation of connection a person might experience by walking on hallowed ground, the silence and contemplative air of a church. Except for me, the feeling comes from the stories of a place, the heaviness and stillness of history in the air. I seek that sort of inspiration out, and nowhere have I found it more often or more potently than sitting in the seats at the Music Box Theatre as the lights go down.
Chicago is a city brimming with history, always ready to offer up its stories, its curses, its triumphs, and the occasional dirty little secret. But the Music Box gives history another dimension; it allows you to sit in the dark and watch Vertigo or Casablanca or even The Rocky Horror Picture Show underneath the atmospheric glitter of stars on its ceiling. You sit before a red curtain, framed by the faux-Italian piazza that decorates the theater’s walls. A piano stands to the left of the screen. And if you can ignore the sporadic blue flashes of smartphone screens around you in the moments before the movie begins, you might feel a particular little thrill. It’s the understanding that this place will not only offer up its stories to you on its screen, but will allow you to become part of its larger history. It will allow you a taste of what watching a movie might have been like during the era in which it was made, even if that era was seven decades ago.
Held up beside the streaming services and chain theaters and big-budget movie franchises of today, the experience of the Music Box is a unique one. It is a place where art and camp and cult classic share the same space. It is the place where my grandmother brought me to see Lassie as a child, and a place where I watched a live burlesque show one snowy Valentine’s Day a decade ago. It is a place that acknowledges history as a complex thing, as much The Big Lebowski as it is The Great Dictator. It is like Chicago, in that way, always offering the whole story instead of just the sanitized, polished pieces. And every time I leave there, I take that sense of history and connection home with me, straight to my desk.
And Again by Jessica Chiarella
January 12, 2016
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.