“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”—Nelson Algren, “Chicago: City on the Make”
The above quote from Nelson Algren’s classic “Chicago: City on the Make” is one of the standout lines in a book that is full of well-crafted lines. It is the ultimate love letter to Chicago, acknowledging the city’s many flaws and realizing that these very flaws are what make it beautiful and real.
This line also embodies Algren himself and makes for a fitting title for the new biography about him from Colin Asher, Never A Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren. Colin will join us next Tuesday, June 25 to discuss his book, which Donna Seaman of Booklist called “captivating, redefining, and sharply relevant.” We spoke with Colin over email about his book, his writing process, and what drink he would buy Algren at his local Chicago dive bar. Cheers!
American Writers Museum: What about Nelson Algren first caught your attention and made you want to study him?
Colin Asher: Algren often wrote and spoke about the purpose of literature, the role he felt it should play in society. He argued that authors have an obligation to speak honestly, no matter the cost to their reputations, and to expose injustices. He saw literature as an institution that requires its practitioners be willing to sacrifice their careers in the service of truth telling, and I found his views to be exciting and affirming, in part, because they are poorly represented in the current literary discourse.
It seems we focus on how to write these days—an important discussion, no doubt, but one that often subsumes any discussion about why we should write. Algren reversed that logic and insisted that purpose supersedes style. I loved his prose when I first encountered it, thought his work was incredibly prescient and began to devour it, but it wasn’t until I began to reflect on his ideas about literature that I became invested in studying his life.
AWM: How would you summarize Nelson Algren’s contribution to American letters?
ASHER: Algren’s work serves as an enduring reminder to the literary world that humanity is indivisible. In his masterpiece, The Man with the Golden Arm, a defrocked priest tells a police captain that he was cast out by the church for preaching that, “We are all members of one another.” I often think the priest’s words are the purest distillation of Algren’s ethos as a writer. He believed that we share a common humanity and that, consequently, our literary culture, as an expression of our humanity, must represent the least fortunate among us as well as the fortunate and powerful.
A street tough who murders a man impetuously because he feels guilty for failing to defend his girlfriend from a violent attack, a morphine addict who makes his living dealing cards in a backroom game, an illiterate drifter who finds fortune working in a sex show, a black man convicted of murdering white strangers—these are the protagonists of Algren’s last four novels. During the same period, he began, but never completed, a novel about a woman who was forced into sex work by her husband. His writing tells us that anyone can be the subject of great literature and that everyone should be able to identify themselves in their society’s literary culture.
AWM: If you had the chance to buy Nelson Algren a drink at one of the many Chicago bars he frequented, what drink would you go with?
ASHER: Algren was never a heavy drinker, but he spent time in bars and enjoyed them because he enjoyed people. He was a gregarious man for the last couple decades of his life, someone who could command a room’s attention with a joke, a well-worn anecdote, or a unique observation, but he wasn’t one for pretense, and he drank simple drinks—beer and whiskey, for the most part. I have no taste for whiskey, so I suppose we’d belly up to a bar top and drink beer.
AWM: What is your process for writing biographies? How do you translate historical research into a cohesive story?
ASHER: I tried writing a biography once, but it was an abject failure—the prose was dull and there was no narrative. That was the first draft of my book, and it died a merciful and deserved death. The problem was that I had been telling myself that I was writing a biography, a form that, like all forms of writing, comes with a set of expectations built in. For me, those expectations included emotional detachment and pedantic prose. Of course, not all biographies are written that way, but many are and those were the models I carried around in my head when I began writing.
As I say, that first effort was an abject failure—so I rewrote every word of it. I went back to the beginning and began again, and when I did, I told myself simply that I was writing a book about someone’s life. Keeping that description in mind as I wrote forced me to focus on a different set of priorities—it meant that the prose should be lively and the detail vivid, that the book should contain scenes and dialog rather than flat descriptions of historical circumstances, and that Algren should be a character, not a subject (a subtle distinction, but an important one).
As for process, I wouldn’t wish mine on anyone. Before I wrote a word, I spent more than a year collecting Algren’s correspondence from archives. I also tried to collect all of the correspondence I could find that mentioned him, every newspaper article by or about him, every book he had written or contributed to, every published and unpublished interview he had given or his friends had given about him, and all the images I could find. I organized this material and placed it in binders that took up an entire bookshelf in my tiny office. The books had one of their own. Then I covered my walls with imagines of Algren, pictures he’d taken, a map of Chicago that I covered with notes about where he had lived, worked, and hung out, and when. When I wrote, I was surrounded with this material—literally. By the end of each day, books and binders would be splayed out in a semi-circle on the floor, barring my exit from the room.
I also tried to inject Algren’s sensibility into my book by keeping reminders of the times he lived through close at hand. I listened to music he enjoyed while working, which meant a lot of Jazz and Blues; Bessie Smith was among his favorite singers. And I read books he liked, even when I knew they would play no role in my narrative, texts like Jean Malaquais’s War Diary, which Algren considered to be one of the best World War II books published. Some of the habits I developed were peculiar. I keep a dime minted in 1941 on my desk because that was the year Algren completed his first great novel, Never Come Morning. I often toyed with it and got lost in thought when I felt stuck on a passage. I like to think little totems like that connected me to Algren.
In short, I tried to drown myself in material. At the point at which I began to fear that I might slip below the waters, never to resurface, I began writing. And when I did so, I reminded myself, constantly, that part of my obligation as a biographer is to engage my reader, to make them care as much about my subject as I do.
AWM: If you could meet one American writer from the past who would it be and why?
ASHER: I have to say Algren, of course. The man died about a week after I was born, so I never had the pleasure. I’ve read more than a million words he wrote, watched and listened to recordings of him speaking, seen him on film and in pictures, and read just about everything that has been written about him, but there’s nothing like meeting someone. I’d love to hear his voice, and kill a night discussing literature and music: his favorite subjects, and mine as well.
AWM: What are you reading right now? What should we be reading?
ASHER: I just returned from the Printers Row Lit Fest, so my reading list is very Chicago-centric at the moment.
I picked up Carlo Rotella’s new book, The World is Always Coming to an End, a few days ago, and I’m already halfway through it. It’s a study of the South Shore neighborhood and the way it, as the book’s subtitle says, has been both pulling together and pulling apart for the past several decades. Rotella is a rare talent. He writes clean, clear prose that has style without flash, and though he’s an academic, he sounds humble and street smart when he writes. I read his first two books, Cut Time and Good with Their Hands, when I was just beginning to play with the idea of signing up for night classes at the City College of San Francisco. I was a high school dropout and had spent years in the workforce already, and those books felt like a bridge between the world I was accustomed to (gyms, manual labor, and failing inner cities, ) and the world I thought I wanted to inhabit—one filled with people who wrote about such things but weren’t consigned to them.
At Printers Row, I also picked up Dmitry Samarov’s new book Music to my Eyes, a collection of sketches and essays, and Mary Ann Cain’s South Side Venus. I haven’t begun Samarov’s book yet, but I’ve flipped through it and it’s gorgeous. I was on a panel with Cain, so I prioritized her book. I’ve read the first half of it and enjoyed it all the way. It’s a fascinating look at the life of Margaret Burroughs, a staple of Chicago’s cultural scene for decades.
Earlier this month, I read Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen—as nuanced a psychological portrait as I’ve discovered in a novel in years. I mentioned the book in an interview recently, and then got the idea that I should re-read it, a good idea, it turns out. Aaron Schulman’s The Age of Disenchantments is another recent read. It’s Schulman’s first book, and an incredibly impressive debut—beautifully written and deeply researched. He tracks the Paneros, a family of Spanish writers (mostly poets), and uses their collective story to tell a broader story about twentieth century Spanish history.
Next up for me: Sergio De La Pava’s latest novel, Lost Empress, and Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, which I’ve been looking forward to for some time. What should everyone be reading, you ask. To which I say: The Joint, by James Blake. Blake was a friend of Algren’s, which is how I discovered his book. Blake was a bar room piano player who became addicted to opioids and ended up spending most of his life cycling through jails and prisons. He was sharp though, and a lively, florid writer. The Joint is, essentially, an epistolary prison memoir. Blake was a gay man, a drug user, a writer, a musician, a loyal friend, and a total mess whenever he tried to settle into anything that resembled a normal life, and his book is as wild, dramatic, and salacious as that list of characteristics suggests. The Joint is long out of print but shouldn’t be. I’ve been trying to find a small press to rerelease it, but with no luck, so for now, anyone interested will have to track down an old hardcover, publication date: 1971.
AWM: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
ASHER: I wouldn’t presume to offer any advice to fiction writers. I’m not one of their number, though I once thought I wanted to be. But I’d say this to aspiring nonfiction writers: Avoid writing for money if you can. Instead, write about subjects you care about deeply and feel others should care about just as deeply—the cost to your soul will be lower, the work will be better, and, in the end, the financial reward may be greater.
If you’d like to hear more from Colin, join us this Tuesday, June 25 for a discussion and signing. Books will be available for purchase at the event. Reserve your spot here.