BY: CHERYL DYER
This interview was originally posted on ChicagoNow.
Tony Bowers and I met through social media, a common interest in writing, and mutual friends, but our greatest link is that we both grew up on Chicago’s infamous 79th Street. The Nine was the stomping ground of my hot-comb-candy-store-Reebok years, so when Tony Bowers’ collection of short stories, On The Nine, first debuted I not only had to read it, but I also had to meet the brother who captured the gritty landscape in a way that made me miss the people and places that grew me up.
Today, I’m interviewing Tony for the #AuthorsInterviewingAuthors series for Vital Narrative Press. In it he talks about growing up around 79th Street, the current state of things in Chicago, his upcoming work, and even Lil' Chano from 79th.
CD: So what part of 79th Street do you hail from?
TB: Originally we are talking Grand Crossing, so east of Cottage Grove. We started out on 78th and then moved to 79th and Ingleside. Then, we moved further east to 79th and Clyde.
CD: Oh, okay. I’m from way over East. I’m from 79th & Muskegon – east of everything, east of Jeffery, east of Yates. What was life like for you then?
TB: It was pretty typical. I mean, it was the inner city, so there was some rough spots, but mainly we are talking about 79th Street over there by the East of the Ryan [Motel], so there would be fights and everything that I would see, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. I had a typical childhood. I didn’t get into any trouble. My father used to send me to the store with notes for cigarettes or my mom would send me up to 79th Street to get my father out of the pool hall across the street from East of the Ryan. We used to get chicken wings from this place called Captain’s Table. So it was typical stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary.
I lived up the street from Grand Crossing Park, so I spent a lot of time outside playing baseball and football with my friends, riding our bikes. I thought the park was so beautiful. It really impacted me because I didn’t feel as if living in the city meant anything negative.
Another favorite spot for me was on 79th and King Drive, the Whitney Young Library. I would go there every Saturday, spend two or three hours in the stacks reading books or going to the audio-visual room listening to old records. It started there, this love of writing. It was so special when I got a chance to read from On The Nine there last year.
Another favorite thing was the Rhodes Theater. We would go there and watch the same movies over and over again on Saturday afternoons.
CD: Nice. I remember the Rhodes Theater. They used to get the movies all late! My sister and I used to have a joke, “Everything comes to the Rhodes... eventually!” So, in writing the collection did you learn anything about yourself? Your craft? Were there new realizations about people and places that served as inspiration?
TB: I did discover that my mommy and daddy issues were deeper than I thought. Writing the collection helped me finally release. On the craft side, I learned how important pacing is. I like easy and fluid reads that move. I like to start out stories with the action in flux. As far as realizations, it’s always new. When I write about real places or with real folks in mind, I always see them in new lights.
CD: So, if you had to choose, is there one piece from the collection that you would say really captures the essence of life On the Nine?
TB: I would say “Darcy’s Garden.” It shows the mix of 79th and life in Chicago, I believe. A tragedy happens, and through dealing with that, something beautiful and positive happens. There is a contrast. Beautiful flowers and middle class homes and broken concrete and loud city buses that spew black soot. Warmth and kindness and spent bullet casings. That to me is Chicago. The contrast. That's life. Look at the title of the first story, "Peppermint and Gunpowder." I think these ideas of gradation are throughout the collection, but come together in the last story.
CD: What are your thoughts about the state of things in Chicago today?
TB: It’s challenging, but it has always been so. I never want to be a revisionist and say everything was perfect back in the day. It is just further down the road now. The same issues exist. I love my city and I am not going to turn my back on it. I feel that as we go, so will the rest of the country. As we deal with poverty, lack of quality education and access to jobs in the inner city, then that will serve as a blueprint for the rest of the nation, but we have an uphill battle.
CD: How do we tackle it? Is there an easy answer that we’re overlooking? How can we heal our city?
TB: No easy answer. But I believe it starts with us as individuals on many fronts. We need those day to day interactions, but we need to take control of the political process, then force the system to deal with the real issues. Like, why is it that the only time there is real investment is when the majority population gets interested in a community? We have TIF funds building DePaul University, a $100 million stadium, while Roseland looks like a wasteland. Englewood has gotten a facelift, but only after it was identified as desirable by those with money and power. We need to handle this. We have put up with the hypocrisy for so long, it has come to a head. That’s why I believe things seem so bad right now.
CD: What do you think of our little brother, Lil' Chano from 79th? (Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper donated $1 million to Chicago Public Schools).
TB: I love his spirit. The fact that he put up his own money as a gesture was amazing. That’s what I mean when I say individuals have to step up where they can. But, we then have to organize and have a platform where we are seeking real results. We have to get rid of Rauner. We have to hold Rahm accountable. Too much passing the buck.
CD: True indeed.
TB: For generations, politicians robbed this city and made our tax dollars their own, like a piggy bank. We should be able to do all the things we need without raising taxes on grocery bags and pop. It's bullshit.
CD: What’s up next for you creatively?
TB: I am working on a novel, A Dollar Short.
CD: Where does A Dollar Short take us? What’s it about?
TB: Transformation. Can a person really change? This brother Jimmy is having a hard time with that. He has lost the love of his life and never lived up to his potential because of his destructive ways. He understands he must change, but it’s kicking his ass.
CD: Looking forward to it. Does it take place in any familiar places?
TB: Minneapolis and all over Chicago. 79th Street will definitely be all up in it.
CD: So, as you are writing this new novel, do you have a certain process you observe? A playlist? Libations? Day writer? Night writer? Favorite writing space?
TB: I try to be fluid. I write when I can. It’s hard during the semesters [since I'm also a college professor], but I still get it in. It can be day or night. I like Robert Glasper on the stereo. As far as libations, it depends on the time of day. I’m a brown liquor dude, so Crown Royal at 10 A.M. doesn’t work too well [Laughs].
CD: So, last question. It’s New Year’s Eve and Tony B from 79th is having a party. You can invite five of your celebrity friends (actors, singers/rappers, athletes, writers, etc). Tell me who’s invited.
TB: Denzel, Ava Duvernay, Nas, Jesse Williams and Toni Morrison. They have created or spoken words that have really moved the needle on the issues we spoke of earlier. They seem to tell it like it is. I love the merge of creativity and social justice. Deep wisdom from them all. I would also want Baldwin, Obama, Geoffrey Canada and Angela Davis there too, but you said five.
For more information about Tony Bowers’ debut short story collection, On The Nine, published by Vital Narrative Press.