I recently had a lively phone conversion with Renée Rosen, author of Windy City Blues,this year's One Book | One Community selection . This is an edited version of that conversation.
JUF News: Where did the idea for Windy City Blues come from? And how did it evolve?
Renée Rosen: My previous novels had been set in Chicago. Sticking to this pattern, my publisher and I were racking our brains for the right bit of Chicago's history for my next book. I didn't know much about the blues, but when it was suggested, I started researching. I discovered the Chess brothers and fell in love, thinking: This is a story!
When I started writing, I realized how much I didn't know about the blues. As part of my research, I drove the Blues Highway from New Orleans to Chicago. I met with Willie Dixon's grandson and with Chess family members.
There are settings in the book where, as I was reading, I felt like I was right there. Among these are Maxwell Street in the heyday of the market as well as the harrowing bus ride of the Freedom Riders. What kind of research did you do for these?
About Maxwell Street, I got lucky. I was fortunate to be able to learn from Steve Balkin, who has been documenting the market for decades and working on behalf of its preservation. Steve served as technical advisor to a film called Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street. I reached out to get a copy of the film and ended up having coffee with the film's director, Phil Ranstrom, who shared some of his vast knowledge. I came to see Maxwell Street as a place of ingenuity and business savvy.
I learned about how Maxwell Street become the birthplace of electric blues. Black musicians came up from the south, where they'd played for neighborhood crowds from their front porches. When they got to Maxwell Street, they realized they needed to plug in to be heard above the racket. As in the book, they used electricity from the Jewish shops on the street.
About the Freedom Riders, I watched documentaries and read eyewitnesses accounts. And I went to the National Civil Rights Museum in Tennessee.
While doing the research, what did you learn that surprised you?
I didn't anticipate the parallels. Blacks came up from the south as part of the Great Migration and Jews came from Europe. Both groups were immigrants to Chicago. No one wanted either of them moving into their neighborhood, living next door. They developed a kinship in their work for civil rights.
I was surprised by the extent of the Chess brothers' civil rights involvement. I spoke with DJ Shelly Stewart from Alabama, who knew the Chess brothers. He's the one who told me about Phil Chess raising bail after the march in Birmingham, to get the kids who were arrested out of jail.
What part of writing this book did you most enjoy?
The Chess story-the wonderful rags-to-riches story of these two amazing Polish immigrant brothers.
Without giving too much away, in the book there are difficulties for people who have relationships (lovers or spouses, but also friends and business colleagues) outside of their own racial or religious or economic group. What do you think has changed in the last 50 years? What hasn't?
Today we're used to mixed relationships. They are all around us. Fifty years ago, they were rare and shocking. But I feel we're still not nearly as open and accepting as we should be. It's difficult to talk about race, but it's something we need to continue to do. This country has an ugly past regarding race, a past that unfortunately includes Chicago. We need to learn about it and learn from it.
Some of the book's characters are real figures from history and some are fictional. How does that work for you as a writer?
The real people are the anchors. But real people are a bit limiting. The trick is to weave them together without the seams showing. The greatest compliment I get is when readers say they Googled Red Dupree or Leeba Groski before realizing they were fictional.
Were either Red or Leeba based on real people?
Not really. But in doing my research, I read Buddy Guy's autobiography. And the autobiography of Carole King.
How does it feel to have Windy City Blues selected for Chicago's One Book project, knowing it will be read and talked about across the Chicago Jewish community?
I am so honored! I am most proud of this book-I put my heart and soul into it. I think it's a story with an important message. In it are lessons of the civil rights movement, what it was like for Jews and people of color. As well as the history of the blues and the role of Jews in bringing the blues to the world. After all, as the saying goes: Blacks + Jews = Blues.
Want to meet Renée Rosen in person? Visit spertus.edu/OneBook for tickets and information about her Chicago and suburban appearances.
Betsy Gomberg reads (and sometimes writes) about Jewish books. She is Spertus Institute's Director of Marketing and Communications.