Monday, August 30, 2010

Wonder and terror

By David Heinzmann

In 2003, I covered a story for the Tribune about the arrest of a group of South Siders accused of pimping teenage girls they had coerced into a prostitution ring that traveled a circuit of Midwestern cities. The story caught the attention of the then-editor of the Tribune, who sent an order from on high for me to find out everything I could about child prostitution.

Over the next several months, the project became a constant pot simmering on the back burner of my cops beat. I built relationships with advocates for abused kids, went to court hearings in Detroit, a conference on prostituted children in Washington, and interviewed several teenage girls who told me horrifying stories of being passed around at gang parties, pimped by their junkie fathers, a litany of heartbreaking miseries.

I learned more than I wanted to know about children in the sex trade in Chicago and beyond. But in the meantime, the editor of the paper moved on to other interests, and my immediate editor took a jaundiced view toward the story—old news, who cares—so most the contents of my notebooks weren’t making it into the paper. It was frustrating and disappointing.

But—you’ll never see this coming—my reportorial frustration eventually cut a new channel in the dirt, and the source of a novel began to trickle forth. (My second, which comes out next year.) At about the same time, I was sent to Las Vegas on an unrelated wild goose chase of a story. While I was there the child prostitution idea percolated in my head. During the course of that unused reporting, I had become familiar with a Vegas cop who specialized in child prostitution cases, and it’s hardly shocking that Las Vegas is a hub for the underage sex trade.

And then in 2004, I made a couple of trips to Memphis and Mississippi to write about Chicago gangs who ran pipelines of guns from Delta pawnshops back to Chicago by the trunk-load. The long roots of hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans still connected to the Delta fascinated me.

This stew of settings and situations eventually cooked into the narrative of a book. It was a very different experience from the beginnings of my first book, A Word to the Wise, which started with a character and me searching for a story to illuminate him. Or the third book, which I’m working on now, which probably was seeded by my early failings as a police reporter and the moment when I learned who really was running the Chicago Police Department behind the scenes.

One of my favorite genesis stories for a novel was Vladimir Nabokov’s account of how Lolita was inspired. He claimed he was convalescing for some ailment in a Paris hospital and read a story about zoologists who had taught a chimp how to draw with pencil and paper—and the first thing the ape drew was the bars of his cage. I don’t know if any Nabokov scholar has ever tracked down that newspaper story to see if it really exists, but it’s a marvelous literature of its own about the birth of Humbert Humbert.

This anecdote isn’t just a ridiculous ploy to place myself next to one of the literary geniuses of the 20th Century. Books come from all kinds of moments in our minds—a single impression, a series of experiences that have affected us deeply, a hunger to answer what if questions. These different kinds of beginnings deeply influence how were write our stories.

In this forthcoming book, Throwaway Girl, I was haunted by the places I had been and the people I had met. Those experiences gave me a visceral road map for how to write the book, which was its own challenge. A writer like me, with a day job as a journalist, has to be ever wary of losing himself in the reporting, and staying focused on harnessing my imagination in the direction of suspense and surprise.
With this third book, which was inspired by more of a little spark, I feel much more like I’m starting from scratch. The lifting is a little heavier.

Every time out is different, and that’s a good bit of the wonder and terror of being a writer.


Bryan Gruley said...

The experience of being haunted is good, in my experience. It gets your heart invovled as well as your head. I look forward to Throwaway Girl, David.

Picks By Pat said...

Throwaway Girl...excellent title for these victims, and sounds like a very timely topic.

You're also right about another thing...being a writer can be terrifying!

Good luck with this latest book.