NEWSDAY - TALKING WITH ADAM LANGER
Living in the '80s: Capturing a decade in the details
BY LAURA MOSER
Laura Moser is the co-author of "The Rise and Fall of a 10th Grade Social
August 14, 2005
the years, Adam Langer has been a playwright, a magazine editor, a
journalist and critic, a guidebook writer, a test-prep tutor, a film
producer, even a director of what he described as a "very low-low-low-low
budget movie" based on one of his own plays. But his two propulsive novels -
last year's wildly acclaimed "Crossing California" and its recently
published sequel, "The Washington Story" (Riverhead, $24.95) - suggest that
in fiction-writing, 38-year-old Langer has found his supreme calling at
He recently sat down at Café La Fortuna on the Upper West Side and, over
iced coffee and sour-cherry plum pie, discussed his newfound vocation, which
he insists isn't new at all. "I didn't wait this long to become a novelist,"
he says. "I waited this long for someone to publish me." He wrote several
novels before "Crossing California," "novels that I never showed to anybody
and novels that people didn't want." He completed his first at age 17, the
story of a teenage Jewish actor "wandering around the Chicago Loop and
stumbling onto a criminal plot involving gang-bangers, drugs and members of
the Chicago City Council."
More than a decade and a half later, Langer hit his stride, drafting
"Crossing California" in record time. "My stock answer to that," he says
when asked how long he worked on the novel, "which is actually true, is
about 30-some years and about nine months." He started the first draft in
January 2002 and "finished, on my honeymoon, as it turned out, in August
2002." He wrote its sequel "The Washington Story" at a similarly breakneck
speed. "The first draft took about a year," he says, "give or take."
Both novels trace the intertwined lives of several families in West Rogers
Park, the north Chicago neighborhood that had the city's highest
concentration of Jews when Langer grew up there. The action of "Crossing
California" spans from 1979 to 1981 and uses historical events, such as the
Iran hostage crisis and the Reagan Revolution, as touchstones. "The
Washington Story" covers a broader time period, from 1982 to 1987,
corresponding to the divisive reign of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold
Washington. As in "Crossing California," Langer pays careful attention to
the particulars of time and place, not just the upheavals that made
headlines - from the death of Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev to the
explosion of the space shuttle Challenger - but the music, the movies, the
slang, the sports, the streets and shop names. In both books, Langer
supplies glossaries to help the reader navigate the more obscure references.
"I write from memory," Langer says of harnessing so many remarkable details,
"and I actually don't consult anything when I'm writing. I just write what I
think happened, what I think was going on around that time, what music I
think was playing. Then afterward, I go back and fill in. It turns out I'm
usually about 85 percent right," he says, "but occasionally, reality will
intervene and offer something better."
Langer doesn't apologize for the detail obsession. "I think the more
specific you are," he says, "the more universal it is." As a journalist, he
says, he was "always very lazy in terms of detail," but in his novels, "I
want to capture the flavor and the essence, and I want people to hear it and
taste it and see it."
To this end, Langer draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago culture
and geography. "I lived so long there," he says, "that it's going to be a
part of whatever I do, but I've lived other places, too," including New
York, where the author moved in 2000 when he received a journalism
fellowship from Columbia University. As a new father, Langer has no regrets
about raising his 2-month-old daughter, Nora Langer Sissenich, away from the
town that figures so prominently in his fiction. "Chicago was different when
I was growing up there," he says. "I find it a little less interesting now,
in part because I'm older, but also because a lot of the city has been
scrubbed. The tourist industry has exploded, and it feels like a different
place, with people walking around in Cubs uniforms everywhere. I still think
it's a great city, and if I hadn't spent so much time there, I'd consider
going back, and who knows?"
Already in "The Washington Story," Langer's fictional universe expands
outward from West Rogers Park - to New York, Florida and Germany - and in
his next novel, he plans to leave Chicago still further behind. Langer won't
say much about this project, just that it's set in the present day, and in
New York, not Chicago. He may still revisit the characters of West Rogers
Park in a third installment, but he leaves those plans for the future. "At
the end of 'The Washington Story'," he says, "I still had questions that I
wanted answered and so will hope to find out more next year."
Langer often takes this come-what-may approach to storytelling. "I often
acted as my own Scheherazade," he says of plotting "Crossing California,"
"leaving myself a cliff-hanger that I would try to puzzle out in the
morning." He doesn't outline; "I like to be surprised," he says. "Part of
the fun of writing for me is sitting down not knowing where something is
going and finding out as I'm writing."
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