Joe Meno started writing when he was 14, after a girl he knew from his Evergreen Park neighborhood shot herself in the head. “It was the first time someone of my own age had died and, well, it affected me, I guess,” says Meno, who’s now 27. “I started writing songs about it for this punk band I was in, and it was the first time I’d written about myself or my life, and that led me to writing poetry and then eventually short stories.”
Meno struggled with storytelling through his teens and into his first college experience, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He took some workshops there but found them unsatisfying and stifling–“I’d get this asinine feedback like, ‘You should change that guy’s name.'” He remembers the head of the UIUC writing program saying of one of his decidedly “non-New Yorker” stories, which are a hybrid of gritty midwestern drama and magic realism, “You’re never going to be successful writing this kind of thing.” Meno dropped out in 1994, after two years, and moved back to Chicago, where he worked at the Alley on Belmont selling rock T-shirts and drug paraphernalia.
“Having grown up on the south side of Chicago–my pops is a stonecutter, very blue-collar, and my mom’s a homemaker–there weren’t any professional writers around, you know? There was nobody I could look at and say, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do.’ So writing wasn’t even really a dream or anything–it wasn’t an option I really knew existed.”
Then, in 1995, Meno enrolled at Columbia College, which at that point had the only fiction writing department in Chicago. “It really lit a fire in me,” he says. “I couldn’t believe I was getting college credit because I was having so much fun and finding out so much about myself, which happens when you really start writing.”
With the help of a faculty member, he soon sold his first piece of fiction to a Barnes & Noble anthology called 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories. It was the same story the program head in Champaign had predicted would get him nowhere. Meno shakes his head. “I still get royalty checks for it.”
He wrote his first novel, Tender as Hellfire, in 1997, under the guidance of Randall Albers, the head of the fiction writing department. That same year, an editor from the Atlantic Monthly visited Columbia and Albers got Meno an appointment to sit down with him and have him read a chapter of the novel. “He gave me a lot of bad advice,” Meno says, “which I didn’t follow. But in the end he actually asked to see the novel when I was done with it, and he later set me up with the agent who sold the book to Saint Martin’s.” Columbia also assigned a public relations person to help hype Meno’s debut. A bleak, fantastic story about two brothers growing up in a trailer park, the book was published in 1999. His second novel, How the Hula Girl Sings, came out last year, and his pulp whodunit, The Secret Hand, is currently being serialized on Playboy.com.
Meno admits that the support he was given–and the ease with which his work glided into publication–is rare. But he says the most important part of his experience was not the networking the department did on his behalf, but the “permission” they gave him to find his own voice. He says that Columbia “allowed me, as a student, to experiment with language, writing the way I talk, and to draw on my own experiences and see value in them.”
Now a full-time faculty member at his alma mater, Meno tries to do the same for other aspiring writers, especially those not from a middle-class background. This year’s Story Week, Columbia’s annual weeklong literary festival, is subtitled “Culture, Class, and Conflict” and focuses on “working-class fiction”; in addition to the usual workshops and panels, the week features events that challenge the stereotype of the staid literary function. Meno, along with Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh and short-story writer John McNally, will read on Thursday, March 28, at Metro; after the reading there’ll be a dance party with music by “DJ Spin Master” Welsh.
“Troublemakers: Literary Rock and Roll” starts at 7 at 3730 N. Clark. It’s free and open to all ages. Call 312-344-7611 for more information or see the Readings & Lectures sidebar in Section Two for a complete schedule of Story Week events.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.