Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Amy Krouse Rosenthal, author of Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal.
“I don’t write gorgeous, masterful, sweeping novels. I don’t know how. So I’m doing the thing that feels the truest to me, writing in these short little bursts. I didn’t know that could actually count as writing until I discovered The Pillow Book, which is a book written by a Japanese woman named Sei Shōnagon around the year 1,000, and which uses that same format. There’s a word we both end up using quite a bit: ‘lovely.’
“My book contains thoughts about being human, organized by subject. And those subjects are the main subjects we all know from school—history, geography, social studies, music, art. I use those as a way to file my thoughts. The entries range from a sentence to a few pages. I try to cover the full experience of what it means to be a Homo sapien. The mundane and the trivial and the profound and the not-trivial and the happy and the sad and everything in between, mushed together in one big smorgasbord of being.
“The word “textbook” in the title works on multiple levels. There’s the academic interpretation. And then there’s the making-fun-of-myself thing, like, ‘Oh, that’s so textbook Amy to do that,’ because this is a follow-up to a book I wrote [Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life] that’s organized like an encyclopedia.
“And the other meaning is texting. The book has its own phone number, and throughout it are a dozen and a half prompts, where you, the reader, can text a certain word, and you receive something that goes with the passage you just read, like a piece of music or a video clip. Or you are invited to send something back, like a photo, that gets fed onto the book’s companion website, which is intended to be a community for readers.
“The interactive thing with readers is something I’ve been doing since pre-Internet. I used to have a PO box, and I’d say, ‘Mail me your thoughts, and I’ll mail you back a penny,’ and then I would. I feel like it’s one of the most important things I’m doing with my work, the connecting thing. Maybe somebody else can analyze it and figure out why. I just know it feels good, it feels true, it feels worthwhile. For me, it feels like the opposite of a gimmick.
“Part of me thinks readers should know nothing going into the book, absolutely nothing; they should just read it. And the other part of me can’t help but say, ‘Before you even open this book, keep in mind that it doesn’t look or act like every other book. It’s not carpeted in wall-to-wall sentences. There’s a lot of white space. Despite the fact that it’s a relatively quick read, it took a really long time to get to this place. Even the emptiest pages might reflect an insane amount of thinking.’
“I wrote the entire book before my diagnosis, 100 percent. I think it’s important for readers to know that this book was written from a healthy place, because then the words matter more than, ‘Oh, she’s writing this because she has cancer.’ But even for me, some of the stuff is eerie, looking back at it. The ‘Bye, I love you, thank you’ stuff. The piece about the flower peeking through the asphalt, feeling like futility and hope. I’m like, ‘OK, I didn’t write that to be that meaningful.'”