Joe Meno is best known for his third book, Hairstyles of the Damned
, a wildly successful novel that explores adolescence, the stark realities of the early 90s punk scene and life on the South Side of Chicago. The 32-year-old author handles this loosely autobiographical subject matter with dexterity, creating a timeless tale of love and loss while also preserving the distinct experiences of his generation.
At first glance, Meno's latest work, The Boy Detective Fails, might be viewed as a drastic departure. The quiet and dreamlike novel inserts its hapless protagonist, Billy Argo, into a world where vanishing buildings, geriatric super villains and eccentric children are the order of the day. However, upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that Meno's simply taking an irreverent approach to tackle his recurring themes of love and loneliness.
Can you talk a little bit about your latest work?
It's by far the most ambitious book I've ever written, just [in terms of] the number of characters, and different places, and the way it goes back and forth in time. And it's definitely closer to the short stories that I've been writing over the last couple of years that are very absurd and dreamy. As a kid I always loved the Hardy Boys books. The remarkable thing is no matter how complicated the mystery is, it's always solved. So I started thinking about a character who used to be a child detective and had gotten used to the idea of order in the world, and now being thirty in this world where there's all this disorder, he doesn't know how to negotiate his daily life. To me the book is about mystery, how as adults you kind of dread the idea of mystery, but ultimately it's the thing that saves your life. It's really pretty, but it has some dark moments.
Tell us about your creative process.
For this book I actually started it as a short story, and then I wrote it as a play, and then I wrote it as a novel, which is kind of the way it worked with my last book. And it was kind of a process of experimentation, and writing as a play helped me figure out a structure, and what the significant themes were gonna be. I went back to the Hardy boys books and looked at the language and punctuation that was used to get a sense of that particular style. And I tried to put these totally nerdy child detective references in there. The play got produced by The House Theatre, and it was a big hit. And the book came out a few months later.
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I teach at Columbia College. I love music, and music is a huge part of what I do as a writer, even when I'm not writing. I get most of my ideas for what I write from music.
Got any favorite local hangouts?
I love Quimby's. Anyone who cares anything about writing or literature in Chicago should check that place out and visit it religiously. I love Earwax. I probably go there like once a week. They just have really good food that's pretty cheap but not cheap-tasting. The other place I really like is the park. My wife and I moved to Wicker Park about a year ago, and we like to just kind of go for walks, and I just like that park a lot. And the last place is the Nelson Algren Fountain on Division and Milwaukee and Ashland. It's a little triangle-shaped square in the middle of that intersection, and for whatever reason, even though the rest of Wicker Park has gone through a lot of gentrification, that one spot is still really dingy and gritty and homeless people hang out there and there are all these pigeons. I think there's something very Chicago about that.
Who else should we be reading?
I've been kind of borrowing from this guy called Donald Bartlhme, at least for the Boy Detective book. He writes these really short, two-page or three-page stories that are kind of absurd. There's this Italian writer Alejandro Baraco who wrote this book Silk and another book called City. He has these very strange things happening in his books. I really liked Zadie Smith's last book, On Beauty. It's a great portrait of professors at a liberal arts school, and I find that really interesting.
Joe Meno will be reading at the Book Cellar on Thursday, October 19.