December Spotlight: Letters in the Mail


Twice a month, The Rumpus brings your favorite writers directly to your IRL mailbox via our Letters in the Mail programs. We’ve got one program for adults and another for kids ages 6-12. Next month, subscribers will be receiving letters from Joe Meno and Ingrid Rojas Contreras, and Betsy Uhrig and Stacy Nockowitz, respectively.


Letters in the Mail

Joe Meno is a fiction writer and journalist who lives in Chicago. Winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, and a finalist for the Story Prize, Meno is the best-selling author of several novels and short story collections including Marvel and a Wonder, The Great Perhaps, The Boy Detective Fails, and Hairstyles of the Damned. He is a professor in the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. Book of Extraordinary Tragedies is his latest work.

The Rumpus: How did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Joe Meno: I did not know I wanted to be a writer but I would frequently get in trouble in elementary school for not paying attention and for drawing instead. I used to fill up notebook after notebook with strange drawings of impossible animals and epic battles. Once, in second grade, I drew one such battle on a math test. I spent the first three years of grammar school working with the learning resource teacher because all I wanted to do was make up stories with drawings. No one I knew was a writer or journalist and I had no idea it was even something you could do professionally.

In high school, I had an amazing English teacher who encouraged us to write our own stories. Something about my life changed that year. I am still doing what I did back in elementary school in a lot of ways.

Rumpus: Tell us about your most recent book.

Meno: My latest novel is Book of Extraordinary Tragedies which follows Aleks and Isobel, a brother and sister in their twenties living on the far south side of Chicago. Both grew up playing classical music together until each was forced to confront tragedy in their lives.

Aleks lives with hearing loss, even though he is constantly thinking about music. When Isobel has to move back home, Aleks begins taking care of her three-year-old daughter. So it’s a coming of age book and also a family story, about how facing large and small catastrophes and the intersection of fate and family.

I’ve lived with hearing loss for the last eighteen years and it’s the first time I’ve written about it at length.  The book is an attempt to capture the sounds and silences of a part of the city that never really gets explored in fiction or film or television.

Rumpus: Do you have any recent favorite books you’d like to share?

Meno: Over the last two years I read and really admired Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, Tommy Orange’s There, There, Louise Erdrich’s The Nightwatchman, and also Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police. All of them share an interest in elements of genre but with complicated characters, all the while asking questions about identity, loss, and perseverance.