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Local Authors Collaborate on Improv-Inspired Novel

By Paul Wilson | Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Brendan Sullivan outside of Waveland Bowl, a setting featured in his novel The Living Wills. Credit: Sarah Tilotta

The Living Wills, a new novel from Eckhartz Press, pulls off something not often seen in works of fiction set in Chicago: a story that doesn’t rely on Bridgeport-style accents or tired stereotypes.

Despite well-placed details that foster authenticity–homes in Lincoln Square and Roscoe Village, gatherings at Waveland Bowl, a crowded Addison bus before a Cubs game–authors Brendan Sullivan and Rick Kaempfer say they were more interested in testing a theory than writing a quintessential Chicago novel.

“We wrote it about Chicago because that’s what we know,” said Sullivan, who along with Kaempfer will sign copies of the book at 7:00 p.m. on Feb. 15 at the Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. “But this was an experiment in the process of collaborative creativity.”

Sullivan discussed that experiment recently at his home office in St. Bens. Three years ago, Sullivan decided he wanted to write a book using the strategies he teaches as a corporate creativity coach for companies such as Harley-Davidson, PepsiCo and Jenny Craig.

He turned to Kaempfer, a friend and colleague from Sullivan’s days in Chicago radio and a published novelist, as his collaborator. Both men have experience with improv, and what they produced is a novel inspired by an improvisational theater form called the Harold, where three separate scenes inspired by audience suggestions gradually come together.

“It is kind of like the movie Crash,” said Sullivan, a graduate of the Second City Conservatory and a veteran of Improv Olympics. “Seinfeld, when it found its rhythm, was a Harold almost every week.”

The novel’s plot, involving a Vietnam veteran, his estranged family and a couple struggling to cope with the loss of a son, probably could have taken place elsewhere, but Sullivan and Kaempfer’s easy knowledge of Chicago lends important details that make the story feel more real. Set in 2005, its events take place mostly in the city, as far north as Jefferson Park and as far south as Beverly, with some trips to the north suburbs, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

Working on the novel, Sullivan and Kaempfer would meet at the Catalyst Ranch to map out ideas and then go home to write individual chapters.

“When you’re both writing the same characters, just getting the characters consistent was hard enough,” said Kaempfer, a local writer and blogger. “I don’t think we could have done it if we tried to write it about Seattle or something like that. We had to know the whole city in order to do it.

“We had one discussion where Brendan thought that the exit to Jefferson Park was at Montrose, and I said no, it was at Lawrence,” Kaempfer said. “We knew the city that well. I can’t even imagine [writing] this in another city.”

Small touches ring true, such as one character’s normal seating routine on Metra or another character attending Bell Elementary on an options program. The school and another key location in the book, Waveland Bowl, 3700 N. Western Ave., are near Sullivan’s home.

Gary Handler, owner of Waveland Bowl, was making plans to read the book during an upcoming vacation in California. He said he first became aware of Waveland Bowl’s high profile in The Living Wills after it was published in December.

“My wife and I each read a couple pages and it looks like it’s going to be pretty easy to get into,” Handler said. “I was happy about it. Any publicity is good. I’m elated to be included in such a fun book that takes place in Chicago.”

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