He was a successful journalist, but Stephen Markley says the arc of his career was leading him in a different direction than his ultimate dream—to be a novelist. While many of us would have just continued with the flow of success, Markley instead signed up to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, among the most prestigious of writing programs. But the next step was to write a novel and though it took almost five years for Markley to reach his goal the effort and time were well worth it as his recently published novel, Ohio: A Novel (Simon & Schuster 2018; $27), is garnering great reviews.The The book tells the story of four friends who meet up years after graduating high school in an attempt to sort out issues from their past, mend relationships and come to an understanding about how and why they’ve changed in the intervening years. Their lives also parallel the transformation of their home town, the fictional New Canaan based in part on Mt. Vernon, Ohio where Markley grew up.
“New Canaan is not exactly Mt. Vernon though I certainly borrowed freely and shamelessly from there, particularly from my high school and it wasn’t difficult for me to access what it felt like to come from a town like New Canaan, to move away and return, to gossip about what’s been going on, to drink till the bars kick you out when you’re back home,” says Markley. “I wanted to explicate how I grew up and the monumental changes I’ve seen since 9/11 and how they impacted the place where I lived and the lives of those I knew.”
Describing his book as both a murder and social mystery as well as a ghost story, Markley says the book is about “big things.” These includes the opiate crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, the loss of good paying union jobs which catapulted many workers out of the middle class and, ultimately, how dramatically New Canaan, like so many real places, morphed from prosperity into a rustbelt relic.
Markley was a senior in high school when the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 occurred. Suddenly everything changed and life became totally different.
“There were military recruiters everywhere and everyone was talking to them about enlisting and many people I know signed up,” says Markley. “My approach in creating characters was taking inspiration from those I knew but not taking people I knew—I didn’t want to copy people but to use stories to help form the people in my book. By doing so, they became real to me, When choosing the fate of my characters, I struggled, going back and forth as to what happens to them. They’re part of the story I wanted to tell.”
What: Talk, Q&A, Signing with Stephen Markley
When: Thursday, August 23 at 6 p.m.
Where: Barnes & Noble, 1130 North State St., Chicago, IL
FYI: (312) 280-8155; stores.barnesandnoble.com/store/2922