An Anonymous Girl

Writing team Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s latest book, An Anonymous Girl (St. Martin’s Press 2018; $27.99), another psychological chiller and follow up to their best selling The Wife Between Us, tells the story of Jessica Farris who, thinking that all she has to do is answer a few questions to earn, some money, signs up for a psychology study. But as the sessions take on a scary intensity, she starts to believe the enigmatic doctor  conducting the study has somehow learned too much about her and the secrets she is hiding.

              The authors recently collaborated with Times correspondent Jane Ammeson on the following Q&A.

What was the inspiration for your latest novel?
It’s tricky for us to answer this because our ideas percolate over a long period of time. Every day, when we are brainstorming our plot, we throw out about a hundred suggestions – and the next day, we reject 99 of them. But there are a few key elements we can point to that inspired part of the foundation of An Anonymous Girl.

We wanted to create a sense of intimacy for the reader, so, in addition to having Dr. Shields’ voice be in the second person, we structured the ethics and morality quiz that Jessica took in a way that allows readers to consider how they would answer the same questions. This interactive element was really appealing to us, and we’ve heard from a lot of early readers that they loved answering the ethics questions and learning how their friends or book group participants would respond.

Sarah Pekkanen

Did you have to do much research in the field of psychology to write An Anonymous Girl?
One of our favorite parts of writing An Anonymous Girl was researching the psychology experiments we incorporate into the novel. Greer was a psychology major (and English minor) and her mother was a practicing psychotherapist for many years, so this is an area of keen interest for her. And Sarah majored in journalism, with a minor in psychology.

Greer Hendricks

In fact, in college, Sarah was actually a guinea pig in a bunch of experiments through NIH (the National Institutes of Health) to earn extra money. At first, she did pretty innocuous tests, but the ones that paid the best were a little more invasive. The final one she did involved being given something that made her super groggy–then her dad found out about it, and that was the end of her time as a guinea pig!

What’s it like co-writing? I understand you share many of the same interests and talk together all the time about ideas, characters, etc. How does that translate into the actual plotting and writing?
We absolutely love working together, and we are a co-author team for life. We write every single line of our novels together, which is highly unusual – but we can’t imagine doing it any other way. Perhaps our biggest challenge was figuring out the logistics of co-authoring a book, since we live in different cities. There was a learning curve to setting up our systems – we needed to become familiar with Google Docs in order to write together in real time, and Google Hangouts so that we could simultaneously talk.

Recently, we added in something new. We now meet in Philadelphia, midway between our home cities, for a 48-hour marathon work session every month or so. We stay in a hotel that has restaurants and a gym and we usually only leave the hotel for one brief walk outside. Otherwise, we work around the clock and through every meal. We bring along giant Post-It notes and cover the walls with them – detailing character notes, ideas for scenes, and the narrative arc of the book.

One difference between us – Sarah likes the walls so messy that Greer has nicknamed her “Carrie” from the show, Homeland, whereas Greer prefers them to be neat. We get an enormous amount of writing done during our getaways – but as usual, our only enemy is time. We never have enough of it!

Do you ever have disagreements about which way the novel should go or what the characters would/should do?
We share strikingly similar narrative instincts, but occasionally we do have different opinions about the direction of the novel or traits of our characters. This turns into a discussion, not a disagreement. We have an important rule: If something in the book isn’t working for one of us, it isn’t working. We talk through it until we find a solution that makes us both happy. The foundation of our relationship is deep friendship, support, and respect, and that lends itself to a collaborative writing process. We have a saying we love so much we had it printed on matching shirts: Better Together. That sums up how we feel about each other.

Did you scare yourselves at all when writing An Anonymous Girl? It certainly kept me on edge.
Thank you! We take this as the ultimate compliment. During our brainstorming sessions, one of our favorite phrases is What if… One of us will come up with a chilling idea and then the other one will up the ante. We definitely try to creep each other out and love it when we give each other chills. That “goosebump” moment tells us we are onto something good and scary. Our goal is to create books with visceral, palpable tension.


What: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen talk and book signing
When: Tuesday, January 29 @ 7 pm
Where: The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL
Cost: Free
FYI: (773) 293-2665;


The Poisoned City by Anna Clark

Like an accident in slow motion, Anna Clark, a Detroit-based journalist followed the crisis of toxic drinking water in Flint, Michigan.
“I had my head in it for years and it’s still there, I talk about it and I can’t get my head about how it happened,” says Clark, who has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post and Politico.
This obsession with the government’s failure to provide clean water in a once thriving manufacturing city whose population of about 99,000 is largely African American compelled Clark, who was a Fulbright fellow in Nairobi, Kenya and edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, compelled her to research and write The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy (Metropolitan Books 2018; $30) which was an Amazon Best Book of 2018 . But she didn’t do so as a faraway observer. Clark, who graduated from the University of Michigan’s Residential College with highest honors, double majoring in History of Art and Creative Writing & Literature, and minoring in Crime and Justice and received an MFA from Warren Wilson College, has always been a doer.
For almost two years, citizens of Flint complained about the water, showing up at meetings with jars of the putrid looking liquid that came out of the faucets and talked about how people were getting ill from drinking it. The GM plant in Flint actually changed their water system because the city water was corroding the auto parts they manufactured.
“It wasn’t good enough for the machines, but it was good enough for the people?” Clark asks rhetorically. “I wanted to really dig deep. I loved the research and the long conversations with a lot of people. I traveled to Flint a lot, to attend events, meet people and just hang out. I audited classes at the University of Michigan on metropolitan structures, legal issues and water rights. There was so much information to connect. I really couldn’t stop until my publisher said I had to turn in my manuscript.”
Clark says most of the credit for the crisis being covered by major media sources is due to the city’s residents.
“They would go to Lansing to meet with legislators and attend meetings, the mapped where the symptoms were occurring,” she says, noting their work propelled the story to a national level which is when the state finally started took action. “I really think many people in positions of power didn’t think the people in the city mattered very much. The clear message is we don’t actually care to do anything sizable about it.”
But what happened in Flint could happen anywhere. Clark also sees this as an urgent public health care issue and one that is even more important as the national conversation is about dismantling safety regulations.
“Even people in less disadvantaged cities have lead in their popes,” she says. “At the base level of what a city should do for its citizens, I think safe drinking water is pretty basic.”

What: Anna Clark discusses The Poisoned City and then will be joined in conversation with Rick Perlstein, the author of several books. A Q&A will follow the discussion.
When: Thursday, January 24 at 6 pm
Where: The Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL
Cost: Free
FYI: 773-752-4381;

Brad Meltzer Book Signing: The First Conspiracy

              It wasn’t easy being George. He lost his father at age 11 and then his mentor and half-brother just seven years later. He was a veteran of the French and Indian War when in his 20’s and then returned home to tend to his estates. But he was a man of duty who put honor first and when the British butchered Colonists who complained about the high tax rate, he showed up at the Continental Congress, the only man wearing his military uniform. Tall and handsome, his posture erect, it was almost immediately decided that he would lead the newly formed Continental Army.

Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation Gala Writer’s Luncheon at the home of Terri and Jon Havens

              Though army might be too kind of a word. The troops were masses of men from the colonies—ill-fed, raggedy, without training or even much in the way of weapons (unless you count pitchforks) and given to gambling, cussing, enjoying paid encounters and fighting amongst each other. Not exactly an army to give the well trained, well-armed and smartly uniformed British much pause.

              Add to that, the former Colonel Washington didn’t have the knowledge or the experience of a general and since there was no You Tube at the time, he would have to learn on the job and by reading the several books he bought on the subject. But probably most problematic, several of his very own Life Guards, hand-selected men who were to personally protect Washington were actively betraying him as part of a conspiracy to preserve British rule.

              This is the conundrum New York Times best-selling author Brad Meltzer presents us in the opening chapters of his first non-fiction book, The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot Against George Washington with Josh Mensch.

              “It’s one of my favorite details,” says Meltzer, who is so enthusiastic about the story says the same phrase more than once about other incidents as well. “Washington wanted the best of the best for his personal bodyguards, called lifeguards and they turned on him. That just totally hit me, this is the best of the best and they turned on him! You can’t write a book like this if you don’t ask yourself what would have happened if they got him.”

              Fortunately, we don’t need to ask. Washington is more than the man on our dollar bills, wearer of a white powdered wig, said to be heck on cherry trees and wore wooden teeth—the latter turns out not to be true.

              When two of his men were fighting, Washington rode right into the fray, jumped off his horse and seized each by the neck to break it up.

              “At the Battle of Brooklyn, he gets his butt kicks, and he could have said let’s just go out in a blaze of glory, but he didn’t,” says Meltzer. “Instead, he commanders all the boats and gets his troops across the East River. The British are coming fast but, in that moment, he won’t get on a boat until all his men are onboard. He’s the last one on. He’s risked his life for them and that’s when the troops really all came together.”

              He launched this secret society of spies that led to the modern CIA.

That’s why Meltzer says some stories that are just so good they need to be told the way they are.

              Anyone who has ever read one or more of Meltzer’s books (The Inner Circle, The Escape Artist) or watched his TV series Brad Meltzer’s Decoded and Brad Meltzer’s Lost History, needn’t worry that this will a long slog into boring history. The story of spy craft, war and the treachery surrounding the Washington reads as quickly as any of his novels or shows.

              “It was an untold story,” he says. “I discovered it the way you usually discover important things, in a footnote.”

              That footnote led to ten years of research which Meltzer says he couldn’t have done without the help of writer and documentary producer Josh Mensch.

              Besides a great read of an almost lost part of America’s history, Meltzer says he hopes readers see this not just as a famous story but a call to the greatness Washington showed.

              “We’re all capable of humility, heroism and generosity,” he says. “We have to stop creating this environment where everyone who disagrees with us is shallow or stupid, we have to work together and to do that we have to start with ourselves, the only way to change the world is to first change ourselves.”


What: Brad Meltzer with Josh Mensch talk, audience Q & A and book signing

When: Saturday, January 22 at 1 p.m.

Where: Community Christian Church, 1635 Emerson Lane, Naperville, IL

Cost: Ticket for one adult, $34.00 ($36.18 w/service fee). This ticket admits one person and includes one copy of the book. Ticket for two adults              $44.00 ($46.53 w/service fee). This ticket package admits two people and includes one copy of the new book. Ticket price also includes a photo with author. Kids under 13 are free. To order:

FYI: The presentation is hosted by Anderson’s Bookshops. For more information, 630-355-2665.

Seduction, Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood

When it comes to the #MeToo movement, Karina Longworth, author of the just released Seduction, Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, is surprised. But not in the way you might expect.

“I’m more surprised that people seem to think everything has changed with a snap of a finger,” says Longworth. “Centuries of institutionalized sexism can’t be fixed that cleanly or easily. Especially in Hollywood—although you don’t have to look further than our national daily political drama to see that toxic and dehumanizing ideas about women are still the rule more than the exception.”

To tell the stories of Hollywood and its famed casting couch, Longworth chose oil magnate, inventor and movie producer Howard Hughes as a way to link the exploitation of women then and now by providing a group portrait of ten actresses who were romantically and/or professionally involved with Howard Hughes, from the late 1920s through the end of the 1950s.

 “Howard Hughes is remembered as one of the great playboys of the 20th century, and when this is discussed, a seemingly endless list of actresses is breathlessly unfurled,” says Longworth. “Reading such lists, I became interested in exploring the very full lives and careers each actress had, and what role being one of Howard Hughes’s girls played in their stardom. I decided to use Hughes as a kind of Trojan Horse through which I could tell the stories of ten actresses, both still famous and forgotten, whose lives and careers were impacted by his interest in them.

Her research was extensive and turned up some interesting documents including a memo Howard Hughes once drafted about actress Jane Russell’s breasts, a subject he was fanatic about, so much so that he designed a bra to showcase them.

              Longworth, the creator and author of You Must Remember This podcasts about the scandalous secret history of 20th-century Hollywood which has hundreds of thousands of listeners, is also the author of books about George Lucas, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep. She’ll be in Chicago on Monday, January 14 for a book signing as well as the screening of Outrage, a 1950 movie directed by the sultry actress Ida Lupino about a woman whose life is almost destroyed by rape.

              “Outrage deals with a uniquely female situation in a uniquely empathetic way,” writes Longworth about the movie. “After such a violation, it asks, how could a woman learn how to be around men again, to trust them, to let them touch her?”

              Another goal in writing her book was to create an interest in the actresses on the list of Hughes’s conquests the author of books about George Lucas, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep the author of books about George Lucas, Al Pacino, and Meryl Streep, many of whom are forgotten.

              “I hope readers are moved to watch the movies starring some great actresses, fine stars and fascinating women,” she says. “If they seek out Ida Lupino’s directorial efforts, lesser known Hepburn films like Christopher Strong or Morning Glory, or the movies of Jean Peters and Terry Moore, I’ll have done my job.”


What: Karina Longworth will join the Chicago Filmmakers for a special screening of the 1950 film Outrage as well as a talk and book signing.

When: Monday, January 14 from 7 to 10 p.m.

Where: Chicago Filmmakers, 5720 N Ridge Ave., Chicago, IL

Cost: The ticket only option to the screening is pay what you can though a donation is encouraged. For a book and ticket, the cost $37.22 w/service fee. To order,

FYI: Women & Children First is putting on the event. For more information, 773-769-9299; or womenandchildrenfirst

BOOK REVIEW, SIGNING: New author Ma Ling hones ‘Apocalypse Office’ genre in dark comic novel

Candace Chen’s life is so much about chaos and loss that she finds solace and satisfaction in her job coordinating the sourcing of materials and production of Bibles. It’s a job that entails such minutiae as making sure there’s a supplier for the crushed gems which decorate a specific best-selling Bible even though many of the Asian countries supplying the materials have had to close because the crushed stones cause lung disease.

              But Candace, a millennial who immigrated from China when very young, works through such hurdles with aplomb, simply moving on, over and around any impediment. That’s one reason why she is chosen to stay at the company’s New York office as all the other workers flee, are dying or being turned in zombies by a virulent and unstoppable fungal infection called Shen Fever.

              Candace’s story—from her early losses to her unplanned but not unwanted pregnancy in a Manhattan that is rapidly falling apart is told in Severance, the first novel by Ling Ma.  

              Ma, who teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago, writes with a dry wit and keen sense of observation, shaping Severance into a darkly comic novel in a genre that might be best called Apocalypse Office and is unlike any other urban disaster books—or movies—I’ve ever come across. Ma, who has an MFA from Cornell University, was inspired in part by watching movies like those by George Romero, who was known for his satirical but grisly horror films such as “Night of the Living Dead” as well as TV series about Millennials like “Sex in the City.” But even more so her book was honed by working in an office and dealing with office politics which she describes as horrifying.

“The company I worked for was downsizing, and I started writing this book in the last few months of getting laid off—a kind of fun, apocalyptic short story,” she says about the novel’s origination. “I wanted to be destructive in some ways, and fiction can realize a lot of fantasies. I was kind of angry, but I also felt extremely liberated and extremely gleeful at the same time; it was a strange combination of glee and anger at once.”

Taking her severance and unemployment compensation, she continued to work on the story—as a sort of therapy. It was also an escape, just like Candace is first able to escape from New York and then from the cultist gang of survivors, freeing herself and going into the unknown.


What: Talk and signing

When: January 17 @ 6pm

Where: Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S Woodlawn Ave, Chicago, IL

FYI: (773) 752-4381;

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