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Eye On Romance
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Shana Abé

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Stacey Ballis
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On May 25, 1970 I was born at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago , Illinois with a full head of hair and a naturally charming disposition. According to reports (mostly from my grandmother) I was a perfect baby. My love of language was apparent early on, from the age of 9 months it was nearly impossible to shut me up. Reading was also an early passion, happening pretty much spontaneously before my third birthday, making me both a minor prodigy and a little freakish. As a child I was a natural storyteller. My parents refer to this skill as “lying”, but really I was just preparing myself for a future in fiction writing. My younger sister Deborah was born in October of 1972, ruining the calm of our happy family trio, and bringing an excessive amount of noise into the household. There is a legend that my first sentence upon her arrival was “We were so happy the three of us.” but I may be making that up. As a fiction writer, I am fully licensed to embellish these stories to make them funnier or make me more interesting. Deborah was basically a nuisance until she turned 13 or so, at which point she rapidly accelerated in achieving coolness, and by the age of 15 was pretty consistently enjoyable. Now she is my best friend, and well worth the hassle of her earlier years. My first major poetic work, “Suppose I Were a Snowflake”, written at age 7, was a critical success, and was published in the Chicago Public Schools creative writing anthology “Freckled Fantasies”. A deeply conceptualized piece about identity and precipitation empathy, it marked the beginning of my life as a real writer. Grammar school was split between LaSalle Language Academy , where I majored in French and Lincoln Elementary where I majored in being a pain in the butt and inventing the most creative excuses for not doing my homework. I managed to come out of the Elementary years mostly unscathed, and reported to Lincoln Park High School in 1984 with braces, glasses, an unfortunate haircut, and an enthusiastic eagerness to begin my Secondary educational experience. I majored in French at Lincoln Park , but spent most of my time in the Band, playing trumpet and the occasional flugelhorn. Concert Band, Jazz Band, Marching Band, All City Jazz Ensemble, I was a proud band geek of the first order, but for the record, never owned a piano key scarf. What time I did not devote to music was evenly split between obsessing about boys, and cutting class to hang out at Nookies Diner. The boys inspired me to longform blank verse, which I cranked out by the notebook-full. I had plenty of space in my notebooks since I was not terribly enamored of actually paying attention on the days I deigned to attend classes. Nevertheless, I managed to do enough work to graduate in the top twenty percent of my class, and to be accepted to Brandeis University in Waltham , Massachusetts . At Brandeis I double-majored in English Literature and American Studies, and did a minor in Creative Writing. Mostly I hung out in the Student Events office. I was pre-law. I was leaning towards international law. China was due to open to the West the same year I would likely graduate from law school. I signed up for Introduction to Chinese. It met five days a week, at 9 am. I slept through the last day to drop classes, and got my first F ever. Brandeis put me on Academic Warning. My parents put me on Financial Support Warning. I switched back to French to complete the language requirement. In the summer of 1990, I went to Kenya for three months, with an independent organization called Global Routes. I lived with a family, taught at the local secondary school, did small community service projects. I was in a tiny village called Lukume, without electricity or running water, not far from the border of Uganda . Sappy as it sounds, I found myself there. What the hell I had been doing there all the time, I have no idea, it is the last place you would think of to look for me, and yet, there I was. I was very glad to finally meet myself. I wrote a lot of long letters, a lot of poetry, some essays. Nothing has ever yet captured it adequately for me. When I returned, I announced a shift in plans. I was going to become a high school English teacher. This was perfect timing, as I would have had to begin studying for LSATS, and as we have already established, I am a lazy cow and do not like to study if it can be avoided. At Brandeis I had the good fortune to work with the poet-in-residence Olga Broumas both in writing seminars and independent study, short fiction and poetry. Olga changed the way I wrote forever. (If you are not familiar with her work, pick up “Rave” and buckle your seatbelt.) I owe whatever honesty there is in my poetry (and by proxy, Sidney 's poetry) to her. Shortly after my return from Kenya , I began a relationship with my future ex-husband, David. I got accepted into a program called Teachers For Chicago, and ten days after graduating from Brandeis, had begun my Masters Degree in Education at DePaul University back home in Chicago . About a month later David and I got engaged. That fall I began teaching at Jones Metropolitan High School , juniors and seniors. I loved teaching. I tolerated graduate school. I worked part-time retail to make ends meet. I planned a wedding. The writing dried up. I finished grad school course work in June of 1994, and got married in August. I began teaching at my alma mater, Lincoln Park High School , in September. I wrote my thesis, and graduated with highest academic distinction in 1995. My parents were proud, but a little irritated that I hadn't figured out that whole “academic distinction” thing a heck of a lot earlier. In all fairness, they had every right. In August of 1996 I was informed that Lincoln Park had dropped their enrollment and lost an English position. I had the least seniority in the department, so I was out of a job. I decided to give myself a couple days to recover. On day two, a conversation with a friend led me to Court Theatre, the professional theatre in residence at the University of Chicago . They were looking for a Director of Education. I interviewed the next day, and got the job the following week. I missed the day to day teaching, but my love of theatre was as great as my love of education, so this was a perfect marriage. I learned on the fly, and as I got more involved in the work, the writing started to come back to me, and I began working on poetry and short fiction again. I left Court in February of 2000, and was hired by The Goodman Theatre to be their Director of Education and Community Programs in May of that year, and I have been there ever since. I love my job. It is impossibly wonderful. In 2003 Time Magazine named The Goodman the “Best Regional Theatre in the Country”. I agree with them wholeheartedly. In September of 2001 David I divorced amicably, returning me to the world of dating. Having not been single since 1989 made me very much the neophyte. And as any single woman in her 30's can tell you, dating is a major pain in the ass. Being a plus-size woman in a society which reveres thinness doesn't help. Working long hours in professional theatre (not known for being a target-rich environment for straight single men) is also something of a detriment. I tried it all. Personal ads in The Reader, online matchmaking sites. I had a lot of first dates. I did not so much have second dates. I certainly have not (as yet) found anyone meaningful to share my life with. This is perfectly fine, as I have a pretty great life, and finding a partner will occur in it's own time. I am hoping it's time is in the reasonably foreseeable future. So do my friends Rachel and Rick who seem to get suckered into air conditioner duty twice a year in the absence of a boyfriend. In July of 2002 I decided to get back into fiction writing. The inspiration was the culmination of several things. One, I had noticed that I was increasingly annoyed with ‘chick-lit' novels focusing on average sized women obsessing about their weight or big girl novels where getting thin is the primary goal of life and the solution to all of their problems. Two, I had noticed that many of the men who were hitting on me in bars and restaurants were married men in their late forties and early fifties, and none of them seemed even slightly apologetic about their marital status. Three, several of my girlfriends shocked me by revealing that they themselves had pursued adulterous relationships. I knew I wanted to write a book about a big girl who was comfortable in her skin, having a good life, having great sex, and not dieting or being morose about her body. I also knew I wanted to write a ‘chick-lit' book that didn't compromise the intelligence of the reader. And I knew I was interested in exploring the whole adultery issue as it relates to single thirty-somethings. A book about a big girl having a passionate affair seemed a good place to start. So I did. I finished the book, then titled “Poets and Madmen”, in January of 2003. My friend Rita told me about Red Dress Ink, and informed me that they were taking unsolicited manuscripts. I sent them a synopsis and three chapters, so that I had one iron in the fire, planning to embark on the process of getting an agent. A week later I got a call from Margaret Marbury, asking to see the manuscript. I got it to FedEx still warm from the laser printer. Three weeks later she called with an offer. I called my cousin, bestselling author Susan Sussman for help, and she gave me the number of an agent she trusted. Scott Mendel took the leap, signed me over the phone, and hit the ground running. We signed a two-book deal with Red Dress, and my life as a publishing writer was officially begun. A whirlwind to say the least, but a very happy one. Scott is the one who came up with “Inappropriate Men”, which is a much better title, bless his heart. The foray into publishing has been a wonderful and slightly overwhelming endeavor. I am very fortunate to have such a terrific support system of friends and family around me, and luckier still that my colleagues at The Goodman are so accommodating of my new moonlighting gig. (If you live in Chicago , and are not yet a subscriber, feel free to call the box office for information at 312-443-3800 or log on to the website, www.goodman-theatre.org. Feel free to tell them I suggested you subscribe. This will encourage them to continue to be so accommodating.) What else is relevant? I no longer play the trumpet, but I have hopes of picking it up again someday. I am a self-taught gourmet cook, and love to entertain. My French, after all these years, is profoundly rusty, but I hope that someday someone in France will publish one of my books so that I can dust it off and see how I translate. I am hard at work on my next project, “Sleeping Over”, for Red Dress, which will be out in the Spring of 2005, as well as a couple other projects in the infancy stage. Sidney may or may not be back. And I do want to hear what you think, so feel free to send me an e-mail with your comments or questions, I promise to get back to you eventually, just be patient with me. Thanks for reading!

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