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Chicago Lit: Adam McOmber

Adam McOmber author 'The White Forest.'  | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Adam McOmber, author of "The White Forest." | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Local appearanceS

Adam McOmber will discuss and sign “The White Forest”:

• 7 p.m. Sept. 18 at the Book Stall at Chestnut Court, 811 Elm St, Winnetka.

• 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at Anderson’s Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville.

• 7 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln.

Updated: October 17, 2012 6:05AM

Adam McOmber lives in the Lake View neighborhood, where everything is hip and happening. But for two years while writing his new novel, McOmber transported himself to another time and place that is about as far from there as you can get.

Victorian England is the setting for “The White Forest” (Touchstone, $25), a moody, gothic tale full of hypnotizing twists and turns that transports readers to a world that is part real, part fantasy and definitely plays with the mind.

“I’ve always really liked the Victorian period,” McOmber says. “I like the sense of restrictions that the society placed on people. In some ways, I think it placed people in these boxes that cause them to grow more interior. And the interior of the mind can be a very frightening place.”

“The White Forest” is narrated by Jane Silverlake, a lonely young woman who is plagued with a strange gift — she is able to hear the souls of man-made objects. Jane lives on her father’s crumbling estate on the edge of the Hampstead Heath, where she finds solace in the calming silence of nature. Her only friends are Madeline Lee, a young woman whose father has been ostracized for his daguerreotypes of naked women, and Nathan Ashe, the handsome, moneyed son of aristocratic parents. But when Nathan becomes seduced by a secretive cult led by the charismatic and dangerous Ariston Day, he develops an intense interest in understanding Jane’s odd talent that leads him on a dark path, which Jane must follow.

Adding to the texture of the story are Day’s beliefs in dream manipulation, with the goal of discovering a new virtual reality, a place he calls the Empyrean. Day and his followers come to believe that Jane is the “doorway” to this alternate world.

“Jane is both a hero and an anti-hero,” McOmber notes. “So you care about her but she’s kind of frightening, too.”

Set on the moody heath and a maze of gritty London streets, it’s a story that has “Masterpiece Theatre” written all over it. McOmber fell in love with London during a summer abroad in college. So he knew the city well, but he also researched 19th century ideas about religion and mythology in books such as James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough.” The Empyrean is one of the seven levels of the medieval heaven, the place where saints and angels are said to roam.

“I love the depth of history that envelops London,” he explains. “I tried to be accurate about everything in the book so the reader would feel grounded in actual reality, and then I could go into Jane’s strange reality from there.”

McOmber was interested in the idea of giving a person a supernatural power, one that hadn’t been experienced before, which led him to animism, a belief that souls and spirits exist in animals, plants, mountains, rivers. McOmber admits he got to an unsettling point where he began to think in Jane’s voice.

“That was kind of spooky,” he says. “She does have this cold way of thinking about things. And it was hard to detach myself from her; I had to consciously think about not writing in that voice anymore.”

McOmber developed a taste for fantasy/science fiction at an early age. He grew up on a farm in tiny Van Wert, Ohio, where reading was his escape to other worlds. His grandfather, who would go to the library weekly and bring home a stack of science fiction and mystery novels, influenced the young writer.

“I gained a respect for that form of escapist novel just from watching him enjoy them,” McOmber says. “When you live in a small town, you need somewhere to kind of go, and one of those places is your head. So that was my place; I shut myself in my room and read.”

McOmber, who has an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University and now teaches literature and nonfiction writing at Columbia College Chicago, first gained notice for “This New and Poisonous Air,” a book of short stories, several of which were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He recalls writing his first science-fiction story in junior high. “It was called ‘The End’ and then I wrote a sequel called ‘The Beginning,’” he said with a laugh. “I thought that was pretty clever.”

He admits most of the fantasy fiction getting notice today is aimed at the young adult crowd and says his goal is to create stories in the same genre but for an adult audience.

“I don’t want to write stories about people that I could meet on the streets of Chicago,” McOmber says. “I want to create something different and strange that I hope will capture the reader’s mind and imagination in a new way.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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