North Side neighborhood haunts author’s novel
BY MISHA DAVENPORT September 20, 2012 6:08PM
Susan Hahn sits in her favorite room where she writes in her Winnetka home. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times
Susan Hahn will discuss and sign The Six Granddaughters of Cecil Slaughter:
• 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28 at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark.
• 7 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Book Stall at Chestnut Court, 811 Main St., Winnetka.
Updated: October 24, 2012 6:18AM
In playwright and poet Susan Hahn’s unconventional ghost story, The Six Granddaughters of Cecil Slaughter (Fifth Star Press, $22), chief protagonist Ceci narrates the novel from her grave. An author and scholar whose life was cut down in its prime by cancer, she confides in the reader that “being dead can be quite lovely if one can just let go of the body and ego.”
The only trouble is, Ceci is haunted by the living and can’t seem to let go. “Some things definitely are not finished for me — maybe never will be, like the impulses to fix, explain and protect my family,” she says.
The family in question are the descendants of Jewish Hungarian immigrants who settled in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. The six granddaughters of the title are named after their grandfather in various forms. Ceci shares variations of her grandfather’s name with her five cousins (Cecilia, Cecily, Celine, Celeste and Celie). Done out of a sense of tradition and a way to honor the deceased patriarch, it inadvertently binds each of them forever to the tragic past.
Hahn is no stranger to the haunts of the far North Side neighborhood, although without the tragic past. She spent the first nine years of her life living in West Rogers Park on Troy Avenue on the top floor of a two-bedroom, three-floor walkup she shared with her parents and grandparents.
“I have such rich experiences living in that crowded apartment with my parents and grandparents,” she recalls. “I slept on a cot that was set up nightly in the dining room and I thought that was normal. I never had my own room until we moved to Highland Park.”
“One of my first unpublished books of poetry was called ‘Wanting Was an Alley Cat,’” she adds. “My years in Chicago made me stronger.”
She says it was never her intention to set part of her novel in the neighborhood of her early childhood, though.
“The publisher pointed out that Devon Avenue was used in the book and I disagreed until it was pointed out to me. I didn’t realize how much of Rogers Park was in the book. The neighborhood is imbedded in my brain and this came out in my writing in an organic way,” she says. “I still have all these memories of our apartment, the sameness of all the apartments on our block, how I loved the dirt alley behind our apartment with its alley cats that would come up to me; I carry this all with me despite the fact that that dirt alley has long since been paved over.”
The book was crafted without an outline, Hahn says. One of the plot points in the novel, the identity of a murderer, wasn’t even known to Hahn until she had finished the chapter. “I really had no idea who did it,” she says. “I examined all of the characters that had motive, but it wasn’t until I was two-thirds of the way into writing the chapter that the identity became known and then it made perfect sense.
“The characters and environment in the story became my reality and my reality became my fiction,” Hahn says. “It was glorious to have that piece of time to be in that world and be with these characters. I miss them and being immersed in their world.”
Within the novel, Ceci serves as a Greek chorus. She is able to comment and interpret her extended family’s actions but is unable to partake in or alter them. From her grave, she weaves together a tapestry of their experiences, trying to make sense of life, death and the ties that continue to bind.
The plot device calls to mind Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel “The Lovely Bones,” but Hahn is unsure if the comparisons are appropriate.
“I’ve never read that novel, but if my book shares something with that, I will have to take you at your word,” Hahn says. “As for the Greek theater chorus, I certainly didn’t go into writing this thinking that. Sometimes what you know can come out in your writing in a preconscious or subconscious way, I guess.”
Despite having a new book out, Hahn says with the Chicago White Sox currently at the top of their division, her family’s attention is focused on baseball. And for good reason — Hahn’s son is Rick Hahn, vice-president/assistant general manager of the Chicago White Sox.
“I know more about baseball than any poet probably should,” she says with a laugh. “I could probably talk circles around any other female poet. Even so, my 7- and 9-year-old grandsons can’t believe I don’t understand all the rules.”
In fact, she says her first date with her future husband was 45 years ago at a Cubs game.
“I put on a skirt, high heels and behaved well, even though I knew little about the sport,” she recalls with a laugh. “Our third date was bowling; the first and only time I would bowl. He’s told me that I tricked him into marrying me by making him think I liked and knew a lot about sports.”
Misha Davenport is a Chicago-based freelancer. He blogs at triggercritic.com.