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Author chat with Walter Isaacson and Don DeLillo

Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson

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Carl Sandburg Literary Awards

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday

Where: The Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt


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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:23AM

A day after news broke that the first baby mama of late Apple CEO Steve Jobs was writing a memoir, Jobs’ official biographer, Walter Isaacson, commented thusly: “Uh, I think I’m not going to comment.”

With his mega best-selling tome still occupying a respectable rung on the New York Times best-seller list after many months in residence — “My ego is not strong enough to think it’s because of me,” he said. “It’s because [Jobs] was an interesting topic” — Isaacson was readying himself to visit India for an international meeting hosted by the Aspen Institute, his nonprofit educational and policy studies think tank.

Come Wednesday, Isaacson, based in Washington, D.C., will be closer to home when he swings by Chicago for the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner. Hosted by the Chicago Public Library Foundation and the Chicago Public Library, the annual soiree is a star-studded gathering of literary notables — most with Chicago ties.

This year it’s emceed by National Public Radio host Scott Simon (who was born in Chicago and is a vociferous Cubs fan) and features a slew of locally rooted publishing powerhouses ranging from past MacArthur Fellowship recipient Stuart Dybek (“I Sailed with Magellan,” “The Coast of Chicago”) to the New York Times best-selling likes of Jonathan Eig (“Get Capone”), Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”), Aleksandar Hemon (“The Lazarus Project”), and Scott Turow (“Innocent”).

Pulitzer Prize-nominated scribe and National Book Award winner Don DeLillo (“White Noise,” “Underworld”), who is loosely affiliated with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, will be on hand as well. He’ll accept the 2012 Carl Sandburg Literary Award along with Isaacson. Nami Mun (“Miles From Nowhere”), a fiction instructor at Columbia College, will receive this year’s 21st Century Award.

The evening’s highlight is a Simon-moderated discussion between DeLillo and Isaacson.

Choosing his words carefully, Isaacson said he had agreed to attend because “Sandburg was a giant to all of us who loved writing. But more importantly, Chicago has a tradition of civic engagement and public spirit that exemplifies precisely what Benjamin Franklin dreamed about for America,” Franklin’s recent biographer (“Benjamin Franklin: An American Life”) went on. “Everybody who is successful in Chicago feels not only the duty, but the joy of being part of a civic community. And so it’s hard to say no when you get invited to participate in an example of that.”

DeLillo’s decision to attend was spurred by his early love of such quintessential Chicago authors as Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, James T. Farrell and Richard Wright, all of whom he discovered and relished in his early teens.

Particularly in the case of Farrell, DeLillo said, “what I learned from his work . . . was that one could make literature out of a life not so different from my own at the time. I was living in the Bronx in a crowded household and on somewhat mean streets. And here was a fellow writing serious work about this [type of life] and work meant to carry a certain impact at a certain depth, and it surprised me that such work could even exist.”

In the early 1960s, when DeLillo was sharing a house with friends on New York’s Fire Island (“a sort of 40-mile strip of existentialism off the shore of Long Island”), he encountered and subsequently had several “very interesting talks” with Algren. He has retained his 95-cent signed copy of Algren’s “Chicago: City on the Make,” complete with the author’s trademark cat doodle above his signature.

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When it comes to their respective writing processes, Isaacson and DeLillo take vastly different tacks to vastly different works. Isaacson’s method for his journalistic nonfiction involves stringing together all of the gathered material — articles, excerpts from transcripts, etc. — in one massive computerized outline that can stretch to three thousand pages. He whittles and shapes from there.

DeLillo is staunchly old-fashioned, using the same manual Olympus typewriter on which he wrote many of his previous novels. It replaced an equally antiquated predecessor, which apparently broke down under stress. After DeLillo has marked corrections on pages that often bear only a few paragraphs of text, he sends the pile on to his sister, who uses an electric typewriter (technology!) to produce a clean manuscript. And that is what goes to the publisher.

“The reason I prefer a typewriter to handwritten script is because you see the words the way they will ultimately appear in print of one sort or another,” DeLillo said of his throwback style. “And that matters to me, because words even have a visual impact as far as I’m concerned. The letters in the words sometimes connect in a visual manner that I find quite interesting. And the keys themselves, there’s something reassuring about the sound they make and the connection — the keys and then the mark being made on the page. It’s a process I would hate to have to abandon.”

At this point in their fruitful, decades-long careers, both Isaacson and DeLillo have embarked on new projects that depart thematically and structurally from their previous ones.

Isaacson has decided to forgo another traditional biography in favor of a book on “the really creative people who invented the digital revolution.”

DeLillo is more cagey about his current endeavor, revealing only that it’s “a challenging novel” and “more expansive” than his last few. “Which doesn’t necessarily mean enormous length,” he clarified, “but it’s tough going.”

It always is. As DeLillo told the late author David Foster Wallace, “The novel is a f - - - - - - killer.”

“Nevertheless,” he said, “I look forward to working every morning.”

DeLillo will also appear in conversation with Donna Seaman at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State.

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