A Long Way From Chicago Author's Note
Learn why Richard Peck wrote A Long Way From Chicago, A Year Down Yonder, Secrets of the Shopping Mall, Strays Like Us, and Fair Weather.
People forever ask us writers where we get our ideas. This will always be the most popular question because it doesn't require the reading of a line we ever wrote. Ideas come from everywhere, often from our own earlier writing. The character presently dominating my life and works is the larger-than-life Grandma Dowdel. It has required two novels, A Long Way From Chicago and A Year Down Yonder, even to hint at the depths of her compassionate deviousness and to plumb the crevices of her cunning. But in fact you can hear her faintly in the speech of a far more low-key character in a previous book, Aunt Fay Moberly in Strays Like Us. I didn't see Grandma Dowdel's approach in Aunt Fay's voice and viewpoint but now I realize she was coming to be in this other character and a very different book.
Sometimes a short story will inspire a whole novel. This happened to me long ago in a short, short story called "Priscilla and the Wimps," written on assignment for a now long-defunct magazine. I found I liked the characters, Priscilla and Melvin, the biggest girl and the smartest, smallest boy in middle school. In a novel called Secrets of the Shopping Mall, they become Teresa and Barnie, two inner-city runaways who take up residence in a suburban shopping mall. They learn to forage at night and to take cover during the day. They become suburban pioneers on what I believe will be the last American frontier, until one day they . . . But read the book.
A Long Way From Chicago, the first of Grandma Dowdel's epics, grew from a short story called "Shotgun Cheatham's Last Night Above Ground." I wrote it for Harry Mazer's collection of gun stories called Twelve Shots, little knowing...
My newest book came from a story too. It was a short story that grew in my mind over a lifetime from a ruby-red glass cup that stood on the windowsill of my childhood home. It was a souvenir, shaped like a little shaving mug, that my aunt had brought her younger brother, my father, from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Engraved in the glass was my father's name and "1904."
At last I wrote a short story about that fair, the World's Fair in St. Louis. It's a gentle tale about a farm girl and her mother who summon the courage to brave St. Louis and the fair. It's called "The Electric Summer," written for Donald R. Gallo's anthology, Time Capsule: Short Stories About Teenagers Throughout the Twentieth Century.
Possibly because I didn't get to go to a World's Fair in my childhood, I've wanted to go ever since, even if I have to write the book to get there. For a novel on the subject I chose the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. The book is Fair Weather. The characters are young farm kids: Lottie and Rosie and younger brother Buster. Most people lived on farms in those days, and I let the great fair burst over them. They who have never seen a light bulb are about to see the great White City blazing with electricity brighter than noon. They who have never traveled faster than a horse gallops will go on a train. They who have never seen a building taller than a silo will ride the giant Ferris wheel — history's first.
Of course a trip in a book can't be a visit to Disney World because your parents owe it to you. A trip in a book has to be life changing. And so my young characters find their futures at the fair. After all, in a book and only there, you can go anywhere and be anybody.
And the idea for my next book may already be within reach.