As much as I love Forest Park, so far the town has only made cameos in my novels. In my first book, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, my main character, Emily, eventually winds up living here. If you blink, you'll miss the reference, but I'm delighted when people catch it. One reader came into the Beacon just to tell me that they enjoyed my little literary shout-out. She asked, "When the band had their record release party, it was at this bar, wasn't it? They put their album in that jukebox?"
"Yep," I nodded, smiling as she wandered over to the jukebox as if the fictional band's fictional album might really be in there.
In my new book, Ballads of Suburbia, there is a scene that takes place in my favorite early '90s Forest Park hang-out, Ambrosia's, but the book is set in Oak Park, where I grew up. Even though it's not autobiographical, my personal love/hate relationship with Oak Park spills onto the page. There are places that meant a lot to me, but I saw the darker side of suburbia while I was living there. This made it a good setting for the angst-driven plot of Ballads, especially since there were facts I could ground the story in, such as the heroin problem in the mid '90s.
The book doesn't necessarily cast Oak Park in the best light, but it's the light I saw it in. One interviewer actually asked me, "So if the people of Oak Park banish you ..."
When I told my mom (who still lives there) about it, she just laughed and said, "You don't care, you chose to live in Forest Park."
And she's exactly right, like Emily in my first book, I chose to live here as an adult for specific reasons. (As Emily puts it, "A 20-minute train ride and I can be downtown in the thick of it, but it actually gets quiet here sometimes.") When I started working here, the people I met seemed so much more accepting and truly diverse. Part of that is just the difference between childhood and adulthood, but mostly it's the spirit of the town. That's why I write about Forest Park with such fondness in my fiction.
So I've decided it deserves a larger role. I started a story about a teenage girl with a revolutionary spirit who likes to hang out at the Haymarket memorial in Forest Home Cemetery, and her mother, who tends bar at a neighborhood pub that definitely pays homage to the Beacon.
Curious if other writers had been inspired to write about the area, I turned to the knowledgeable Augie Aleksy of Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore and he told me about Luisa Buehler's Grace Marsden Mystery Series.
The second and fourth books in the series, The Lion Tamer: A Caged Death and The Scout Master: A Prepared Death, both make use of Forest Park history and lore. In The Lion Tamer, she used information on Showmen's Rest in Woodlawn Cemetery, the train wreck, and the subsequent ghost story centered around the graves. The Scout Master included the discovery of a WWII ammo crate, so she was able to bring in the fact that the armory in Forest Park was key in testing and training during the war.
I asked Luisa why she writes about Forest Park in particular. She said it "appeals to my sense of interesting history and roots."
I agree. There's something about a town of bars and cemeteries that screams perfect setting for literature. So no more cameos. It's time for Forest Park to be my muse.
Stephanie is the author of "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" and "Ballads of Suburbia." She's a proud Forest Parker who holds a master's in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. She also works locally at the Beacon Pub and loves to hear from people through her Web site www.stephaniekuehnert.com.