Some years back, driving home from visiting a girl in Ann Arbor, Billy Lombardo was struck by a moment of story. He pictured a guy asleep in a theater, waking up to see the most beautiful girl he’d ever laid eyes on. Lombardo saw this so vividly that he began to make notes as he drove, writing on the dashboard with one of the pieces of chalk that, as a young teacher, he was often leaving in his car. The crowning moment was when it came to him what the guy would say to the girl: “Did you lose a glass slipper?”
“Looking back now it sounds so dorky, but at the time it was so perfect,” the Forest Park author recalled, explaining how he hadn’t even finished that story because he couldn’t imagine how to follow up that line. Growing up in Bridgeport, Lombardo was never much of a reader, but “I had a few occasions where I really nailed something with words.”
His desire to recapture those moments led him down the path he’s on today. Now a published author of poetry, novels, and short stories, his tale “Clover” snagged the Chicago Tribune’s 2011 Nelson Algren Prize and was featured in the debut issue of the Trib’s new “Printers Row Journal” section, giving Lombardo his widest exposure thus far.
He traces his literary career back to 1989 when he started participating in the poetry slams at an Uptown bar, the Green Mill. Lombardo enjoyed reading to and writing for an audience because “they’d let you know if they didn’t like you.” He knew that to get their attention, all he really had to do was swear, but he was proud when he was able to “quiet the place down and get everyone listening. That’s when you know you’ve really done something.”
Marc Smith, who ran the slams at the Green Mill, was one of Billy’s early influences, as was Stuart Dybek. Meeting Dybek at a St. Ignatius literary fest in the early ’90s sent him on a reading binge. When he saw his Bridgeport neighborhood on the pages of Dybek’s books, Lombardo, who moved to Forest Park in 1990, went back to visit the old neighborhood, which “urged forth old memories. That’s how I shifted from poetry to stories,” he explains.
His first collection, The Logic of a Rose, was published in 2005 by Bookmark Press. After that he attended the low-residency fiction MFA program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, a learning experience that fueled the stories in his second book, How to Hold a Woman. It came out in 2009, followed by The Man With Two Arms, six short months later.
After 27 years of teaching high school students and seven years heading up Polyphony High School, a student-run literary magazine for high school writers and editors, Lombardo’s first young adult novel, The Day of the Palindrome is coming out next year (Razorbill Press). Set largely in Forest Park shortly after 9/11, it stars adolescent narrator Debbie Spanfeller, who is convinced that something major is going to happen on October 2, 2001 because it’s a palindrome (10-02-2001). She’s imagining another terrorist attack, but instead her classmate, Eddie Lovell, carves Debbie’s name into his wrist. This upsets Eddie’s girlfriend, to whom “Home School” Steffie Griggs, Debbie’s best friend, whispers something. Lombardo, who draws his characters’ names from the database of Polyphony High School submissions, describes Steffie as “freakily gifted. She fixes idiots by whispering things to them.” She gets litterbugs to stop littering and rude guys at baseball games to stop jeering, but whatever she says to Eddie’s girlfriend causes the girl to kill herself. Now Debbie, who is still reeling from her firefighter brother’s death in a small fire before 9/11 (an idea Lombardo came up with after talking to James Joyce of the Chicago Fire Department) has to figure out what Steffie whispered.
Lombardo didn’t set out to write the book for teens, but he loves the characters and feels it’s some of his best stuff. “I would like to keep writing YA,” he says, adding that he found it fun to write girls after being around them for so long as a teacher and coach of the girls’ tennis team at the Latin School in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Polyphony High School has been evolving parallel to Lombardo’s career. “I finally put some words to my life exactly when Polyphony came out, allowing kids to put words to their lives.” He’s thrilled about the advisory board that has come together for Polyphony, including Stuart Dybek, Scott Turow, Chang Rae Lee, Gary Shteyngart, actor James Franco, and Franco’s mother Betsy, who is a children’s writer and poet.
However when asked what he’s most excited about, Lombardo admits, “My sabbatical!” After applying for one for over a decade, he’s finally been approved for time off from June 2012 to August 2013 and he says, “I can’t wait to produce a bunch of stuff I can fiddle with for the next 10 years.”