Local author finds home at indie press

Novel about loss and hope releases this month

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By Maria Maxham

It's the stuff of nightmares: Alan and Audrey Taylor, parents of three, lose their oldest child when she goes missing in the middle of the night. The almost unimaginable emotions they go through – grief, resentment, hope, love, guilt, healing – are the driving force behind Billy Lombardo's novel "Morning Will Come," which is releasing on Jan. 21.

"The book is about people dealing with grief," said Lombardo. "We're not really taught how to deal with grief, and the story is about people muddling through life after a great loss."

Lombardo lived in Forest Park from 1990 to 2015 and wrote articles for The Forest Park Post, which shut its doors in 2018. He published "Morning Will Come" in 2009 under the name "How to Hold a Woman" but is re-releasing it with a new publisher, one he hopes will get the book into the hands of more readers.

"Tortoise Books is an indie publisher located in Chicago. They've been extremely supportive of my book, and I believe they'll get it out there to more readers," said Lombardo. "To be a writer, you have to love writing, first of all. But I'm not just doing it for myself. I want people out there to read what I've written."

Lombardo recently retired from his teaching position at the Latin School, where he'd been for over 25 years. As a teacher, he taught English literature, modern American literature, creative writing, and a course he designed called "The Great Novella." One of the books he taught in this course was "So Long, See You Tomorrow" by William Maxwell, a work he says is one of the most influential in his own writing.

"I grew up in a house with no books," said Lombardo. "So I've had to make up for lost time." He recalled being told to read as a child because it was good for him, like learning how to play a musical instrument. "We had half a set of encyclopedias," he said. "And I remember my mom reading 'Bonfire of the Vanities.' I was a good reader, but I didn't really read that much."

He always was, though, a good writer. "I had a knack for writing, for putting words together, even at an early age," said Lombardo. "And I think I saw the world differently."

Lombardo said when he was hired at the Latin School, he realized he had a lot of catching up to do in terms of reading. "I wasn't always a great student," he said, "and I ended up teaching at one of the best schools around. These kids had read a lot already. So I read everything as fast as I could to catch up."

Reading, said Lombardo, is one of the best ways to learn how to write. He attributes his MFA program at Warren Wilson College with teaching him how to really read for more than just the story, as well as with how to really write. The graduate program brought his literary skills to the next level. 

"I learned how to ask questions," said Lombardo. "I learned to focus on details. What does this paragraph bring to the novel? How do these particular words and phrases contribute to the story I'm telling?" 

While getting his MFA, Lombardo said he often took the poetry classes instead of the novel-writing classes. "They were talking about words," said Lombardo. "About sentence variation. About why each individual phrase is important. I wanted to learn that."

In his writing, Lombardo said he focuses more on character development than plot, though both are important. 

"Plot is tricky," said Lombardo. "I've learned to ask, 'What's the story here?' and figure out how to tell it."

Lombardo is the author of "The Logic of the Rose: Chicago Stories," "The Man with Two Arms" and "Meanwhile, Roxy Mourns." He has been published in Hypertext magazine, The Tishman Review, Tikkun magazine, Chicago Reader, Chicago Tribune and Triquarterly. In 2011, he won the Nelson Algren Fiction Award. 

In addition to writing fiction, Lombardo works as an editor and writer for hire at writingprose.org. He consults on and edits manuscripts; this includes helping authors who have 10 pages and big ideas, to providing line-edits for writers who have completed a project and are ready to shop it out. He's helped minority business owners put together cannabis business proposals. He advises high school students working on college entrance essays. 

"It's close to what I was doing in the classroom," said Lombardo. "I love it."

In terms of reading, nowadays Lombardo goes by recommendations from other writers. 

"There's a great writing scene in Chicago," he said. "I mostly read suggestions from local writers." He likes to support other indie writers, and he is excited about the changes happening in the publishing industry. 

"The old business model was there were six or seven big publishing houses, who gave huge advances to a few writers. And it worked for those handful of writers," said Lombardo. But, he added, it meant that the majority of authors couldn't get their books published, and sometimes it means that books were selected because they'd appeal to the masses, even though those books were less literary.

"I love the idea of my books getting into people's hands," said Lombardo. "Indie publishers help that happen."

Lombardo will be appearing at numerous locations throughout the Chicago area in the next few months to celebrate the release of "Morning Will Come," including a reading in March with famous Chicago writer Stuart Dybek, who was very influential on Lombardo, at the Harold Washington Library. For a full list of events, visit billylombardoauthor.com.

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