Spoonful is a chaotic, reckless and brutally honest portrait of addiction… and it’s great! We had a chance to sit down with author Chris Mendius and see just how this manic world of heroin culture sprouted during the gentrification of Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Turns out it didn’t sprout at all—it was there first. This is why Michael Lira and friends are spellbinding. They are watching the world around them change rapidly as they get high. Theirs world is changing too; at the speed of injection.
Keri English: Spoonful has something that quite a few addiction stories lack: a plot that engages the reader and doesn’t stop short or leave us hanging. Given the intricate detail of each character; Michael, Sal, Lila, Dante, the drug-dealing family and all the other counterparts, this is not an easy feat. How did you do it? Any tips for those who get stuck at times?
Chris Mendius: I‘m not sure why addiction stories tend to lack engaging plots. The subject matter is so ripe for authentic drama to unfold, especially when street drugs are involved. People are breaking the law, often times risking their lives. Not all the characters in Spoonful are criminals, but they are all driven. Whether they’re trying to score or make it big in the art world or get their kid into college, they’re actively pursuing something. These aren’t simply junkies stealing from their families or pimping themselves out. They’re hustlers, trying to stay afloat and change their lives if they can.
As for how I did it, the key is the characters. If you really know who they are, then you know what they’ll do. And if you stay true to that, everything else will fall into place.
KE: How do you manage to work successfully with your spouse as your editor? It seems you make a brilliant team.
CM: Thanks. Given the inherent conflict between writer and editor, working with my wife was challenging to say the least. Ultimately, it came down to trust. Jayne is the most well-read person I’ve ever met and I’ve learned to trust that she knows what works and what doesn’t. I also know she understands my characters. As my creative partner and the first person to read Spoonful when it was still just a pile of pages, she came to know each and every one of them as much if not more than I did. It took me a while to recognize this and the process was often difficult, contentious and frustrating for us both. But once we worked through that, it all came together. We put out a book we love and we’re still happily married.
KE: Kirkus Reviews calls Spoonful “A superb tale of the druggie lifestyle, by a writer with talent to burn.” Sounds like a heavy compliment. What does it mean to you?
CM: When I saw that review, it felt like I hit a home run or scored a touchdown or nailed the drop on a perfect wave. I had done exactly what I set out to do: I blew somebody away with a kickass story. As much as I believed in the book myself, I gotta admit, reading that made me feel like a real author, as opposed to just a scribbler losing myself in the world of my imagination. But even if Kirkus hated Spoonful and thought I had zero talent, I would’ve kept on writing.
KE: Wicker Park’s gentrification is the backdrop of Spoonful. How did you choose the setting of the book?
CM: I lived in Bucktown just north of Wicker Park in the mid to late nineties so I saw much of that gentrification firsthand. The whole area was rapidly changing as developers snapped up properties occupied by working class families and renters who in many cases deeply resented being pushed out because they couldn’t afford to keep up with the skyrocketing property taxes or buy a condo. It was also happening to businesses. Even if you could afford to stay, there was a good chance your favorite dive or diner would get turned into some trendy nightclub or gourmet eatery. There was a palpable tension that came from all this change. I knew I could use that in the story so I did.
KE: The bar called Spoonful is a great choice for a hangout given the storyline. As I read, I thought that without the bar, the booze and the music, someone may have met their end sooner rather than later. Is the bar the glue for this whole group or is it something deeper?
CM: It’s both. Along with being a hub for the characters, the bar called Spoonful adds another layer of meaning to the title of the book, also the name of an old blues tune by Willie Dixon. The song was a major inspiration for me. That’s why I put an excerpt of the lyrics right before the story starts. I do agree the bar itself is a safe haven for the characters in that it helps keep them connected to each other and the outside world. You really can see this towards the very end of the narrative when Michael’s actions lead him to no longer be welcome there. You know he’s hit rock bottom at that point.
KE: Did you base any of the characters on real-life people?
CM: The drug-dealing family is directly based on some people I used to score from on the west side of Chicago and Paul, the high-flying, coke-snorting stockbroker, is based on an old friend. Sal, Michael’s partner in crime, is a composite of two guys I grew up with. And all the other characters are inspired by people I’ve come across in the course of my life.
KE: Everyone is addicted to something in this book. Why add a mom with a painkiller problem to the mix of heroin, coke and booze?
CM: It made sense given Micheal’s relationship with her and the tragic backstory with his dad while illustrating the double standard between legal and illicit drugs. Michael’s mom’s dependence on painkillers also feeds into the theme of the story: everyone needs something to get through life. If it’s not something you can take like alcohol or drugs, it’s something you can earn like money or recognition.
KE: How long did you work on Spoonful? Tell us about your journey. Did you try traditional publishing before going indie?
CM: I spent a year writing the first draft and another year or so revising and editing. We sent out some queries to agents and tapped one personal industry connection, all to no avail. I didn’t have the patience to keep at it so when Jayne suggested we go indie, I was all for it.
KE: I found myself rooting for Michael to get his act together, but enjoyed his messier moments as they made for a great story. Is this how we are supposed to see him? Flawed but fascinating?
CM: I wanted readers to find him interesting and likable and I think his flaws are a big part of that, along with the way he reacts during the more harrowing parts of the story. Michael isn’t a violent guy, but he’s willing to get physical if necessary and that includes standing up for his friends. He’d rather earn money, legally if possible, illegally if not, but he’ll do whatever it takes when he runs out of options. He’s basically a decent guy with a terrible affliction.
KE: I loved to see what would happen next as Michael and Sal lived one minute at a time. There is always something waiting around the next corner. Did you change your mind at all while writing (i.e. who lives, who dies, who gets caught?)
CM: Other than some kind of bloody ending, I can’t recall what I had in mind in terms of plot when I first wrote the story. My main focus was the characters and the setting. I figured if I got that stuff right—if I created a group of distinct personalities, all of them hooked on or ferociously driven by something—the rest would sort itself out. And it did.
KE: Do you identify with any of the characters in the book? Sometimes writers add a little piece of themselves to a character. Do you think you did?
CM: Definitely. The character I identify with most is Michael. I used some of my own personality and experiences to shape him and the way he reacts to events in the book. Writing in the first person really put me in touch with that.
KE: If you could give Michael Lira one piece of advice, what would it be?
CM: I wouldn’t give him any advice. A guy like Michael is going to do what he’s going to do. If he learns anything, it’ll be from experience.
KE: Do you plan to stay indie? What do you think you would do if you got a big offer from a major publisher?
CM: After I got up off the floor from the shock of receiving such an offer, I would probably decline. They would have to cough up some major marketing scratch and hire Jayne as an editor to get me to reconsider. Not gonna happen.
KE: If stranded on a deserted island, which three things would you need to have with you?
1) A surfboard
2) Pencil and paper
3) A machete
KE: What’s next for you? Do you have another book in the works?
CM: Yes. Anything Goes Publishing LLC, the company Jayne and I started, will be publishing another book that picks up Michael Lira right where Spoonful left him. It’s called In the Pines, inspired by the old Leadbelly tune of the same name. I’m in the process of revising that first draft right now. Hopefully, we’ll get it out sometime next year.
Thanks Chris, for chatting with us. We loved Spoonful and are looking forward to In the Pines!