Creative Quarantine: Author Thomas Dyja

Thomas Dyja discussing the work of Ben Hecht at the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame 4th annual induction ceremony in 2013

1. How are you holding up?

Pretty well. We have some underlying conditions in the family, so we took to ground quickly and came through safe and healthy. Still, a surprising number of my friends were sick and one lost a parent, so it was more than something happening to those people over there. At the worst times, I used history as a reality check. I watched movies like Come and See, that stunning, grueling film about a young partisan in WWII. Or Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, about the Peterloo Massacre. I wasn’t doing it consciously but it dawned on me eventually that everything I was reading and watching involved enormous brutality and social upheaval and while what we were going through was without question horrible, other people have lived through much worse and managed to create art, fall in love, find hope, keep their sanity and values. The Buddha lived in a time of chaos. Just over the last few years before COVID, people all over the world have died and suffered in such quantity that we don’t even register it, and we mostly sent them Thoughts and Prayers. So out of those depressing thoughts, I found a lot of hope and a necessity to remind myself and others I was in contact with that we will go on. Samuel Beckett makes a lot more sense to me now.

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

I was already coming to the end of my next book, a history of New York City from Koch to Bloomberg, so I had work to do and my work practice wasn’t really affected. But COVID gave it a new framing and urgency. The book’s about the lessons we learned from the transformation of the city over that period, and they’re really going to apply again to the next evolution ahead of us. So I’ve been writing and rewriting every week it seems, to reflect what’s going on in the city. 

COVID gave it a new framing and urgency.

3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?

I don’t know that this applies to my work practice, but I do hope to keep the sort of daily examination of my conscience that I found myself doing the last few months, and especially when the protests started. I’m not a practicing Catholic anymore, but it still gives me language sometimes about things like mortality and forgiveness. I also hope to keep up with some of the more domestic things I spent more time on—cooking, gardening—because they make me a better writer. Craft of any sort translates, I think. I learned more about writing by taking woodworking classes than I would’ve in any writing school.

I do hope to keep the sort of daily examination of my conscience that I found myself doing the last few months, and especially when the protests started

4. Of the artists you follow, who’s handling this particularly well?

I don’t know that there’s anyone specifically who comes to mind, though I miss seeing where Walter Robinson went every weekend! I do like that the last five months have charged the Arts with purpose; I think the Floyd protests have forced us to imagine what kind of nation we can create on the other side and the Arts have to be leaders in that work. May the days of diamond-encrusted skulls and faux-indignant “Street Art” give way to more that comes, as Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, from the root.

Thomas Dyja was born and raised on the Northwest Side of Chicago. A graduate of Columbia University, he worked as a bookseller, on the agency side at ICM and then Bantam Books, where he dealt with everything from the original Rotisserie League series to Richard Saul Wurman, creator of the TED conference. From there, he became a partner in the book packaging company Balliett & Fitzgerald, creating books for clients such as ESPN, People magazine, USATODAY, and A&E Television and editing four anthologies. From packaging he went on to write three novels, a biography of civil rights pioneer Walter White, and to co-write a book on education with former New York schools chancellor Dr. Rudy Crew. His next book, New York, New York, New York: How the City Changed from Koch to Bloomberg, will be published by S&S in Spring 2021. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, literary agent Suzanne Gluck.

Check out his website for more.