David Mamet Gushes Over Chicago In First Novel In Over 20 Years

David Mamet
Jason Marck / WBEZ
David Mamet
Jason Marck / WBEZ

David Mamet Gushes Over Chicago In First Novel In Over 20 Years

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A new whodunit novel by playwright and author David Mamet captures Chicago during the turbulent and free-wheeling 1920s.

Mamet’s new novel, Chicago, is full of touchstones from that era — a madam who runs a bordello, speakeasies, gunrunning, nightclub singers, and newspaper men who keep a bottle of hooch in their desk drawers. Everyone seemed to have secrets, especially the mob, and Mamet’s novel features a Chicago Tribune crime reporter and World War I vet on the search to uncover how the woman he loved was murdered.

Mamet joined Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia to share the backstory of the novel and his next play, which is a farce about sexual morality and life in Hollywood.

Mamet ‘dreamed’ himself back into 1920s Chicago life

David Mamet: I guess it’s kind of nostalgia. I grew up in the ’50s on the South Side of the city. And the stories of the mob,and the guys who knew Al Capone, and the guys who know Jake Guzik, and the guys who got closed down, and the hardware store that got held up — these were the stories we heard as a kid around the kitchen table. Because my parents were in the immigrant generation and their parents had gotten off the boat and had to fight their way from the bottom and had to figure out the way we did things around here, which was, sometimes you just gotta step up and see the captain, you know.

The nice thing about writing a novel is one gets to think oneself back into that period. And of course, it’s not really an act of reconstruction so much — it’s an imagination of how I would have liked to be back then and who I would like to have met. Gunrunners, cops, hard-drinking newspaper men, a South Side bordello, the great aviatrix Bessie Coleman. I dreamed myself back into that era.

The story is told from the perspective of reporters

Mamet: Some of it has to do with my great affection for Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who were reporters and wrote The Front Page, which is arguably the best American play. Ben Hecht wrote a column for the Chicago Daily News called “1001 Afternoons in Chicago.” One day, he would meet a beggar, the next day, he’d meet a retired general or a cop or a madam, and he would write these sketches that are just better than anything anybody ever wrote.

The allure of Chicago

Mamet: It’s a labor of love. We don’t talk about it much as Chicagoans, but damned if we don’t love this city. There’s something here, and nobody can quite say what it is, but it sure as hell is here. It’s a part of a Chicago ethos and it’s the stories that we grow up with. And even today, when you travel and meet someone from Chicago, you say, “Oh, what neighborhood?” And there’s an instant connection, because one assumes, and that may be false, that we share a common culture and a common ethic.

Mamet’s upcoming play is a farce about a Harvey Weinstein-like character

Mamet: I had some business with Harvey, and then this whole upsurge in our sexual mores came about. It’s something I’ve been very concerned with and interested in for a long time because I came of age in the ’60s, and then I wrote a play called Oleanna, which was a huge scandal about sexual allegations.

One of the things that fascinated me about people like Harvey is people who fought their way in and decided, “OK, the system is corrupt and stupid; I can turn it to my advantage.” So the largest part of the play is really about a guy who decided he could figure out how to fix the Oscars. The play, which may or may not be inspired by a guy who may or may not be Harvey Weinstein, is a farce about a monster. For example, The Producers or To Be or Not to Be.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire segment.