portrait Greg Herriges

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 142 ~ March, 2009

Greg Herriges, who teaches English and Creative Writing at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, has published three novels, Someplace Safe (Avon Books, 1985), Secondary Attachments (William Morrow & Co., 1986), and the twice award-nominated The Winter Dance Party (Wordcraft of Oregon, 1998), a murder mystery satire of the golden days of rock and roll.

Herriges’ short work has appeared in Chicago Tribune Magazine, The Literary Review, Story Quarterly, and the South Carolina Review, among others. As a young inner-city high school teacher, in 1978, his article, “Inherit the Streets” portrayed the grim story of teen survival against the odds.

Herriges is also the author of JD: A Memoir of a Time and a

Journey (Wordcraft of Orgeon, 2006) about fulfiling the dream of meeting and speaking with the reclusive author, J.D. Salinger, in the mid-1970s.

Derek Alger: It sounds like your childhood and adolescence were perfect for a future writer, if not especially great for a kid.

Greg Herriges: I guess it depends on how bad you want to be a writer. There are times that I would quite happily trade in the psychodrama for a good old-fashioned family life with Pop out in the garage and Mom making pies in the kitchen. But that wasn’t the case. Looking back through that 1950s lens, I guess we were a lot like the “Leave It To Beaver Family,” if Mrs. Cleaver had been psychotically depressed and Mr. Cleaver had been a negligent, alcoholic womanizer.

My dad was the vice president of a bank and my mom was a housewife and we lived in Highland Park, an affluent suburb just north of Chicago on Lake Michigan. It was a largely Jewish community, and my friends were all Jewish, and there were wonderful stories their uncles and grandfathers would tell–I loved Yiddish, and got pretty proficient at using the expressions. But I was sent to a Catholic school, which just seemed so foreign to me–the sacraments, the idea of eating a divinity during communion. The priest turns a piece of bread into Jesus, and then if that piece of bread goes in your system–I mean, you know what’s going to happen to it, right? Some miracle. It’s a hell of a thing to do to a savior.

And Mom and Dad went through a horrendous divorce, and they were the only people ever to be excommunicated in the whole parish–until one of the priests ran off with the organist in her husband’s car. I think he was excommunicated. Maybe they just defrocked him. One less guy turning bread into Jesus. All I know is that I never saw him again, which was okay with me. It was a pretty racy Catholic school. We’re going to have our reunion this June. Pray for me.

DA: You found solace in Dion and The Belmonts and J.D. Salinger as a teen.

GH: It’s a lousy thing for a child to experience, the break up of a family. So yes, I escaped in books and in the rock and roll 45 rpm singles that my teenage sisters brought home. My sisters did all they could to shelter my younger brother and me, but they were young themselves, so I knew that Lee, my brother, and I were on our own. I’d read at the library as often as I could. It was lovely to have such a quiet place, being surrounded by stacks and stacks of books, and Highland Park is known for its ravines, so the nature outside the library windows was serene and beautiful, very comforting. I loved Steinbeck’s stories, and a little later, Fitzgerald’s works. At the end of the day when I’d come home, I’d listen to songs by Roy Orbison, Dion and The Belmonts, Sam Cooke. Dion came across to me especially. I think it was that suave New York image–the guy who could be alternately vulnerable and tough in his songs “Teenager In Love” and “The Wanderer.” Also my mother’s side of the family was Italian, so there was some role model identification. But Dion’s own life was a cover job. He had handlers who could conceal his pain behind an image, but he was strung out. Though I didn’t know it at the time, he was hurting.

I played in rock and roll bands during high school. We were a house band at several clubs that had questionable connections. Guys in dark suits. I didn’t ask questions. I was growing up fast.

DA: And Salinger?

GH: The epiphany came the day I began reading The Catcher In The Rye. Until that time, there had been nothing like it–Holden’s voice, his attitude. He was so funny, and so inordinately sad. I knew what that was like, to deny an aching within, disguise it with a wise-guy facade. When you’re that young, even as a teenager, it might be the only line of defense you have. I couldn’t put that book down. All the pop culture that I was absorbing now in the early to mid-sixties was coming out of New York–the whole backdrop to Catcher, the sounds from the Brill Building, Laurie Records–all very east coast. I used to sit in my doctor’s office waiting room, scanning little maps of the city in The New Yorker, the ones that would be there for tourists to guide them to performances and exhibits. I learned where Central Park South was, the Wollman Rink, the zoo. Holden’s local geography was all conceptual to me at the time, because I’d never been to New York, but it was in my head. I had it memorized.

DA: A change came your last year of high school.

GH: I fell in love with a girl on TV. I was watching this show on television, and there was this petite, pretty girl, and one of the guys in my band said, “She goes to our high school, you know. This is her mother’s show.” So I made it my business to meet her the next day. I stood around the hallway till I saw her walk by, and I introduced myself. Young love–and such an amazing way to fall for someone, on TV.

But that would have to wait. My father had moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and I missed him, the way a boy misses his dad. When I could no longer live with the craziness at home, I took my kid brother with me one night. Just up and left home and flew to Florida.

I spent my senior year there and graduated from Fort Lauderdale High School. Listen, it was not my favorite place, Florida. I didn’t have many friends, because it’s difficult to transplant yourself into a social scene with people who had been together since grammar school. I remember the local kids cracked me up. They were trying to surf on these little anemic Fort Lauderdale waves, as if they thought they were Jan and Dean. And I–I was listening to obscure blues songs and the Beatles, and a terrific, absolutely unexpected thing happened. I had this humanities teacher named Larry Stock who took an interest in me–the new kid, the wise-guy. He taught me Candide, The Sorrows of Young Werther, The Stranger, Lust For Life. He showed me slides of famous paintings, introduced me to Plato, for God’s sake. Seventeen, this rock and roll kid, and I was reading fucking Plato.

Larry was a safety net. He appeared out of nowhere, and that’s when I got the notion that perhaps I could be a teacher, like him. I was gaining confidence, had begun a healing process with my father, a real relationship with him. I caught a few breaks that earlier I never would have thought possible.

DA: And then off to college.

GH: College scared me. I didn’t know if I could get through it. I had no illusions; I didn’t see myself as a scholar. But Vietnam was even scarier, so I did my best. I never dreamed that I would encounter another teacher like Larry Stock, until I met Jerry Stone at Kendall College, a small Methodist school in Evanston, Illinois. Jerry taught philosophy, a class he designed called “Dialogue.” I went to him and said, “What’s your class about?” And he said, “We’ll have to talk about it.” And so the dialogue began. Jerry was so far ahead of his time. He brought in Bucky Fuller, Robert Theobold, the economist. You never knew who was going to walk through the door of his classroom, and these people were cultural icons–pioneers.

DA: You then went to University of Illinois.

GH: I couldn’t afford the tuition at Kendall, and it was a two-year school, so I had to make the change to the University of Illinois. It used to be known as the Circle Campus. It was big and ugly and there was no way to establish one-on-one teaching and learning. All the classes were in big lecture halls. It left a lot to be desired, by my estimate. But then Kent State happened, and I got plugged into the nationwide shutdown of big universities. That it had come to our students dying at the hands of our soldiers was outlandish–an obscenity. I had such contempt for the administration in Washington and the direction they were leading us. I suppose that I became politicized overnight, as many of us did. I took a giant step into the counterculture. It was in the air. It was everywhere–as was psychedelia, and that made an impression as well.

DA: Did you have any idea what you were going to do after high school?

GH: As I say, I had the dream in the back of my head that I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t really know how to go about it. Then there were other academic inspirations–and I ended up being placed in an inner city school by the Chicago Board of Education after I finished my B.A. Many of my students were gang members, and in some instances were close to the same age. I began to hang with them after school, got to know life on the streets in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. But the school system seemed blind to the sociological problems that faced these kids every day. I’ll give you an example. While my students were dying in gang fights, I had to enter a numerical symbol next to each dead student’s name–I think it was “99”. A big “L” meant the student had left the system. A little “l” meant the student had been transferred to another class in the school. “99” meant you’d been capped, hacked, and stacked, Jack. It was enough to make you sick.

So I decided to write an article about my students for a local newspaper, see if I could open up some eyes about street reality, the kind of reality that was shrouded by bureaucracy. The Chicago Tribune Magazine accepted it and ran it as a three page spread. Oh–and this part I love. I needed a photographer who was brave enough to go into the neighborhoods with me and get artistic shots of these kids and their weapons, their homes. I asked the young fellow who was the yearbook photographer. I was running the yearbook at the time, and we contracted this guy to do student photos. I said, “Hey, you want to take some gang photos?” And he said, “Sure. When?”

DA: And then you ended up on TV two days before the article appeared.

GH: A teacher I worked with had some newspaper experience, and he explained to me that promotion was always up to the writer, not the publisher. He said, “Why don’t you call up `A.M. Chicago’ right now and ask to speak to the producer?”

“A.M. Chicago” is what the ABC morning talk show was called before it became the Oprah Winfrey show. I called, the producer said yes, and two days before my article went to press, my gang students and I all appeared on a special hour long show hosted by Charlie Rose. It was a very big deal for all of us, especially the kids. There was this one natural kid named Dino, a member of the GBO (Ghetto Brothers Organization), and I thought he would be a hit. But he froze in the lights, and an older kid named Kong from a gang called The Dragons came through–really told his story of survival on the streets with panache.

And of course it didn’t hurt the sales of the paper. The school administration was upset with me, however; they didn’t like messy little secrets like students with guns getting out to the world at large.

DA: That show also allowed you to eventually fulfill a dream with one of your idols.

GH: This part is in my book, JD: A Memoir of a Time and of a Journey. I had struck up a friendship with my old idol Dion, just by interviewing him a few times. He was in town for an appearance at the Ivanhoe Theater, and I arranged for him to be featured on “A.M. Chicago.” I sat through the taping, took him to breakfast with Warner Brothers staff directing me to take him back to his hotel afterward. I can’t tell you what this meant to me. He gave me two tickets for the show that night, and in what was the culmination of a kid’s dream, he called me out of the audience to sing “Teenager In Love” on stage with him. We did it like it was rehearsed (well, it was–I’d been rehearsing since I was nine) and then he gave me a big high-five afterward. It blew my gaskets. You could have knocked me over with a rock and roll feather.

DA: Now on to your real quest.

GH: Salinger. My high school television sweetheart and I had married and divorced, and now I was living with a teacher from the same high school I taught at. We were young–what–twenty-seven? She found an article in The New York Times that reported that Salinger was still writing every day on his farm in Cornish, New Hampshire. Well–I knew I’d have to go and find him. I’d caught up to Dion, and it was a natural to go meet my other hero.

Sarah (we’ll call her “Sarah”) came with me. We crossed the country at the beginning of summer vacation in her Volkswagen Rabbit, camping all the way. I hated camping. I liked room service, you know? Air conditioning. But Sarah loved nature–lots and lots of nature…mosquitoes, outhouses…nature. I had read a story called “For Rupert With No Promises,” anonymously published in Esquire, and it bore an uncanny resemblance to Salinger’s work, particularly “Zooey.” This had raised the stakes, I thought. I called editor Lee Eisenberg who told me no, it was written by Gordon Lish. It took some of the steam out of the quest, but I still believed I could meet and speak with Salinger.

DA: But you did succeed in meeting Salinger.

GH: Yes I did–at his home, in his driveway. I’m not going to tell the whole story, otherwise who would buy the book? We had been warned by Cornish locals that Salinger had a gun and vicious dogs, the things he needed to protect himself against intrusions. But we had no intention of intruding. It turned out to be a magical, beautiful rainy day. He responded well to a letter I had written; that’s the only explanation I can think of. He didn’t have to come out and talk to us. I told him in the letter that we would drive away in a second if he didn’t want us around.

DA: Tell us a bit about your first published novel, Someplace Safe.

GH: I had this voice in my head. (Christ — that puts me in great company.) But you know what I mean — a character you imagine starts talking, and this was a young character — seventeen or so. I went straight to the keyboard and this young fellow was born, a rather sarcastic, paranoid kid. I imagined what it would have been like growing up in the city rather than the suburbs. I lived right next to the El in Chicago at the time, and the whole place rattled every time it went by. I was still slightly terrorized of urban living. I’d been in Chicago for about three years, and had had a lot of scary experiences. But the overall tone was comic, and I’ve been saddled with that ever since, the expectation that I will always write comedy, that I have to be funny.

DA: A sense of humor is sometimes the only response to some things.

GH: I needed a name for my protagonist so I started looking at the spines of books in my cinderblock bookcase, and there was How To Talk Dirty and Influence People by Lenny Bruce right next to the collected works of William Blake. I put the two names together — Lenny Blake. It worked.

I had no agent. I sent it to 14 publishers cold — the whole manuscript. Of course, it was rejected by everyone — except St. Martin’s.

An editor there sent me a letter saying that she would like to see what I could do about changing the ending, make it less abrupt. I did, and she bought it. The phone call came, and I agreed on the spot and an hour later Avon paperbacks called to buy it. I told them I had just sold it to St. Martin’s, but suggested they could buy the paperback rights. They did. It was very strange, two calls in an hour or so, as if publishing acquisitions went over teletype to everyone in the business.

DA: In your second novel, Secondary Attachments, you utilized your experience teaching at the inner city high school to tell a dramatic story.

GH: Yes, it was dramatic, but again there was a comic element, a laugh-to-keep-from crying tone that was similar to the doctors in M*A*S*H. Secondary Attachments was born of my involvement teaching gang students at a high school level. Talk about teacher burn-out, you should have spent a day in that school. But the amazing thing was how close some of us got to those kids.

I was so young at the time, and the students had such needs on all levels. Many of the new teachers that I hung with, and I include myself here, had to develop this really cynical attitude about the problems that were endemic to the neighborhood — poverty, homelessness, racial prejudice, violence, death.

We got hardened to keep from having our hearts broken on a daily basis.
I think that was misunderstood by some readers who thought that I was insensitive. I don’t know how they could have missed the obvious, that the narrator was trying to keep his sanity by making a terrible situation tolerable in the only way he knew how.

DA: We could probably say you found a home at Harper College?

GH: We could probably say that Harper College saved me from total teaching burn-out. I gave my young years to that high school, which I will not name, and I am very glad I had the experience, but I could not have taken much more and still go on being effective. It was time for something new. Going to Harper was like getting out of the Army, like leaving the battlefield. Suddenly I was in a serene setting. Geese swam in lakes on campus. There were no bomb threats or riots. I taught Goethe, Camus, Ralph Ellison, Updike. I had my own office.

Yes, Harper College is not just a calmer environment — it has a national reputation as a stopping off point for the finest contemporary authors. We have a Cultural Arts enrichment program that is second to none.

DA: How have you balanced teaching and doing your own writing over the years?

GH: It comes naturally. I see to my teaching first. Teaching is my

first love, and so I am very careful to make that my priority, but writing takes up all the time I have left over. They are like two ends of a battery, teaching and writing. I need both. One enhances and inspires the other. Yin-yang — whatever you want to call it. I see it all as one thing. It’s just what I do.

DA: Your students have also been fortunate to benefit from visiting writers teaching your class.

GH: That has been such a delight. I bring in these authors, and some of them aside from doing a reading, actually teach my class. Students get to meet the people who write the very literature they are cutting their intellectual teeth on. They can ask them questions, get advice, share insights. Robert Pinsky has taught my literature class. Jay McInerney. Deborah Joy Corey. Michael McClure. TC Boyle.

Boyle himself is a story. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that he may be the finest combination of artist and teacher I have ever had the pleasure to meet. He first came to Harper and taught my class — what — 18 years ago? We discovered we had both started out writing for Playboy’s OUI magazine, under editor Stuart Weiner. We had similar backgrounds, interests. Both played in rock bands when we were young. He has since participated in literary conference calls with my classes, and he has recently returned to Harper for another day of reading.

Let me tell you — he can captivate a classroom, an audience — no matter what size. He is a performer supreme. And, yes, my new documentary, TC Boyle: The Art of the Story, which I wrote, and which was produced by Tom Knoff, just won Platinum, Best of Show, at the Aurora Film Awards in Salt Lake City. It has been selected to be featured at The American/Popular Culture Association’s National Conference in New Orleans, on April 8th, 2009. I’m very pleased about that.

DA: How did you get started making documentaries?

GH: I teach the most comprehensive rock and roll class in higher education, along with my colleague Kurt Hemmer, a beat movement specialist who studied under Ann Charters. I was aware that he made a documentary on Janine Pommy Vega, one of the first female beat poets, and one of Michael McClure. I just jumped in and made a documentary about author Thomas E. Kennedy — The Cophenhagen Quartet, which I wrote about in an article for The South Carolina Review. I won my first award for my next film, Player: A Rock and Roll Dream, which was a history of Chicago garage bands. Boyle was kind enough to give me an in-depth interview and a dramatic reading, and I asked several fiction specialists to host this newest film.

DA: You also wrote a novel about Buddy Holly.

GH: I wrote The Winter Dance Party Murders, a novel, as an alternative history of Buddy Holly’s life and career. I took every rock and roll conspiracy theory I could find and wove them all together. It wasn’t easy — but in the end it had the greatest cast of rock characters imaginable — Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Ritchie Valens, Brian Jones, John Lennon and the Beatles, Sam Cooke, Bobby Darin, Del Shannon.

DA: And your most recent novel?

GH: The manuscript I just finished, and which I am shopping at the moment (translate: PUBLISHERS PAY ATTENTION) is called Dear Beatles. It’s about a Catholic school teenager in 1964 who strikes up a pen pal relationship with John Lennon. I researched the Beatles’ every move for two years so I could make sure all the things I say happen happened in the right places. And it’s my revenge on years of parochial schooling, which I did not exactly take to, to put it mildly. I had to get the last word.

And yes, I still play rock and roll, and I say so without embarrassment or apology. Most of the young English professors at Harper are also rock guitarists, and after every department meeting, we have a jam session. It’s funny how you don’t think of it until you try to tell someone about it, but I have the best job in the world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.