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Jessica Hopper Recalls When Rent Was $250 in Wicker Park

The music critic’s new memoir Night Moves documents her years as a developing writer in mid-aughts Chicago.

(Photo) David Sampson; (Jacket) Courtesy of University of Texas Press

“It is profoundly comforting to live in a city that doesn’t give a shit and loves you how you are, because it is every bit as marred, bereft, and cocky as you are,” Jessica Hopper writes of her adoptive hometown Chicago, where she gained prominence as a columnist for the zine Punk Planet and later published two books, The Girls’ Guide to Rocking and The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. In her new memoir, Night Moves (September 18, University of Texas Press), Hopper paints a vivid impression of what the city was like in the mid-aughts for a creative writer coming into her own. She finds the spirit of Chicago in its lower depths — on late night streets, at after-hours soirees, and in endless conversations between friends. Ahead of a talk with local author Megan Stielstra at Women & Children First on September 20, Hopper sat down with Chicago.

How did this book come to be?

After I pulled together the last book, which was an anthology of 15 years of my criticism, I was working to make an archive of my work. My friend Alice who was helping me was like, “You have some writing here about Chicago that obviously doesn’t fit with the book but you should look at this, there’s something here. So I became interested in making a book about falling in love with Chicago, going out at night in Chicago, being an unwitting gentrifier in Chicago, about Chicago music in that particular space and time, and about becoming a writer.

You’ve said before that you always have an agenda with your writing. Is that true for this book?

It’s two things. One is to make us more deeply curious about the ramifications of gentrification. There’s a map in the front of the book that pinpoints where almost everything [in it] occurs, and about a third of those places no longer exist. For folks like myself who are part of a gentrifying class, what we often trail in our wake permanently alters the city’s landscape. At the minimum, we must be very aware and very curious about that. The gentrification of Ukrainian Village and Wicker Park didn’t suddenly start with me and my friends, but we were part of an accelerant in the arc of changing those neighborhoods.

The second thing is that I’ve spent my entire life hungry to the point of starving for books that speak to the experience of being a young, developing artist, particularly as a young woman. I’ve been waiting years for a book like Just Kids — for something I recognized, in terms of the experiences of becoming a writer, and that space between the dream and the actualization.

Do you always keep a journal?

During that time I was a more diligent journaler. I was a voracious blogger. Now I’m a suburban mom, but I still write. I see how much creating a personal document of my day has served my memory and writing. When I was younger and keeping a journal, it wasn’t for posterity, it was for pure confession.

The book doesn’t delve much into the work you were doing at this time — it’s more about hanging out with your friends and exploring the city at night. What were you doing for work? How did this period shape you as a writer?

Around 2004 when the book starts, I’m wrapping up being a publicist for a lot of independent bands. I ran my own PR company. But I got to a point where I realized I had spent a decade investing and supporting other people’s artistic dreams and I needed to actualize my own.

For work I was occasionally doing longer pieces for the Chicago Reader, I was writing show previews, and I was helping curate the music for This American Life. I was DJing parties and nights for 50 bucks, 100 bucks here and there. I was cobbling together my living. It was a real space of dreams and ambition for me as a young writer. My rent was, at the start of the book, like 250 bucks a month. By the end it’s 500 bucks a month. I didn’t go to college so I was really doing everything I could to give myself an education as a writer. I was going to movies all the time and spending a lot of time at the library. I was following my curiosity down a rabbit hole. Because my rent was so cheap, the stakes of this jump into freelancing were fairly low.

Night Moves reads like a love letter to Chicago. How has the city shaped your life, personally or professionally?

I couldn’t have done any of it anywhere else. I really believe that. That’s part of the reason I stayed here. Chicago is a very culturally rich place where it’s easy to find community. Chicago, particularly in that place and time for me, felt very wide open. There’s not a lot of ladders here. 

And the more important thing is, I wouldn’t want to do it anywhere else. Chicago’s the best, Chicago’s the worst, you know? What are you gonna do, move to Pittsburgh?

Do you have any writing rituals, or conditions under which to write?

It’s changed over the years. I have two young children. When my kids were quite young, I would have to wait until they fell asleep and write furiously to make my deadlines for the Tribune or the Reader. I couldn’t even write with headphones on because I would have to be listening for them.

So I got used to, for the first time in my life, writing in silence. I’d always been writing with loud music. My first book I wrote listening to Heart and Led Zeppelin and all of this classic rock super loud. Now I can barely handle it.

So certain things have changed. But every morning when I come into my office I have my cup of coffee, clean off my desk, and consult my to-do. I light one stick of Morning Star cedarwood incense, open my window, and sit down. I don’t look at social media until I’ve written the thing I need to write for the day. Those are my rituals. But I do think the only way through it is through it and I do very much advise writing every day no matter what it is.

Women & Children First is one of first stops on a lengthy book tour. Do you enjoy touring as an element of the publishing process?

Before I ever had books out I did reading tours with Al Burian, who was my roommate. We used to do car tours and tour fanzines. That really stuck with me as an effective way to connect with an audience. The folks who have found my work aren’t just in major markets. I find it really revivifying and illuminating to connect with people who are connecting with my work.

But also, it’s kind of a punk book. It deserves the proper punk tour.

Go: Jessica Hopper discusses Night Moves with Megan Stielstra on Thursday, September 20 at 7 p.m. at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark St. Free.

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