At Hopleaf in Andersonville, a literary event for the rest of us.

Chicago newspaperman Mike Rokyo
Royko with his trademark accessory

LIT Over the weekend, a number of Chicago editors will be manning a booth (and handing out the magazine’s fun list of Top 40 Chicago Novels) at the Printers Row Lit Fest in the South Loop, on and around Dearborn Street from Congress to Polk streets. Good for them. I’ll be heading to Hopleaf for Drinking and Writing’s 6th annual Drinking & Writing Festival, which starts tomorrow, Saturday, June 12th, at noon. This year’s event honors the legendary Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko.

“Just as the title suggests, it’s a combination of the drinking life with the life of the mind,” says the self-proclaimed “unofficial professor of Drinking and Writing” Bill Savage. (Savage is also an English professor at Northwestern University.)

The two themes blend perfectly in the Two Drink Minimum Writing Contest, in which attendees who meet the entrance requirement can take a shot at writing for five minutes on a surprise theme. Past entries have included a computer program for the effect of drinking on writing and a Jack Kerouac–esque conversation with a hitchhiker. The winner will receive a beer-related prize.

One of the co-founders Steven Mosqueda warns that the drunk-writing contest may not yield any spontaneous literary gems. “I never said it improves writing,” he says. “For skilled writers like the greats, I think it influenced them greatly. I don’t know if I’m any good at it, but a lot of them were great at it. And a lot of them were really good when they were hung over too.”

Both members of The Neo-Futurists experimental theatre troupe, Sean Benjamin and Mosqueda founded Drinking and Writing while writing a play based loosely on Charles Bukowski. “When we started doing research we realized that there were so many writers who were drunks,” says Mosqueda. “Kerouac, Dorothy Parker, Fitzgerald, Hemingway . . . so we decided to do a whole show about all of them.” They started performing the plays while drinking at local bars and eventually spun it out into four “Drinking and Writing” plays, Beer the musical, and the festival. Past honorees have included Bukowski, Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson, but, Savage says, Royko beats them all.

“[Royko] was a guy who grew up above a tavern,” says Savage. “He literally grew up around Chicago’s traditional tavern culture, which is a very important part of the fabric of the ethnic neighborhoods that he wrote about so much.” Royko’s first column, Tavern Gets Taken for a Ride, and a Taxi Driver Mourns, lamented Chicago’s changing bar culture, and his articles about the Billy Goat Tavern still define the place. “He often wrote about the values that were expressed in different saloons,” says Savage, “but also neighborhood bars as places where community gets created.”

Savage will be on hand to discuss Royko, as will the urban social scientist Denese Neu and Sean Parnell, the founder of the Chicago Bar Project and the author of Historic Bars of Chicago; Parnell will be receiving an award for Outstanding Achievement in Drinking and Writing. Royko’s son David will also be there to read selections from his new book, Royko in Love: Mike’s Letters to Carol.

Royko himself probably would have scoffed at the event. “I’m pretty sure that Royko, if there were drinks being served and he was still around, would be happy to show up, but he would mock the very idea that he was a serious writer,” Savage says. “He said he just wrote for the day, he didn’t think about the long term, he wasn’t Mark Twain. But just because a guy puts his own work down doesn’t mean we have to.”

GO: June 12. $20. Hopleaf Bar, 5148 N Clark, 773-334-9851. Click here for tickets.

  • Read letters from Mike to Carol from David Royko’s book, excerpted in the March 2009 issue of Chicago magazine:
    “Writing this letter is going to be the toughest thing I’ve ever done. In answer to your note—yes, I did plan on writing once a year—or less. Naturally a statement like that warrants an explanation. I’m in love with you. Surprised? Well I am and the result has been mental hell. For a couple of years I’ve been wondering when I’d stop thinking about you every day. I’ve come to the conclusion that I won’t.”