Street Talk

Bob Hartley

Bob Hartley was raised on the West Side of Chicago. He holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh.  He has been, among other things, a writer, actor, singer, teacher, bartender, mail room clerk, and soap mold washer. He currently makes his living as a respiratory therapist and lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and two children. Following Tommy is his first novel.

Novel Engagements: An interview with Bob Hartley, author of Following Tommy


Braddock Avenue Books:  Your novel, Following Tommy, is set during the 1960s in Chicago.  Contemporary novels with historical settings seem to require a special reason for out attention. What is it about this moment and place that has so attracted you?

Bob Hartley: I was really interested in examining the time just prior to the rise of the counter culture. The book is set in an ethnic enclave because it acts as a microcosm of mainstream society with its demand for strict conformity to institutions even though those institutions are corrupt, racist, and repress nearly all those involved. In my view, this really hasn't changed very much. The system, although a bit less racist, still demands we conform to it and deny its universal repression.

BAB: Much of the action of the novel is focused on what happens to a family when it experiences a catastrophic personal loss. Usually, such a scenario engenders automatic sympathy, but not so with these two rough teenage brothers. Can you talk about what it was like to work with such an interesting narrative situation?

Hartley: The reason they may not garner sympathy is because they have nothing but contempt, for, well, us.  Society looks upon them as criminals who victimize their fellow "honest" citizens. They look upon their fellow "honest" citizens as being part of a system run by criminals. They just may hold up a mirror to readers and those readers might not like what's being reflected.

BAB: Perhaps it wouldn’t be a Chicago novel if it didn’t examine government corruption.  How did this become such a significant part of the story and what do you think it suggests about the city even today?

Hartley: Again, Chicago acts as a microcosm of the greater society, but it is a place of incredible corruption. The book examines the petty police graft of the day as well as the more lucrative bribery of city government. In my eyes, the city is just as currupt, but those currupted have gone for greater gain. For example, instead of a corrupt police officer shaking down tavern owners, now he/she is shaking down drug dealers. Instead of politicians soliciting bribes, they solicit corporate campaign donations. It is telling that Chicago's current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, recieved no backing from unions, but the largest contributor to his campaign was from the world of finance.

BAB: On of my favorite aspects of Jacky’s character is his love of books and reading.  I’ve become increasingly interested in characters whose literary choices become integral to our understanding of their lives. How did you develop this moment in Following Tommy?

Hartley: Jack's love of reading comes from my experience as a child. My parents and grandparents were avid readers who encouraged me to do the same. But they didn't discriminate. The reading of comic books was approved of just as much as Dickens, Joyce, or Tolstoy. Also, books were not looked upon as things unobtainable due to economic circumstances or class status. My grandfather stole an entire set of Dicken's from the local library.

BAB: Finally, I know this is a novel that you’ve been working with for many years.  What has it been like to live with these characters for so long? How has the story changed or morphed as you readied it for publication?

Hartley: I think the delay made me really examine not only the main characters of the book, but the minor ones as well. Although all the characters are composites, those composites are made up of people I've encountered, some of them very close to me. The challenge there is to detach yourself from them and strip them bare for the reader. It's tempting to make excuses for their actions, but that would have diluted the story and the argument I was attempting to make regarding class, race, and how a corrupt system represses all but a few.