DePaul University’s nonprofit Big Shoulders Books press disseminates, free of charge, quality works of writing by and about Chicagoans whose voices might not otherwise be shared. The press is primarily run by students in the university's MA in Writing and Publishing and undergraduate English programs. Their most recent release, The Garcia Boy, shares the story of the late award-winning essayist and educator Rafael Torch, son of an undocumented Mexican immigrant.
The memoir depicts Torch’s struggles with addiction and alcoholism, before rising to become a teacher and dean at a high school in a largely Latino community on Chicago’s Lower West Side. His memoir also focuses on the murder of Sergio Garcia, a star student at that school — a symbol of the overwhelming challenges sons and daughters of immigrants face as they attempt to find a place in larger society. As Big Shoulders Books Founding Editor Miles Harvey explained it, Torch's book asks, "What does it mean to be an American? And how does a person gain (or fail to gain) that identity?"
Torch draws parallels and dichotomies between his life and his own character, and that of Garcia, and the parallels extend beyond both of their lives. While Torch managed to survive drugs and alcoholism, he died from a rare form of cancer in 2011, at the age of 36. His bright pupil didn’t live to see his personal invitation to apply early to Georgetown University.
Spine Contributing Writer Caroline Kurdej interviewed Big Shoulders Books' Founding Editor Miles Harvey, who edited The Garcia Boy, and Emily Olson-Torch, who was married to Torch, about the process of bringing Torch's book to publication. First up, Harvey.
Caroline Kurdej (CK): How did you reach out to Emily-Olson Torch? What was her response?
Miles Harvey (MH): I tried to reach her through Facebook a few years ago, but she didn’t respond to my messages, which wasn’t much of a surprise. Having dealt with my own share of grief, I knew that reckoning with the loss of a loved one often takes time. So I decided I would put the idea on hold for the short term and revisit it with her down the road.
When I got back in touch a year or two later, she wrote me right back. We invited her to a meeting at DePaul, and the more she heard about Big Shoulders Books, the more interested she became in the possibilities of the project.
Emily has been an amazing collaborator ever since, making herself available to students at every step of the process and encouraging them to bring their own ideas and creativity to the book. And it turns out that she has a wonderful feel for narrative. Some of the very best ideas about how to shape the book have been hers.
CK: What aspects of this project were most difficult to tackle and navigate?
MH: The biggest one is that I never knew Rafael. In the introduction to The Garcia Boy, I talk about how I’ve constantly questioned my own qualifications to edit this book. One thing I am confident about, however, is that the endeavor has always been driven by respect for a fellow writer and by despair at the idea that his work might be lost to obscurity.
CK: You mention that Rafael was tweaking his memoir, and working on it all the way up until his death. How does your writing process differ from what you witnessed in Rafael’s?
MH: It’s hard to say how our processes differ, since I know almost nothing about how he worked. My sense — and this is completely an educated guess — is that he wrote quickly and instinctually. There’s a real power to his prose that feels spontaneous, like a jazz solo. With my own writing, everything goes at a snail’s pace. I always say that I’m only smart in slow motion, not in real time. I have a feeling that Rafael was brilliant in the moment, as well as on the page.
CK: What grabs you most about Rafael’s writing?
MH: It’s that gut-punch power I was just describing. Rafael has a singular voice, one that can veer in the same paragraph between elevated diction and street slang, between humor and rage, between empathy and reproach, and between sentimentality and cynicism. He just cared so passionately about life, and about the people he came in contact with, especially his students.
CK: Where do you think Rafael Torch’s memoir fits into the literary landscape?
MH: Since day one, I’ve always felt that The Garcia Boy is very much a Chicago book — not just because it happens to be set in this city, but because it has a muscularity that defines a lot of the best Chicago writing. Nelson Algren once described the city as “a place built out of Man's ceaseless failure to overcome himself.” It was out of this “endless war” against ourselves, Algren wrote, that Chicagoans “build our successes as well as our failures.”
Rafael knew that “endless war” against the self all too well, but in the end he triumphed, as a human being, as a teacher and as an essayist. I hope the publication of The Garcia Boy will introduce this extraordinary writer to a larger audience.
CK: The Garcia Boy tackles issues close to our Sweet Home Chicago. Rafael, the son of an undocumented immigrant, struggled with alcohol addiction before becoming a teacher, and later a dean, at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago. Torch’s memoir focuses on the murder of a bright student at his school, and draws parallels between the Garcia boy and himself. While Torch managed to survive drugs and alcoholism, he died from cancer at the age of 36. Meanwhile, his student couldn’t escape the confines of the issues still prevalent in much of Chicago, and the US. What do you hope readers gain from Rafael’s memoir?
MH: Well, the first thing I hope they gain is that megawatt spark you feel when encountering good literature. I happened to read an essay just this morning by the late novelist Pat Conroy, who defined a great book as one in which you feel “the full measure of the writer’s heart.” And — for me, at least — that’s not a bad description of what Rafael Torch accomplishes in The Garcia Boy.
CK: You’ve taught for numerous writing programs, including at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the University of New Orleans. You’re currently instructing for the MA in Writing and Publishing program at DePaul University. How would you say teaching informs your writing, and/or how does writing inform your teaching?
MH: It works both ways. I always learn a great deal from my students. But in the classes for our Big Shoulders Books curriculum at DePaul, my learning curve is even more pronounced. Producing books is a real collaboration, and I’m constantly amazed by how smart my students are, as well as by how much time and energy they’re willing to invest in these books. In the editing class for The Garcia Boy, my students and I started with three separate drafts of the book — one 450 pages, one 350 pages and one 200 pages. We also had many of Rafael Torch’s other writings, including some extraordinary essays he produced as he was dying. In every class period, we’d just sit there and argue for three hours about what should get cut out of the book, what should go into the book, and how the whole thing should be structured. It was a real education for me, as well as for the students.
CK: You have authored a few books yourself. You are also on the original team of DePaul University professors who created Big Shoulders Books, a press whose aim is to disseminate, free of charge, quality works of writing by and about Chicagoans whose voices might not otherwise be shared. What inspired you to go from writing books, to publishing them?
MH: To be honest, it was sort of an accident. In 2011, I was talking with a couple of colleagues at DePaul, Chris Green and Michele Morano, and somehow we got it into our heads to start a publishing company. Things just sort of snowballed from there. We’ve been extraordinarily lucky to work with a pair of funders, Irene and Bill Beck, who not only offer financial support but a real creative partnership. Big Shoulders Books would never have been possible without them.
One of the most rewarding things about Big Shoulders is that we reach a different audience than traditional publishers. It’s always great to get e-mail from readers, but with my own books, both of which were published by Random House, the messages are often from people who are relatively well-educated and relatively affluent. With Big Shoulders, by contrast, the e-mails often come from nontraditional readers, such as at-risk teens and prison inmates. When someone who doesn’t normally read much tells you how meaningful a book was to her or him, it’s a great feeling.
CK: You’ve had an illustrious career in literature, delving into both authoring and publishing books. What is a piece of advice can you share with aspiring authors, or those that want to pursue careers in literature?
MH: Thank you for describing my career as “illustrious.” I’ve been writing for more than 40 years, and that’s the first time anyone has used that particular word to describe me. I’ll have to tell my wife, who will undoubtedly find it amusing. So I guess my first bit of advice is don’t get into the profession if you’re hoping to be called illustrious someday. The truth is that there are very few luminous moments in writing, just a lot of hours alone in your basement (as I am at this very moment), typing the same sentence over and over and over (as I have been doing with this one) until it doesn’t sound completely stupid anymore (at least not until I read it tomorrow).
There’s one quick test to determine whether you actually want to be a writer or only want to be called “illustrious.” Ask yourself whether you really like to read. I’m not talking about reading a few books in a few genres whenever you can find the time. I’m talking about reading endlessly, compulsively, widely, daringly, reading in the subway, on the toilet, at work, in church, etc. Because every good writer I know is on a ceaseless quest for books.
That’s something I can’t teach. Nor can I teach an equally important quality—curiosity. I don’t know any first-rate writers in any genre who aren’t unquenchably curious about the world around them. It’s one of the things, in fact, that I admire most about Rafael Torch. Right up until death, he was full of curiosity. That’s one thing I can say about him for sure.
Below, Kurdej's interview with Emily Olson-Torch.
CK: How did you react when Miles reached out to you on the prospect of publishing Rafael’s memoir?
Emily Olson-Torch (EOT): The first time I heard from Miles was through a Facebook direct message. I was in Boston on a business trip and I had to read the message a few times before truly understanding what he was proposing. My initial reaction was equal parts fear and honor. Given where I was with processing the loss of Rafael these emotions left me uncomfortable. Up to this point, I had tucked Rafael’s writings away — both emotionally and physically — in a safe place to be visited later. I had some major hesitations about “going there.”
At the same time, I also remember being struck by the series of random (or maybe not so random) connections that had brought Miles to Rafael’s story and ultimately to me. It reminded me of talking to Rafael about listening to what the world is telling you. How sometimes we may not want to hear what the world is saying, but that isn’t the time to be hard-headed or stubborn. Instead there is a comfort in the knowledge that things happen exactly as they should.
CK: What was most difficult for you in taking on this project?
EOT: Heading into this project I knew it would be emotional. To do right by Rafael would require a high degree of intellectual and emotional commitment, a diligence and dedication that surfaces all the memories I put away on most days. Most days it’s a blessing that I’m living a wildly different life than the one Rafael and I shared. This project has required me to look back on our relationship, contemplate our time together and truly remember him. It’s incredibly difficult to do that without facing the curiosity of what might have been. It’s a nasty mind game and despite the futile nature, it’s part of the remembering that needs to happen for me to contribute to this project — to ensure I am doing the best I possibly can to honor Rafael.
CK: Is there anything you came across in the book that came as a surprise to you?
EOT: I met Rafael later in his life, after he overcame his addiction and, I guess, after he had become more comfortable with himself, his identity and his place in this world. Though we talked extensively of his struggles, I’m still struck by the depth of his journey. He was always one to question and push for deeper understandings, but there was a rawness about his need for connection and identity that comes through in his writing. That rawness so apparent in the book was quieter or had somehow been soothed by the time I met him.
CK: What is your favorite section from The Garcia Boy?
EOT: I met Rafael after most of the book had been written. I find myself reading through certain sections with a kind of unfamiliarity as if I’m distant admirer. As if our story belonged in a completely different book. It was sort of like knowing and not knowing him at the same time. Some of my favorite parts are sections where he is driving in his car. Rafael had such a distinct and angular side profile. He always drove when we rode together, and if I close my eyes I can still see that profile as we cruised through Pilsen, or as we hit the open road during our drive out west to start our life in Las Vegas.
CK: Throughout his life, Rafael lived in several cities across the country, but he always came back to Chicago – why do you think that was?
EOT: It was in Chicago Rafael wrestled with, and ultimately found peace with, who he was. He could be himself, or he could lose himself in a place as beautiful, open and diverse as Chicago. Chicago was where he was born and where he came to die. In the truest sense of the word, it was home for him.
CK: What advice would Rafael Torch share with aspiring young authors?
EOT: In general Rafael pushed his students hard. He pushed harder than many of them had been pushed or were comfortable being pushed. Somehow, even with the hardened exterior he won them over. He was able to awaken his students to the idea that they were the true owners of their life, and of their destiny. It was imperative that they showed up, participated and reflected on all they contributed to the world.
CK: Has your son taken to writing or other forms of artistic expression?
EOT: As any proud mother, I tend to think that Rocco is special, smart and basically almost perfect. Sure, I see glimpses of Rafael in the way Rocco interacts with and participates in the world. He is clever, competitive and while he doesn’t always enjoy it, he can craft a mean story as part of his second grade writing assignment. However, I’ve always been careful about how much I push Rocco in one direction or another, especially given the gifts Rafael had. Rocco is Rocco, just as he should be.
CK: How might someone continue Rafael’s legacy?
EOT: Be awake. Live your best life with your eyes and heart open. Rafael was incredibly complex — on the surface he could be dark and cynical, but deep down he was a passionate, sensitive man.
DePaul University’s MA in Writing and Publishing program students, in conjunction with Big Shoulders Books, are distributing copies of The Garcia Boy. The book may be ordered on the Big Shoulders Books website, at bigshouldersbooks.com.
Rafael Torch (1975-2011) was a prize-winning essayist whose work appeared in such publications as the Antioch Review, Indiana Review, North American Review and Crab Orchard Review, the latter two of which have named literary awards in his honor. He earned his Masters of Arts in the humanities from the University of Chicago, where his thesis, an early draft of The Garcia Boy was the recipient of the Catherine Ham Memorial Award for Excellence in graduate work. During his teaching career, he worked at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, the Latin School of Chicago and The Meadows School in Las Vegas.
Caroline Kurdej is a Graduate Student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Last spring, Kurdej worked as an intern for Dzanc Books, and currently provides writing services to iMiller Public Relations. You can find her work online at carolinekurdej.journoportfolio.com.