Janice Deal, 49, is a late bloomer.
She learned to knit months ago, tried sushi for the first time last year, taught herself how to play the harmonica when she was 47, fell in love with cats at 43 (she has three cats today), and had her first story published at 30.
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If you read David W. Galenson's "Old Masters & Young Geniuses," you know her type. Galenson, a University of Chicago economics professor, proposed that creative people come in two types: conceptual and experimental. Conceptual artists are often prodigies who have an idea of what they want to do and just do it. Experimental artists arrive at conclusions by analysis, testing different paths before they settle on one.
Deal is decidedly experimental.
"I am not quick," she said recently over lunch, "and that seems to apply to my writing and the way I approach life — not in a pedantic way, just that I take things in and for me it takes time to be open and get cues from what is going on around me."
Deal, who will turn 50 at the end of this month, just added one more bullet point to her late-bloomer resume: Her first book, a collection of stories titled "The Decline of Pigeons," was released last month.
The collection features nine lyrical stories that meditate on loss. In "Nature," a young woman struggles with the effects of a horrific car accident, while "Six Foot" tells the story of two sisters dealing with their father's death. "Dinosaurs" looks at the grief of a widow and her mother-in-law, and "Phoenix" follows a woman putting her life together after being severely burned.
"Everybody has a story, even if they live on the fringes, and loss is a part of life," she said. "I am interested in how people cope with loss or how they try to cope with loss. My characters in these stories are trying and sometimes failing to cope the best way they can. I think it takes a lot of bravery to just face the challenges of everyday life and the losses that everyday life entails."
Despite its theme, "The Decline of Pigeons" isn't morose. The collection's bleakness is balanced by its light, funny passages.
Deal, a Downers Grove native and resident, crafted stories as a child but didn't focus on writing until she joined Fred Shafer's writing class at Northwestern University in 1993. He invited her to his private short story writing class in 1994, and she stayed in it for about 13 years. During that time, she acquired a master's degree in library science, worked as an economics bibliographer at DePaul University and used the money from an Illinois Arts Council Grant to take a three-month sabbatical, spending three weeks in Paris.
"You go to Paris and you expect it to be different," Deal said. "It reminded me that I have to stay wide-open all the time, when I go in to the city and walk down Michigan Avenue, to the conversation on the train, the look on a person's face as you are standing next to them at the light. In my world, you don't get to go to Paris every year, so you better be open to what is available."
When her daughter, Marion, was born in 2001, Deal decided to stay at home, focusing on her child and her writing. Deal started each of the stories in this collection as Shafer's student. Over the years, Shafer said, he saw Deal build upon the knowledge and creativity she had when she joined his class; he watched her "get her chops."
"From the beginning, she understood the importance of connecting with the voices of characters," he said. "(She is) determined to find what is at the core of a story, and that means going far inside her stories."
Deal said she is digging even deeper into her characters and narratives as she edits and polishes her first novel. "The novel form is a very different animal from the short story," she said. "It has been interesting to tackle."
What else is on the to do list for this late bloomer?
"I am committed to learning to ride a motorcycle and to submitting a T-shirt design to (the online clothing store) Threadless," she said.
Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row Journal.
"The Decline of Pigeons"
By Janice Deal, Queen's Fairy Press, 234 pages, $16.95 paperback