Purple Prose From a Political Pro | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Purple Prose From a Political Pro 

For years, Alderman Ed Smith has nurtured a second career: romance novelist.

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Ed Smith knows about love. But the 28th Ward alderman didn't put his wisdom into words until he started his first romance novel.

"I'm really into writing books that have some love in it," says Smith, tapping his pate with a forefinger. "I'm interested in writing love stories, because I think I got some of those to tell."

In fact the head of the City Council's black caucus has published two love stories, earnest tearjerkers employing impossibly idealized heroes--sensitive country gentlemen who dress sharp, read prodigiously, cook soul food, write songs, and go to church. They don't blink when it's time to torch a KKK hideout either, or talk a special lady down from the altar before she goes and marries the wrong man. Both are set in rural Mississippi, a long way from Smith's west-side turf. But that's where he was raised, and that's what he knows.

Smith was the youngest of 12 children born to sharecroppers in Kirby, Mississippi. His father died when he was two, but his mother pushed him to work hard through school. Ever since graduating from high school Smith wanted to write, but "I just didn't know how to do it," he says. "I was not disciplined enough. I had not read enough stuff to write. I could not formulate the way you should formulate." He got his MA in inner-city studies at Northeastern Illinois University in 1970, and over the next few decades, while first floundering and then triumphing in ward politics, he took in Steinbeck, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Erskine Caldwell.

After losing four consecutive races for the 28th Ward aldermanic seat, Smith finally won in 1983, as part of Harold Washington's independent sweep. Six years later, "I thought I was in pretty good shape to start doing some things and I should start putting some ideas together and thinking about some of the stuff I needed to write. What it is this segment I want to reach, and what it is they want to read. So one day I picked up the pencil and said, 'I think I'm gonna.'"

Smith wrote on planes, on the train, and in the grocery store while his wife did the shopping. But mostly he wrote between ten at night and three in the morning. Once he started, he says, it poured out, but because he wrote longhand it took him two and a half years to finish a first draft. The result, Love the Town Couldn't Stop, is an interracial romantic tragedy set in the 50s, with a young hero possessing the oratory of a parliamentarian. "She is the essence of pulchritude," says college student/gardener Bug, describing one lady friend. It's another that gets him in trouble. Peggy Wilkerson, the frustrated young wife of a low-down, premature-ejaculating, white-trash KKK wannabe, throws herself at Bug, and the two view their love as one small step for mankind, one giant leap for segregated Mississippi. Before it's all over they rout the local KKK, help another miscegenist escape from the ogreish Sheriff Redneck, and hightail it north for Illinois, where their love might have blossomed--if it hadn't been killed in the final pages in a hail of bullets.

"I lived through that kind of stuff," says Smith of his home state's historic race troubles. "And it was something I could really write about with feeling."

He took another two years to rewrite, polish, and have the 400-some-page manuscript typed. One by one he mailed copies to publishers large and small, and one by one they were rejected. "Well, I been rejected all my life, so I knew it was not gonna be easy," he says. "It got turned down so much I devised a method of having people get back to me real soon." He enclosed a stamped, self-addressed card with a checklist on it: "'We like this. We do not like this.' I gave them some options, and all they had to do was check it off and send it back." Finally, he got some encouragement. "I got this comment back from one of the companies. They said, 'This is a very good way of getting responses.' Very good way."

Love the Town Couldn't Stop was spiked 32 times before Smith, in a burst of gumption, picked up the phone and cold-called the offices of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, asking for Scott Turow. He'd never met the legal literatus, but he was a fan. "I just needed to talk to somebody," says Smith. "I had hit all these brick walls." Smith figured he had nothing to lose. "He could only tell me one thing. He could tell me no, or he could tell me yes. He was gracious."

Smith says Turow hooked him up with a New York editor, who eviscerated the manuscript but gave him the constructive criticism he needed to get it in shape. The next time he sent it out--to a small downstate publisher who'd already rejected it once--it was accepted.

For a while Smith hoped to make a movie out of it. In 1999 he found a screenwriter at the Chicago Center for Film Development, a north-side incubator with a production arm. Smith liked the screenplay and signed on as executive producer for the film, which was reported in Screen to have a budget of $600,000. The project hasn't materialized, Smith says, because he's busy producing another film, which he doesn't want to talk about.

Meanwhile he wrote his next novel, Almost Too Late, which he describes as "much more professional." It follows the romantic adventures of Ray Brody--a gentleman farmer/civil engineer/songwriter/soul food gourmet--and his relentless wooing of "the Lady," a beautiful and sophisticated lawyer. "All of my intentions are salubrious," Brody tells her, then convinces her to dump her fiance and marry him. Smith's hero is so irresistible to the women in his life that years later, after "the Lady" and their two children die in a horrible car accident, he's able to woo his second wife the same way. "I'm getting feedback now from people who read the book," says the author. "A lot of people cry when they read the story. Now that's the kind of book you want to write."

Brody, raised by his mama like Smith, is an uncommonly sensitive man. "That's what I wanted to write about with this book. Folks who have a feel for other people and a sense of pride and a sense of love and devotion and a sense of family. I wanted to write about that to make sure that people know that black folks are no different from anybody else. We have families, and all of us are not killers and shooters and wine drinkers."

Smith didn't bother sending Almost Too Late out to publishers. "I learned the ropes now," he says, and put it out under his own imprint, Cajakes Publishing. He plans to be a full-time man of letters whenever he leaves the council, and he has three other novels in various stages of completion. Next to be finished is a thriller--a romantic thriller. Titled "It Happened at Kirby Creek," it begins with a Mississippi sheriff discovering the severed heads of three girls sitting on a bridge in the rain. "So he drives up and sees the blood dripping from the heads and that's where the story takes off," says the alderman. "When you get to the first four lines you won't be able to stop. The next one will really blow your mind."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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