Talking dogs, psychics, a dying rat-raced alien from the planet Qirth — the characters in “Syrup Lane,” a new collection of audio stories from local writer Cody Lee, are unique, loquacious, and just a little bit unhinged.
“Syrup Lane” is the third collection from Lee, who attended Columbia College and works at City Lit (2523 N. Kedzie Blvd), which he compares to getting a graduate degree in literature (“it’s like a cheat code,” he said).
Lee’s stories are short, entertaining and, at just a few minutes a pop, accessible to a wide audience. The audio format is important for Lee, who says he’s interested in exploring the gap between literature and music, and also reaching people who might not otherwise seek out creative writing.
LoganSquarist recently caught up with Lee to talk about his new story collection, his gig at City Lit, and his plans for the future. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In “Syrup Lane” your stories seem to be focused on the future, but it’s kind of a dystopian one. What do you want listeners to take away from your collection?
Surprisingly enough, I’m hopeful for the future. It may not come tomorrow, but I think we’re headed toward equality, or what I like to call The Big Blend. Black people, the LGBTQ community, women are done being passive. And I truly believe that one day these groups, and countless others, will see the change they’ve been fighting for. And to speed that process up, I think it’s imperative that we make art that’s reflective of the world we want to be a part of.
If someone only listens to one of your stories, which one would you recommend? Why?
I think if someone wants to understand where I come from and the world I was born into, “Syrup Lane.” Not many people know how rooted in reality it is. My mother isn’t a psychic, but both “options” are pretty accurate illustrations of my parents, in all of their beauty and hideousness.
Stylistically, “The Fool” is the closest representation of my current self, and “Harmony #1” is where I’m headed.
Why did you decide to pursue audio as a format for your stories?
Our final project in this creative nonfiction class [at Columbia College] was a research paper. At the time, I was playing with a lot of collages and trying to see how weird creative nonfiction could be. So, I made three instrumentals on GarageBand, broke the essay up into three parts, and recorded it. After that, because I had so much fun, I did another project called Archives in Case I Die. It was a collection of bad poetry and a few stories over some okay instrumentals, but it allowed me to become comfortable with my own voice.
I want to build a bridge between The Atlantic and all the 14-year-olds on the South Side of Chicago, scribbling rhymes into a notebook that’s falling apart.
Anything else you want to share about the recording process?
I do want to talk about the form. It’s super important to me to show kids, specifically children of color, who think rapping is the only way to achieve success — whatever “success” means. I want to show them that literature can be equally as rewarding, and whether or not rap is literature is a conversation for another time. But I want to build a bridge between The Atlantic and all the 14-year-olds on the South Side of Chicago, scribbling rhymes into a notebook that’s falling apart. The New Yorker, for example, isn’t even a pipe-dream for a lot of these kids because they’re unaware it exists.
What is it like working at City Lit? Does it help you in some way as a writer to work in a bookstore?
Totally! Working at a bookstore is like being in a grad program. All of my coworkers are so smart and they make me feel stupid sometimes, which is great. Everyone’s always talking about what they’re reading and introducing me to new writers and ways of thinking. It really is a magical place.
So, kids, if you don’t want to spend a hundred thousand dollars on grad school, get a job at a bookstore. You get paid to learn. It’s like a cheat code.
If you could have a drink with any writer living or dead, who would it be? What would you order?
There are some old, obscure authors that’d be cool to meet, but who wants to drink with a guy in a bowler hat? In a perfect world, Anthony Bourdain and I’d be on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, drinking caipirinhas.
What’s next? Are you planning more story collections?
I’m definitely going to do a couple more audio collections, but I want them to sound better! I don’t know the first thing about music production. I’m [also] working on a pilot about a bookstore and my first novel, a cosmic love story.
Featured image: Cody Lee