Silvia Foti interview

by Vittorio Carli

The south side based writer, Silvia Foti has received considerable acclaim for her first novel, the supernatural mystery, "Skullduggery."

The novel is about a strong wiled reporter who stumbles upon a mystery involving a murdered mayor and a supernatural crystal skull. The novel is the first in a proposed series that will feature Alexandria Vilkas, a journalist who specializes in solving supernatural cases.

Foti has simultaneously worked in several related fields. She is a fine creative fiction writer, a successful journalist, a skilled business writer, and an in-demand college instructor.

She is currently teaching classes at Daley College and Saint Xavier University, and her journalistic pieces have appeared in "Chicago Tribune" and "The Daley Southtown."

Creative Books Company, an imprint that has published books by Allen Ginsberg, Gertrude Stein, and William Saroyan, published her recent novel "Skullduggery." It has earned her many positive reviews and accolades from literary critics.

The whole story takes place in Pilsen, Garfield Ridge, Brighton Park, and other areas on Chicago's southwest side. The novel combines her interest in the supernatural with themes of political corruption.

Silvia is known for popularizing the concept of the "double-life creative." This means creative people often have to live double lives. They end up at working day jobs in order to finance what they really want to do or their creative endeavors.

She has her own imprint called Lotus Ink, and fans can learn more by going to her website at

Silvia Foti Interview by Vittorio Carli

Can you tell me about your background?

I’m a freelance journalist and a teacher. I write for a variety of publications. I have done lots of medical writing lately. It pays a lot more than writing for the general press. That's how I pay the bills. I also teach English 101 at Daley College, and three speech classes at Saint Xavier University.

My background's in journalism. I graduated from Northwestern in 1984. I've been working in journalism for the past 20 years. I got into teaching in the past two years. A lot of it had to do with 911. Freelancers really got hit hard after 911, and I had to scramble for cash. I landed into teaching, which doesn’t pay, great either, as you well know but it's steady,

How did you get interested in writing?

I always wanted to be a writer even as a kid. I remembered a key scene, which made me want to be a writer. I was writing a paper for a teacher. I went to a rodeo and wrote a paper on it. The teacher gave me a high grade. I was very excited because my teacher said I should go into writing. I remember I burst into the room. Mom was cooking and dad was reading the Lithuania newspaper and my grandmother was visiting. I showed them the paper and told them, "My teacher thinks I should become a writer, what do you think?" So my dad just flipped the page, which was his typical reaction for everything. My mom was cooking dinner and she ambivalently said, "That's good." My grandmother said, "That's the craziest thing I ever heard. You need to become a lawyer or doctor. Writers don't make anything." But I got a lot of encouragement in school. In the end, instead of doing creative writing, I became a journalist thinking I'd make better money haha. I ended up working at Saint Xavier where I become a coeditor with a friend. Then I went into professional journalism. I can't say it's a horrible field. It did end up paying my bills. But I always had a dream of becoming a creative writer and writing a novel. I started seriously doing it after I hit 30. I guess that's when my biological writing block hit. And I thought I could just whip the novel out, but it took a long time to make a leap between journalism, which are lots of headwork to creative writing. It was a big transition. In creative writing, you have to slit your wrist to be believable. I got very lost in the writing, and I took a course through the "Writer's Digest" which helped a lot.

Did your Lithuanian heritage influence your writing at all?

Alexandria Vilkas is a closet Lithuanian. I never labeled her as such but in Lithuanian, "vilkas" means wolf. The book went through a millions drafts. And at first I made her Lithuanian and I had a lot of conflicts growing up Lithuanian and I wanted to give them to her. It had nothing to do with her murder though. But I see this as a series, and if I can tie her being Lithuanian to a murder I'll do it

How did being a south side native affect your work?

Oh yes. The south side is not known for creating authors. Most fiction books take place on the north side. So anyway one thing about "Skullduggery" is that it takes place on the southwest side, which is a very underrepresented area in fiction. Every writer is told write what you know so I started writing about my neighborhood. I was living in Brighton Park when I started the book then I moved to Central Stickney but I kept the book in Garfield Ridge. Most off it takes place in Archer Avenue, which is a very colorful street to write about. There is an alderman next to a psychic in my book and (laughing) I did not stretch the truth too far by placing them there.

Who are your influences or mentors?

Well a big one was the man I met through the "Writer's Digest" program. His name is Robert Gover. He wrote 100 dollar misunderstanding in the 1960s. I did a lot of my rewriting with him. He was my freelance editor so to speak, He taught me how to keep fiction linear so it doesn’t scatter all over the place. You really have to have all events had to connect to the murder mystery in some way. He taught me how to focus and become very centered. I couldn't have written the book without him. I consider him the godfather of "Skullduggery."

Do you like to read linear stuff or do you also read non-linear stuff?

Good question. Editors hate it when stuff comes out of left field, so I think being a journalist helped me become more linear. There are some women writers that I like to read which are more stream of conciseness such as Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. I had a hard time with Beloved but then I loved it in the end.

That’s a hard book. I liked it more after we discussed it n a class. I recently saw "Memento" which was a non-linear mystery as well as "Irreversible," a non-linear French film with lots of improvised dialogue. Would you ever consider doing a reverse or non-linear mystery?

Well I’m glad I didn’t do that for my first one. The first one is so hard to sell. To break conventions with the first one would be bad. Once I have a name I might do more experimenting. "Skullduggery" has a lot of experimentation for a mystery novel. Murder mysteries have rigid tracks and I merged a few, which was experimental.

What are the two tracks?

She’s considered an amateur detective because she doesn’t usually get paid to solve mysteries. Yet she is a journalist some of the murder mysteries they are paid detectives. So I had her be a journalist and not really be involved in a murder mystery until the she stumbles and falls in her arms. Then she gets into a murder mystery so she can get paid for it. Also I merged the supernatural story with a mystery. That’s already on the experimental side. I love the whole idea of life after death and supernatural stuff.

Speaking of the supernatural have you ever encountered anything you considered supernatural?

Well there was a big coincidence. I got to the middle, and in a murder mystery, the middle has to have some major stuff happening. After draft 10, I said the middle is going to have a scene in a tortilla factory. And I said how the heck am I going to do this. I decided on a tortilla factory because it connected up with the whole Mexican theme. I put it in my outline. But I hit a big block. I put it in my draft, but I had no idea what a tortilla factory looked like. I knew they prayed or meditated that I needed some help. A week later I get a phone call from a freelance client that wanted me to do a thing on Azteca Foods. I was excited about he idea. It turns out that it was only about 10 blocks from where I live. It was an industrial quarter.

You’re a journalist like Alexandria Vilkas. Did you use any of your own experiences or other people’s lives for her character?

Well a lot of the book deals with the frustration of being a journalist, and I knew all about that because of my work. I also knew about the mechanics of being a journalist. That was the only aspect of it that I didn’t have to research.

Did you ever see "The Night Stalker" television series in the early '70s? That was about a journalist that researched the supernatural. It kind of ran out of ideas after awhile but it had a great premise.

Yes I loved that series. I think I had the character of Carl Kolchak in the back of my mind when I came up with the novel; Ann Rice has been a huge influence too. When I was in New Orleans I got to see her house.

Have you ever seen "The Skull" in which a supernatural skull subtly influences people to commit sinister acts or "Lord of the Rings," which has a similar premise? You mentioned there really are crystal skulls. What inspired you to use it in the novel?

I was reading books and I loved the whole idea, I ordered some from the Internet. I uncovered it in research. I was trying to decide what supernatural manifestation I wanted to use in the novel. I thought that I don’t want to do vampires. , werewolves or mummies because I wanted something fresher that hadn't been done. I thought off the books I read. I thought that it might be interesting to play with the idea of a crystal skull on Archer Avenue. Real crystal skulls are made in Brazil. They’re the size of a skull. They're very difficult to sculpt because if you make it the wrong way, the whole skull shatters. So they’re worth around three thousand dollars. (Laughing and holding one) I got this phony one at Disney land for ten bucks.

Did you ever feel the crystal skull influence you in any way?

Well, I also have a tiny one, which I bought for $20:00. I would hold it in my hand and concentrate on it. It would inspire me. It played a role in influencing the writing. The thing I like about having one is that it connects you to he spirituality around you. It also gives you the feeling that you have a spiritual connection with the rest of humanity. That was a major theme running through the book. I also liked the whole idea that the skull in the book was worth thousands of dollars. So, the object had two levels. I could use in the plot. It could be used as a supernatural object and priceless artifact.

The idea of synchronicity figures prominently in "Skullduggery.” Do you believe it exists in real life?

Yes, I’m a big believer in it. There’s no such thing as an accident. I pay attention to events that have happened to me. I thoroughly believe that everything happens for a reason.

I was reading your novel in a café near the Tortilla king factory. Did you ever get any kind of feedback from the owners?

When I named it I was thinking of Burger King. I didn’t even know that there was a real place with that name. The one I visited was Azteca. The one I went to wasn’t even in Pilsen. I transferred it there because it fit the neighborhood. I don’t know if the Tortilla King owners even know of it. I did tell the President of Azteca. He was ok with the book; I put him in the acknowledgements. I had not idea that was a real Tortilla King. My work is purely fiction anyway.

There are some sinister politicos in your book. Have you ever encountered any bureaucratic corruption as a journalist, which inspired the book?

No I didn’t encounter any personally, but I was exposed to it by reading Chicago newspapers. I was a student at Northwestern; it was a very intense year. They made us read every godawful paper on the planet. I also listened to lots of radio like NPR. At the time 1984, Washington was major. It was counsel war season so I was very in tune with what was happening. It was so intensely ingrained in me that it was an area I wanted to write about. I also read lots of Mike Royko. I mention him in my Daley class, and none of my students ever heard of him!

Is it hard switching modes from journalism to creative writing? How is writing fiction different or similar to writing for newspapers?

I try not to do both on the same day. I thought I could pop out a mystery novel in no time, but now ten years later I’m eating those words. The transition was huge. But I understand the mode of creative writing much better, I know how to do setting and dialogue. I’m better at it. If I had my choice I wouldn't do much more nonfiction. Like any other novelist, I do what I need to get by.

Can you explain the phrase double life creative?

As I was working on the novel, I came up with the phrase. You don’t get lots of money for creative writing right away. It eats up an enormous amount of hours of your day. But then your other life--the non-fiction writing-- somehow feels more real in a way because you get paid for it. People look at me as if I know what I'm doing when it comes to fiction writing. In fiction, I’m this lowly writer who no one has heard of yet. The phrase applies to any creative type who has a passion for something they’re writing but pays the bills some other way.

Is there any method you have of getting into the right mental state or achieving flow?

Oh yeah. I do morning pages every morning. Julie Cameron’s "The Artist's Way" was a life altering book for me. It's basically how to unblock your creativity. She recommended that everyone do morning pages--stream of consciousness writing for three pages. I make my students do that. I do it first thing in the morning and that sets my day. If it’s a creative writing day those three pages gets the gunk out and for me to think about what I have to write that day. By the time I do my writing. I’ll have a much clearer head.

What future projects are you working on?

I’m working on a sequel to "Skullduggery. "I want it to be a series. In my dream of dreams I would like to connect it to the tarot cards. The major arcana have twenty-two cards. The next book I am working on is related to the fool card, which is the fool. The tentative title is "The Diva's Fool". It’s going to be about an opera diva

Will any characters from "Skullduggery" show up?

The mother will be in it. She'll live forever. Alexandria will be forever sparring with her mother. Alexandria will be turning 30 in the novel so there’ll be a lot of pressure from her mom to get married. In my own Lithuanian family there was also a lot of pressure for me to get married and it had to be to a Lithuanian, So when I married Franco, it was the end of the Lithuanian world, so there was lots of drama. Since then Franco has won their hearts. Her editor will always be they’re giving her assignments. I’m sure the wizard will always be around making some kind of spiritual appearance. Joe the cop will probably be a round. I want to introduce new characters too.

Is there anything else you wanted to say?

I have been pleasantly surprised that the book has gotten wonderful reviews. It gave it some validation. It’s fun to be a south side writer. I don’t stumble upon many writers from the south side as I’m promoting it. I think that south siders really relate to it. So that has also been gratifying.

Art | Cinema | Music | Miscellaneous | Contact

© 2009