In 2009, Granta editor John Freeman came to Chicago to explore the Chicago literary scene for an upcoming issue. To celebrate his visit, Aleksandar Hemon and Teri Boyd invited all of their colleagues, writers, artists, and friends into their home for a party that would sing in Hemon’s mind for years. Freeman wrote his article, and Hemon and Boyd discovered a new passion. For two years they dreamed of having a regular space where writers could talk, connect, and collaborate. In 2011, they launched their now renowned monthly literary salon in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago.
Aleksandar (Sasha) Hemon is a Bosnian-born essayist, fiction writer, and critic, and recipient of the esteemed MacArthur Fellowship (“genius grant”). He published his first short story in English in Tri-Quarterly in 1995 and has since published in Ploughshares, Esquire, Paris Review, New Yorker, and Best American Short Stories.
His wife Teri Boyd is a photographer and photographic editor, artist, and journalist.
I sat down with Aleksandar Hemon and Teri Boyd at Hop Leaf restaurant on November 7, 2016, the eve of the 2016 presidential election and the night of the November salon.
TQ: When did it [the salon] begin? What was your motivation in creating a literary salon in Chicago?
AH: In 2009, Granta editor John Freeman flew in from New York to do an issue on Chicago for the magazine. We decided to have a party at our house—invited all our friends to meet John. It was spectacular.
TB: We said, “We would love to do this all the time!”
AH: It was something we talked about and wanted to do at our home, but we moved into a smaller house. We wouldn’t have been able to fit everyone. But we kept talking about it. So, we chose a place—close enough that we could walk there, a place that was like a second home: Hop Leaf restaurant. We’re friends with the owners. They offered us the space for no charge.
TB: In 2011, we held the first official salon.
TQ: What was the first salon like? Did it live up to your experience of the Granta party?
AH: It was great. Big turnout—thirty or forty people came.
TQ: You decided to host another one?
AH: Yes. I don’t get out much. This is my social life. I get to see everyone I love and meet new people, all at one place.
TQ: Since 2011, has the salon met monthly?
TB: We meet every month, except for July, when we take a summer break. Aside from July, we’ve missed only one month in four years (for travel).
TQ: There’s no formal program at the salon? No one leads the event, no one reads. Why did you choose to structure the gatherings this way? Or rather, what made you choose not to use a structure?
TB: All kinds of people come here. Famous writers come. We didn’t want them to feel that they had to perform or be “on.”
AH: I love the randomness. Without a formal structure, people walk up to others they don’t know and start a conversation.
TQ: I’ve felt that. There’s a sense of anonymity at the salon. Everyone talks to everyone.
TB: That’s what we’re going for.
AH: The main purpose is social—letting guests come together. But connections do happen. People enter into collaborations because of connections from the salon. But that’s not the main purpose.
TQ: Any surprising connections?
AH: We see people collaborate who would never have met if they’d not attended. New projects come into being. The French attaché comes regularly, and once a person who attended the salon got a job because of a conversation they had.
TQ: Let’s talk about “the list.” How do people get on it? Who manages it?
TB: I manage the list. It started with our original group of friends and now has about 320 names.
TQ: All writers?
TB: I’m a photographer and photo editor. I wanted a range of artistic voices. Painters, graphic artists, photographers, poets, novelists, journalists all come.
AH: We have some “civilians” (nonartists) who come regularly now.
TB: My cousin comes. My friend with whom I practice speaking French comes.
AH: There are a lot of international people at the salon: people from Bosnia, France, Germany, Spain. We don’t exclude anyone.
TB: People come one night, maybe a friend invited them, and send an email afterward saying they liked the salon very much, thanking Sasha and me for a good time. They ask if they can be added to the list, and we add them.
TQ: That’s how I started coming—a friend invited me.
TB: Right. We don’t vet people or decide if they’ve achieved some certain level of success to be invited back. If you come and you like what we do here, you’re welcome to attend. It’s really important to us not to share the list. I don’t even send out invitations to our own readings or shows to the salon list. There are people who wouldn’t want their email shared. Our promise that the list is never made public or used to promote anything lets people feel safe.
TQ: You change the day of the week each month, and you write very cheerful invites. I looked back through a few.
TB: We rotate the day each month. We have friends who teach on, say, Mondays and others who aren’t available on weekends. So we choose a different day each month and hope everyone can attend some of the time.
TQ: Have you been to salons in other cities? How does the Chicago salon compare?
AH: In New York I was invited to this very select salon. It was the kind of place where Robert DeNiro or someone like that would be invited to a table with five other people. That’s fine, but there’s an element of exclusivity. In our salon we’re interested in inclusivity, and the interesting connections that come from that.
TQ: What’s the best thing about doing the salon?
TB: Everyone here is our friend.
AH: We feel like everyone here is our family. We love people, and the salon also allows us to meet new people. We would still have the salon in our house if the house were big enough.
TQ: Have there been any particularly funny moments?
AH: Once, it was really cold—probably a January salon—so cold the schools closed.
TB: It was freezing. We walked, but it was biting outside.
AH: About seven people showed up. It was the only time we bought everyone drinks.
TB: Someone brought a baby once. A newborn, who curled up in the carrier and slept for the whole salon. At the Freedman party, my daughter pushed her way through the crowd so she could be part of it. We can’t bring kids to Hop Leaf (it’s technically a bar). But she’d come if she were allowed.
TQ: How does, or rather, does the salon influence or impact your own work?
TB: I am inspired by the introductions that have resulted in partnerships and collaborations. Being able to discuss ideas, and talk about what others are doing and seeing can only influence the development of my own projects. I can’t imagine walking away from the salon and not being inspired.
TQ: How do you envision the salon in the future?
AH: I don’t think we will want it to be too big. It is important that enough people get to meet and talk to each other. Growth is a category that has, at best, neutral value. Cancer grows, too. We sure want it to last, at least as long as we do.
[Follow-up, November 21, 2016]
TQ: Final thoughts?
AH: The most recent salon, on the eve of the cataclysmic election, will be remembered by many of us and may have been the start of imagining the ways to resist the oncoming oppression.