Literary Boroughs #29: Evanston, IL

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the twenty-ninth post, on Evanston, IL, by Kristen Mitchell. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Stretching north from Howard Street and west from Lake Michigan, and located just 13 miles north of downtown Chicago, Evanston is a vibrant community with one of the largest and most diverse art communities in the state of Illinois. Evanston has many identities: college town, dining hotspot, cultural hub, and entry to the wealthy North Shore — and the city itself is culturally, economically and racially diverse. It’s home to Northwestern University, which opened its doors in 1855 to ten students and has since grown to around 17,000 undergraduate and graduate students; it boasts a lively downtown area full of shops, bookstores, parks, diners and coffee shops; and there are many community led arts and culture initiatives, which makes Evanston a fantastic home for creative-minded people, especially writers.

What the City is Known For:

Northwestern University. Home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Dry Community from 1858 until 1972 (no more!). Filming location for 1984 film Sixteen Candles and Home Alone 3.

Resident writers:

Evanston is home to many prominent writers, including Joseph Epstein (Snobbery), Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife), Pulitzer-prize winning writer Garry Wills (Inventing America, Lincoln at Gettysburg), and children’s author Esme Codell. There is also an impressive faculty of the MFA creative writing program at Northwestern University, many of whom live in and around the Evanston area, including multi-award winning author Stuart Dybek (I Sailed With Magellan, The Coast of Chicago), Christine Sneed, Alex Kotlowitz, and poets Ed Roberson and Reginald Gibbons.

Other notable Northwestern MFA faculty have included Steve Amick, Brian Bouldrey, Janet Burroway, Sheila Donohue, Gina Frangello, Alice George, Goldie Goldbloom, Aleksander Hemon, Marya Hornbacher, John Keene
Mary Kinzie
,  Michael McColly, Simone Muench, Naeem Murr, Shauna Seliy, Peggy Shinner, Patrick Somerville, Ellen Placey Wadey
 and S.L. Wisenberg (program co-director).

Literary references:

Author Audrey Niffenger featured the Bookman’s Alley, a now-closed hidden treasure bookstore in downtown Evanston, in her book The Time Traveler’s Wife. (In 2009, the book was turned into a movie starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana.)

Evanston is also the setting for Patricia O’Brien’s Good Intentions, Terence Lore Smith’s mystery Who Killed the Pie Man?,Tony Wolk’s Good Friday and Charles Anderson’s Shall We Gather at the River? Also, in Judith Guest’s 1976 Ordinary People, the main character moves to Evanston at the end of the novel.

Where to learn:

Northwestern University (@NorthwesternU) offers both an MA and MFA program in Creative Writing (@Nugradwriting) through their School of Continuing Studies. The programs allow students to specialize in the areas of fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction. Small class sizes allow for individual attention from published, award-winning faculty (see list above). With flexible scheduling options, students are able to balance their professional, personal and writing lives. The vibrant, artistic community surrounding the university allows for students to connect with other writers at readings and events, and the larger Chicago literary community is just a short “El” ride away. The program is also home to the literary journal TriQuarterly Online (@tqonline).

For writers looking for one-off workshops, the north shore location of StoryStudio (@StoryStudions) is a great place to take classes. Located just five miles north of Evanston in Winnetka, the studio offers daytime adult creative writing classes, afterschool programs for young writers, and adult evening classes. Workshops cover a wide-range of topics from fiction, creative non-fiction, and memoir, to freelance, business, and academic writing. Classes meet weekly or bi-weekly and run for six or eight sessions. The Evanston Writers Workshop (@evanstonwriters) also serves as a community for writers, offering workshops for those interested in literary fiction, creative non-fiction, children’s literature, romance, crime, memoir, travel, poetry, humor and more. On a smaller scale, No Strangers to Fiction serves as a community for Northwestern student writers. Their meetings consist of workshopping, writing and café-hopping.

Where to find reading material:

With two branches of the Evanston Public Library (@evanstonpl) boasting over 437,104 books, and a bookstore on nearly every block, Evanston is a one-stop-shop for all your literature needs—or even a used-bookstore tour. If you’re waiting at the Davis el stop, Amaranth Books is worth checking out. It’s a small store that buys and sells quality used books, and they’ve been at the same location for twenty years. A few blocks north is Howard’s Books, a warm, inviting and well-organized used bookstore with friendly management. In years past, they’ve had one of the biggest tents at the Printer’s Row Book Fair.

Though you’ll find a huge Barnes & Noble at the center of downtown Evanston, there are plenty of smaller shops sprinkled about including the Chicago Rare Book Center; Squeezebox Books & Music, a boutique style, thematically based used book and music store; Market Fresh Books, which is mostly a textbook buyback vendor but also sells popular literature; and The Book Den, a creaking-floorboards, musty kind of place with towers of reasonably priced books. Not the most well-organized, but a fun place to sort through a good selection.

Where to get published:

Northwestern University Press (@NorthwesternUP) publishes important works of scholarship and quality works of fiction, non-fiction, and literary criticism. Many prestigious authors who were first published by the Press have received notable awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature and the National Book Award. In 1992, the Press joined forces with TriQuarterly magazine. Once referred to by the New York Times as “perhaps the preeminent journal for literary fiction,” the TriQuarterly is the literary magazine of Northwestern University and of the MA/MFA in Creative Writing program. Edited by graduate students in the program, supervised by faculty, and available around the world, the TQ has published the work of many authors—some for the first time—who went on to successful literary careers, including Aleksandar Hemon and Amy Hempel.

For poetry enthusiasts, RHINO magazine (@rhinopoetry) is a non-profit literary organization that is devoted to the publication of RHINO poetry, an annual journal featuring high-quality, diverse poetry, shorts, and translations.

Where to write:

Thanks to a large student population, Evanston boasts plenty of non-chain coffee shops. The Unicorn Café (@Unicorn_cafe), situated on the main strip in downtown Evanston, offers strong coffee, home-baked items (even vegan-friendly), free-WiFi and a pleasant outdoor seating area. In the historic Main Street shopping district, you’ll find Brothers K Coffee House, a grown-up’s “cult café” featuring Fair Trade Organic and Direct Trade coffee, a hefty selection of board games, and the work of local artists. Other favorites include Clarke’s Diner, Coffee Lab, Linz & Vail (serves yummy gelato and brews Intelligentsa coffee) Café Mozart, and Kafein. And though there are enough places to do a coffee-shop hop, don’t forget Evanston’s beautiful natural surroundings. With the lakefront running along the east side of the city, pick a park bench or a parking lot and you’re likely to have some incredible views.


In August, The Evanston Writers Workshop hosts their annual Writers Conference. This three-day event features speakers, workshops, book signings, and advice from local authors and industry professionals on craft, getting published, and storytelling. Each summer, Northwestern University also hosts a summer writer’s conference tailored to new writers, established writers, or anyone hoping to more fully understand the craft and business of writing. Participants have the opportunity to select from a host of panels and workshops, all of which are designed to give participants new perspectives on their work in the supportive company of other writers. On a smaller scale, RHINO magazine hosts RHINO Reads!, a monthly, open mike reading series held at Brothers K Coffeehouse. RHINO also hosts a Poetry Forum workshop series and awards three cash prizes to poets each year.

Kristen Mitchell was born and raised in Chicago. She is currently a freelance arts & culture writer for CheekyChicago and an MFA/Fiction student at Northwestern. During the day she manages the marketing and communications department for a non-profit organization located in Evanston. You can follow Kristen on Twitter @itskmitch and check out her blog at

Similar Posts