Chicago and the jazz age have always fascinated Renee Rosen so it seemed almost preordained that she would set her first novel, Dollface, in that particular milieu. A former advertising copywriter with a serious yen for fiction, Rosen let her invented characters rub shoulders with real ones like Al Capone and Hymie Weiss—who, by the way, was not Jewish. But she talks to Lilith’s fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about mobsters who were Jewish—and about the women who loved them.
YZM: How did you make the leap from advertising copywriter to novelist?
RR: I was actually writing fiction before I got into advertising, so for me it was more about pretending to care about my work as a copywriter when my heart was so clearly vested in my own writing. I remember I would get up at 4 a.m. and write until about 8 a.m. when it was time to get ready to go into the office. I’d get home and try to put in another couple of hours in the evening. There were many a days when I wrote though my lunch hour, jotted down notes on my legal pad during meetings and my weekends and days off were always devoted to writing.
YZM: Can you describe your research process for Dollface?
RR: I started with the basics and spent many hours at the Harold Washington Library poring over actual newspaper clips from historical events in the 1920s. Because I live here in Chicago, I was also able to visit the actual landmarks where these events took place. So I’ve been to the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and I’ve seen the bullet hole in Holy Name Cathedral, etc. Once I had a real feel for the lay of the land, I started looking for people to interview who had ties to 1920s gangsters. That resulted in meeting with a man whose father had been a bookie for Al Capone which was fascinating. I also had lunch with Al Capone’s great niece. There were other people I spoke to as well and some who developed “Chicago Amnesia” and refused to talk to me, which I also found very interesting. To think that some 70 or 80 years later, they were still standing by their oath of silence. The mob runs deep!