Teacher translates family research into historical novel

Fenwick's Magrady working on a sequel to her first offering, 'Lines'

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By Deborah Kadin

For years, Geralyn Hesslau Magrady has had an interest in the lines that have connected different branches of her own family.

The Berwyn resident, who teaches English at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, has intertwined one of those connections — that of her great-great-grandmother — with important events in Chicago of the late 1800s and has written a book whose reception has exceeded all of her expectations.

The book, titled Lines, has attracted four times more people than she anticipated. In April, she became the third Soon to Be Famous Illinois Author, a statewide competition coordinated by the Illinois Library Association and Reaching Across Illinois Library System (RAILS) that raises awareness of self-published authors such as Magrady. 

Ever since then, the 48-year-old has been all over the Chicago area, speaking about her book with library audiences and book groups. She has upcoming appearances in River Forest and Oak Park, an author's fair in Aurora, and signings in Berwyn and Lombard.

"As interesting as all of this has been, I'm still getting used to the idea that people are reading this," Magrady said.

Interesting, too, is how Magrady went about coming up with the idea in the first place, molding how her protagonist, Livia Haas, may have experienced some of the seminal events of Chicago: the Great Chicago Fire, labor unrest in the latter 1880s and 1890s and then Haymarket Riots. The events in the book end in 1893.

The book grew out of a curiosity of what her family tree looked like. With an interest in genealogy, Magrady found her relations were tobacco farmers from Quakertown, Pennsylvania; her great-great-grandfather had a cigar shop in Chicago. 

"I don't know where; it was the information I gained from census records," Magrady said.

During that research, around 10 years ago, she came across census records of her great-great grandmother, Livia Haas, who lived in Chicago before and after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Then genealogy brought her to history, which has grown into a passion as well.

But it wasn't until she was in her mid-30s that she really started looking at Chicago history and how it may have affected everyone in her family. After learning about her ancestors, she used them to mold the book's characters.

Once she had that, everything else about them came from her imagination.

With a new love for Chicago history, she did more research on the fire and started creating vignettes of what life might have been like for her great-great-grandmother and what she would have lost. That was the basis for the beginning of the book.

Over the course of 10 summers, she worked on bits and pieces of the story and did the research that would give her book its foundation. On many days, she can be found writing while perched at a table with her laptop computer inside The Friendly Tap's coffee bar in Berwyn.

During the school year she concentrated on her teaching, although she did take little steps away to jot down notes about characters and events. They weren't really organized.

"I put them on little pieces of paper, whatever was around— napkins, gum wrappers. I put the ideas in a binder and would refresh my memory about them at the start of the summer," Magrady said. "Sometimes I'd get up in the middle of the night and write out scenes and not go back to bed until a scene was done."

The rest is history.

The school year began Monday, and she will have to juggle her first priority – teaching English at Fenwick High School – with her writing. She hasn't started the second book, although she has a list of events she wants to research and characters she would like to develop and create. 

She envisions that book will take on the next 25 years – until the end or so of World War I and touch on significant issues of the day: the war itself, suffrage, the temperance movement and the Anti-Saloon League. There also may be some discussion of the race riots shortly after World War I (civil rights history is a passion of hers, too) and women's rights. 

Magrady will continue to jot down ideas for her second book during the school year and would love "if next summer she I could start writing some scenes and see where it goes," she said. "I assume it will take a shorter amount of time. 

"The second one's supposed to be easier," she added. "I know I will be just as critical of myself, and I will want to keep going through the rounds [writing and rewriting]."

She will continue to talk about Lines – although she's already had to decline speaking events; she's gotten a ton of requests for October.

"I don't want to over-schedule myself. In a week, maybe a library talk; maybe a book group. Anything else would be unrealistic," she said.

Reader Comments

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Korin Heinz  

Posted: August 28th, 2016 9:36 AM

I'm so impressed with your creativity and discipline. It's inspiring for all of us to live our dreams.

Maria Hesslau from Harwood Heights  

Posted: August 23rd, 2016 11:25 PM

Congratulations Geralyn ! What a fantastic accomplishment ! I am so proud of you ! Love ya?

Deborah Preiser from River Forest, IL  

Posted: August 23rd, 2016 5:01 PM

Meet Geralyn Hesslau Magrady at the Oak Park Public Library and hear about her novel on Sunday, Dec. 4, at 2 p.m. Get autographed copies of her book, "Lines," winner of this year's "Soon to Be Famous" author competition.

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