The name of Evanston native and current resident Mark Caro will be familiar to those with an interest in print media. For more than two dozen years, Mr. Caro’s byline was found in the Chicago Tribune, where he wrote about film, music and food, as well as murder trials. Additionally, he has been writing for Chicago Magazine and The New York Times for nearly five years. In addition to his print work, Mr. Caro has been a guest host on WGN Radio and also launched the “Is It Still Funny?” film series. The author of three books, including 2009’s Great Lakes Book Award-winner “The Foie Gras Wars,” he is also the person behind the “Talking In Space” series at SPACE, 1285 Chicago Ave. On Aug. 25, he will host the second installment of the interview series at the venue, featuring Saturday Night Live alum Nora Dunn.
Gregg Shapiro: Mark, you’ve been a journalist for more than two decades. Did your interest in writing begin when you were a student at ETHS?
Mark Caro: It did, actually. I was a math and science geek at ETHS. I was taking chem/phys and calculus. My SATs were skewed to the math/science side. But I also took journalism with [John] Reque and I ended up becoming co-editor-in-chief of The Evanstonian.
I felt like I owned the school when I did that. I knew everything that was going on there. I found it exciting.
I remember doing college interviews and one of the interviewers asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to be a writer. He said, “No, that’s the wrong answer. You should be telling me you want to be an engineer because all of your aptitude is on that side.” I said, “I like words more than numbers.”
The interviewer might have been right, actually [laughs], but I definitely got the bug in high school.
GS: This continued into college?
MC: Yes. When I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, I came upon what was an argument in the middle of the campus from students on the Palestinian and Jewish sides debating what was happening in Israel.
GS: What year are you talking about?
MC: I graduated ETHS in ’82. This was during the first week of classes. I called up The Daily Pennsylvanian and I asked if anyone was covering it. The guy who answered the phone, who later would become a good friend of mine and the deputy managing editor of The Boston Globe and editor of Politico, said, “No. Why don’t you do it?”
I got a notebook and talked to people. I went to the paper that night and wrote up what turned out to be a page-one story.
I had a page-one story the first week of classes. That was awesome. He said, “What are you doing for the follow-up the next day?” I said, “What do you mean? I did the story. I’ve got to go to classes.” He said, “We need another story.” I ended up doing five days’ of page-one stories in a row. Then, in college, I was completely hooked. I ended up becoming the editor of the paper there, as well.
GS: Your nonfiction books, “Behind the Laughter: A Comedian’s Tale of Tragedy and Hope” by Anthony Griffith and Dr. Brigette Travis-Griffen and Mark Caro, contributor (Thomas Nelson, 2019), “The Foie Gras Wars” (Simon & Schuster, 2009) and “Take It To the Bridge: Unlocking the Great Songs Inside You,” co-authored with Steve Dawson (GIA, 2016), make good use of your years of food and entertainment journalism. Do you have a preference for writing about one over the other?
MC: It’s funny, because if you look at [the subjects of] those three books – duck liver, songwriting and an inspirational story about a Chicago couple who lost their daughter – it’s pretty hard to find a coherent through line through that.
Except, to me, they’re all great stories and I’m interested in a lot of different things. When I started working on “Foie Gras Wars,” I was writing mostly about film for the Tribune.
When I told people I was working on a book, they would ask, “Is it about Hollywood? Is it a biography of someone?” I’d say, “It’s about the fight over fat duck livers.” They’d just laugh and say, “What are you talking about?”
I’d stumbled across that story, and it was a really good one. It had everything that I wanted in something that I’d write about long form.
It had colorful characters and a conflict where I could see both sides. I thought both sides were in direct opposition and yet made sense. That was part of the fun of doing that book, and probably what made it harder to market.
If it had just been this screed against foie gras, then you could have had every animal-rights person promoting it. If it had just been a “hurray for the farmers” piece, you could have had that.
Instead, it was fairly nuanced, talking about how this issue became such big issue and this how it’s worked in various areas.
For me, it was a political story in Chicago: how Chicago banned it and then repealed it after two years without anyone learning anything. It was about going to the farms and protests in other cities. It had everything in terms of storytelling.
For me, whether it’s about food or music or film or comedy or anything else, it’s what has the story that latches into it.
I do love music and movies, and I tend to gravitate toward subjects such as that, but it’s not exclusive of me being interested in other things
GS: On Aug. 25, you are hosting the second installment of your “Talking In Space” interview series at SPACE in Evanston. What can you tell me about the genesis of “Talking In Space”?
MC: I really like the club. I think it’s a great place to do events. I like the people who run it. I can walk there because I live in Evanston. I’ve also hosted a lot of onstage interviews with people including when I was at the Tribune. I proposed it to Jake Samuels, and SPACE liked the idea of having some non-musical programming as well.
GS: Your “Talking In Space” subject for August is Nora Dunn. Who else is on the horizon?
MC: No one else is confirmed, so we shall see. Chris Jones, theater critic from the Chicago Tribune was the first one. I’m interested in speaking to people in politics, people who are chefs, entertainers. Nora Dunn is someone who is in Chicago. She’s someone who is very smart, very funny and very opinionated. To me that’s a good combination for having an onstage conversation. I also like the idea of talking to people who are not there because they’re promoting something and they have some agenda of what they need to talk about.
GS: If you had to single out a couple of special memories of growing up in Evanston, what would they be?
MC: Hanging out with my friends and playing in front yards. I have vivid memories of going to used record stores. I’d go to Second Hand Tunes and Vintage Vinyl. I’d get the Rolling Stone Record Guide and read about some band that sounded really great that I’d never heard of, like Procol Harum, and we’d go to Second Hand Tunes and buy them for three bucks and listen to them at home. I have distinct memories of discovering music with like-minded friends.