Once upon a time, in his job as "vice president of something," Steven Wiley's moneymaking side cranked out documents with titles such as "The Challenges Presented to Money Market Funds by Floating Net Asset Values and Their Impact on the Broker-Dealer and Trust Business."
The numbing reality of that topic sent the creative side of Steve Wiley scurrying into a tiny basement office in what used to be the coal bin of his brick Tudor house in Wheaton. That's where Wiley wrote "The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan."
"I always knew I was going to write a book. I knew this since I was 5 years old," says Wiley, 35, who spent his teen years in Schaumburg and graduated from Conant High School in 2000. He and his wife, Jenny, have a son, Kellan, 5, and a 3-year-old daughter, Francesca, whose name had the fairy-tale feel Wiley needed for his book.
As vice president of treasury solutions at the global financial technology company FIS, Wiley can write a financial essay on "The Single Euro Payments Area and Uncle Sam," and then escape into his fantasy world.
That's where he invented an alternative, whimsical history of the Great Chicago Fire that started not with a cow but from the flame of the baptismal candle carried around by Finbar Finnegan. Wiley wrote "The True Source of the Great Chicago Fire" for his son and submitted that tale in a 2013 short story contest, where it was one of the finalists.
Wiley wrote another fairy tale called "The Riverview Machinist," which explains that the Chicago River flows backward because of an amusement park worker who made a Ferris wheel reverse the flow after the river had carried his beloved daughter into Lake Michigan, where she drowned. That piece was published in the Fables and Folklore version of a literary magazine called Papercuts, which operates out of Pakistan.
In 2014, Crannoc, an Irish literary magazine in Galway that publishes the best work of Irish writers and a few from other places around the world, printed his "The Green Mill Breaks Through," which explains how a bar that plays the blues became green. A couple of other stories were published in smaller literary journals closer to home.
"There's got to be a way to string these together," Wiley remembers thinking. Nothing connects Chicago better than the color-coded L train lines, so Wiley invented a magical, mythical Lavender Line, which transports readers through an alternative Chicago.
His protagonist, a boy named Rich Lyons, used to be an imaginative kid with a twinkle in his eye, who once took a dreamlike journey with a magical girl named Francesca Finnegan. But Rich grew up to be Richard, a cocaine-sniffing, adulterous boozehound whose life is so miserable that he wishes an icicle would fall off a skyscraper and put an end to him. Instead, Francesca Finnegan arrives to rekindle that trip and the twinkle in Rich's eye.
"I actually thought it was going to be a children's book," says illustrator Chris Cihon, 33, of Joliet, who said he was happy to discover his drawings would need to appeal to more mature tastes. "I really enjoyed the experience."
So have reviewers.
"There are just enough obscenities uttered to ensure this book is never shelved in the children's or even young adult section. The story, though, is anything but vulgar, a sweet and uplifting tale as heartwarming as the ones it's poking fun at," Kirkus Reviews says.
"I had to be true to myself. I had to be completely uncensored," Wiley says. "If you are going to do a fairy tale about Chicago, it has to be true. It's all fiction, but a lot of that is true."
A section titled "The Sad Chapter" includes memories of a young boy hanging out with his father at a bar.
"My first memories of being in Chicago are of these bars," says Wiley, who notes that his father, who worked as a janitor at several schools, was an alcoholic who died at 55 when Wiley was just 10.
"A lot of that is in the book. People might see the word 'fairytale' and get the wrong idea about the book," says Wiley, who includes situations and language that don't lend themselves to stories in a family-run newspaper.
"When my wife read the book, she was offended, so I had to put in a warning," Wiley says. "Warning: Content may be deemed offensive by Polish Indians, vice presidents of something, my wife, Finbar Finnegan's wife, LinkedIn, little kids who think this book is for little kids, Thumbelina, Brown Liners, mermaids, and the wind."
Influenced by his dad's janitorial work in Chicago schools and his mom, a retired first-grade teacher who now lives in Bloomingdale, Wiley wants his book to help schoolkids.
"Half of all proceeds from this book are donated to Chicago Public Schools," reads the first page of his book. "They need it."
Wiley says he hopes to raise an amount "in the thousands" that might be used to buy reading devices for kids at a school. With a bachelor's degree from Illinois State University and a master's degree in business from DePaul University, Wiley sells his book on Amazon as a hard copy, a paperback, on Kindle and an audiobook read by actor Sean Lenhart on Audible.
"I wrote a story that I would like to read," Wiley says, noting that it's healthy for people caught up in work to find a creative outlet. "I think there are a lot of writers out there who are vice presidents of something."