Author's new novel takes on suburbia

  • Author William Elliott Hazelgrove, formerly of Naperville and now of St. Charles, in the attic writing studio of the Ernest Hemingway Museum and Birthplace. Hazelgrove's latest novel is "Rocket Man."

    Author William Elliott Hazelgrove, formerly of Naperville and now of St. Charles, in the attic writing studio of the Ernest Hemingway Museum and Birthplace. Hazelgrove's latest novel is "Rocket Man." Courtesy of Pantonne Press

Published1/11/2009 12:04 AM

William Elliott Hazelgrove admits part of his fame as a novelist is tied to his proximity to another author: the late Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemingway.

More than a decade ago, Hazelgrove, a former Naperville resident who now lives in St. Charles, garnered loads of media attention as the first Hemingway Writer in Residence through the Ernest Hemingway Foundation.


It wasn't just for Hazelgrove's officious title, but the idiosyncratic fact that Hazelgrove used the attic of the Ernest Hemingway Museum and Birthplace in Oak Park as a writing studio (he still does, though not exclusively).

"It arouses the curiosity in people," said Hazelgrove, adding that he still gets e-mail from people who mistakenly assume he actually lives in the Hemingway house.

Hazelgrove says once people get past the Hemingway connection, "they go, 'Oh, so what is this guy writing?'"

Hazelgrove's first novel, "Ripples," was a coming-of-age story set in Maryland that debuted in 1992. But Hazelgrove is mostly known as an author of fictional Southern dramas in novels such as "Tobacco Sticks" (1997) and "Mica Highways" (1998).

Hazelgrove shakes things up with his latest novel, "Rocket Man." Instead of a Southern milieu, he's written a topical and satirical look at life in the Chicago suburbs.

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In crafting "Rocket Man," Hazelwood drew directly from his own experiences of being a Chicago writer who moved his family to St. Charles. He found inspiration just from looking around his neighborhood and seeing "a lot of people struggling."

"I realized that this scenario of this 'super life' of the great vacations, the big house and car isn't sustainable for a lot of people," Hazelwood said. "Little did I know that we would have this global meltdown where pretty much everyone in the middle class got their credit frozen and was unable to keep it up."

"Rocket Man" is about Dale Hammer, a sarcastic, 40-ish writer and father of two kids who appears to have it all. Or does he?

"He's got the big house, the big car and he tries to make it work, but it doesn't work," Hazelwood said. "It implodes on him in one week."

Indeed, Hammer faces a string of humorous mishaps. The whole suburban complex turns against him when he's accused of a petty act of vandalism. Then his divorced and destitute father moves in to live over the garage, causing even more turmoil.


And through it all Hammer begrudgingly follows through with his task to organize "Rocket Day" for his son's Scout troop (no need to guess how it turns out).

Hazelwood's first-person hero also rails against suburban conformity, even though Hammer's wife consistently points out that Hammer himself lobbied to move away from Chicago.

Though "Rocket Man" was released by Chicago-based Pantonne Press in December (typically an unfavorable time for new novels to debut), it's already garnering some favorable attention.

David Liss in the San Antonio Express called it "a great black comedy" in his list for one of the "Best Books of 2008," while Henry Bankhead wrote "This critically insightful diatribe against conformity is recommended" for

Just as important to Hazelgrove is the overwhelmingly positive response "Rocket Man" is getting from readers at He's happy the novel is starting to touch a chord with many people.

"The novel is really about suburbia and the American dream and what happens when things like our own times happen," said Hazelgrove, referring to America's economic downturn.

"I think the reason the novel is being so widely reviewed right now is because it's a mirror of our times."

At the moment, Hazelgrove is in full swing with publicizing "Rocket Man," but he's nearly finished with his next novel. Like "Rocket Man," it also features a lead character who questions her comfortable suburban existence.

Perhaps Hazelwood has been spending too much time in Hemingway's attic. Remember, the revered author of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" famously referred to his hometown of Oak Park as "a neighborhood of wide lawns and narrow minds."

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