Award-winning local author brings it home to Nichols Library

  • Author Robert Fieseler will discuss how Nichols Library made him the writer he is today at "Bringing It Home: How a Naperville Kid Became an Award-Winning Author" on Tuesday, Oct. 13 on Zoom.

    Author Robert Fieseler will discuss how Nichols Library made him the writer he is today at "Bringing It Home: How a Naperville Kid Became an Award-Winning Author" on Tuesday, Oct. 13 on Zoom. Courtesy of Robert Fieseler

 
 
Updated 10/1/2020 6:18 AM

Robert Fieseler grew up a quintessential Naperville kid. He rode bikes, played flashlight tag, and wished for snow days. In the days before standardized testing, he had two recesses and reading time. He loved to imagine.

But as a kid who was closeted gay in the early 90s, Fieseler had no context for queer life. He didn't want to play a role based on the expectations laid out for him. He wasn't a student athlete and he didn't want to date girls -- he was nerdy and loved to read!

 

It was at Nichols Library where he could be himself. He would grab a book from Roald Dahl, snuggle up in the streetcar downstairs and just be alone.

Fieseler will discuss how Nichols Library helped shape the person he is today at "Bringing It Home: How A Naperville Kid Became an Award-Winning Author" at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 13 on Zoom.

"My mom would take me to Nichols to read in the Children's section and that was a place as a kid where I felt like I could exhale and just be alone, and not be bothered, and not be harassed and not have expectations to be something I wasn't," he said.

Named 2019 Journalist of the Year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, Fieseler is the author of "Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation."

"Tinderbox" tells the story of a fire in 1970s New Orleans through the context of anti-queer bias and anti-queer discomfort. Thirty-two people were killed when an arsonist set fire to The Up Stairs Lounge.

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"The first tragedy is these individuals were asked to live in secrecy in a society that they loved," Fieseler said. "The second tragedy is those hidden individuals were murdered in an intentional fire and the third level of the tragedy is all knowledge of this story -- in a society that's not ready to deal with the reality of homosexual existence -- was wiped, as best as they could, from the slate of history."

It was the biggest loss of gay life in the United States prior to the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016, but due to a variety of reasons, this tragic event became marginalized.

For working class gay people in New Orleans in the 1970s, being out wasn't an option. They were often closeted at work, to their landlord and even their family and friends. Society wasn't willing to acknowledge, let alone embrace, that a large gay population existed in its numbers.

The Up Stairs Lounge served as an oasis. It was a community haven where gay life was no longer lived in secret, but celebrated.

"These were people who were encouraged to live in various degrees of hiding for their entire lives," Fieseler said. "They would only become themselves fully when they would climb up those 13 winding stairs to a second story bar that was shielded, in many ways, from view of the public street."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It's been six years since he began researching "Tinderbox" and Fieseler still thinks about the event each day. After a trip to a grief counselor, he realized he was dealing with ancillary trauma. It wasn't his own pain, but the pain he took on from the people he was interviewing and writing about.

Fieseler has become a voice, perhaps the voice, of a painful story that has been largely ignored for decades. It's a great responsibility to honor those lives lost in the Up Stairs Lounge, and Fieseler realizes that.

"I affect the Up Stairs Lounge Legacy in the way that I help readers become part of the way that the event is remembered and that's quite meaningful," he said. "On days like that, I'm able to feel like I'm doing some part in making the world better or righting an injustice, in that way."

Currently, Fieseler lives in New Orleans with his husband Ryan a few miles away from where The Up Stairs Lounge once stood. His next book, which recently won a work-in-progress grant, details another event that was unjustly ignored: a nine-year reign of anti-queer persecution from Florida state Sen. Charlie Johns.

A few years ago, Fieseler came back to Naperville for a book signing at Anderson's Bookshop. Although he was never the quarterback in school getting hoisted above someone's shoulders at a pep rally, it felt like Homecoming. In the crowd were the faces that supported him over the years: the moms that drove his carpool, his AP U.S. History teacher and his Mom's Bunco friends.

A graduate of Maplebrook Elementary, Lincoln Junior High and Naperville Central, Fieseler attributes his success as a writer to those days spent at Nichols Library where he could be himself.

To register for "Bringing It Home: How A Naperville Kid Became an Award-Winning Author," visit www.naperville-lib.org.

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