Los Angeles Times

Teacher Lombardo piles on the extra credit

Tribune reporter

Billy Lombardo does most of his writing at a little red table beside a window in his kitchen, a cheerful room with yellow floors, green walls, blue countertops and a pantry door etched with pencil dashes marking the heights of two growing sons.

Billy He wakes early, about 4:45 a.m., to squeeze in an hour at his laptop before heading to his day job at Chicago's Latin School, where he teaches English literature and creative writing. Between teaching, parenting and directing Polyphony H.S., a national literary magazine for high school students, Lombardo writes when he can.

"It's getting to be too much," Lombardo, in jeans and brown slippers, said before getting up from his red writing table to help his wife, singer-songwriter Elisa McMahon, carry groceries into their modest Forest Park home.

Lombardo, 47, has had a wildly busy year, capped off last month with the publication of his debut novel, "The Man With Two Arms," a "beast" of a project seven years in the making. It's the tale of a father's obsession with teaching his son to throw with both his right and left arms, eventually leading to his playing for the Cubs and becoming baseball's first star ambidextrous pitcher. Lombardo conceived the idea when he saw his own right-handed son Kane, then 10, throw lefty at the beach one summer.

Also over the past year, Lombardo completed his MFA at the creative writing program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and published two other books: the poetry collection "Meanwhile, Roxy Mourns," and the acclaimed novella series "How to Hold a Woman," about the complexities of a family's grief after the loss of a child.

It has been only five years since he published his first book, "The Logic of a Rose," an award-winning collection of short stories about his childhood in Bridgeport, but Lombardo said he has grown significantly.

"I read stuff in ("The Logic of a Rose") and I think, "You poor bastard,'" Lombardo said with a playful grin that makes him seem much younger than his 47 years. "There are some words I used just because I wanted to use them." "Soporific" comes to mind, he said.

The burst of productivity comes after a late start to Lombardo's writing career, though he showed early signs of being a wordsmith.

Growing up in blue-collar Bridgeport, Lombardo was a quiet thinker of a kid who always felt different from his rough-and-tumble, fighting peers. He didn't read much, didn't do particularly well in school, but he did like words, especially chasing the perfect words to convey just what he was feeling.

At 12, Lombardo wrote what at the time felt like a lyric masterpiece, a poem, "A Dream, a Ring and a Memory," to a girl.

"It's hard to argue that there's not a flow to the syllabication in that sentence," Lombardo laughs. "I felt I really nailed something."

Lombardo, who taught religion after college, didn't explore a writing career until a trip to the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill Jazz Club in 1989, where he found his words could move an audience, and he got hooked.

"When it's really good, not only has the author put the perfect words to a thing, but it's received in the same way," he said. "I haven't written a story yet where I haven't been moved to tears while writing."

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