It began, about a dozen years ago, with insomnia. While completing her master’s degree, Hyde Parker Carolyn Rahaman began to experience nights more turbulent than restful, inhabited by monsters and sprites and middle-school girls.
The middle schoolers were from Carolyn’s everyday life: After shifting her own career goal from astronaut to astrophysicist to science educator, she was conducting her master’s research on young girls’ career interest — or lack thereof — in math and science.
As for the monsters and sprites, they had populated her dreams since she was a little child. But never before had they so demanded to be…exorcised? As she restlessly tossed and turned, her brain spun fantastical tales about the antics of these other-worldly beings.
“I started writing them down so I could sleep,” she recalled recently at Café 53, 1369 E. 53rd St. “I needed to get those stories out of my head.”
A model of the introverted scientist, soft-spoken and often bashful, Rahaman’s quiet exterior conceals an imaginative internal world teeming with life, variety and drama. Back in those insomniac days, writing in the wee hours, her creative circuitry flashed and blinked. In her mind’s eye she saw not only the fantastical creatures, but also her young research subjects. They were the audience for her tales.
And so, even before she finished grad school in 2010, she found herself on yet another career path, as an author seeking to publish works of fiction. Armed with more knowledge of gamma rays than she probably needed, she quickly became prolific. She has written more than a hundred short stories in the years since, most propagated as episodes on her podcast, “Twenty Percent True: Carolyn Rahaman Exaggerates.” And she has three fantasy novels in the hopper, with agent Alyssa Jennette of StoneSong Press standing ready to recruit a publisher once a manuscript is ready for sale.
She started "The Queen in the Basement Cafe” first. “It’s a young adult fantasy about failing to live up to expectations, and metaphorical dragons,” she said, explaining that readers will likely relate if they’ve ever disappointed anyone, or it’s ever occurred to them that “people might be dragons…or, that might be just a river.”
The novel closest to publication is for adults and tentatively titled "The Poisoned Live Oak.”
“It’s about a magician who is hit with a rage curse which causes him to tear into all the dark secrets the family doesn't talk about. It's about cycles of trauma and tacos, and is my love letter to Austin, Texas.”
Plenty of Rahaman’s tales are set in Austin, where she lived before college. And plenty are set in Hyde Park. After arriving on the University of Chicago campus, she soon fell in love with a fellow resident of the Pierce dormitory: Ron Rahaman, now a computer programmer at Argonne National Labs and a teacher of computer science at the U. of C. With her son, Harrison, now in kindergarten, the family attends Augustana Lutheran Church, a couple of blocks from Ron and Carolyn’s old dorm. Carolyn serves as church treasurer and chief financial officer.
Her Hyde Park stories include “The Harpies of 57th Street,” “The Takedown of the Gargoyle Containment Unit,” “The Wooded Island,” “The South Shore Line Sphinx” and “The Gremlins” who haunt the Chicago Transit Authority.
She continues to be inspired by readers younger than herself, though the target demographic varies. (The majority of her stories will be marketed to high school students.) After befriending a bunch of tween girls as a researcher, she collected more middle- and high-school students through private tutoring — her job until Harrison, was born.
“I like talking to kids. I used to really like guiding them into math and science,” which often meant debunking false beliefs. “People had told them that those (careers) aren’t cool anymore, or that girls aren’t good at it.”
To capture hearts and minds, she chooses topics that invite comparison with the reader’s own life. “I want them to feel seen, to know that their experiences are valid.”
Most of us can relate to “messing up, and then finding out that your friends still love you,” which is the experience of a down-at-the-heels harpy in a podcast episode set on 57th Street Beach.“Going to the beach and having a bird knock your hotdog out of your hand,” as did one annoyed human in the same story, “is also relatable.” And how many young females have, like the harpy, wildly made up their faces “as if that’s going to solve your problems”?
To make these connections with her readers, she goes out on limbs, revealing herself in her most vulnerable moments. An entertaining blog post tells how she and then-infant Harrison once ruined Story Hour for everyone at 57th Street Books. When asked about it, she cringes in embarrassment, as if to say, “Oh, no, you read that?!”
Yes, when you publish, the cat is out of the bag. Even if, like Rahaman in 2017, you don’t do a lot to promote your brand-new podcast. After all, she had never planned to start a podcast, though she’d always enjoyed them herself. But one day, while taking a break from a novel to bust writer’s block, she heard about an online challenge to draw 30 monster girls in a month.
“I thought, ‘I bet I can write 30 stories in a month.’ Well, I didn’t, but I got 12 good ones.” That was enough for the first 12-week podcast series.
“I didn’t tell very many people, because I don’t know very many people.” But at the end of the first season, “a friend of a friend talked about it on National Public Radio.” (The program was Pop Culture Happy Hour and the commentator was Tasha Robinson, who called it “a bite-size series that reminds me of Neil Gaiman.”) Success ensued, with listenership taking off — about 5,000 people regularly tune in.
Indirectly, the podcast brought her an agent. It also brought an offer from a Canadian production company to make a TV series out of Season One. “I needed an agent real quick.” The TV show hasn’t materialized yet, but it has a writer and a director, and the company keeps renewing the option.
Also helping, all the way along, is the fiction writing community, which knows how to organize itself and has sustained Rahaman through the ups and downs of the writing life.
Just Write Chicago, with chapters all over town, has been a huge resource. “You meet at a coffee shop, write by yourself for two hours, then gather and discuss. It’s a time to be productive, and to interact with other writers… Your craft gets better the more you talk with other writers.”
But the greatest inspiration of all is probably the author’s grandfather, a notorious teller of tall tales. It was with him in mind that she named her blog/podcast site “Twenty Percent True.”
“The polite term for what Granddad did is ‘telling stories.’ The impolite term is that he was lying his ass off,” she said, becoming cheerfully indignant as she recollected the details. There was one where Granddad was riding the train, and got into a conversation with another passenger. The other fellow began to lament the pathetic state of affairs in the United States, but Granddad defended his country and made the passenger remember what a great country it really was. The fellow cheered up, thanked him, put on his stovepipe hat, and walked to the caboose to deliver the Gettysburg Address.
Carolyn was never fooled. For one thing, Granddad had a tell: “He did this thing with his mouth when he was lying,” she said, demonstrating a clicking noise.
In her own work, she distinguishes between fiction and actual personal experiences. But, she says, she’s still exaggerating. “Pulling an everyday experience out of your life, and making it into something kind of fantastical, is a category of exaggeration,” she insisted.
She made no clicking noises. But the mischief in her eye suggested that, by letting us know how she really felt about those experiences, she’s getting away with something too.