Evanston native honors late friend in novel, play

Paige Leskin, City Editor

Evanston-born Richard Engling has never been able to replace the void left by his friend Fern Chertkow ​when she killed herself in 1988. 

“When she died, it left a hole in my life that no one else could really fill,” Engling said. “She just remained on my mind.”

To remember his friend, Engling has brought together a book written by Chertkow with his own novel and play, to create “The Afterlife Trilogy,” which will be released to the public Oct. 7.

The three installments, which all work as stand-alone pieces, explore the character of Chertkow and the story around her taking her own life.

“All three of these works arise from either her as a novelist or as a muse,” Engling said. “The puzzle of her suicide is a very interesting one, and I think that’s something that would interest people through the various works.”

Engling and Chertkow both aspired to become novelists and attended graduate school together to earn master’s degrees in fiction writing. They became close friends, both in school and after when they traveled and lived in Europe for some time, Engling said.

Following Chertkow’s death, Engling realized the only appropriate way to truly honor her memory was to write a novel inspired by her that told of the memories of their friendship.

He wrote “Visions of Anna” soon after, which tells of a terminally ill man who looks to put to rest the ghost of his best friend Anna, based off of Chertkow, who had also killed herself.

He followed the novel with a play that involved the same characters, titled “Anna in the Afterlife.” Engling says it offers a completely different perspective and viewpoint than the book.

After the completing​ play, Engling was able to see the connection that his works had with a book Chertkow had written a few years before she had died. Called “She Plays in Darkness,” the story involves themes of love and self-destruction.

“I realized that these three works really complemented each other in an interesting way,” Engling said. “They were all written to stand alone, but they become much more interesting when experienced together.”

Engling said he had always hoped to publish some of Chertkow’s longer work. While she was successful in getting much of her short fiction into print, she didn’t have such luck with her novels, he said. This trilogy gives Engling the opportunity to reach a goal Chertkow was never able to.

“I long had an ambition to get more of her work in print,” he said. “The question of legacy is very big … She was somebody who was really important to me.”

The play will be performed by Chicago’s Polarity Ensemble Theatre, which Engling helped found and now serves as the artistic director. Performances are expected to start April 23, 2015.

Email: paigeleskin2017@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @paigeleskin