In Spoonful, Chris Mendius tells an engrossing tale of drug-dealing, the junkie lifestyle and the seductive perils of heroin, set in Chicago of the ’90s. The evocative work earned the book a Kirkus star. Here he talks to us about the levels of addiction, the tension of gentrification and his route to publication.

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Spoonful is one of the most vivid portraits of the drug culture I’ve ever read. Was your research, um, personal?

I leaned on my experiences in high school and college in the early ’90s. Right now I live less than a mile from the West Side of Chicago, where I used to score. I wasn’t as heavily into [the drug scene] as my characters, but heavy enough to see where it was going. No matter how well you cope for a while, it comes back to get you.

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Your protagonist Michael and his friend Sal are pretty likable for druggie lowlifes. What did you draw on to create them?

I knew guys like that, so it wasn’t a stretch. There are a lot of scumbag junkies out there, but there are also more complicated, interesting dope fiends. They’re not trying to hurt anybody. They’re just trying to get what they need—which requires them to work outside the law and civilized society.

You set the story in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood during the Clinton-era boom, a place that’s hipster central but is also full of tension, with gentrification and new money coming in while people like Michael and Sal get pushed out.

I hung out there in the late ’90s, and the area was dripping with atmosphere and tension. On every block places were being bought up and turned into condos. Sal copes with all that high-flying real estate and stock-market mania by ripping off the people that are making easy money, but Michael tries to get into the game.

Some of your most heartwarming characters are Michael and Sal’s connection, a family that runs a ghetto narcotics business. They’re trying to get ahead, move to a better neighborhood and send their kid to college. Are you trying to push back against the demonization of the drug trade?

Not intentionally. I used to score from a family just like that. They were nice people. They had a son who was recruited by a Big Ten school as a fullback. Not everyone in the drug trade is like that, but they were part of my experience.

Michael’s lover, Lila, a talented and self-possessed artist, is drawn to trying heroin and almost willfully becomes addicted. What’s the attraction for her?

She sees Michael, a guy who’s getting high and feeling really good, and wants that for herself. He doesn’t let her see him retching when he’s an hour late with his fix. And she’s not afraid to take risks or defy social judgments. Putting herself out there as an artist is a risk, and she pays the rent by stripping—and doesn’t feel like she should be judged for that. I respect the choice that she makes, but she’s not immune to what flows from that.

Everybody in the novel is hooked on something—heroin, cocaine, weed, booze. Even Michael’s mom has a prescription pain-killer habit—and looks down on everyone else’s drugs. Are there moral distinctions between different addictions?

The book’s title comes from an old blues tune by Willy Dixon. The song’s point is that everyone needs something to get through this world and will do whatever it takes to get it. I don’t draw moral distinctions, but, practically speaking, the particular drug you’re hooked on does make a big difference.

Alcoholics can go to a tavern or liquor store, but dope fiends gotta score, they gotta find a spot, they’re breaking the law and risking their lives. A [heroin] habit, with its physical dependency, is the ultimate tyranny, and getting out from under it is a big deal. Going from that to cocaine frees you from a set of shackles that, in my opinion, are the hardest to break.

You’re bringing out Spoonful through your own company, Anything Goes Publishing. Why do it that way?

I sent it out to a few bigger publishers and agents. Then I kind of moved on, but Jayne, my wife and editor, wanted to start a venture to put the book out ourselves. That feels better than just sending out letters [to publishers], never to hear back. When we started Anything Goes, we went through the novel with a finer editorial comb and the writing is much better than it was at first—maybe that’s why nobody called me back!