Humanities Doctoral Student's Creative Vent Turns into Career
By Sara Patterson
For several summers, Isabel Lachenauer had a secret. During her doctoral program at UChicago, she wrote a novel each summer, channeling her anxious energy to a healthy place. Her creative writing became a private world to immerse herself while forgetting the pressures of her academic work.
Now the novel Lachenauer wrote during the first year of the pandemic—The Hacienda—is scheduled for publication by Berkley (Penguin/Random House) on May 3, 2022. The book received multiple bids from publishers, providing Lachenauer with ample funds and the incentive to continue her career as a novelist after she graduates with a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) in June 2022.
“I love to write fiction, and my training as a historian made this book special,” said Lachenauer who is publishing her work under the pen name of Isabel Cañas. “This book is a cut above your average historical novel because I had so many resources through UChicago’s Regenstein Library. The incredible primary sources make the book come alive.”
While Lachenauer is moving away from an academic career, she found that her creative writing helped her to write her dissertation more confidently and quickly. The cross training helped her become comfortable with her voice as a writer.
“Isabel is a great writer, as well as being very disciplined and enthusiastic about everything she does,” said Hakan Karateke, professor in the Department of NELC and Lachenauer’s academic adviser. “Her dissertation about Anatolia during the 1300s also is a great story that could be molded into a novel.
“During the doctoral program, Isabel gained proficiency in the historical Turkish and Persian languages; she was already fluent in Arabic. She feels at home in the U.S., Turkey, Mexico, and the U.K., and that’s the type of NELC student we want to educate.”
Her travel lust began early. Born in the northern suburbs of Chicago, she lived in Mexico, returning to the Chicago area for her last year of high school. Instead of attending Northwestern University as her parents hoped, Lachenauer choose the University of St. Andrews to study modern Middle Eastern studies and Arabic for an undergraduate degree and University of Edinburgh for advanced Arabic for a master’s degree. While her ancestry is Mexican, Lachenauer has also lived in Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan.
For her doctoral program, she returned stateside and to UChicago for the “best Ottoman studies in the country” in 2015 and for the excellent community of scholars in NELC and the Department of History. “It’s a great environment to grow as a scholar,” Lachenauer said.
Although The Hacienda sold in October 2020, she was determined to finish her dissertation and earn her PhD. Her dissertation will be finished by March 14, and Lachenauer will defend it on May 2—a day before her first novel is published.
Her decision to write a 19th-century novel taking place in Mexico was a sharp career strategy shift. Lachenauer’s agent, Kari Sutherland, sent two of her Young Adult fantasy manuscripts for submission in 2018 and 2019. After dozens of rejections, she decided to switch genres in 2019.
Set in the period of history during and following Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain, Lachenauer drew inspiration for the plot from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and for her heroine from Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca. Her protagonist, Beatriz, lashes out, acts out, and does something to push back at the ghosts in the mansion in contrast to classic Gothic heroines.
“I wanted a character who would fight her way tooth and nail out of that haunted house—so I wrote one,” Lachenauer said. “I am quite a stubborn person with a fierce will to survive, so in that regard, the character resembles me.”
Her next historical fiction novel is set in south Texas during 1846, at the beginning of the Mexican American War, and features a touch of the horror genre. Lachenauer wrote the first draft during the summer of 2021. While the draft requires more revisions and historical research, Lachenauer plans to finish editing in September for expected publication in the summer of 2023.
Once again, she will publish under her pen name. “Cañas is my grandmother’s maiden name,” Lachenauer said. “My legal name is difficult to spell!”
As for keeping her novel writing secret for so long, she wanted to separate her academic and creative writing work like that of church and state. For now, Lachenauer does not plan to pursue academic jobs. But she concedes that it would be “brilliant” to teach creative writing at the university level one day. “My PhD gives me a leg up,” she said.
To find out more about The Hacienda and Lachenauer’s other work, visit www.isabelcanas.com. The Hacienda is currently available for preorder wherever books are sold.