Southern Illinois University (SIU) A story about the unsolved murder of a gay man in Eldorado, Illinois helped alumnus Chris Dennis land a $25,000 creative writing grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in January.
Dennis is an overdose educator at the Egyptian Department of Health in Eldorado and an author best known for his 2019 collection of stories Here’s What You Do.
According to Dennis’ profile on the NEA website, the story that won him the scholarship tells the story of his investigation into the unsolved murder of a 40-year-old gay record producer whose body was found in a house opposite his.
Dennis said he remembered the inquest that took place when he was younger and saw his parents and neighbors being asked about it.
“There aren’t a lot of murders in our little town,” Dennis said. “The fact that he was gay was that kind of salacious piece of history that everyone wanted to talk about.”
Wanting to uncover the truth in all the stories he heard growing up, Dennis went to his local courthouse and reviewed the evidence. He discovered that no one had ever been convicted for the murder.
Dennis said he applied for the scholarship in January, but was discouraged from applying because out of thousands of applications, the NEA only fills about 30 spots.
“You really win the scholarship based on a writing sample that you send to them,” Dennis said. “People judging him, they just read everyone’s writings that they send, and then they make a decision based on that.”
Dennis said he plans to use the scholarship money to take time off work to travel and spend time doing research for his first book draft.
While attending SIU before graduating in 2007, Dennis worked as an intern at the Crab Orchard Review, a literary magazine, he said.
“I would dream of sending stuff to magazines or trying to get something published,” Dennis said. “But it was probably…eight years later I had a story published in a magazine.”
His work as an overdose educator and author is tied to the personal challenges he overcame in his life writing about incarceration and the decriminalization of substance use, Dennis said.
“I was in jail for six months … for drug possession, and there are people who are in jail for much longer than that, but it was a devastating experience,” Dennis said. “I just thought a lot afterwards about people who are, like, in prison for years and years for drug-related offenses.”
In addition to Dennis’ work as an author, his work as an overdose educator at EHD was inspired by his own recovery from addiction.
“We [EHD] want to respond to the overdose crisis or the opiate crisis, especially in southern Illinois,” Dennis said. “I [also] think that when I give people or teach them to recognize or respond to an overdose, it also opens up a broader conversation about harm reduction.
Dennis said he was doing his job in a step-by-step fashion. He said giving people better access to health care and members of the health care community improves their chances of recovery.
One of the things EHD specializes in is training people to recognize and respond correctly to an overdose, Dennis said.
“We train many police departments and first responders,” Dennis said. “But we really want to reach people who still use substances [or] are friends and family members of people who still use because they are the people who are there when someone overdoses.
Dennis said he saw his old self – when he was homeless and still used a lot of drugs – in some of the people he taught, and how having a support system helped him. helped to want to improve.
“Sometimes there were people who were always really nice and made me feel like I mattered,” Dennis said. “I feel like that’s part of why I was able to recover…people reminded me that my life mattered even when I didn’t think it did.”
Staff reporter Jamilah Lewis can be reached on [email protected] or on Twitter @jamilahlewis. To stay up to date with all your Southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.