Thursday, October 21, 2010

Code Name: Erin Orison

Part four of the ASP ( series. McFerrin is the author of Dead Love. Join her and ASP authors Joanna Biggar and James J. Patterson for a book launch event on tomorrow at The Writer’s Center.

Talk about spooky characters! I am sitting at a coffee shop in Washington D.C., talking to Oleg Kalugin, former head of KGB operations, getting a warm, fuzzy, feeling … and it is creeping me out. This friendly man, in whom I find it so easy to confide, once received high honors for the assassination of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov; though KGB chief Yuri Andropov probably ordered the hit. Admittedly, I’m already in a heightened state of excitation, having just visited the International Spy Museum, an operation dedicated to the art of espionage, for which Mr. Kalugin serves as an advisory director, but still ….

I am actually in Washington on government business, helping an agency give money away to arts organizations all over the country. It is a tedious affair trying to slice up a pie that is nowhere near big enough. The International Spy Museum and the chat with Oleg Kalugin are my idea of adding a bit of—how shall I say it—a thrill to the visit. The museum and the chat have been thrilling. I have an almost unhealthy interest in investigation, particularly of the clandestine variety, as part of my work as a writer and certainly in relation to my novel, Dead Love. In Dead Love, The Consortium, an evil organization run by the dastardly Christian Orison, is threatened with exposure and strikes back in nefarious ways with the help of a shape-shifting ghoul. My book is a global supernatural thriller with an international chase full of torturous twists and turns, and I need to know plenty about covert operations in order to make it real.

At the International Spy Museum I have learned about bugs and drops and micro-devices and, most significantly, about creating what spies call “a cover.” The fabrication of a fictitious personality and a past that supports it—from sales slips for items never purchased to passports, entire families, and tickets to events never attended—strikes me as the essence of what writers must do when creating a character. I know that my characters often become so real that I have trouble confining them to the works for which they were generated. A really well drawn character will speak to me, maybe even start making demands. Erin, Christian’s daughter in the novel, who almost becomes a zombie, now has her own website where she blogs every day on The Daily Slice. She’s even been a guest blogger for other sites. Clément, the aforementioned ghoul and master at assuming identities—he changes bodies like humans change clothes—is demanding top billing in a book of his own. In other words, a well-invented character has an authenticity that it should be hard to question.

My website features a quote by Jessamyn West: “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” Uncovering the truth that lies hidden seems to be at the root of the most alluring tales. Writers are experts at this, and it is a known fact that inventive writers make very good spies. One of my uncles was an American war correspondent and a spy. When he died at an advanced age; the real stories were buried with him.

When I think about it, a lot of my favorite authors were spies. Anthony Burgess, who wrote A Clockwork Orange and Tremor of Intent worked for British Army Intelligence in WWII. John le Carré (real name: David Cornwall); author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Smiley’s People; and more, worked for British Intelligence during the Cold War. Ian Fleming worked for British Naval Intelligence and our own André Le Gallo, Left Coast Writer and author of The Caliphate served as the National Intelligence Officer for Counterterrorism for the CIA.

There is one little problem for both spies and authors, particularly writers of fiction. When you are inventing people and worlds, the line between truth and fiction seems to blur. But haven’t we learned, post Einstein, that everything, including the truth, is relative? Well, that opens up a whole can of worms, many of which like playing with the characters in Dead Love. As for me, I’m recruiting for my own spy ring, the Z.I.A., or Zombie Intelligence Agency; their mission is to report to me on all matters zombie. How to join? It’s no secret. Just send Erin a note on Facebook.

Poet, travel writer and novelist Linda Watanabe McFerrin (, is the founder of Left Coast Writers®. She has been traveling since she was two and writing about it since she was six. A contributor to numerous journals, newspapers, magazines, anthologies and online publications, she is the author of two poetry collections, an award-winning novel (Namako:  Sea Cucumber) and short story collection (The Hand of Buddha), and the editor of a travel guidebook (Best Places Northern California, 4th ed.) and four literary anthologies.

A past winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, she teaches and leads workshops in fiction and creative non-fiction. Her latest novel, Dead Love, is available now from Stone Bridge Press.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Slow Lit

By Joanna Biggar

Part three of the ASP ( series. Biggar is the author of That Paris Year, the second title released by Alan Squire Press. Join her and other ASP authors for a book launch event on Friday at The Writer’s Center.

Now that revolutionary trends seem to be found in the slow lane, as in the ‘Slow Food Movement,’ I’d like to take a counter-cultural stand for Slow Lit. In an age of Facebook postings, blogs, tweets, e-books and literary twitchings of every sort (and I plead guilty to all of the above), I am deeply pleased to have come out with That Paris Year, a novel that is ‘wrong’ on all those counts.

First of all, it is long – over 400 pages. It is complex. Not only does it have five main characters, five young women who travel to Paris together to study at the Sorbonne, but also a collage of supporting characters, French and American, and it takes place in many locations. It unfolds in one time period, 1962-63, as seen through the lens of another, a decade later. It also attempts to explore ideas – the way travel, close relationships, and love shape identity; the way memory distorts through time – and express them as much through carefully crafted language as through plot.

Moreover, it is physically beautiful. At a time when books are being reduced to cyber-print, Alan Squire Publications ran in the other direction. The richly colored cover, done by artist Greg Robison, well-known to The Writer’s Center, is a thing of beauty. The fonts, print size, heavy paper, the artisanship of the designer and printer all contributed to making it a “real book.” As a bookseller at Book Passage in San Francisco said to me, “You just don’t see books made like this any more.”

But one reason above all others qualifies my novel as Slow Lit: It took thirty years to write. For those who are not yet thirty, this may be hard to grasp. But for those who have hit that landmark and then some, as well as for other writers of fiction, this may be understandable. On the far end of that divide, I once had some time to work on this story, loosely based on experience, but not the writing experience to pull it off. Then I got busy: working, traveling, marriage, three kids, teaching at The Writer’s Center at night. Through all that, I couldn’t ever find the time to “sink into” the book that it required. But I had become a writer.

Then, toward the other end of the thirty years, I found the time and threw myself into the work of writing the story I had carried in my head for so long. Like much that is slow, it was a rich and rewarding experience. I’m glad, too, that it had so long to marinate, for if I had waited until I “knew better,” I probably wouldn’t have dared to undertake a project so complicated, so “old-school.” It wouldn’t have been nearly so much fun to write, and I hope, to read. And I certainly wouldn’t have dared envision the sequels, which I’m already at work on – albeit, not quite so slowly.      

Joanna Biggar is a writer, journalist, and teacher who has published fiction, poetry, personal and travel essays and hundreds of feature articles for newspapers and magazines.
She's traveled solo in the most remote corners of China, chaired a school board in Ghana, worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, and taught school kids in Oakland, California, where she lives. She is married, has five adult children, and six grandchildren who love books. A member of the Society of Women Geographers, the author’s special places of the heart remain France and the California coast.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Savage Blue Pencil: James J. Patterson

Part II of the ASP ( series on First Person Plural, which will be all this week. James J. Patterson is the publisher and co-founder of Alan Squire Publishers. You can find him at and join him for the ASP book launch event at The Writer’s Center this Friday, October 22. For more details on the event, visit

“But you already have a book, right here,” editor/publisher Rose Solari said as she finished plowing through a stack of essays with the working title Bermuda Shorts.

“I do?”

“Certainly, there’s a strong narrative thread, a consistency of voice, it’s a little uneven here and there but you can correct that.”

You see I had big plans, oh yes I did. Five or six more chapters worth of plans, which would expand the arc of the narrative to a dizzying apogee, before plunging with literary certitude to land the reader gently, back upon his or her feet after having been on a spectacular ride.

When she laid the essays end to end, I was shocked, if not a little horrified. Taking a few hours or a day here and there whenever possible over the course of twenty and more years to write down some ideas, place them within a narrative scenario, find a hook, so to speak, to hang them on, etc., hadn’t informed me that I was writing stories that were essentially autobiographical. Really, it hadn’t crossed my mind. I wanted to save the planet from toxic waste by launching our nukes and poisons at the sun. I wanted to share what I had learned visiting colleges and universities playing music, visiting a hundred or more campuses a year for over a decade. I was mad at the arms industry for siphoning away funds that would have made our society truly great, prosperous, and admirable over the course of my lifetime. I was talking about my ideas, not the wonder of being me.

In a literary sense, I wanted to play with time, I wanted to find a way around time so each event could be somehow positioned in the now, so that the narrative could strike out in any direction and return safely without notice. I wanted to do my part in defeating what I call “The tyranny of the personal pronoun, ‘I,’ ” by letting persons, places and things offer up the content of the stories I would write.

At any rate, as soon as the preliminary stage of actually getting the stories down on paper was over, there then was deployed on my behalf, what I refer to as “The Savage Blue Pencil.” In a word, editing.

Get any couple of editors together, turn yourself into a fly and light upon the nearest wall, and the horror stories begin.

EDITOR1: Did you hear? So-and-so’s new book just came out and guess what? That’s right, they spelled her name wrong on the cover!
EDITOR2: No kidding? Typical, so-and so’s book has a typo on the first page!
EDITOR1: Not to mention so-and so, poor dear, her latest came out and somehow all the text is triple spaced!
EDITOR2: Oh, and listen to this, so-and-so opened his new book and when he began to read he could tell something was wrong. Oh yes, they printed his second draft, not the edited final draft we spent six months revising!
EDITOR1: And don’t get me started about Amazon!

Then overhear them getting down to cases on my own book!

EDITOR1: He alternately has reasoned arguments that are interesting and fun to follow and then he, well…
EDITOR2: …he launches into a harangue!
EDITOR1: Yes! He goes into a harangue, not crazy but he definitely leaves his feet for a few moments here and there. He knows he’s doing it too…what t’do?
EDITOR2: We’ll tag the arguments, arguments, and the harangues, harangues, then create categories for them in the index.

Truly great editors, like Rose Solari and Nita Congress, know that they should sing gentle praises into your heart as they draw the bright blue squiggle announcing the deletion of an entire page of text you’ve spent many hours if not days attempting to perfect.

If one is honest, one looks upon the edited text and asks the ultimate question, “does it sing?” If the answer is no, well, it’s back to the drawing board.

And it is in this final return where the magic happens. It is when the last bit of dust and clutter is swept from the page, where the once tangled yarns are now shown to have a pattern. And oddly enough, you realize all at once, as you turn to the next edit, that there is no next edit, which means, it’s finished. It is real.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Let’s Build a Stage and Put on a Show!

Today's guest on First Person Plural is poet and workshop leader Rose Solari. The post is part of the ASP ( series on First Person Plural, which will be all this week. Rose Solari is the publisher and co-founder of Alan Squire Publishers. You can find Rose at, and join her for the ASP book launch event at The Writer’s Center this Friday, October 22. For more details on the event, visit

It seems to me that there are two kinds of writers: those who are content to make and market their own work, believing, sensibly, that that is plenty; and those whose desire to promote and publish other writers exists in tandem with their own writing efforts. I belong to the latter group, those who, like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms, want to build a stage and put on a show!

It may have something to do with organizational skills. I always get little angry when I hear someone talk about left-brain or right-brain people, and how we creative types, evidently the right-brainers, are supposed to be the flakes of the universe, floating outside the space-time continuum while crafting our deathless poetry or prose. Excuse my language, but that’s bullshit. I love to write and I love to organize, and the two go very well together. Over the years, I’ve put together countless salons and readings, as well as theatrical events, tributes to other writers, and home concerts. It’s been hard work, but it’s also been a blast.

This year, I decided it was time to realize a long-held dream. I’ve wanted to be a publisher since I was ten years old. It was then that I produced my first, very limited editions, folding sheets of construction paper into folios I stitched or glued together. Whether I filled them with my own drawings and poems, or passages of my father’s favorite books, I loved the act of making something, of putting it all together.

Like a lot of young writers, I joined the staffs of my high school and college literary magazines. A post grad school job at a national magazine boosted my writing and editing skills, and when that magazine started a series of anthologies, published by Harper Collins, I quickly took on a co-editor position for that, as well. In the meantime, I was a hired gun on many a book project, from scholarly studies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Shakespeare, to New Age re-evaluations of Jungian and Freudian theory, to a reminiscence by a young photographer who had fallen into a telephone friendship with the aging, reclusive Marlene Dietrich.  I discovered that I had a knack, if you will, for seeing how a book fit together as a whole, for finding the through-line that would snag the reader’s attention, for seeing the arc of beginning, middle, and end.  And how gratifying it was, to see an author move from draft to draft to polished finish, as the book took shape.

Less happily, I also worked on many a promising manuscript that never found its way between covers, or got into print only to be lost in the scramble of a big publishing house’s need for a big seller. A young-adult author I’d worked with told me her agent was looking “for the next J. K. Rowling.” Another agent, responding to a proposal for my own historical novel-in-progress, said he was hoping for something as potentially successful as Umberto Ecco’s  The Name of the Rose. (Gee, no pressure there!) My boyfriend (now husband), a retired singer-songwriter who had moved into magazine publishing, too, dismissed this as laziness, the kind he had seen in the music business.

“The big guys — the big publishers, agents, music companies — don’t want to do their own R & D,” he said.  “And they’re not interesting developing artists over the course of a career. They’re interested in how much money they can make off these artists, and how fast.”

His words had the ugly ring of truth.

Meanwhile I had some very positive experiences with independent presses. My first two books of poems, Difficult Weather and Orpheus in the Park, were published, respectively by Derrick Hsu’s Gut Punch press and Grace Cavalieri’s The Bunny & the Crocodile. At Gut Punch, I joined a list including such terrific poets as Richard Peabody, Sunil Freeman, and Reuben Jackson, feeling like the first girl child in a family of wonderful older brothers. With Grace, I joined an eclectic list that included Michael Glaser, former Maryland Poet Laureate, and also got a peak at how this amazing woman runs her press. In fact, the DC area had no shortage of cool, inspiring indie presses. The husband and I began to talk. We had started and run SportsFan Magazine (SFM) together, and though we had reluctantly shut it down in the fall of 2006, we thought we could apply our energy and our lessons learned to another publishing venture.

Then we had a galvanizing moment. In March of ’09, I was invited to serve as Blackwell Books Poet-in-Residence for the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. This opportunity was so rich in so many ways, it would be impossible to enumerate them all. But one of the highlights was hearing the publisher John Calder, Samuel Beckett’s great champion; speak about his own life and work. Now in his late eighties, Calder’s enthusiasm for his writers remains undimmed – he called Beckett “the greatest writer in English since Shakespeare.” Asked his thoughts on the current literary scene, he said that the advances in printing technology and access have made for “the most exciting time in publishing since the post-war era” of which he was a part. He added that his only regret was that he might not live long enough to participate in whatever would happen next. Jimmy and I looked at each other — it seemed we’d heard just what we needed to hear.

On the plane home, we devised a plan to start our own press, involving collaborations with other indie publishers we admired, both at home and in the U.K. We’d help each other promote and distribute our titles; we’d share experiences, resources, and ideas. We’d keep the name of the umbrella organization under which we’d founded SFM, Alan Squire Publishing, or ASP. (I’ve always loved snakes.) And as publisher, I decided that the first book I wanted to see into print was a collection of Jimmy’s essays, Bermuda Shorts. It’s a beautiful and diverse group of pieces, many of which have been published previously in magazines and anthologies, and ranges from autobiography to philosophy to gender studies to sports commentary. I saw the whole that these parts could make up, and knew it would be a wonderful book, indeed. Our second title is the gorgeous debut novel of the well-known journalist, essayist, and poet Joanna Biggar, That Paris Year, which follows five young women through a year in France in the early 1960s. Both are published in conjunction with two other indie presses we love, Santa Fe Writers Project and Left Coast Writers. We’re already looking at manuscripts from some U.K. writers we’ve met on our travels there, and establishing collaborations with indie publishers in England, including Chris Andrews Publishing, another husband-and-wife team who make some of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen. 

And now, all ASP engines are revving for our East Coast Launch, Friday night at The Writer’s Center. James and Joanna will be joined by the dynamic Linda Watanabe McFerrin, author of Dead Love, a very sexy zombie novel, and founder of Left Coast Writers. We’ve got music, video, surprise special guests, and a big party afterward in the Center’s newly renovated Jane Fox Reading room. It’s going to be quite the celebration. As for me, I still have to pinch myself from time to time to make sure it’s real.

I’ve always wanted to be a publisher – and now I am.

Friday, October 15, 2010

An Interview with Rod Jellema

Rod Jellema’s fifth book of poems, Incarnality: The Collected Poems, has just been released by Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company. It includes forty-nine new poems and a selection of poems from earlier books. Rod Jellema is professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland and for many years led workshops on both writing and reading poems at the Writer’s Center. This Saturday, October 16 at 4:00 p.m., he’ll read at The Writer’s Center, and will be joined by his son, the clarinetist and cornetist David Jellema, who will play in a musical call-and-response to some of the poems.

The poet and painter Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli interviewed Jellema for First Person Plural.

Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli: The title for your “Collected Poems,” Incarnality, uses a word that we rarely encounter in reading, media, conversation. Could you comment on what that word means to you and why you chose it as the title.

Rod Jellema: I wanted to play that rare word off against the better-known word carnality. We make of carne (flesh) something lascivious, slightly naughty, and yet celebratory, as in carnival. What that suggests is meat without spirit, a narrow and desperate kind of joy rising from the wild time of indulgence before the sensual deprivations of Lent. In that usage, flesh and the spiritual are split wide apart. Well okay, but why not celebrate the wholeness, the tense union of body and soul? If the spiritual is enfleshed, embodied in the beauty of physical reality, isn’t that where we find mystery and wonder? I want the word incarnality to be now and then a noisy carnival, celebrating matter infused with spirit., incarnate.

MPW: That might explain not only the title but also the artwork on the cover.

RJ: Yes. The publisher came up with a time-lapse photo of a lit carousel, shot through dark from above. It’s a slightly abstract link to carnival. Just right. Thank you for noticing.

MPW: In many of the poems you seem deeply concerned about the tendency, past and again present, for minds or entire cultures to give adherence to the spiritual world, or to spiritualism, as a separate entity. In “Catching Light,” for example., you take issue with Shelley’s famous simile, “Life like a dome of many-colored glass / Stains the white radiance of eternity.” Many regard his sense of unstained timeless purity as what is truly holy. How do you answer that?

RJ: I just don’t see the flight away from the physical world as anything holy. It’s ingratitude. I prefer poet Pattiann Rogers’ notion that pure light travels at the speed of light and keeps going unless we stop it. It is when we stop it, let it rest, that it makes color, design, shape out of pure light that would otherwise go on and on eternally into the most boring and lifeless infinity that we could imagine. It’s obvious that I begin in a very different place from Shelley, the neo-spiritualists, Asian monists, etc. The little incarnations and incarnalities that I see are real images or reflections of the capital-I Incarnation, God-made-flesh and joining us in time and history. That’s heady stuff, more imaginative than logical.

MPW: I am reminded of Richard Wilbur’s essay “The Genie in the Bottle.” Do you recall that one?

RJ: I do. Wilbur writes that The genie gets its power by virtue of being contained in the bottle. This is the function of form. I don’t use set forms but there is something formal about what poets do. We like that sense of the pressure of the poem’s energy—the soul, the spirit, of the poem that is only going to get made if it’s pushing against something. It has to have that formal demand to push against, otherwise it’s just flopping around. Or disappearing into that lifeless infinity.

MPW: I notice in the collected poems that you like setting up opposites --- not just physical vs. spiritual, but also light vs. dark, large vs. small, also other contraries. Is there some poetic principle behind this? Or a deep philosophical one?

RJ: [laughs} No, not at all. I just mistrust public opinion, which can be manipulated. It can tell us, for example, that dark and black mean evil and ignorance while light means purity and wisdom. That’s dangerous. Looking through paint and sounds, shapes and the wonder of words, artists take time to notice that the ultimate flash and glare of light we pursue could be a final nuclear blast, while the dark is also the cool place where we dream and meditate and see the unseen. Likewise, our veneration of bigness overlooks the threads and splinters from beneath consciousness. The job of the arts is to give us a second look. At everything.

Ruth Franklin, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction

The Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival Presents:

Ruth Franklin, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction

Tuesday, October 19 at 7:30 pm

Washington DCJCC, 1529 16th Street NW

Tickets: $11, Discounted Members/Seniors/Under 25 $9
What is the difference between writing a novel about the Holocaust and fabricating a memoir about it? From works by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Jonathan Safran Foer’s postmodernist family history, Franklin muses about the role imagination plays in creating any literary work and argues for fiction as an equally vital vehicle for understanding the Holocaust.

Purchase tickets at:
Sponsored by Susan and Marshall Bykofsky.

Presented in partnership with the 16th Street J’s Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery.

This program is co-sponsored by The George Washington University Department of English, The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program, The New Republic and The Writer's Center.
See the entire line-up at

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

An Interview with Andrew Wingfield

On October 17, The Writer's Center will host a special Open Door reading featuring the Washington Writers' Publishing House fiction and poetry winners. Poet Holly Karapetkova (Words We Might One Day Say) and Andrew Wingfield (Right of Way). Yesterday on FPP Jared Clark reviewed Right of Way. Today he interviews the author. Look for a review of Karpetkova's collection next week.

Jared Clark: Can you tell me a little bit more about your background and how it influenced Right of Way?

Andrew Wingfield: Well I grew up in Northern California in a small town. It had been an agricultural town, but during the years I lived there, between kindergarten and college, it got swallowed up by suburban sprawl. That really made an impression on me and I think that's part of why I'm a place-based writer. I'm interested in how people relate to the place that they live, how they shape the place and how it shapes them, and I find that especially fascinating when the place is changing in a dramatic way. 

JC: So what is your own relationship with the neighborhood of Cleave Springs? 

AW: I moved into the Del Ray neighborhood in Alexandria, Va. about ten years ago, and in that time I've seen a lot of gentrification. So I've been on the ground participating in that and watching it unfold over the last decade. I've been exposed to a lot of interesting sights and scenarios and characters in the neighborhood and I thought that some of that stuff would make good material for fiction.

JC: As a writer, what are some of the challenges posed by creating this fictional locale and writing stories that take place in just one environment?

AW: Early on, I had to decide whether I was going to try to do this in a novel or a group of stories. And I think that was a really critical decision. I decided to go for stories because one of the things I observed about this neighborhood was that, although it was diverse, it wasn't very integrated. And so there were lots of individual characters and relationships, lots of stories and situations, but they were sort of happening simultaneously—parallel, but not necessarily integrated with each other.
JC: What motivates you to write?

AW: Not money [laughter]. I think it's just that I have the urge to tell stories, and I enjoy the practice of writing—working with words to try and make something shapely and resonant.

JC: When it comes time to tell these stories, do you conduct neighborhood interviews or let the imagination take over?

AW: I didn't do interviews for these stories. I listen. A neighborhood is a place of proximity, with people living close to one another and crossing each other’s paths all the time. I've spent a lot of time outside, and a lot of action in this neighborhood is unfolding in the playground and on the main avenue and at the café – and I've been to those places and I listen to people. You could say I eavesdrop on them, I interact with them, I know them. So none of it has been formal research, but I think it's fairly common for writers to be always doing research through observation and listening no matter where they are.

JC: One of the things I noticed in your stories is a very acute attention to detail. Your stories wrap up with a decent level of resolution but still leave things a little bit open, and I felt it really encouraged re-reading to understand some of the hidden depths and internal conflicts you've created with the characters. Does this come about naturally as you write, or is it something you've learned?

AW: I like complexity. So I would say it's natural that I like to layer things and I like stories that you can chew on. As a reader I like that, and that just tends to be the way I write. I'd say for me, the challenge in writing short stories comes from packing that kind of complexity in such a short form. Early in my development as a writer, I would ruin my attempts at short stories by trying to pack a novel into a shorter form. I've had to actually leave a lot of things out, believe it or not, from these stories. I tend to like shaggy endings because, to me, what's satisfying about a short story is not necessarily that it has absolute resolution, but that by the end you feel like you really glimpse something meaningful and important, and you feel like something has changed for the character.

Jared Clark is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and English master's student at George Mason University.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book Review: Andrew Wingfield's Right of Way

Right of Way: Stories
Washington Writers' Publishing House
230 Pages
Published Oct. 15, 2010
ISBN: 0931846943
Reviewed by Jared C. Clark

What happens when a writer moves from Northern California to a changing neighborhood on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.? Well if that writer is Andrew Wingfield, he observes the people around him and writes about it. Wingfield's stories take place in an imagined D.C. suburb, and he maneuvers among the neighborhood's streets and people so deftly that the fictional town of Cleave Springs becomes as real as the neighborhood you or I live in.
The collection begins with "Precious," a story that highlights Wingfield's superb writing skills and attention to detail. In "Precious," Wingfield paints a broad portrait of declining urban life during the brief moment when a man chases a runaway dog, but during this time he also introduces the complicated notion of living in cities in the 21st century and the disparities between rich and poor that often arise. Wingfield writes, "America is a rich country growing poorer all the time in places," and this notion remains central to each of the stories he tells.
Wingfield's attention to detail helps bring Cleave Springs to life, but it's his delicate character development that really helps the places shine. Wingfield carefully constructs his characters in a way that provides multiple perspectives to life in Cleave Springs. The stories of a do-it-yourself white couple who move to town expecting a brighter future in the title story, or the black protagonist in "Goodbye" who reminisces about the days before drugs and crime left him as the only one of his childhood friends still living in the neighborhood, are the reason Cleave Springs feels so real—and so important.  
Wingfield creates these characters with the same subtle style he uses to craft each story. He never reveals too much too soon, and many of the characters are haunted by past events and people in ways that only re-reading can really uncover. While Wingfield does resolve each story, he does so in a way that leaves you thinking about the characters and the possibilities in terms of the neighborhood: their future is as uncertain, and their possibilities as endless as the place they inhabit. 

Despite the care Wingfield puts into creating Cleave Springs and the diverse residents who live there, at times this diversity does seem forced. In "Right of Way," the new-to-town couple move next door to Ash, a self-raised teenager and charge of a junkie and her drunk boyfriend, and also a nice lesbian couple raising a child on their own. But these instances are rare, and in the case of "Right of Way," the distraction is minimized when the story returns to the main character, Nita, and her struggle to identify with a new place, a strained marriage, and the neglected neighborhood kid with a secret to hide. 

Wingfield's collection helps shed light on a changing America and the limitations and possibilities these changes put on residents. At one point in the title story, Nita admonishes her husband, Wright, saying: "You care about your precious neighborhood and what it's going to be like one day when every house is beautiful and the right of way is a sanitized bike path and junkie women and their alcoholic boyfriends and their freaky kids don't live next door. That's what you care about. And it's creepy." Like Wright, Wingfield cares, but it's not creepy; it's elegant and compelling and tells universal stories about the rich and the poor, the old and the new, and above all, about people of every race and background trying to get by in a world that's changing around them.   
NOTE: Andrew Wingfield will read at The Writer's Center on October 17 at 2:00 p.m. Click here to learn more about the event. Look for Jared Clark's interview with Wingfield on First Person Plural tomorrow.

Jared Clark is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and English master's student at George Mason University.