Friday, April 24, 2015

Flying Home: Seven Stories of the Secret City 

David Garrett Interviews David Nicholson

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here, so if today's post seems over-long, consider it making up for lost time. David Nicholson is the author of a new book, Flying Home: Seven Stories of the Secret City (Paycock Press | $12.95 paperback). Though it won't be published until June 2, it’s available for pre-order on There’s also a Facebook page with updates and news about upcoming readings at Washington area book stores, and a web page as well.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: Tell me a little bit about Flying Home.
A: Most of the stories take place in an imagined version of the neighborhood I grew up in. You know the opening credits of the Netflix show House of Cards? After the shots of the Capitol and downtown, when the camera shows an underpass and a street of brick row houses? It's about six seconds in. That's where my stories are set. In fact, one of the shots shows the intersection of North Capitol and R streets—two or three blocks from where I used to live. The characters are mostly men and women like the ones I grew up knowing—maids, taxi drivers, janitors and handyman, teachers, mailmen, and barbers.

Q: So, despite the subtitle, this isn't SF or fantasy?
A: No. The subtitle comes from W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote an article for The Crisis in 1932 called "The Secret City: An Impression of Colored Washington." Lots has changed, of course, since Du Bois wrote, but I still think black Washington remains a secret city.

Q: What's the origin of the stories?
A: Do you mean when did I start writing them? Or thinking writing about Washington might be a good idea?

Q: Either. Or both.
A: Well, I'd like to think I started to want to write about the world I grew up in when my mothershe was a librarian at the Library of Congress—brought home a copy of James Alan McPherson's Hue and Cry. I was a senior in high school, and that was a long time ago, so maybe I didn’t really think that. But I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and McPherson spoke to me in ways other writers, like James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright, all of whom we were reading in English, did not.

Q: So how did you go from wanting to be a writer to becoming one?
A: I’m not sure I have. (Laughs.) But if I can be called a writer, it's taken a long time. I flunked out of college and did a lot of the things writers are supposed to do—dug ditches, washed dishes, was (briefly) a carpenter's helper, and worked in book and record stores. Finally, I got a chance to become a reporter. I worked for four years for the Associated Press and an Ohio newspaper before I decided to apply to the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.

Q: Which is where you studied with McPherson?
A: That's right. I’d applied to several writing programs while I was working for the Daily News in Dayton. When I got into Iowa, I took a Greyhound to Iowa City. (I took a lot of Greyhounds in those days, for reasons I can’t really remember.) Anyway, when I went to the Workshop office and introduced myself, they told me they’d lured McPherson from the University of Virginia and he was coming to Iowa City that fall. That decided me.

Q: And that's how you became a writer?
A: Well, sort of. McPherson was going through hard times, times he himself has discussed elsewhere, so there's no need for me to. But his troubles made it impossible for me to get what I wanted from him. Over the years, I’ve realized I got something else—maybe not what I wanted then, but something that’s proved more durable because I had to earn it. Part of that was coming to see that Ted Solotaroff’s title—A Few Good Voices in My Head—should be every writer’s mantra. The really lucky, and talented, writers at Iowa knew which voices to listen to. I wasn’t one of them, so it took me years to learn how to start listening to my own.

But Iowa did bless me with the seed that became these stories. One night, sometime in my second year, I met some friends in a bar where many of us used to hang out. There was a woman in the booth with us who wasn't in the program—she was studying to be a physician assistant. She'd grown up in D.C., or at least lived here a while. In the middle of our conversation, she asked if I’d ever written about Washington.

I was stunned, and I had to confess I hadn’t. I'm not sure I'd even thought about it. But I went home that evening and started to write one of the stories in this collection—"Seasons." I felt asleep at 2 or 3 in the morning. I slept for an hour or so, and then I was awoken by a voice. "It's all right," it said. "You can go home now." It should have been scary, but it wasn't because I knew it was true. 

Q: So you wrote the first of these stories that long ago?
A: I did. (Laughs) I’m a slow learner. I mean, I didn’t get married and have a child till I was almost 50. (Laughs again.) Some of the other stories have been sitting around for a while—I finally figured out a year or so ago how to finish them. One of the stories, the title story in fact, is a piece of a novel that I decided to take out. 

But I was also working full-time as a writer and editor for The Washington Post, most of the time in the paper’s Book World. The great thing about that was that every day was like a graduate seminar with some of the brightest book-lovers you could ever want to meet. The bad thing was that, as we’d sometimes joke, it was like playing piano in a brothel. We critics made a lot of noise, but the real action was going on upstairs. 

But I was writing fiction the whole time. And, for the first year or two at The Post, also editing the magazine I founded, Black Film Review. I wish I still had that kind of energy.

Q: What's the novel about?
A: For years, because I really didn’t want to talk about it, I’d say it was about black men, fatherhood, and violence. And it is. The main character, Shepherd, is a Smithsonian curator. In the story “Flying Home,” he goes back to his old neighborhood with his daughter, Jessica. In the novel, he is haunted—literally!—by the ghost of a slave who won his freedom fighting in the American Revolution. The novel’s called The House of Eli.

Q: Where do you get your ideas?
A: A little mail-order house in Saskatchewan. You get a good rate if you buy in bulk, but the import duty’s a killer.

Q: No, seriously.
A: I don’t much like talking about where my fiction comes from. I’m like those primitive peoples who won’t let themselves be photographed because they believe it will steal their souls. Writing’s hard enough—why tempt fate?

But “Among the Righteous,” the second in the collection, is based on a family story I grew up hearing. My grandfather bought his second house in 1928—he emigrated to Washington from South Carolina in 1917, so my family’s been here almost 100 years. Of course, that was right before the beginning of the Great Depression. He was a messenger in a government office and one day he went to work and his supervisor told him he’d been ordered to cut staff and so my grandfather was being let go.

When my grandfather told my grandmother, she said, “He can’t fire you. You’ve got a wife and seven children and you just bought a house. Go back and tell him he can’t fire you.” So he did and, according to family lore, his supervisor sighed and said, “All right. We’ll find something for you to do.” And he did. My grandfather kept his house. My sister lives there now, so it’s been in the family three generations.

I don’t remember my grandmother much, but she was a formidable woman from all accounts. The first time I heard that story, I thought my grandfather must have been, well, hen-pecked. The more I thought about it, though, the more I saw that he showed tremendous courage in doing what was right for his family.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: You mean what am I not working on now? (Laughs) Paycock is a small press, so I’m doing the bulk of the marketing and publicity. Before I set it aside, I was working on a biography of the Rev. William David Chappelle. He was an African Methodist Episcopal bishop born in 1857. As his name suggests, he was comedian Dave Chappelle’s great-grandfather.

Chappelle and my great-grandfather, Casper George Garrett, were contemporaries and allies in post-Reconstruction and early 20th-century South Carolina. Some time around 1916, the two men had a falling out. I’d gotten to that point in a family history/memoir when I decided I needed to find out what had happened to drive them apart. So I set aside the family history and began to look into Chappelle’s life. It just grew, and before I knew it, I had a 300-page manuscript! 

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: Yes, I’m really grateful to Richard Peabody, Paycock's publisher. He's published three of my stories, and I’m thankful he believed in my work even when it was hard for me to think it worthwhile. I’m also grateful to Ron Roberson, who took the photograph that appears on the cover. It seemed like destiny when I found it on the Internet—the picture was taken two blocks from where I grew up!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Blues at the White House

With Sandy threatening outside, I used the last two days to catch up on some of the TV shows I've recorded over the past few months but never made time to watch. After polishing off the remaining episodes of Copper, I watched three of Hit and Miss, enough to tell I wasn't going to waste four hours of my life on the the four left on my DVR. Last night, I watched the three episodes of The Walking Dead that have aired so far this season.

And then, this afternoon, I went from the ridiculous to the sublime and finished the PBS broadcast "Red White and Blues," broadcast in February as part of the series In Performance at the White House.

 Actually, it wasn't all sublime.

Craggy-faced Mick Jagger, still prancing around the stage in leather jacket and red shoes though he's nearly 70, sent me to the fast forward button. But there was plenty to make up for Jagger's aging pixie act: Buddy Guy, Gary Clark, Jr., Keb Mo, Shemekia Copeland, and the master, B.B. King--almost 90, and still able to wring worlds of emotion from a single note.

What stuck with me, though, long after I turned off the TV, were the two full-length portraits of George and Martha Washington on either side of the stage.

For a moment, I wished it were possible to ask the Father of our Country what he thought of the motley, mulatto crew of musicians and their wailing electric guitars. And what would he have made of Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, son of an African father and paradoxically descended from American slaves on his (white) mother's side?

It was one of those times where I wished Ralph Ellison, gone these long 18 years, was still here to divine the meaning of that particularly American moment.

Friday, August 3, 2012

But I Was So Much Older Then. . .

The other day as I walked past my son's room, he looked up from the camp stool seat he was weaving (Boy Scout project) and said, "Hey, what do you know about Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band?" So I asked him whether he'd found some Beefheart among my music he's loaded onto his iPod Touch; I'd had had some albums years ago, but I was pretty sure I'd never bought any CDs.

Turns out though he had headphones on, he wasn't listening to Safe as Milk. Instead, he was listening to an audio book, I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President. The author, Josh Lieb, must be fan of Don Van Vliet (the captain's real name), for the four or five paragraphs about him include a tribute to Trout Mask Replica.

Anyway, the mention in Lieb's book inspired my son to look for music by Captain Beefheart on Mog. He found some songs, but he was disappointed he couldn't find Trout Mask Replica.

It's been interesting watching--and occasionally singing along in the car--as my son discovers the music I listened to when I was in my teens. Last Halloween, he dressed up as Jimi Hendrix, and he's been taking lessons at School of Rock. So far, he's played in three concerts. Here's a song from the most recent one in June:

One of the neatest things about being a parent is watching your child discover new things. It's incredible to watch him having fun on stage. And just think of all the music (new and old) he has yet to hear for the first time!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Something to Celebrate

Robert Gossett
 I flew out to Denver a little while ago to hear my story, "A Few Good Men," read by actor Robert Gossett, as part of a program presented by Stories on Stage. Stories on Stage is just what it sounds like--nine programs each year where actors read stories. The season's over, and the link might not be up much longer, but here it is anyway:

"A Few Good Men" was selected for Best African American Fiction 2010, but its road to print was anything but straight and easy. I wrote the story years ago, so long ago, in fact, that I've forgotten just when. My agent liked it enough to send it to Playboy. The fiction editor there liked it too; at least she said so in her rejection letter. She also said she'd come close to accepting it, but Playboy preferred its women to be more romantic.

My agent then sent it to Emerge, a magazine published in the '90s that's now defunct. There, the editor said he liked the story, and would consider publishing it if I'd rewrite it to include a black woman's viewpoint.

I didn't agree that the story needed rewriting, but I understood his reluctance.

"A Few Good Men" is about men in a barbershop talking about women. I wrote it because I didn't recognize the black men in stories and novels by black women writers like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange.

And I certainly didn't find in their work men like my grandfather, who for more than 30 years walked downtown to his job as an electrician and then home again in the evening. After dinner, he walked to a second job cleaning two doctors' offices. On the weekends, he did handyman jobs for neighbors.

He had to, to feed and clothe his eight children and pay the mortgage on the house he bought in 1928. 

Eventually, "A Few Good Men" found a home in Rick Peabody's anthology Stress City: A Big Book of Fiction by 51 D.C. Guys. And from there, Gerald Early and Nikki Giovanni chose it for Best African American Fiction 2010. A copy of which, serendipitously, made it to the desk of Stories on Stage's artistic director.

It was an amazing, heady experience hearing a professional actor read my work. Robert Gossett (Lou Gossett's cousin) made each of my characters, even the minor ones, vivid and distinct. At one point, I found myself on the edge of my seat holding my breath, almost as if I hadn't written it and didn't know what was coming.

It got even better, though: After Gossett finished, I was introduced.

I'd taken books by the poets Melvin Tolson and Robert Hayden to read while I was in Denver. Tolson I found, well, too obscure, but I liked much of Hayden's work.

One poem, "Those Winter Sundays," stuck with me. It's about a father getting up early on Sunday to light a fire to warm the house, and the son's indifference to his father's sacrifice. It ends:

"What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?"

I could have stolen those lines for "A Few Good Men."

Energized by the trip to Denver, I've gone back to working on my book about my family. I'd count it a success if I could come up with one or two lines as good as Hayden's.

Friday, February 24, 2012

"Downton Abbey" in Black and White

Somewhere in Hollywood, there might be someone looking at the recent success of PBS's "Downton Abbey"--the last episode of the final season gained more than 5 million viewers--and wondering about the possibility of an American remake.

And why not an American version of the show about a family of aristocrats and their servants in the English countryside before and after World War I? Over the past few years, appropriating foreign successes ("American Idol," "The Office," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") has become almost a Hollywood tradition.

Except. . .

It was done nearly 75 years ago, and "Downton Abbey" is really just "Gone With the Wind" in white face. Both are lavish costume dramas whose idealized, romantic setting is changed forever by war. And, of course, (white) plantation culture of the antebellum South was a conscious attempt to imitate gracious English living.

I watched and enjoyed "Downton Abbey," bingeing on the entire two seasons (14 episodes) on successive days, courtesy of Netflix streaming and PBS's iPad app. I confess to some small embarrassment at writing that. But then, I grew up in the West Indies when it was the British West Indies. And, once a colonial, always a colonial.

Still, though I enjoyed the show--and intend to watch the third season next year--"Downton Abbey" (like "Gone with the Wind") didn't seem quite honest in its serene depictions of the inherently unequal relationships between upper and lower classes. It seems unlikely to me that aristocrats and their servants were as intimate as "Downton Abbey" would have them; just as it seems unlikely to me that Mammy, Priss, and the other black characters in "Gone With the Wind" were really all that happy being slaves.

I started writing this as a kind of thought experiment, imagining an American "Downton Abbey" set in the South before the Civil War. Morgan Freeman would be the butler and Denzel Washington the valet, which was as far as I got with the casting. Spike Lee probably wouldn't want to direct, but Tyler Perry might, as long as he could get his name above the title. Oh, and he'd want to write it and be in it too.

In some ways, though, he'd be be the least of the problems. How to, for example, translate Downton Abbey's relationship between the Irish chauffer and the lord of the manor's youngest daughter?

A good scriptwriter might find a way around the problem, forthrightly addressing still-painful aspects of our shared history. And history is full of surprises.

Researching my own family history, I discovered a great-great-great-great-great-grandfather who bought his freedom and his family's. Eventually, he emigrated to Liberia with his wife. Before he went, though, he wanted his family to be able to read and write, so he hired a white woman from the North. And to get around the laws that prohibited whites from teaching blacks to read and write, he somehow persuaded her to pretend to be a fair-skinned black from New Orleans.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Flight Time

If I'd paid attention to my former Washington Post colleague Courtland Milloy, I would have said no when my 11-year-old said he wanted to see Red Tails, the new movie about the Tuskegee Airmen. Courtland saw the movie. He hated it. He hated it so much, in fact, he wrote a column about how bad the picture was.

Fortunately, I didn't pay attention to Courtland's column, and my son and I went to see the movie a couple of weeks ago. To be sure, Red Tails isn't as good as, say, Glory, the 1989 film about black soldiers in the Civil War. But then Glory had stars like Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington, while Red Tails has Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard, two actors on the downhill slope of their careers.

George Lucas--who financed Red Tails himself when he couldn't find Hollywood backers--has said he wanted to make a throwback to pictures like Flying Leathernecks, a 1951 movie starring (who else?) John Wayne. And he succeeded. Red Tails is a gorgeous movie with breath-taking computer generated dog-fights, but a perfunctory plot and little character development.

Considered as the picture Lucas wanted to make, Red Tails is pretty darn good. And, the thing is, there aren't that many movies about the history of blacks in the U.S. armed forces. A quick search found this write-up, which lists 19 pictures, but doesn't include 1984's A Soldier's Story, which also stars Washington, billed below David Alan Grier!, or The Negro Soldier, a Frank Capra propaganda film made to encourage blacks to enlist during World War II.

And, flaws aside, Red Tails was a great opportunity to talk afterwards with my son--who, by the way, has met two Tuskegee Airmen, and has a book autographed by one--about the rich history of blacks in the military from Crispus Attucks to the present.

Monday, October 24, 2011

And for My 70th Birthday. . .

When he turned 50, one of my oldest friends--we were roommates freshman year in college--jumped out of an airplane. For my 60th--I can't say I planned it, but it's as good a reason as any for doing it--I biked the C&O Canal towpath, nearly 185 miles from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C.*

Writing this a few days afterwards, I feel better than I'd imagined I would when I was planning the trip this summer. I'd gotten a great new bike last year, a Cannondale Quick CX Ultra, but back problems and bronchitis kept me from doing much riding that summer. And though I went into the winter with the best intentions, once it got cold the bike stayed in my office. In April, when I finally got back on it, I went two-and-a-half miles before I had to turn back, completely winded.

Once I'd talked my friend Bob into doing the C&O Canal with me, I started to train. Early in the summer, I rode 35 miles one morning, the longest I'd ever gone. A few weeks later, I developed knee problems, which meant cutting back how much I rode. But at least the two orthopedists I consulted didn't tell me to give up riding completely.

I wasn't entirely convinced I'd be able to finish the trip, but my wife drove Bob and me to Cumberland on a recent Thursday morning anyway. After a few unseen delays--the purchase of a commemorative jersey at a bike shop; adjustment of the new grips on Bob's bike--we waved goodbye and took off. We rode about 45 miles to Little Orleans that first day and another 45 to Williamsport the second. From there, it was about 40 miles to Harpers Ferry.

The end of that third day was the worst of the trip. Not because I was tired or my legs hurt or I was thinking about the 60 miles we had to ride the next day. I was, they did, and I was. But what was truly awful was that the only way to get across the Potomac River to the hot shower and soft bed I so desperately craved was to climb a narrow set of twisting stairs with my fully loaded bike.

But I made it up the stairs (and back down again the next morning) and Bob and I made it to Washington. I feel pretty proud of myself for doing something I never thought I'd be able to. That is, until I think about the avid cyclist the innkeeper at Little Orleans told us about. He rode from Washington to Cumberland and back to Little Orleans--about 225 miles--all in one day.

It's something to aspire to.

*Now, the full disclosure implied by the asterisk above. I didn't really ride the entire 184.5 miles of the C&O Canal towpath from Cumberland to Washington. About a half-mile from the end, I got a flat near 31st Street in Georgetown. Since my wife was only 10 minutes away, I decided not to be a purist. But it wouldn't have mattered anyway: A few tenths of a mile ahead, the towpath was blocked by a chain-link fence.