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!

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