Rafael Alvarez, a writer for the HBO series The Wire, stopped by the blog today to talk about his new book.
E: Greetings and welcome to Erindipity, Rafael! I’m glad you could stop by. Care for a refreshment? Cookie?
R: Tap water is fine. Thanks.
E: You have a new book coming out in January 2014 from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing called Tales from the Holy Land. You’ve described it as a mural. Can you tell us more about that?
R: Since about 1988 (in ficciones) I have been writing one huge book – a very marginal history of Baltimore across the 20th century – a single story at a time.
The setting is always Baltimore (the “Holy Land” of the title) and – like Altman or Woody Allen – I tend to work with a trusted troupe of characters, perhaps two dozen who appear over and again in the stories: fictionalized versions of myself, my family, friends of my grandparents when I was young, obscure local legends (eccentrics) who make Baltimore the goldmine of narrative that it is, along with completely fictional characters, best exemplified by Orlo the Salvage King and his young Greek lover, Leini Leftafkis.
Each story is a panel in the mural. I do not write these stories in chronological sequence. I wait for one of the two dozen characters – Basilio Boullosa or Cherry Triplett or Leini’s cross-eyed daughter Little Leini – to speak to me and then I step back from the mural and see where there might be a gap in the chronology.
E: You have several other books out. Out of all the titles you’ve published, which one was the most fun to write? Which one was the hardest to write?
R: Not sure fun is the right word to describe it. I was most thrilled when my first book – The Fountain of Highlandtown – was published in 1997 because I’d worked so long for a book and sometimes wondered if it would ever happen. Most fun is when I’m not thinking about publication, when I’m not thinking about the internal carpentry of the story, most fun is when I’m a kid again, taking my characters down from the shelf like puppets and playing with them for my own amusement.
The hardest was First & Forever: A People’s History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore” because it covered 400 years of Maryland history – beginning with the Ark & the Dove (the Catholic Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria!) and going all the way through the election of Pope Benedict the XVI. But again, the subject matter was dear to me and I was able to combine a lot of my interests – such as faith and seafaring – in chapters on chapels in ships docked in the Port of Baltimore. It took me seven years to write and the pay was minimal at best.
E: Your website is a place I could get lost in for hours. I think my favorite part is all of the old black and white photographs of Baltimore. What is it about these pictures that grabbed you?
R: Those photographs evoke what I try to capture in the stories: a simple, working class enchantment (food, work, love, struggle), perhaps not so great to have lived through (though every octogenarian I’ve interviewed looks back on them fondly) but a time when there was work if you wanted it and the pay was enough to put a good meal on the table.
E: The Aging Newspapermen’s Club is another fantastic section of the site. How did working in the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun shaped who you are as a writer?
R: I learned to write – basic construction, the carpentry I mentioned earlier – as a young man on the City Desk of a once-great newspaper, a room of mostly good souls and bosses who wouldn’t spare your feelings to make a story better. That was my MFA. I ornamented that carpentry with a poetic ear I acquired by listening to a lot of music: the British Invasion (Ray Davies of the Kinks is an extraordinary storyteller; the great bluesmen (I covered Muddy Waters’ funeral in 1983); glam-rock of the early 1970s (Bowie, Mott the Hoople); and listening to the Who’s Quadrophenia (1973) every day for about five years. The other aspect of the newsroom was I got paid to “study” the city I love. Not only was I learning to write but the subject matter was often lives that had taken place in those enchanting black and white photographs. I also wrote a lot of obituaries, which was great for getting to the nuance of relationships by talking to surviving family members. It’s fascinating the things people remember about loved ones or not-so-loved ones.
E: Your website also lists The RosaryProject as a documentary you’re working on. What inspired the project?
R: The Blessed Mother is very important to me, crucial to my daily life.
E: You make a lot of nautical references, from photographs to stories about the sea. What was it like growing up in the second largest American seaport?
R: My Spanish grandfather was a marinero who landed in Baltimore on a ship in the 1920s; my father first went to sea at age 17 and spent most of his working life on tugboats in the Baltimore harbor and I worked on ships twice (two years right after high school and again two years after leaving The Sun in 2001. I draw on all of these experiences (those lived, those only heard about) in my fiction. Seafarers are notoriously good storytellers. The old joke is: “What’s the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story?”
Answer: “A fairy tale begins, ‘Once upon a time …’ and a sea story begins: ‘This ain’t no shit …’”
E: What has been the hardest thing about being a writer and what has been the most rewarding?
R: The hardest thing has been making a living. The most rewarding are the notes and conversations from people who say, “I was going through a hard time and your story made me feel better, helped me to get through it …”
You can find out more about Rafael on his website.