Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Q&A with David Nicholson

David Nicholson is the author of the story collection Flying Home: Seven Stories of the Secret City. He worked as an editor and book reviewer for The Washington Post Book World and was the founding editor of Black Film Review. He also worked for the Dayton Daily News and the Associated Press. He lives in Vienna, Virginia.

Q: Your stories take place in Washington, D.C. Could they have taken place anywhere else, and how important is setting in your writing?

A: I could not have written these stories without imagining them set in Washington, D.C., but the paradox is that these stories could have taken place anywhere black Americans share a common culture.

Bloomingdale, the Washington neighborhood where I grew up, is the imagined setting for these stories. At the same time, I never say where the stories are set. I name some landmarks but, with a couple of exceptions, I never name streets.

Instead, the street where most of the action takes place is called the Street and the nearby avenue, the Avenue. That was deliberate because I wanted my fictional neighborhood (and its characters) to represent neighborhoods all across black Washington.

I put in enough detail, however, so that someone familiar with the city’s geography could figure out where the stories are set.

Q: Some of the characters turn up in more than one story. Did you plan out the interactions between the characters before you started writing the first story, or did they develop as you wrote?

A: Each story was conceived separately. Later, when I began thinking about collecting them, I saw that some of the stories shared--or could share--characters. I revised one or two with the idea of trying to create a little world where one story’s foreground character might be among the background characters in another story.

Q: How did you pick the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: I borrowed--no, stole--the main title from Ralph Ellison, who also has a story called “Flying Home.” I hope I’m not wrong in thinking there are thematic similarities between our stories.

I’m not sure what Ellison was aiming for, but there’s some irony in my use of the title. My character, Shepherd, goes back to his old neighborhood, a place where he no longer belongs. In the course of the story, he fantasizes about flying home, though where home might be now is not clear.

The subtitle comes from a 1932 article by W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Secret City: Impressions of Colored Washington.” Du Bois was writing at a time when most white Americans were unaware of how much some black Americans had achieved.

For the most part, black achievements no longer pass unrecognized, but I think the interior and emotional lives of black people remain something of a secret city.

Q: A couple of the book’s blurbs compare your writing to that of Ellison. What do you think of that comparison?

A: I’m flattered and a little leery. As Eudora Welty said about the possibility of being compared to William Faulkner, “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”

At the same time, I freely admit that Ellison’s thinking--if not the example of his writing--has long been an influence. A more immediate influence was James Alan McPherson, one of my teachers at Iowa. McPherson was also influenced and--early in his career--championed by Ellison.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m rewriting a novel I’d thought I was done with. It’s called “The House of Eli,” and the main character is Shepherd Bailey, the museum curator of the story “Flying Home.” In the novel, he’s haunted by the ghost of a slave freed for saving his master’s life during the Revolutionary War.

I’m also working (or not working!) on a biography of the Rev. William David Chappelle, an A.M.E. bishop who was the comedian’s great-grandfather.

My interest in him grew out of research for a family history/memoir, “The Simonses of S Street: The Story of an American Family.” That book (another I’m not working on!), begins with the earliest ancestor I’ve been able to document, a slave who bought his freedom in 1819. I’m up to 1916 in both books.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I feel very luck to have published Flying Home. It’s from a small press, which means I’ve had to do all the marketing and publicity myself. But it’s gotten noticed by writers like George Pelecanos, Charles Johnson, and Henry Louis Gates. It was also reviewed in The New York Times, which feels pretty darn good!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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