Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown (CityLit Press), Rafael Alvarez’s fourth collection of fiction, commemorates the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Fountain of Highlandtown, his first collection of fiction, which was published by the now-defunct (and CityLit precursor) Woodholme House Publishers. From 1981 to 2001, Alvarez worked as a city desk reporter for the Baltimore Sun, specializing in “the folklore of city neighborhoods,” a folklore that still courses through his veins (and his fiction).
Nathan Leslie: I really enjoyed reading your new book Basilio Boullosa Stars in The Fountain of Highlandtown. Basilio, of course, also appeared in The Fountain of Highlandtown, but in your latest book he is the central character. What inspired you to write this particular series of stories?
Rafael Alvarez: I am writing one huge story—an East Baltimore cathedral of narrative—red brick and white marble—each individual story is another brick or nave or length of cornice and Basilio is my Eugene Gant, thus more bricks about him than many of the others in my ‘troupe’ of Holy Land characters. They all orbit Basilio, even before he was born. When Gregg Wilhelm, past executive director of City Lit (which published the new Basilio book) asked about putting out a 20th anniversary edition of Fountain I realized that I had written enough stand-alone stories in which Basilio is the protagonist (“stars in …”) for a new book.
NL: The photographs incorporated into this new book are wonderful. As a hard-core Orioles fan, I particularly like the image of you in front of Memorial Stadium. Just out of curiosity what moved you to include these in the book?
RA: I am an amateur photographer who exclusively uses disposable cameras. you can read more about my devotion to Baltimore via drug store cameras in this essay I published in 2016. I am obsessed with documenting life in the margins of the “big picture” in Baltimore and since leaving The Baltimore Sun and watching that industry collapse, I have become something of a one-man newsroom. When I can’t take photos myself in certain situations, I call on a handful of friends far more skilled than I in the picture game: Jennifer Bishop, Sean Scheidt, Jim Burger (who took the memorial stadium pic), and Phil Laubner.
The right photo—just one at the beginning of a story adds intrigue to the words about to follow. When the photo of me was taken in front of Memorial Stadium in 1999, we all knew the old warhorse was scheduled to come down. I did not merely want a photo of myself in front of the great facade—TIME WILL NOT DIM THE GLORY OF THEIR DEEDS.
I needed it.
NL: Your work is often considered to be Baltimore-centric. What does Baltimore mean to you (as a writer, but also as a person)?
RA: It means everything to me and at this point in my career—having written professionally for the past 40 years—I can’t separate the writer from the person and don’t know what I’d be (restless, irritable, and discontent no doubt) if I had not fulfilled my birth assignment to write.
Baltimore is my aesthetic inheritance. I’ve been a whole lot of places—not quite all around the world, as Muddy Waters sang—but fairly far and reasonably wide and no place, however beautiful, speaks to me like Baltimore. This is where my parents were born. Where my grandparents walked to the market to get a freshly slaughtered chicken. Where I sat on the marble steps in high school and drank beer with waitresses just getting off the night shift in Little Italy. Where I kissed a girl at Poe’s grave and gave my first reading at the Pratt Library while still a teenager.
This is it and that is all.
NL: Do you ever find the tag as a “Baltimore writer” to be frustrating or limiting? I personally find that your work certainly transcends “mere regionalism.”
RA: Not much I can do about that but continue to export my stories—however synonymous with Baltimore—to other parts of the world. Every time a friend of mine travels overseas—be it Jerusalem or London—I give them one of my books to give away to anyone who reads English.
I have a writer friend who has a t-shirt that says, “obscure regional writer.” Most folks don’t know how hard it is to even achieve that status. At present, I have no plans to buy one of those shirts.
NL: I’ve read some of the pieces you wrote initially for the Baltimore Sun, featured in other (earlier) books of yours. Do you miss writing journalistic pieces at all?
RA: I have found it necessary to continue to do journalism—on subjects as disparate as Old Bay seasoning to the Delta blues of Mississippi—just about every day. And part of it is just in me. When I lived and worked in LA (2005 through 2009) it frustrated my agents that I would still do nickel-and-dime journalism from time to time when they wanted me to write scripts on spec in the hope that one of them would sell. But I would stumble upon an interesting person or situation or a musician I was enamored of (Marc Ribot, John Gorka, Robert Kimbrough, Sr.) or a homeless poet reading Kerouac under a bridge and I’d be compelled to talk to them and then write about them and then find anyplace that would publish it for a few bucks. Such stories often wind up in my non-fiction anthologies. And then that story would be “safe,” for the ages in that I had gone out and rescued it for an unlikely source and given it a home between hard-covers. Whereas the only end-game of selling a script on spec in LA—unless you are a very rare bird such as Guillermo del Toro—is a big payday. I’ve had a few of those and they are nice (and very certainly I would love the chance to adapt my fiction for the big screen) but the journalist in me feels an obligation to write certain things without commercial consideration.
NL: Upon reflection, do you find that your experience in journalism has shaped your fictional writing style?
RA: Being a city desk reporter in Baltimore for 20 years—from the age of 21 to 41, very formative years in anyone’s career, covering everything from 5-alarm fires to struggling soup kitchens—basically paid me to study the great subject of all my work, life in the town where I was born. For every 1,000-word story I filed on some aspect of the city, there were 15 pages of notes that didn’t make it into the article. From those marginal observations have sprung a lot of my fiction.
NL: The state of journalism has changed quite a lot since you were writing for the Baltimore Sun. Are there any positive changes, in your view?
RA: I’d prefer not to answer this question. Not for any profound reason, I’m just tired of trying to find answers for a question without any good answers. I like the rise of radio journalism and storytelling that has filled a lot of the void since the collapse of newspapers. I still believe that the radio—a simple transistor with AM/FM—is a miracle.
NL: Regarding your fiction, I’d love to hear about your writing process. Do you have a particular schedule or method? For instance, are you usually working on more than one project simultaneously? Take us behind the scenes a bit….
RA: Seven days a week—including Christmas, Thanksgiving, and my birthday—I write while running a writing “business” so I don’t have to get a “job.” I work best in solitude and silence. That is a luxury in 2018 and often hard to find. I wake up about 6 a.m., make coffee, say a rosary once in a while and begin work by 6:30 a.m., sitting down at a kitchen table or folding ‘cafeteria’ table—(I have several “offices” or “studios” and have put great care into establishing them only to wind up, just like I did as a school kid doing homework, at the kitchen table.) I start with stuff that can be done without a lot of imagination, like editing. Then I might look through the previous day’s snail mail and pay a bill, check my email, make sure I haven’t over-drawn my checking account and pester editors who have not paid me for past work.
I write/edit/journal/interview subjects and pen old-fashioned letters about 6 to 12 hours every day. An “off” day is usually when I have a family obligation like taking one of my parents to a doctor’s appointment and then I take a manuscript in progress and work on a print-out in the waiting room. I am never without a composition book.
After “warming up,” I’ll go to whatever current fiction I am working on—right now it’s a novel about Orlo and Leini in 1931—and, having woken up a bit and feeling the coffee do its thing I spend the next half-hour breaking big rocks into little rocks that make up my stories. In this way I feel that I am giving the work that is closest to my heart-—vocation with a capital V—the best part of my brain.
From there it’s onto to the journalism which pays the bills—right now I am finishing up two biographies of several intriguing Baltimoreans on commission and there are monthly deadlines for magazines I write for. I try to limit the journalism to subjects I care about—music, literature, do-gooder stuff like the Catholic Worker movement—but the better pay comes from university and hospital publications so there is some of that as well.
A great day is when I don’t have to leave the house to do anything more than walk to the mailbox to send a letter to someone. A day when the discipline falters is when I have to travel from my home in the city to my parents’ house in the ‘burbs and the day gets away from me. But I try to keep a healthy sense of not knowing anything for sure. On the days when I am out in the world—tutoring or attending a funeral or buying toothpaste—are often the days when I happen upon a story that would have been lost had I stayed home.
Though all of this—to the left and to the right of my typewriter—are piles of old papers, snapshots I have taken with disposable cameras (my favorite), envelopes and stamps, colored markers and crayons—and in between banging out a sentence or a paragraph or filing a story that was due three day earlier I will indulge myself in collage, which calms me, restores me in some way I can’t quite describe but is akin to what knitters talk about when they are in the groove, both present and not present at the same time.
The collage isn’t complete, however, until I put a stamp on it and drop it in a mailbox, usually to the person featured in the snapshot that I have transformed into something silly and now and again beautiful.
That gets me to about 2 p.m. or so when I have lunch, read for a few moments (currently Swann’s Way by Proust) and then nap for several hours, something I have done for the past 30 years or since I began to get serious about fiction. When I wake up, the morning ritual is repeated—coffee, fiction, etc. When there is an Orioles baseball game on the radio I will write until the final out. Sometimes it makes me think I get more work done during baseball season than the rest of the year.
Finally, in the past 40 years I bet there are less than 50 days where I did not write a single thing.
NL: There is a place in the introduction to Basilio where you state that you are not as fond of the stories in The Fountain of Highlandtown twenty years hence. How do you think your fiction grown over the past two decades?
RA: Let’s just say that the early stories, like the ones I am writing today, were made from whole cloth. However, the thread count in my work 20 years ago was just barely enough to be called a sheet. Today, my stories have thread-counts of 250 or more, they are more tightly woven, the colors bleed less after several readings. They could be used to carry all of one’s earthly belongings when bad times arrive.
NL: Music pops up a lot in your latest book. Talk about what music means to you, if it is possible to verbalize that. Do you find that you are often moved by other mediums (music, art, film)?
RA: My life changed when the Beatles appeared on Sullivan 02.09.64, I was six years old. This is detailed via fiction in the first story in Basilio, ‘I Know Why I was Born.” Music takes me to places almost nothing else does (sometimes I think it wasn’t the Beatles music on Sullivan that was the transfiguration, but the screams) When I write, I try to create visceral emotions that take my readers to whatever the place is that music takes me. As the boys from Hawthorne, California sang, “I don’t know where but she takes me there …” I sometimes get that same feeling from novels or obituaries I’m reading when a certain line strikes me and will commit that line to my composition book. I like the films of Terrence Malick and was greatly moved by his adaptation of The Thin Red Line, especially when the GIs who went AWOL on a Pacific island stare up at the clouds and we hear their internal monologue with the creator.
NL: Some of the stories within Basilio strike me as at least partially nostalgic in mood. Do you find yourself consciously drawn to the past when you write a new story or novel?
RA: “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even the past.” (I think Grandpa Munster said that!) If buildings and furniture and wallpaper could talk, I would interview them.
Nathan Leslie’s ten books of fiction include Three Men, Root and Shoot, Sibs and Drivers. He is also the author of The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, a novel, and the poetry collection Night Sweat. His work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years. He also served as interviews editor at Prick of the Spindle and he writes a monthly music column for Atticus Review. His work appeared in Best Small Fictions 2016 and in 2018 his work was just published in Flash! A flash fiction anthology published by Norton and edited by John Dufresne. Check him out on Twitter and Facebook as well as at www.nathanleslie.net. He is the co-founder and host of the monthly Reston Readings series, and he teaches at NOVA in Northern Virginia.