By E.A. Aymar
It’s still impossible for me to say “Baltimore” without warmth. There was a time when I spent every weekend walking its streets, taking notes for my writing, marveling at its neighborhoods. Sadly, those days are gone. Life caught up, my free time tightened, and now I’m a stranger to those streets.
When asked, I usually refer to myself as a MD/DC/VA author. Most of the events I attend are in D.C., which is also where I work, but I live in Virginia and my stories and books still take place in Maryland. And that classification actually works for me. But, for this “Meet Your Region” series, I wanted to provide readers with a more exact sense of how each of those regions affects writers.
And I wanted pancakes.
So I invited three writers who live or write about Virginia (Laura Ellen Scott), D.C. (Colleen Shogan), and Maryland (Nik Korpon) to brunch, and did a group interview one sunny Saturday morning at Ted’s Bulletin on Capitol Hill.
After introductions and orders, we started the conversation by talking about Northern Virginia, and the difficulty of writing about suburbs:
Laura Ellen Scott (VA): My first attempt at a big murder book, which did not work out, was like looking out my window. It was a cul-de-sac, townhome community, “let’s kill the kids” story. I was trying to work with that suburban environment and dig up the gothic sense underneath it. That was incredibly challenging. I got to 95,000 words before I gave up, but the idea of pocket parks stuck with me. That’s kind of Northern Virginia in general. You have those tiny little green spaces, right outside all this industry and construction. I think it’s a good area for something creepy and confined.
E.A. Aymar: Wasn’t the first planned community around here?
Nik Korpon (MD): Yeah. It was in Maryland. Columbia. I was recently at the book launch for Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake, and she spent some time when she was growing up in that area. The guy who built Columbia [Edward Norton’s grandfather! -ed.] built it as a utopia but, in order to get all the land, there were all these middle-of-the-night secret deals. Very clandestine. Weird way for a utopia to start.
E.A. Aymar: I think Northern Virginia is hard because it acts like D.C.’s suburb, and that makes it difficult to write about because D.C. is famously transient. It’s hard for me to pinpoint D.C.’s culture. Most cities have their own accents and attitudes. You can recognize someone from Boston or New York or Baltimore or Philly. I don’t think that’s necessarily true in D.C.
Colleen Shogan (D.C.): It’s hard because there are so many different people from so many different places. But the neighborhoods in D.C. have their own personalities and stereotypes. Capitol Hill has a distinct stereotype about where the people who live there work, the places they go, how they interact with each other. That’s why it’s fun to write about. I like it because a lot of people will never get to work on the Hill or see these things, so it’s a nice way for them to understand what it’s like and to show that it’s not all bad people who work on the Hill. It’s actually people trying to do good things, even if they occasionally act poorly to one another.
For my books, the setting is as much as how the characters interact as it is a physical setting.
E.A. Aymar: What I like about your books is that you capture the sense of people being here from out of the area. Do you plan on keeping Kit Marshall (the protagonist of Shogan’s Washington Whodunit series) in D.C.?
Colleen Shogan (D.C.): I don’t know. I’ve never really played with that idea. But I could. Like Allison Leotta did in her last book (A Good Killing). I’m finishing up that book right now. It’s a really interesting approach, to take your character out of their home.
Laura Ellen Scott (VA): I don’t write about Fairfax, but my next book is in a college town. I’ve been living in college towns all my life and, for my next series, the location is going to be a town in Ohio, a mashup of Athens and Chillicothe. The idea of that town is heavily influenced by Fairfax.
E.A. Aymar: Why isn’t Fairfax more of a college town?
Laura Ellen Scott (VA): The students don’t go to the city. The city comes to the campus.
E.A. Aymar: Oh, food! Everyone shut up.
(The food arrives.)
(We eat and gossip.)
Laura Ellen Scott (VA): Can we turn on the recorder so I can start again? Or are we still talking smack about Alan Orloff?
E.A. Aymar: You know, he was supposed to join us, since a lot of his work is based in Virginia. But he couldn’t because he’s having a colonoscopy on Monday.
Nik Korpon (MD): Worst excuse ever. Or maybe the best. I’m not sure.
Laura Ellen Scott (VA): Fairfax has tried to integrate the city with the college, but they’ve never quite made that link. What makes a college town for me is a much clearer imbalance between ideology and affluence. Whereas in Fairfax, you have…
E.A. Aymar: Don’t get all academic.
Laura Ellen Scott (VA): I’m saying there are a lot of rich people here who are also very well-educated. And a college town needs a bohemian core.
E.A. Aymar: I’ve always wondered if it’s the area. Take Blacksburg. The town isn’t connected to any other towns or cities. But for people out of town and visiting Fairfax, you have no idea when you’re in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Vienna, or even Maryland. It’s all connected.
Colleen Shogan (D.C.): I think it’s because people don’t live there. When you’re in a college town, everyone lives in that town. Professors walk to their houses. That’s not Mason. Or at least it wasn’t when I taught there.
E.A. Aymar: Nik, how does Maryland regard Baltimore writers? Is there a definite divide, like how Northern Virginia differs in so many ways from the rest of the state? Or, like Colleen said, is the divide within the neighborhoods?
Nik Korpon (MD): I don’t think so. Most of the writers I know in Maryland live in Baltimore, or around Baltimore. And even if they don’t live in the city, they tend to come to Baltimore for readings or events.
E.A. Aymar: Did you ever feel nervous writing about Baltimore, given how writers like Laura Lippman and David Simon made their impressions of the city the national impression?
Nik Korpon (MD): In some ways…
E.A. Aymar: Sorry to interrupt, but wasn’t that a good question?
Laura Ellen Scott (VA): It was, actually.
Nik Korpon (MD): In some ways, Baltimore is still under the shadow of The Wire. When I first thought of myself as a serious writer I worried about it, and then I thought, “Who cares?” I write crime fiction, but my novels don’t have the social element theirs does. It’s a different type of crime. The thing I do worry about, especially with Lippmann and Simon and Rafael Alvarez – they were all reporters, so they know the city really well. But, then again, I write about the places I know well.
E.A. Aymar: What’s something about this area that you love, or something you wished it offered? And also name a writer from the area you like.
E.A. Aymar: D.C. is always considered one of the most well-read communities in the country, but that’s not always apparent at events – I mean in regards to attendance numbers. I wonder if this area caters more to non-fiction, particularly autobiography and political books, rather than fiction.
Colleen Shogan (D.C.): D.C. doesn’t necessarily have a literary culture, particularly when you look at in terms of donations. Not compared to New York where people patronize the arts. It’s just not natural in D.C., even though there are a lot of book lovers here.
Laura Ellen Scott (VA): But one thing we do have here is an abundance of crime writers. That feels really unusual.
Colleen Shogan (D.C.): It’s definitely rare. And nice.
E.A. Aymar: I’ve always thought this was one of the strongest areas for crime fiction, both for emerging and established writers. Writers here are producing strong series, like Donna Andrews or Allison Leotta, or gobbling up awards, like Art Taylor and Barb Goffman. It’s nicely competitive.
Colleen Shogan (D.C.): I really love the local Sisters in Crime chapter. I don’t get to go as often as I want, but they’re really good. What I like about writing in D.C. is going to places, experiencing them. Whether it’s landmarks or restaurants. I love that, and I like taking notes about what I like and incorporating that in the book. And seeing people at places, noticing how they react to things. I was a political scientist before I was a writer, so I’m obsessed with getting things right. And a writer I really like from this area is Neely Tucker. Really dark, and he writes about a different area of the city than I do. And he gets it right. I really like what I’ve read by him.
Laura Ellen Scott (VA): One of my favorite things is the high expectations, and this may come from the political aspect, both for literacy and our ability to have a complex argument. I can always count on an energized conversation about contemporary life, or anything really. I love the idea of so many flavors, like Donna Andrews, Barb Goffman, Alan Orloff, and darker stuff as well.
E.A. Aymar: So you like being part of that group?
Laura Ellen Scott (VA): Oh, no, I don’t like groups. In fact, this brunch is making me extremely uncomfortable. I like being in proximity of a group. But I wanted to touch on something we mentioned earlier, particularly about Baltimore. I feel like, in that city, people really enjoy going to readings as entertainment. The way others might go to movies.
Nik Korpon (MD): The small community helps. Baltimore…we call it Smalltimore. And it’s a friendly environment, which I like a lot.
E.A. Aymar: That’s one thing with this area. D.C. is socially conservative, and the audiences are occasionally staid. The first Noir at the Bar I went to was in Baltimore, hosted and organized by Nik, and, like Laura said, it was so much fun. I really wanted to bring that energy and enthusiasm to D.C. And the events we’ve had here have gotten bigger and better every year, largely because these three regions have so much talent to showcase. Audiences can sense it. Also no one’s a dick. That’s nice.
Colleen Shogan (D.C.): As competitive as this area is, that’s the nice thing about crime fiction writers here. It’s a really supportive group, really friendly. I love it.
Thanks to Nik Korpon, Colleen Shogan, and Laura Ellen Scott for participating in this interview!
As a side note, no one supported me when it came to paying the bill.
As a second side note, we easily could have named one hundred writers from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia that are worth reading. I won’t list them here, but I did write another column for the Washington Independent Review of Books that listed a lot more. If you want to learn more about area writers, you can read that column here.
About the contributors:
Nik Korpon is the author of The Rebellion’s Last Traitor (Angry Robot 2017), Queen of the Struggle (2018), and The Soul Standard, among others. He lives in Baltimore. To learn more about Korpon’s latest novel, click on the cover below:
Laura Ellen Scott (http://lauraellenscott.com/) is an author with Pandamoon Publishing whose most recent novel is THE JULIET, a Western Thriller about a cursed emerald lost in Death Valley. Her next novel, THE MEAN BONE IN HER BODY, will be released in December 2016 and is the first book in the New Royal Mysteries set in a fictional college/prison town in Ohio. Laura splits her time between West Virginia and Northern Virginia, and she advises and teaches fiction writing at George Mason University. Ed Aymar was her favorite advisee. To learn more about Scott’s latest novel, click on the cover below:
Colleen Shogan is the author of the Washington Whodunit mystery series featuring Capitol Hill staffer turned amateur sleuth Kit Marshall. Colleen’s day job is at the Library of Congress, where she works on great programs like the National Book Festival. Her first book Stabbing in the Senate won the Next Generation Indie Award in 2016 for Best Mystery. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband Rob and rescue mutt Conan. More info available at www.colleenshogan.com. To learn more about Shogan’s latest novel, click on the cover below:
E.A. Aymar is the managing editor of The Thrill Begins. His latest novel is YOU’RE AS GOOD AS DEAD. He also writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and is involved in a collaboration with DJ Alkimist, a NY and DC-based DJ, where his stories are set to her music. For more information about that project, visit www.eaalkimist.com. To learn more about Aymar’s latest novel, click on the cover below: