- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

“He writes about Washington as if it’s a city like any other (it’s not), filled with rich and interesting characters (it’s not),” Nora Ephron wrote in her 1983 novel “Heartburn.”


Her words may be harsh, but Miss Ephron was only voicing a common complaint about Washington — particularly from New Yorkers. These critics claim the District is a boring, lifeless place filled with politicos and lawyers who do nothing but talk shop. Our city, they scoff, lacks any real culture.

It would be hard to top the Big Apple in this arena, what with Broadway, Carnegie Hall and the Met (both the museum and the opera company). But tomorrow, the Mall will be filled with people looking, not for a glimpse of Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers or a peek at the Magna Carta, but for a literary conversation. The sixth annual National Book Festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will feature 70 well-known authors talking about their work.

Sure, some will be discussing presidential biographies, but there’s also the wildly popular mystery writer Alexander McCall Smith, Poet Laureate Donald Hall and “The Kite Runner” author Khaled Hosseini.

We didn’t have to import all these writers. More than a handful of D.C.-area authors are participating in the festival. The Beltway isn’t such a cultural wasteland after all.

Alice McDermott is one native New Yorker who says her attitude has changed in the 15 years she’s lived in the area. The National Book Award winner will discuss her latest novel, “After This,” at the festival.

“I have been delighted to find that Washington is a tremendous reading city,” Miss McDermott says. “Just last week, I gave a reading from this new book at Politics & Prose. Those readings are always filled and the questions are always intelligent and interesting.”

A few days later, she was at the PEN/Faulkner Gala at the Folger Shakespeare Library and ran into a senator who had attended her reading.

“Our politicians aren’t so bad,” she laughs. “I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. People in politics are interested not just in changing the world or changing the District, but interested in how we live and who we are as a people and as individuals, and that’s what fiction writers are interested in, as well.

“There is an intellectual energy about the place that Washington doesn’t get credit for,” says Miss McDermott, who’s also the writer-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University. “We’re involved and thoughtful people. Which is why I think something like the National Book Festival can take off like it has.”

She’s participated in book festivals nationwide, but thinks there’s something special about Washington’s. “You feel like you really can’t have a trivial moment when you have the Library of Congress behind you when you’re having a discussion about your book,” she says.

Dana Gioia has only been living in the District for four years — since he became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts — but has been a visitor for over three decades.

“Washington has become a much more literary town over the past 10, 15 years,” Mr. Gioia says, noting that more and more nonpolitical writers are making the city home. Institutions like the Library of Congress, the Folger Library and the PEN/Faulker Foundation — not to mention the District’s handful of universities — have become more prominent.

“And it’s become a stopping point for writers internationally,” Mr. Gioia adds. “You’ll meet Mario Vargas Llosa at a dinner, and Jose Emilio Pacheco, the greatest living Mexican poet, lives half the year in Maryland.”

Mr. Gioia is a poet himself. And while he won’t be reading his own work this weekend, he did start the festival’s poetry pavilion when he came to town.

“We thought, ‘What if we do this and nobody comes?’” he recalls.

But the poetry addition has been a big success.

“When Donald Hall speaks, you won’t find a seat,” Mr. Gioia says.

If Nora Ephron really thinks Washington isn’t “filled with rich and interesting characters,” she doesn’t know George Pelecanos’ Washington.

Mr. Pelecanos’ dozen-odd books of detective fiction are all set in the District and have introduced readers worldwide to the parts of the city one doesn’t see on CNN.

He plans to set all his books here. “That’s my life work,” he says, writing “about not just the neighborhoods and the people who live in them, but the race and class issues.”

“There’s an inherent dichotomy built into the fact that all of this is happening in the shadow of the Capitol dome, let’s face it. I want to use it as a microcosm for what’s going on in America.”

The crimes his detectives investigate are just an excuse to explore a multiethnic city whose history is just as storied as that of such places as New York. The fact that nobody else seemed to have noticed this side of the city gave Mr. Pelecanos the impetus to begin.

The novelist is also a writer and producer on HBO’s gritty Baltimore-set drama “The Wire.” That “notoriety,” he says, has given him access to the inner precincts of the area. Someone will call him and say, “You want to know what happens in the violent crimes branch of the MPD? We’ll let you in.”

He says, “I get in touch with the people who know more than me and write a book about it,” Mr. Pelecanos says.

But he knows plenty about the city and has contributed to a cultural renaissance here. “New York’s going to always look down on us,” he says. “They think we’re provincial. I’ve never lived anywhere else, and I think Washington is the greatest city in the world. We have it all and some of the greatest writers in the world.”

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