Q & A: Rafael Alvarez

What makes Baltimore so appealing as a setting for fiction?

By John Lewis - February 2014

Interview with author Rafael Alvarez

What makes Baltimore so appealing as a setting for fiction?

By John Lewis - February 2014

-Photo by Mark V. Lord

Besides the fact that it’s your hometown, what makes Baltimore so appealing as a setting for fiction?

The question that is asked a thousand times of artists mining the plentiful but seemingly worthless ore of Baltimore (it's not gold, it's iron and slag and we try to spin into something that glitters, if only when the sun hits it just right.) For me it's the age of the place—as old as just about anything in the area that eventually became the United States—and its also the romance of sailing ships and the sea and the true polyglot of people and their faiths. No matter what they put up in this town, it was built upon something that makes for a better story: Burke's beneath the chicken fat of a Royal Farm at Light and Lombard; orthodox synagogues and the bones of organ grinder monkeys beneath the new restaurants of little italy, heavy metals deep in the soil beneath Harbor East. I make sure I find someone who still remembers and launch them onto the canvas of my fiction, which is really one very long story—a mural—being written one panel at a time.

You’ve also lived in Los Angeles, a city that attracts lots of aspiring writers, actors, musicians, etc. As a devoted Baltimore, what was it like living there?

I tried, but I never really liked it. I arrived too late in life (mid 40s) Tried to enjoy Dodger Stadium but it only reminded me of where I wasn't (Camden Yards); became good friends with a guy from Pigtown, John Elliott IV, who photographed red carpet events and when we were at PINK'S (the famous LA hot dog joint) we talked about the old Polack Johnny's on the Block ... went to Mass at the futuristic LA Cathedral (shot part of my rosary documentary there) but wished I was at St. Leo's on Exeter Street.

How has your work as a journalist informed your short stories?

The two cannot be separated. Baltimore is the great subject of my work - I still recall trying to figure out at about the age of 20 two seemingly crucial aspects of becoming a fiction writer: whether to create a truly fictional world (re-naming everything, inventing new streets, etc.) or choosing some exotic locale (or a series of them for my stories) and the real answer for why I chose Baltimore (one of my better decisions) was it just made a very difficult craft much easier.

The characters in your stories come from the streets, but they tend to believe in something bigger (be it Catholicism or the music of Johnny Winter). Do such things offer more than solace from reality?

O'Malley took a lot of shit for the BELIEVE campaign. It was one of his ideas I supported. I believe that mysticism and faith can change things, particularly in a charming city like Baltimore where the average person—and in Baltimore it's a pretty tough 'average'—is just trying to survive. We all need something bigger than ourselves— whether it's the Ravens or Transubstantiation—whether we believe it or not.

Music plays a major role in some of these stories. What is it about the music of Johnny Winter, Frank Zappa, and Dion that resonates with you?

Of all people, Mr. Lewis—you, who once wore Ike Turner's pajamas—you know this is a question that must be discussed over a long evening of good food and drink only to declare that we didn't even scratch the surface. I was 6 years old in 1964. On February 8—my namesake grandfather's 60th birthday—I was one kind of kid. After Sunday, February 9 (when The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show), I was another.

Gibby Lukowski loses his virginity on a tugboat, and his family worked the waterfront for generations. Wasn’t your dad a tugboat captain?

My father was a chief engineer for the Baker-Whiteley towing at the City Pier on Thames Street from 1957 until the company—then known as McAllister—replaced the seafarer's union workers with scabs. I have a long chapter in The Wire: Truth Be Told about the great baltimore tugboat strike of 1966.

What are your favorite “Baltimore” books?

I don't really read Baltimore books. My favorite Baltimore movie is Barry's Avalon. I was re-watching it in 1995 when my former father in law—Ralph Rudacille, father of Deborah, author of Roots of Steel—was struggling to beat cancer. Somehow the combo of a Baltimore that was gone (Avalon) and this proud former steelworker from Dundalk fighting for his life unexpectedly brought me to tears. Mr. Rudacille—as Pop Pop—makes a cameo in the story "Nine Innings in Baltimore."


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