Chesapeake Armchair Adventures

by Sandra Martin

One of the best ways to explore Chesapeake Country this season is a good book. That's what brand-new Woodholme House Publishers promises ...

I look at newspapers like I do the sky: surprised and delighted anew every day (or every week) at what I never imagined to see in that old familiar spot. But you've got to be fast to get a good look at either one because with skies and newspapers, it's easy come, easy go. There goes that unforgettable sky long before you've committed it to memory, just like wonderful stories dismissed to the recycling pile.

But books are like paintings: You keep them around so you can see and see again that certain splash of winter light against a blackening bank of clouds.

So the hefty packages lately mailed from Woodholme House Publishers on Reisterstown Road in Baltimore have arrived as good news. In them come books from Chesapeake Country some by our region's best living writers, cartoonists and photographers; others from new voices books heading south from Baltimore to encircle Chesapeake Country books worth looking at again and again.


What a Reporter Writes for Fun

First came The Fountain of Highlandtown, a collection of stories you've never read in The Sun from Rafael Alvarez, a writer whose by-line has been a regular there since 1977. That book, as teased Woodholme's press release, "gathers stories that are quintessential Baltimore but wrapped in universal truths of devotion, forgiveness and humility."

The Fountain was a nice looking book, 147 pages of crisp, uncrowded type on creamy paper. More, I've long nursed a fondness for the stories reporters really want to tell, the news-less human dramas of life. Stories of the Streets and the Town turn-of-the-century Chicago journalist George Ade called such stories, and he's been followed in the tradition by an honor role of great journalists, including Ben Hecht, who called his 1922 collection based on his column for the Chicago Daily News, A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago.

According to Hecht's editor, Henry Justin Smith, the writer's "Big Idea was that just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often flatly and unimaginatively told, lay life: that in this urban life there dwelt the stuff of literature, not hidden in remote places, either, but walking the downtown streets, peering from the windows of skyscrapers, sunning itself in parks and boulevards. His was to be the lens throwing city life into new colors, his the microscope revealing its contortions in life and death."

Now Ade and Hecht, who wrote their stories for their newspapers on daily deadline, swore they'd written no more or less than truth. You can read their declarations for yourself in the prefaces to their books.


What kind of thing is Alvarez up to?

We caught up with the 39-year-old Baltimorean in the flesh at Barnes & Noble Books, Annapolis Harbour Center, where he'd come for a book-signing. As is too often the case at such events, the store was filled with browsers but not listeners. So we had Alvarez's nearly undivided attention.

The stories in The Fountain of Highlandtown, Alvarez confessed, are fictional despite their association with local landmarks. But they grew from the streets and the town. He calls Baltimore - and especially "the very curious place where I grew up" - East Baltimore - the "great subject" of his life, one he can't stop thinking or writing about. "I was smelling the smells and hearing the accents as I grew up," he told us.

One of those remembered smells is the scent of duck's blood, borrowed from his grandmother's soup for the story "Johnny Wichodek's Thanksgiving Day."

Precisely defined smells and sounds and sights make good reporting as well as good fiction. Alvarez credits his day job with informing his fiction in other ways, too. "My skills as a reporter helped me research the historical accuracy of places and heighten my ability to transcribe dialogue," he said.

But these stories dip beneath facts to what Ben Hecht's editor called "life [and] the stuff of literature."

That's where Alvarez is headed when he writes in another story born from the treasured tastes and smells of childhood, "Sweet Digits of Swine" that "nothing - almost nothing - triggers memory more strongly than the scent of simmering food wafting through an open window."

The great truths as Alvarez sees them are indivisible from Baltimore. You need hardly go further than pig's feet and duck's blood soup to know that his stories have nailed Baltimore's ethnic diversity. But start one of these stories of longings that never quite achieve their target and you will go farther, until you find yourself in a port city populated by nations of the world: life-long secret lovers Orlo Pound and Leini Leftafkis, who "met on Goose Hill, three miles east of Monkey Row and as far south of Patterson Park as you can go without getting wet"; Balls Maggio; Basilio Boullosa; Pio Talle; Bonnie Sabotka; "See Eddie" Lichtenberg; David "Hosebag" Klein; Miss Fronie Lukowski; and William Donald Schaefer.

"Characters without end, for this is Baltimore" Alvarez promises - and delivers.

The Fountain of Highlandtown, which is the name of the collection as well as of its introductory story, is Alvarez's first book. Like many reporters, Alvarez has dreamed for years of publishing fiction. Maybe, after two decades, he was chaffing at the terms of his profession.

"You can learn journalism like you learn to weld. Anybody can do it. Journalists don't sustain people after they're gone," he lamented.

Maybe Alvarez thought fiction might linger a little longer. Certainly, it was a change of pace. To make the transition, he says, he had to "sit down and slow down."

While "journalists wrestle a story to the mat," a fiction writer must give a story time to "reveal itself." Alvarez says it might take him eight months to write a 40-page story. But, he adds, "it's the work I do for love."

At Baltimore Artscape '94, one of those slow-developing stories won a prize. "I think that brought me to the attention of the Woodholme editor. They sought me out," he told us.

Heady with literary success, Alvarez took a nine-month leave of absence from The Sun. He made the leap last April 15, on the birthday of the subject of his in-progress biography, bluesman Muddy Waters', birthday.

Looking back nine months later, Alvarez made a discovery: Out of daily journalism, he "missed his audience," who he now thinks he "took for granted." Even though the first printing of The Fountain of Highlandtown (2,100 copies) sold out, he says he'll be lucky to reach 5,000 people. With The Sun, he has over 300,000 daily readers.

By the way, Alvarez's literary career added another dimension last year. Following in the footsteps of former Sun colleague and friend David Simon, Alvarez has turned to Homicide. That, of course, is the popular television police drama derived from Simon's year with Baltimore homicide detectives and his documentary book of that name. Alvarez wrote the episode that premiered December 12, in which a promiscuous HIV carrier is done in by a woman he infected. He's sold another script to the television show Cracker.

"This book represents my highest yearning, but it does not pay the bills. There's writing for money and writing for the heart and in between, The Sun, where I learned to write."


Coming to You from Woodholme Press

Alvarez's first book is its publisher's second.

"Very Faulkner-like," pronounces publisher Gregg Wilhelm of the second offering of his brainchild, Woodholme House Publishers. He refers to the Nobel Prize winner famous for his early 20th century Southern stories.

Except instead of Yoknapatawpha County, Alvarez has set his in Baltimore. "Neither needed to go farther to explore life," Wilhelm told us.

Having put in his time in mainstream book publishing, the young Baltimorean - not unlike his second author, Rafael Alvarez - wanted something more.

"Small presses," Wilhelm explained, offer "a corrective to the way the publishing tide has gone with 20 years of mergers and conglomerates."

Wilhelm wanted books somehow realer and closer to home. "The Chesapeake Bay area has really rich soil that grows great writers. Maybe," he thought, "we can harvest some of that work."

Dollars were his first challenge. So he "pitched the idea" to owners of Bibelot, an independently owned book store with three branches in Baltimore county. A fourth Bibelot, the first in the city proper, is scheduled to open in Canton in April.

There's good synergy between a publisher of regional books and an independent bookstore that thrives, in an era dominated by such giants as Borders, Barnes & Noble and Crown, on regional interest and the offerings of small publishing houses. That's one reason why Bibelot's owners, Brian and Elizabeth Weese, liked Wilhelm's idea of a regional publishing house. They are Woodholme's co-publishers, and their stores account for about half its sales.

Woodholme's second challenge is reaching readers.

For today's reader, competition abounds in movies, television, video cassettes and now the internet. What's more, book publishers survive on a small profit margin. Still, Wilhelm is optimistic.

Says he: "I think people are prematurely predicting the decline in the art of reading and the death of books. Books as products are viable as ever as small publishing houses take the initiative with literary segments scorned by traditional houses. Small independent publishers benefit from the shakedown of the big-time New York publishing scene."

Enter Woodholme House Publishers. "The neat thing about us," says co-publisher Wilhelm, "is that we can publish play, short stories, memories - a lot of things in a lot of different books. That's what makes us uniquely dynamic."


Drawing a Crowd

Woodholme House's next book was KAL Draws a Crowd, the third collection of political cartoons from Kevin Kallaugher, political cartoonist for both the Baltimore Sun and the magazine The Economist out of London. KAL lived in England for a decade before joining The Sun and settling in Baltimore in 1988.

You learn details like that from a book. Reading KAL's own words in his "Introduction" adds dimension to your sense of a man you see every day in passing but never stop to meet. Orderly and down to earth, KAL seems.

And you can't help looking at his work in a new way when you've learned how it springs from mind to page day by day. Here's what he says about the last stages of that process: "By mid-afternoon I should have decided on a subject and contrived an angle to tackle it. I refine the cartoon carefully during the next stage - the drawing stage, which takes about four-and-a-half hours [with the final] two-and-a-half hours spent applying black Indian ink to the pencil artwork."

But most of all, a book gives you time to look - and look again. You see KAL most every day in The Sun, glancing for as much as 30 seconds at the commentary, smiling and passing on. In KAL Draws a Crowd, cartoons drawn for The Sun from 1992-'97, there's time to linger with line and mass and structure, appraising the parts as you savor the seasoned wit of the work.

Kallaugher published his own second book, KALtoons. He went to Woodholme for his third. "Having done one myself, I realized that publishing is more than assembling and binding. It's distribution and selling. But I was also not going just to anybody. I had shopped around and concluded I would rather not publish than publish a book that was not of a high standard."

Woodholme satisfied KAL's high standards. "Another of their authors, Stephen Vicchio, said it best," KAL reports. "In Vicchio's words, 'what differentiates Woodholme from the crowd is that they're avid readers.'

Said KAL: "They want to put a stamp of quality on everything they do."


Where Do Writers Come From?

If there's a book in every person, then publishing is a little like undertaking: neither business is likely to run short of raw materials. That's certainly been Gregg Wilhelm's experience. From Woodholme's second book on, authors have come to him. At four books a year, the new publishing house is already filling its 1999 calendar.

Books two and three came from The Sun, where both Alvarez and Kallaugher spend their days. That does not, says Wilhelm, put Woodholme House in The Sun's pocket. "A lot of good writers happen to be at The Sun," he explains. "If there were still a second paper in Baltimore, we'd be drawing from that crowd too."

Of the other three books on the '98 calendar, only one comes by way of The Sun. That's Michael Olesker's collaboration with Leo Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor now living in Baltimore.

One way a new publishing house like Woodholme puts itself on the map is by producing a good book. Its books are impeccably printed in black and white on good quality paper and perfect bound so that they stay open agreeably. The first three wear slick, heavy-paper covers that can take heavy reading, though The Fountain of Highlandtown's cover curls. Even better will be Fighting Chance, which is cloth bound and jacketed. With 200 duotones, it is being printed in Hong Kong, which accounted for its appearance six months after its scheduled publication date.

Sales is another incentive for authors. With the exception of Fighting Chance, which will sell for $28, prices are low for books these days, ranging from $10 to $15. The three Bibelot stores in the family keep Woodholme books moving.

Royalties are "standard," says Wilhelm, with rates escalating with sales. Press runs are small, typically 2,000 or 3000, but books are readily reprinted. After only three months, The Fountain of Highlandtown has already gone to a second, smaller printing.

Another way to keep writers happy is service. Scratch about any writer who's had a book published and you'll hear complaints about how little was done to publicize and market their brainchild. Wilhelm says his new publishing house tries harder.

The first step, says Wilhelm, is mailings to the media, like the ones that sparked this story. "As a small publisher with a geographically oriented market, our books are primarily targeted through local papers from The Sun to New Bay Times," says Wilhelm. All his authors have also appeared on radio on the Marc Steiner Show on Baltimore's WJHU-FM (88.1). In addition, Wilhelm is "talking to people and getting authors out to bookstores around the area." Barnes & Noble at Annapolis Harbour Center has been on circuit for both Alvarez and now KAL.

For a book with national appeal, like Fighting Chance, Woodholme makes additional investments for fancy promotional kits, and spends more time on the phone with the out-of-region media. Such efforts have paid off for Fighting Chance. Even before the book is out, its author has been scheduled on the Today Show (Feb. 23) and People magazine.

To live up to his strong beginning, Wilhelm "invites aspiring writers to contact us." Woodholme House publishes no novels, poetry or children's books. It does print plays, setting the standard with its first book, Ivan & Adolf, by Baltimore playwright Stephen Vicchio. In it Ivan Karamazov and Adolf Hitler - one character drawn from literature, the other from history - wind up as Hell's last tormented residents, though each is searching for the key to redemption and a bus ticket to Heaven.


Taking a Chance

With its fourth book, Woodholme House changes genres again, producing the photodocumentary Fighting Chance, chronicling three young Marylanders on their "Journeys Through Childhood Cancer."

Inspired by a single photo in Life magazine, freelance Baltimore photographer Harry Connolly - who makes his living with high-end commercial products - shaped three years of his life to the schedules of three families with children fighting cancer. He told Heather, Eli and Keith's stories in words and pictures, with contributions from Curt Civin, director of pediatric oncology at Johns Hopkins, and Maryland bestseller Tom Clancy.

"When Harry came to me," publisher Gregg Wilhelm recalls, "he was starting to shop the project around in New York, but people were turned off, not willing to market such a 'depressing' book."

Fighting Chance - which Wilhelm calls an "elegant" work - is, he says, "both scary and sad, but it's anything but depressing. It's inspirational, a testimony to advances in medicine. Thirty years ago 70 percent of children with cancer were dying. Now 70 percent are surviving, and fortunately all three of these are doing well."


Looking Ahead

Upcoming books are just as diverse, and some of them come to us from south of Baltimore. Scheduled for the fall of '98 is Oysterback Spoken Here, Helen Chappell's new volume of almost true, wonderfully off kilter, comically profound stories from a mythical village set in Maryland's Eastern Shore. Chappell, whose earlier stories appeared both in The Sun and New Bay Times, had worked with Wilhelm on her first volume of Tales from Oysterback when both were at Johns Hopkins.

Also on the '99 calendar: Songs of Myself: Episodes from the Edge of Adulthood, a collection of memoirs by college-aged adults edited by Towson University professor Diane Scharper; and Rouse & Co.: Booked! by popular Baltimore morning radio show host Steve Rouse.

Likely sometime down the road is even a book from Eastport's troubadour and poet laurate, Jeff Holland.

So if winter has clipped your wings and you've finished New Bay Times, look to Woodholme Publishing House for a Chesapeake armchair adventure.

-Kevin Kohler contributed to this story


KAL Draws a Crowd to Barnes & Noble Books, Annapolis Harbour Center, at 7:30pm Wed. Jan. 28 when you can hear his stories for yourself.

Then, on Mon. Feb. 23, meet most everybody involved in Fighting Chance: author Harry Connolly; Johns Hopkins' director of pediatric oncology Curt I. Civin; contributor Tom Clancy (yes, the Tom Clancy); and most of all, Eli, Keith and Heather and their families, the reluctant travelers on these journeys through childhood cancer. Meet them at 3pm at Bibelot, 2080 York Rd, exit 16 A off I-83 north, Timonium: 410/308-1888.

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VolumeVI Number 3
January 22-28, 1998
New Bay Times

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