I’d like to say that I saw Raymond McAlwee’s book as soon as I walked into the Fenwick Island bookstore. But my eyes were first riveted to the mound of beckoning crab balls laid out for the store’s patrons. Munching away, I then saw the pile of books he had for sale, and I learned that the recipe for the delicious crab dish was from the same book. I went back to the plate for more of the crab, and later back to McAlwee for tales of Chesapeake Bay.
For years, Raymond McAlwee had story plots and fictional characters swimming in his head. In 2010, he allowed them to surface in his first book Chesapeake Bay Stories.
Now the man who’s spent a lifetime visiting the Bay by land and by boat travels to promote his book at stores, marinas, festivals and restaurants from Chesapeake City to Solomons, Chestertown to Baltimore. His fictional characters are framed by real Bay towns, and each story includes a recipe, and in some, a save-the-Bay message. On his selling circuit, he’s seeing a larger response than he’d imagined and calls it “a small success story.”
Along with McAlwee’s creativity and the Bay’s charms, the book’s positive response can also be attributed to the negatives of Washington, D.C., summers.
“It’s hot and humid in D.C., so in the 1950s the Bay was our playground,” he said. Family and friends came to the Bay to swim, boat, sail, fish and crab. His first memory on the water was as a young boy out with friends wading waist-deep near St. Mary’s College, toting a net and scooping up crabs, “at the rate of a dozen in 10 minutes.”
McAlwee also recalls crossing the Bay on a ferry one year, and the next year crossing over on the new William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, which opened in 1952. As he explored the Bay and its tributaries, he also explored words and waded into writing.
“I began writing short stories when I was 14, and it became a lifelong hobby,” McAlwee said.
Tide of Stories
McAlwee is now working on a second book, as the first opens a trilogy. The published book has nine stories, a variety of characters and some endings with intriguing twists.
“I can’t pick my favorite story from the book,” he said. “It’s like having nine children. You love them all.” He’s enjoying hawking his book around the Bay and has a simple, philosophic line about his jaunts: “As long as the book keeps me in gas and crab cakes, it’s all good.”
Writing stories, however, is not all easy.
“A novel writer may have 390 pages to get the story out and develop characters and plot. A short story writer has only 20 pages or so to do it all,” McAlwee explained. He gets help from his alter ego, who’s the writer, while the daytime McAlwee he called “very dull.” Before retirement he worked in banking, but his daydreams centered on writing.
His childhood friend Whitey Schmidt, who grew up with him in D.C., spent time on the Bay too, as the McAlwee and Schmidt families explored the area together. Schmidt, the subject of more than one Bay Weekly story, is a local legend for his self-distributed books about Maryland eateries and, more recently, Chesapeake cookbooks. McAlwee recalls envying his author-friend’s freedom.
“I’d be sitting in my office wearing a starched shirt, tie and shined shoes and Whitey would call me on a beautiful day and tell me he was outside, down at Solomon’s Pier selling one of his books. I hated him then,” McAlwee said. Among others, it was Schmidt who encouraged McAlwee to write and to publish his stories.
Just as his friend sold his books on Solomons Pier, now McAlwee is selling his book there, in one of 40 to 50 stops he’s making, offering up Chesapeake Bay Stories, a crab dish and his own Bay recollections. At Solomons Pier, he gave one book purchaser a touch of local history along with his signature: “I can remember in the 1950s, just across from here were oyster shanties,” he said.
Coming up for McAlwee are more book signings, including those at the Fells Point Festival and the Annapolis Boat Shows.
“It’s all been such fun, and 99.9 percent of the e-mails I get are complimentary. I’ve met great people doing this, people from all over — Germany, Ireland and a lot of Europeans,” said McAlwee, who’s in his element by the Bay, signing books and meeting people. But with him also are the new characters he’s conjuring up, all waiting to float out of his head and come ashore to rest upon the pages of a Bay story.
Meet the author during the U.S. Boat Shows: 10am-6pm F-Su Oct. 8-10; and F Oct. 15 & Su Oct. 17 at Hard Bean Coffee and Book Store, Market Space, Annapolis: 410-263-8770; beansandbooks.com.