For many readers, diving into a novel is a chance for escape — an opportunity to travel to an imaginary land or a locale they’ve never seen firsthand.
But fiction can also offer new insights into the more familiar. And for D.C. aficionados, there’s an array of novels and short-story collections that provide a look at the diverse communities that comprise the city today and have fueled its history. While some of the most popular tales focus on official Washington, the roster of authors writing about local D.C. has expanded in recent years — a reminder of the many stories to tell in the District’s diverse neighborhoods.
Reading their work brings cultural references likely to bring a smile to locals — Woodies, Garfinckel’s, Riggs Bank, Peoples Drug, Stevens Elementary School, The Washington Star and other nods to the region’s past. The streetscape and geography, too, can prompt a nod of recognition as characters veer from neighborhood to neighborhood.
“It’s fun to read things that are set in a place you know,” said Ashley Bowen, a bookseller at Upshur Street Books and a Petworth resident.
“When you’re so familiar with a city, that does add a layer of depth and richness,” offered Taylor Burney, events manager for WAMU radio who in the past has helped produce several shows on books that help build a better understanding of D.C. “Where you can picture the streets that they’re describing, some readers gravitate to that.”
With the growing list of books about the city has come an opportunity to find new voices, Burney noted. It’s a chance to learn about a “vibrant part of the city you’re not part of,” she said in reference to Dinaw Mengestu’s widely hailed 2007 debut novel “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,” a look at the Ethiopian diaspora through the eyes of an immigrant who operates a corner store in Logan Circle.
A few authors come up repeatedly when local literary observers are asked about fiction set in D.C.: George Pelecanos, Edward P. Jones and Mengestu are frequently cited. With “The Hopefuls” (2016) and “The Wide Circumference of Love” (2017), Jennifer Close and Marita Golden, respectively, have examined various aspects of the District. Close’s work mines the nexus between official and local Washington that helps shape both in varying ways; Golden finds a way to explore the city’s evolution through the eyes of an trailblazing African-American architect, now suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s, and his wife and caregiver, a family court judge.
“It’s an extraordinarily diverse range of voices — people who have lived here all their lives, as well as recent arrivals,” said Jon Purves, director of marketing and publicity at Politics and Prose. While readers elsewhere in the U.S. might point to thrillers by James Patterson or David Baldacci as the quintessential Washington novel, residents here may be more inclined to look deeper, he said.
For many, the book that comes to mind when seeking to learn about D.C. through fiction is “Lost in the City” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones. “So much has changed since that, yet so much remains the same,” Purves said.
First published in 1992 and reissued in a 20th-anniversary edition, Jones’ tales offer richly envisioned scenes of African-American life in Washington. He returned to some of the same characters in a later collection of 14 stories, “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” — a 2006 book highlighted by the library system’s “DC Reads” event series in 2015 as worthy of a citywide conversation. The book spans the 20th century, with scenes that crisscross the city from Van Ness to Bloomingdale to Anacostia.
Another writer known for books evoking D.C. is Pelecanos, whose body of work includes a long list of novels filled with local scenes. Faulted by some for filling his stories with street names as action shifts from neighborhood to neighborhood, he is praised by others for pulling off his narrative style well.
“It’s no mistake that he does so much screenwriting,” said Burney. “He’s detail-oriented that way, and it works for him.” And his descriptions of 1980s and 1990s D.C. are “go-to,” in the words of at-large D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman.
Some writers who live in D.C. now or who spent many years here find a certain freedom in setting their stories in a locale they know well, seeing it as a way to “free their creative juices” to focus on character and plot and to avoid having to worry about getting details wrong, Burney said. But other authors prefer not to write about what they know, she noted.
When writing about D.C., that can carry a risk. “In towns like D.C., people know the geography,” said Bowen. “If you get it wrong, they’ll notice.”
Such sentiments may help fuel a distinction laid out by Purves: the books that use D.C. as a backdrop versus those that get to the heart of people’s lives here.
“I think there is a growing appreciation in D.C. for stories that are grounded and rooted in the city,” he said. “People appreciate seeing their lives portrayed, and their neighborhoods portrayed.”
The depictions can often include references likely to resonate particularly with Washingtonians. Golden, for instance, introduces one character in “The Wide Circumference of Love” as “the son of a ‘Gold Coast’ family, one of the black families that lived along Washington’s Sixteenth Street, home to the president of Howard University, black members of the president’s cabinet, and the city’s black upper crust” — and another character as having grown up in Congress Heights and Petworth amid perceptions of 16th Street “as though it were an Alpine principality, a mythical land whose black population breathed a rarified air.”
Readers can also encounter reminders that current arguments or debates are in fact nothing new. Published in 1997, former Washington journalist Ward Just’s epic novel “Echo House” — a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction — includes an emigre from the north in the 1930s who hoped to “introduce New York’s cosmopolitan spirit to the monotonous city of government.” In a scene set in Georgetown in the 1970s, Just references “the sudden jarring chaos of jet engines as aircraft descended over Georgetown University and the Potomac River” as well as “beer cans here and there in the gutter, debris from university revels the night before.”
As with tales about faraway locales, novels and stories set close to home are likely to offer meandering paths and unexpected detours.