An Interview with Rafael Alvarez

Interview with Rafael Alvarez
Kit O’Neill

Rafael Alvarez  is judicating the Short Prose Category for the 2015/2016 Maryland Writers’ Association Writing Contest.  He graciously agreed to a question and answer session with Pen in Hand’s editor, Kirsten (Kit) O’Neill.


Q&A: Rafael Alvarez

What inspires your writing?
Being alive. Watching the breeze rustle the leaves of the big maple in my backyard. Seeing the beaten down people of Baltimore (my ‘holy land’), the work of musicians (bluesmen), painters (Henry Ossawa Tanner), and film-makers (Malick, Chaplin, Matt Porterfield).

How long have you been writing?
Since the third grade (making up stories in my composition books), and professionally, since age nineteen, when I began to get paid to write for the original City Paper, 1977. I joined the newsroom of the Baltimore Sun a year later, 1978, age 20, beginning on the horse race desk in sports.

What is your writing process like?
All day, every day with a two hour nap around 2 p.m. before the evening shift.

What are you currently reading? Do you have a favorite author (or two or three)?
Now reading Mrs. Dalloway by Woolf, after finishing Middlemarch by Eliot and the short stories of Lucia Berlin. Spent 2015 reading female fiction writers. Intend to commit 2016 to African-American writers, beginning with Jimmy Baldwin. I am especially fond of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Patrick Modiano along with Toni Morrison, whose Song of Solomon blew me away. I read Borges often but I don’t understand him.

What types of works do you most enjoy? Why?
Literary fiction to better understand what I am trying to accomplish.

What words of wisdom would you share with a younger version of your writing self?
Read more, party less.

Have you ever struggled with writer’s block?
Never. I make my living by selling words like sausage and grind it 365 a year. I can’t afford writer’s block.

You’ve written about one subject- Baltimore- for pretty much your entire career. How has writing about one singular subject shaped your writing and style? How do you keep your ideas fresh?
Setting all of my stories – fiction, non-fiction, screenplays – in the city of Baltimore has given me a “troupe” of dependable characters, like actors, that I can call on at anytime to fulfill (service) the idea at hand. Orlo the junkman, when I find that treasure in the alley, Basilio, the painters, when the sun hits the side of the derelict bottle cap factory at Eastern and Lehigh streets in the late afternoon, Cookie and Nieves, when there is heartbreak and tragedy around the corner. Knowing Baltimore as I do (having been paid to study in during my twenty years on the Sun City Desk) allows me to immediately set these characters (my flesh and blood Pinocchios) on any street corner and, BANG, the story is off and running.

I find it fascinating that such an ordinary object- the Fell’s Point mailbox-  would spark storytelling. Often. simply starting a story is challenging. What advice would you give to a writer or artist struggling to find inspiration to kick-start the writing process?
If you have to look for inspiration, you may be in the wrong game

Rafael Alvarez is a journalist and author. Among his many books are three short story collections – Tales from the Holy Land, The Fountain of Highlandtown, and Orlo & Leini, a history of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, two anthologies of journalism, Hometown Boy and Storyteller, and The Tuerk House, a history of Baltimore’s pioneering drug and alcohol treatment center for the poor. He was a writer for The Wire and he was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2010 for The Wire: Truth Be Told, an encyclopedic companion to the television series. He was a reporter for The Sun from 1977 through 2001.



CRABTOWN, USA – Essays and Observations / the third in Alvarez trilogy of non-fiction portraits of Baltimore and the people who live there, preceded by “Hometown Boy” (1999) and “Storyteller” (2001)




Jacket Cover by Macon Street Books, provided courtesy of Rafael Alvarez.

Author Photo by Jennifer Bishop, provided courtesy by Rafael Avarez.