Van Whitfield says "thank you" to Jaspers every time he passes by. He still gets chills when he thinks about the extremely bad blind date he had at the Greenbelt restaurant on Memorial Day in 1995, an experience that inspired his first book, "Beeperless Remote: A Guy, Some Girls, and His Answering Machine."
In the years since, Whitfield has added two more books, "Something's Wrong With Your Scale!" and "Guys in Suits" and is currently working on three more, including the authorized biography of Marion Barry and "Dad Interrupted," the sequel to his debut novel due out in June. He's also delved into screenplays and television scripts, currently writing BET's "TurnStyle," a show that profiles prominent African Americans and airs each Tuesday.
On Monday, the Beltsville Library presents "Talking With Van Whitfield," in which the author will discuss his writing background and expertise in male-female relationships.
"It's amazing how an hour and a half at a bad blind date evolved into a career. It was borderline traumatic, but as a guy I wasn't allowed to say that. There were no avenues, no outlets for me. I couldn't call my friend and say, 'Guess what happened?' So I wrote about it," the Lanham native said.
The day after his blind date -- in which the woman ordered five glasses of wine, filet mignon and lobster, and after being paged six times, returned all six calls -- Whitfield was fired from his job as a writer for the D.C. Youth Initiative Office because, said his boss, he lacked imagination as a writer. Whitfield, 42, had secured the job without any previous writing experience and had worked before that as a correctional officer at Lorton Correctional Facility in Virginia. His boss at the D.C. Youth Initiative Office allowed him to stay for four months to find a new job. Instead, he spent the time writing "Beeperless Remote."
To steer himself in the right direction as he wrote, Whitfield held focus groups where people critiqued his work and "interview parties" to find out details that would make his characters realistic.
"I picked up on how to write dialogue, cadence, how people phrased words, how they were surprised, how they were happy, what cologne they wore, what schools they wanted their kids to go to. I got a real slice of life from people right here in the county."
So far, all of Whitfield's books have been set in Prince George's County in places including Bladensburg, Capitol Heights and Mitchellville, and refer to restaurants, schools and businesses by their actual names.
"As a writer, you travel all over the country, and my books are in other languages, and it means something when you go to California and people are asking you about P.G. County because they read it in your books. You can proudly stand up and say, 'It's where I live, and it's a vibrant, great place,' " Whitfield said.
When Whitfield tells his story to audiences, he hopes to show them that anybody can become a writer. Inevitably the conversation goes from how people can break into writing to how to evaluate the male-female chasm. Because his books have been romantic comedies written from the perspective of fictional male characters, Whitfield said he is often asked to opine about what single guys are thinking in certain situations.
He anticipates that at his Beltsville appearance, he'll discuss what he calls "the classic Christmas breakup," when a guy breaks up with a girl before the holidays because he can't afford a gift, and then presents a deeply discounted gift the day after Christmas and begs the girl's forgiveness.
Whitfield encourages people to document their life stories because he thinks others have tales more interesting than his fateful blind date at Jaspers. He never thought he'd become a writer, especially after a teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School read his free-writing exercise to the class and proclaimed that the student would one day make a living as a writer. "I was a 17-year-old, testosterone-laden boy, and it was the biggest turnoff in the world," Whitfield said. "I wanted to be a professional basketball player, and he was making me a writer. It didn't fit in the lexicon of my world."
Now, when retelling the events that have formed his writing world, he often stops to say, "I've been so lucky."
"Talking With Van Whitfield" is at 7 p.m. Monday at the Beltsville Library, 4319 Sellman Rd., Beltsville. Free. 301-937-0294.