Five novelists and poets tell us what spurs their discoveries
Kyle Dargan, Washington
From the Metro cars to the sidewalks, summers in D.C. can be chaotic, and the canopied courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery has always been a place for me to escape and write. I even started holding free informal workshops for area undergraduate writers there. It’s nice to peer up from scribbling and see the look of discovery on the faces of children who glimpse and run toward the water features or adults who look up at the canopy for the first time. Happening upon the phrase or word you’re searching for can look or feel just like that.
Eugenia Kim, Washington
I became a writer to tell my family’s stories and to explore the history of my country of origin, which I had never seen. My mother told many stories in her Korean language, dramatic tales heard with my Americanized ears — a paradox that fostered writing them as fiction in order to express their emotional truths. Every dip into researching Korea and family still flowers into stories that surprise me.
Laura Lippman, Baltimore
This Sun vending machine actually was used in the fifth season of “The Wire,” but I cooped it for my office. If you look closely, there’s an old page proof of the Evening Sun from 1991 in the box — I have three page-one stories in the final edition. My boss circled my bylines and wrote “Triple play!” in the margins. Most of my books are inspired by news stories, but never in a ripped from the headlines way. I tend to go back to cases from the ’70s and ’80s, stories that haunted me when I was a teenager. There’s one Baltimore homicide from the ’60s that I still think about all the time — but I haven’t figured out how to make it into a novel. One day, maybe.
Sebastian Rotella, Chevy Chase
El Patio is Valentine Pescatore’s kind of place. Pescatore is a globe-trotting private detective of Argentine and Mexican descent, and the hero of my novels. El Patio, an Argentine restaurant in Rockville, is tucked between a karate school and a furniture store in a mall—a neighborhood joint without a neighborhood. I went there while I was writing “The Convert’s Song,” in which Pescatore moves to Buenos Aires and pursues a case across many borders. El Patio inspires me because it reminds me of my years as a foreign correspondent — the raw material for my fiction. It has become a ritual: the empanadas and Malbec, the language, culture and nostalgia. Overhead screens show soccer. There is tango music. In the novel I’m writing now, Pescatore has moved again, this time to Washington. And he hangs out at El Patio.
Rita Dove, Charlottesville
Whenever I walk into my study, I take a moment — an inhalation, really — to gaze out over the neighborhood, an undulating patchwork of variegated greens that miraculously smudge into the dusky lines of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The desk surface I sit down to is a landscape of woods wrapped around three walls. For me, finishing a poem often feels like emerging from a forest. Now whenever I sit down to write, I find myself suspended between artifice and nature, poised to step into the clearing’s rinsed light.
Photographs by Lucian Perkins