VCU alumni, faculty play central role in 'Richmond Noir'

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String-tight tension, murky morals and a heavy, inescapable pall suffuse the stories in “Richmond Noir,” a new collection of short stories that explores the dark recesses of the River City while bringing the city and its neighborhoods vividly to life.

The book is the latest in a series of locality-specific noir books published by Akashic Books. Richmond follows in the footsteps of Brooklyn, Boston, Barcelona, Paris and Washington, D.C., among others, in receiving the noir treatment, gaining a place in the series in large part through the efforts of the book’s three editors: Andrew Blossom and Brian Castleberry, who each received an MFA in creative writing at VCU, and Tom De Haven, longtime professor of English at VCU.

“We’re excited to be representing Richmond in this way,” Blossom said. “There isn’t another collection like this out there.”

Many of the writers contributing to the collection have close VCU ties, including X.C. Atkins, who received an undergraduate degree at VCU; Pir Rothenberg and Mina Beverly, who each earned an MFA in creative writing at VCU; Howard Owen, who received a master's in English from VCU; De Haven, Laura Browder and Clint McCown, each a professor of English at VCU; Dennis Danvers, a summer instructor at VCU; Clay McLeod Chapman, who served as artist-in-residence at Theatre VCU in 2007; and David L. Robbins, who has taught at VCU in the past. In addition, the novelist Tom Robbins, a graduate of Richmond Professional Institute, which later became VCU, wrote the book’s apt foreword.

De Haven said the book highlights the strength of VCU’s creative writing program.

“It’s a Richmond book but it’s also a VCU-infused book,” he said.

Castleberry was still a student at VCU three years ago when he stumbled upon the Akashic Books table at a writer’s conference. He immediately retrieved Blossom, a fellow graduate student at the time, and brought him back to the table to discuss the series with the publisher’s representatives. The more Castleberry and Blossom, each a fan of noir film and literature, considered the prospect of a Richmond-set noir book, the more they liked the idea. Castleberry recently had assisted De Haven for a class on American crime fiction, and De Haven quickly agreed to be part of the project.

Blossom said Richmond seemed an ideal fit for the series of noir anthologies because of its diverse neighborhoods, distinctive architecture and rich, sometimes dark history. The variety of neighborhood settings in the city was critical because Akashic requires that each story take a particular neighborhood as its primary setting and no location can be the primary setting twice, ensuring that each collection provides an expansive portrait of the city in which it is based.

The editors built on their contacts to assemble authors for the project, compiling an intriguing mix of established and emerging writers. Most responded enthusiastically, including some writers who do not typically work in short fiction, such as Browder and Dean King, who each have published several non-fiction books; Hermine Pinson, a poet; and David L. Robbins, who had published nine novels but no short stories before “Homework,” which appears in “Richmond Noir.”

De Haven said Robbins, in particular, embraced the project, even helping to enlist other writers. Robbins, one of the co-founders of James River Writers, an organization for Richmond-area writers, said he was excited about a book that would showcase Richmond’s deep bench of writing talent.

“My enthusiasm for this project mirrors my enthusiasm for the artistic community in Richmond,” Robbins said.

Aside from the neighborhood assignments, which were doled out on a first-come, first-served basis, the “Richmond Noir” editors gave their writers little initial direction, though they worked with writers to edit each piece after receiving a first draft. Now, with the book safely published, the editors can acknowledge they worried they had provided contributors with too much freedom and they held their breaths a bit while waiting for the stories to arrive.

“They are great stories,” Blossom said. “It was a wonderful feeling of relief and excitement when they started coming in and we realized we loved reading them.”

The editors were particularly pleased with the range of submissions they received. Participating writers did not take the noir genre as a cramped thing that they needed to stuff stock elements into – a femme fatale, a wise-cracking private eye, a MacGuffin – though some stories do use some of those traditional tools to great effect.

“There was not a lot of overlap to the stories,” Castleberry said. “There was so much diversity and different interpretations of noir. That just goes back to the talent of the writers. They all brought their own style to it.”

The stories are reliably swift and sure-footed, expertly claiming the reader’s attention from the first paragraph. Some employ humor freely, others never crack a smile. All deftly build Richmond on the page, block by block, showcasing both the charm of the city and its ghosts and perils. De Haven said the writers’ affection for the city was apparent, even in stories that explore unpleasant circumstances. He said that was due largely to the writers’ intimate familiarity with the areas in which they set their stories – a knowledge born of years of living and working here.

“These are people who are writing about these neighborhoods in a very cellular way,” De Haven said. “They are not just working with a map.”

Still, Robbins said readers who have never been to Richmond will find the stories as engrossing as locals will. The enjoyment of the book arises from the writers involved, he said, and their skill at engaging readers. Robbins said noir forces writers to confront uncomfortable issues. “When they reach the noir point, the important thing from a writer’s standpoint is not to blink – not to look away.” Robbins said he admired how his fellow writers managed “not to get bucked out of the saddle.”

“I think anybody that reads this book will think the writing and storytelling are so good that they transcend any pleasure they receive from recognizing a particular neighborhood,” Robbins said.

A number of events surrounding “Richmond Noir” are planned. A summary is below.

  • Thursday, March 4, 8 p.m., Chop Suey Books hosts a special event at New York Deli. Readings by X.C. Atkins, Clay McLeod Chapman, Dennis Danvers, Dean King, David L. Robbins and Howard Owen. With musical guests.
  • Friday, March 12, noon to 2 p.m., VCU Barnes & Noble. Tom De Haven, Andrew Blossom and Brian Castleberry, book signing.
  • Saturday, March 13, 2 p.m., Barnes & Noble, Libbie Place. Laura Browder, Tom De Haven, Clint McCown and Anne Thomas Soffee, book signing.
  • Saturday, March 20, 10 a.m., Virginia Festival of the Book, University of Virginia, panel discussion with Laura Browder, Dean King, Howard Owen, Hermine Pinson and David L. Robbins.
  • Monday, April 19, 7 p.m., VCU Visiting Writers Series, Readings by Mina Beverly, Dennis Danvers, Pir Rothenberg, Anne Thomas Soffee.
  • Thursday, April 22, 6 p.m., Edgar Allen Poe Museum. “Unhappy Hour” appearance with readers Clint McCown and Pir Rothenberg.
  • Thursday, April 29, 7 p.m., KGB Bar, New York City, Readings by Clay McLeod Chapman, Dennis Danvers, Tom De Haven, Conrad Ashley Persons and David L. Robbins.