We Knew Them When
Meet six authors who grew up here and have hit it big in the literary world.
At 17, David Amsden (Richard Montgomery High School, 1997) became obsessed with the idea of being a writer. It was a combination, he says, of his mother’s New Yorker subscription and a high school crush on “a very bookish girl,” under whose tutelage he read everything from Virginia Woolf to Nicholson Baker’s phone-sex novel, Vox. Amsden attended New York University (for two years, he didn’t tell his mom that he’d also been accepted at Columbia University, having decided that Greenwich Village was a cooler place to live than Manhattan’s Upper West Side) and at 19 was hired—“strangely, improbably, frighteningly”—to replace New York magazine’s gossip columnist, who’d quit. Amsden says a crazy period followed, during which he was going to class and writing papers while covering the late-night New York party circuit. He managed to graduate in three years and get hired as a staff writer on the magazine. Writing was the coolest job Amsden could imagine: “you’re open to everything and committed to nothing.” And he also turned out to be a natural.
At age 23, Amsden’s book, Important Things That Don’t Matter, was published. It is a tale of a boy’s chaotic relationship with his cokehead father in the Maryland suburbs. His youth, dark good looks and glowing praise from writers such as Augusten Burroughs catapulted Amsden himself into a gossip column item. Now 28, he remarks wryly that “younger writers” approach him for career advice. Amsden, who grew up on Nelson Street in Rockville, is currently working on a nonfiction book about a group of teens who attend Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. Montgomery County “was a great place to grow up,” says Amsden, who lives in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, “yet I wouldn’t want to raise kids there.… I suppose part of why I write is to figure out that paradox.”
Tracy Chevalier (Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, 1980) grew up on the corner of Fairfax Road and Wilson Lane in Edgemoor, the youngest of three children and the only daughter of a Washington Post photographer. Asked whether her father’s profession influenced the highly visual aspect of her best-selling historical novels, which include Girl With a Pearl Earring, The Lady and the Unicorn and Falling Angels, Chevalier says, “Not in an obvious way. Kids were brought up so differently then. We came home from school, dropped our books off and played outside until it was time to eat.Our parents didn’t have a lot to do with our lives.” Chevalier, whose husband and son are English, has kept an American accent despite having lived in England for more than 20 years. She has a friendly, direct manner one might not expect from someone who writes about unicorns, William Blake and Victorian graveyards.
A self-described child nerd who pored over series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Joan Aiken and Lloyd Alexander, Chevalier worked on BCC’s literary magazine, Chips, for three years and was editor her senior year. She majored in English at Oberlin College in Ohio and thought she would pursue a career in publishing. It wasn’t until she had completed a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in England that she began her first novel, The Virgin Blue, which was published in 1997. Her current project is a novel about a 19th century fossil collector. On a recent visit to Bethesda, she said, “I went for a run this morning and Bruce Variety is still there, and the pioneer women statue, and the Tastee Diner, and that funny house on Old Georgetown where the crazy lady lived. It was a relief to see these things, because so much has changed.”
For Laura Hillenbrand (B-CC, 1985), who grew up on Moorland Lane across the street from Bethesda Elementary, the school’s annual fundraising carnival, Mayfair, was an event that seemed to combine the excitement of the Olympics and Christmas. The year she was 8, she made a fateful purchase at the fair: a battered copy of the children’s book, Come on Seabiscuit! “I read it so often that I wore the binding right off it,” she says. Twenty years later, Hillenbrand’s biography of the long-shot racehorse, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, was a bestseller that inspired an Academy Award-nominated film.
Hillenbrand’s own story rivals that of her subject. She was an athletic girl who rode horses and swam on her neighborhood swim team. She also showed early promise as a writer: a high school English teacher submitted a short story she had written to a contest, which she won—though Hillenbrand says she was too shy to attend the awards ceremony. While a sophomore at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, Hillenbrand’s life was derailed by a severe case of chronic fatigue syndrome, which forced her to drop out of school. She wrote Seabiscuit while wracked with fevers and vertigo and later chronicled the emotional and physical devastation caused by the illness in a 2003 New Yorker article, “A Sudden Illness.” Hillenbrand has been sick for 21 years. During a brief respite in 2006, she married her college sweetheart, Borden Flanagan, in a rooftop terrace ceremony at The Hay-Adams hotel in Washington, D.C. Her health faltered again last year, but when she can, Hillenbrand is working on a biography of American Olympic runner Louis Zamperini. During World War II, Zamperini’s Air Force plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean. After being adrift for 47 days, he and another crew member were captured by the Japanese. Zamperini was held for two years and subjected to torture and medical experimentation. “It’s an extraordinary life,” says Hillenbrand, who now lives in D.C., “and it’s a privilege to tell his story.”
A.M. Homes (B-CC, 1977) is the author of two short story collections and five novels. She wrote her first novel, Jack, when she was 19 and a student at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. Her subsequent fiction has dealt with murder, child molestation, a suburban couple who deliberately burn down their house, and a boy who rapes his sister’s Barbie. If “disturbing” is a word that appears frequently in reviews of her work, it’s in the context of lavish praise for her surreal, darkly comic and seemingly inexhaustible imagination. Homes is often at pains to say her fiction is not autobiographical. “If you write what you know,” she says, “you’ll be done in an hour and a half.”
Growing up in Chevy Chase, Amy Homes knew the playground at Candy Cane City and rode her bike around Rollingwood and to her beloved library. “I read the same books again and again,” she says. “I listened to the same music over and over again.” She says her teachers didn’t encourage her to write because “I had such horrible handwriting nobody could read it.” She dropped out of school in 10th grade to work on a book of poems, which her mother typed. Only after the publication of her third book, she says, did she accept the idea that she was a writer and would “probably not join the Rolling Stones.” In 2007, Homes’, The Mistress’s Daughter, a wrenching memoir about meeting her biological parents at age 31, was published. Now working on a “top secret” new novel, Homes lives in New York with her daughter—the first blood relative, she says, with whom she has ever lived.
For novelist Michael Lowenthal (B-CC, 1986), it’s “an unmatched thrill” to see his high school English teacher, Nancy Gallagher, in the audience at D.C. bookstore Politics & Prose whenever he reads from his latest book. Lowenthal, who grew up on Deal Place in Somerset, also credits Leland (now Westland) Middle School English teacher Bruce Lewis with encouraging him to “care about every word, every punctuation mark.” Lowenthal was editor of B-CC’s newspaper, The Tattler, back when “layout” meant actually dipping the articles in wax and arranging them on big sheets for printing. He also published a few anonymous poems in Chips, the school’s literary magazine. “I hope they’ve been lost to time,” he says of those early efforts. Lowenthal was class valedictorian at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., in 1990. During his commencement speech, he came out as a gay man—an announcement that “ruined graduation” according to The Dartmouth Review, although The New York Times reported that his remarks drew a standing ovation. After college, he worked as a dishwasher in a music club in order to have time to write. He published his first short story at age 25 in the anthology Men on Men, a prestigious series for American gay fiction. Since then he has published numerous essays, short fiction and three novels including Charity Girl, a widely-praised chronicle of the life of a 17-year-old Boston girl who is imprisoned after contracting venereal disease during World War I.
Lowenthal spent a year researching the novel after being “thunderstruck” by a reference in Susan Sontag’s Illness as a Metaphor to a U.S. government policy that led to the detention of more than 15,000 young women. Some of the women were prostitutes, but others were named by soldiers as sexual partners and therefore were considered security risks. Following a writing fellowship in Bahia, Brazil, Lowenthal is working on a novel about Brazilian immigrants to the U.S.
Pagan (formerly Pamela) Kennedy (Holton-Arms, 1980) is the author of three novels, a short story collection and five books of nonfiction. As a child growing up in Bethesda, Kennedy says she “hung out at the Little Falls Library” near her home. After reading Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, she began pressing herself against mirrors, hoping to fall into an imaginary world. Her precocious vocabulary caught the attention of a neighbor, who suggested that she enter a Christian Science Monitor children’s writing contest. When she won the $5 first prize at age 11, she was “hooked—not just on writing, but on getting paid.”She was dubbed Pagan by high school classmates during her Quixotic one-girl campaign to ban prayers at her purportedly secular private school. After graduating from Wesleyan College in Middletown, Conn., she worked at The Village Voice in New York and then moved to Boston, where she made a name for herself in the late 1980s with her zine, Pagan’s Head, a self-published newsletter about the life and times of a zany alter ego. “It was a pre-Internet Web page,” she says.
Kennedy’s first novel, Spinsters, was shortlisted for Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize. Though her subsequent fiction also has been critically acclaimed, her forthcoming book, The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories, is a collection of what she calls “true short stories”—profiles of visionaries such as Alex Comfort, political activist and author of The Joy of Sex. “I’m so in love with nonfiction now,” she says. “It’s crazier and more surprising than anything I could have invented.”
Kathleen Wheaton lives in Bethesda and writes frequently for Bethesda Magazine.