Local Writer Spotlight: Rafael Alvarez
By Caryn Coyle
The president of Baltimore’s Edgar Allan Poe Society is local writer Rafael Alvarez. Poe died here in 1849 and rests in the Westminster Burying Ground. As the president of the Edgar Allan Poe Society, Alvarez works to preserve his memory. This year, he launched the “Pennies for Poe”, campaign to save the house on Amity Street where the author lived.
Baltimore is “where I was born, educated, raised my children,” Alvarez said. “Except for five years in Los Angeles, it’s the only place I’ve ever lived. Everything I care about — including my mother and father – are in Baltimore. I don’t desire to live anywhere else.” In Urbanite Magazine, Alvarez wrote a “Love Letter to Baltimore” for Valentine’s Day, 2008:
“… my obsession with and devotion to the Jewel of the Patapsco remains the longest intimate relationship of my life. My beloved—Crabtown in all its shame and glory—is the hard-headed, kind-hearted lover with whom I am in a constant state of reconciliation.”
Alvarez traces his career as a writer to 1977 when he was a student at Loyola College. The International Longshoremen’s Association went on strike and he was the only one who got the story. By interviewing Gilbert Lukowski, an official in the stevedores’ union, Alvarez was able to scoop all three of Baltimore’s dailies. The story, published in the City Squeeze (the predecessor of Baltimore’s City Paper), got him a job as a clerk on the city desk of The Baltimore Sun.
Twenty-three years later, Alvarez wrote Gilbert Lukowski’s obituary for The Sun. Two anthologies of his Sunpapers work, Hometown Boy (1999) and Storyteller (2001) earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination for neighborhood reporting.
“People like to romanticize Baltimore as a place of narrative goldmine,” said Alvarez. “Nuggets just lying in the street.” Though he advises new writers to just “do the work,” he believes “if you can’t find things to write about in this town, you should become a dental hygienist. The true writer – the one who has no choice but to do it – will write about any environment.”
I realized that while good stories can be found all over the map, the best ones are stirring something on the stove with a wooden spoon. It is said that as long as there is someone alive to remember us, we never die. And if we are remembered with love, we are immortal. No one keeps this fiction alive better than writers betrothed to a specific place on the map. — “A Love Letter to Baltimore,” Urbanite, February 2008
Alvarez is a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award Winner for Fiction and a Baltimore City Artscape Fiction Award Winner. He is currently working on The Ganges of Baltimore, which continues the story of Basilio Boullossa, who is featured in his two books of fiction, The Fountain of Highlandtown (1997), short stories and Orlo and Leini (2000), a novel in stories.
Rafael Alvarez’s résumé also includes work on network and cable television shows: The Wire, Life, The Black Donnellys, Homicide: Life on the Street, Thief and pilots not yet in production. In his monthly column for Maryland Life Magazine, he continues to write about Baltimore:
“Nature has favored Maryland with a bounty of forests, trails, and parks in which to embrace … the great fall pageant of radiant crimson, Oriole orange, the gold of Lord Baltimore’s coat- of-arms … I am a walker in the city … From Leakin Park on the far west side to Patterson Park nestled among saloons and churches on the east, the trees change color according to the calendar just like they do far beyond the Beltway.” — “A Walker in the City,” Maryland Life Magazine, September 8, 2010
This year, Rafael Alvarez conducted lectures and a writing workshop with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He was also nominated for an award named for Baltimore’s bard of the macabre: the Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. The nomination was for Alvarez’s encyclopedia of the HBO series that made his hometown infamous: The Wire: Truth be Told (2009).
Caryn Coyle lives in Baltimore. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in more than a dozen literary journals and the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (2010) from City Lit Press.