News & Politics

On the Bookshelf: Mother of Sorrows

A Washington native turns family stories into fiction--plus the longest phone call in the world, what a cartoonist reads, Goldie Hawn's memories, and more.

Features editor William O'Sullivan can be reached at

There are so many things I feel the need to remember because they hold my life," Richard McCann says, "but also because I don't see the same Washington a lot of people see. I see the ghost city underneath."

McCann grew up in Silver Spring in the 1950s and '60s. His new book, Mother of Sorrows, is a collection of stories narrated by a man who also grew up in Silver Spring in the '50s and '60s. The mother is as glamorous and alluring as she is vain and unpredictable. The emotionally distant father dies when the narrator is a boy. There's a brother, too–both ally and competitor to his sibling and, in adulthood, a lost soul. Throughout are memories of McCann's hometown:

"We drove–the warm breeze inside the car sweetened by my mother's Shalimar–past ranch houses tethered to yards by chain-link fences; past the Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Department and Carroll Knolls Elementary School; past the Polar Bear Soft-Serv stand, its white stucco siding shimmery with mirror shards; past a bulldozed red-clay field where a weathered billboard advertised, IF YOU LIVED HERE, YOU'D BE HOME BY NOW, until we arrived at the border–a line of cinder-block discount liquor stores, a traffic light–of Washington, D.C."

Here's a conversation with McCann, a director of American University's graduate program in creative writing.

Mother of Sorrows is fiction, yet you've acknowledged that many of the characters, settings, and events correspond with those in your life.

I'm aware that the book's tone and the narrator's voice have a strong retrospective feel and that it sounds like a memoir. But it's not just an album of snapshots that fell on the floor without order. For example, I have another brother who doesn't appear in the book. I wanted to keep a very small cast and the feel of a chamber drama.

In the book's last story, the narrator has HIV. That story took years to write, and when I began it, I had been diagnosed with liver disease. I thought he needed a weightier disease than that, a life-threatening disease. Well, time proved me wrong. I had a liver transplant–liver disease would have been plenty big enough.

The title has Catholic connotations, yet there's little in the book that addresses religion.

When we moved to our suburb, I felt we were different than everyone else. In our household there was a Catholic sense of drama about life that our neighbors didn't share. They were largely Protestant and from frontier states. My mother was from Brooklyn, my father from a Pennsylvania coal-mining town.

Everything in our neighborhood existed as if it had no history–even most of the street names didn't refer to local history. The families were just beginning to have children. My parents were older, and each was divorced.

We were very aware of a Catholic idea of suffering, of an Irish Catholic idea of the past being more real than the present. We were plunked down into a landscape where the past was considered more or less inconsequential and sorrow was something to be escaped.

As someone who grew up here, how important is it to you to record that experience of place?

Intensely important. The Washington I grew up in hardly exists anymore. Occasionally in downtown DC I'll see a couple of three-story buildings and think, "That's what the whole city looked like."

When I walk down F Street, I'm thinking about the Blue Mirror Grill, where my brother and I went to get tuna sandwiches on our shopping trips downtown. Or the Regal Shoe Shop, where I bought every pair of shoes in my life till I was about 25.

When I was growing up in that suburb of small, indistinguishable brick houses, it seemed boring and oppressive. When I came back to Washington and started thinking about this life I had once led, it didn't seem so empty. I began to understand that what I had seen as sterile was a site of great family drama and personal drama. It was also part of American history–a larger history than just its moment.

You've also published essays about your liver transplant. Do you have plans for a book?

Yes, I'm working on one.

Why have those stories come out as nonfiction, whereas your earlier life was shaped into fiction?

It's impossible for me to imagine writing about the transplant as fiction. I'm writing about an experience in which I was cut up in every way–literally, metaphorically. I'm trying to take the fragments and assemble them into something whole.

Nothing happened to me before or after that was so clearly mine. Although I was helped by many dear friends, that was the first time I understood that this was something happening to me alone. That was a lonely discovery and an important life discovery. Certainly it's true in a broader way about what it means to live and die.

To bring anything dreamlike or fictional into that would take me further from what I want, which is to understand that this actually happened.

Can You Hold for a Few Hours?

"While filming a documentary about outsourcing, the TV crew and I spent an evening at the Indian-owned '24/7 Customer' call center in Bangalore. . . .

"I was wandering around the Microsoft section around six p.m. Bangalore time, when most of these young people start their workday to coincide with the dawn in America, when I asked a young Indian computer expert there a simple question: What was the record on the floor for the longest phone call to help some American who got lost in the maze of his or her own software?

"Without missing a beat, he answered, 'Eleven hours.' "

–from The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who lives in Bethesda. The book, out this month, examines the leveling of the competitive playing field as the result of globalization.

What Else Is New

In One Soldier's Story, former US senator Bob Dole recalls his World War II experiences, in which he lost the use of an arm. The book quotes from letters to his parents.

Time writer and DC native Lance Morrow looks at The Best Year of Their Lives: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in 1948. That was the year, Morrow argues, that for different reasons set the three young members of Congress on the road to the presidency.

Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich's columns have been collected for the first time in All Those Mornings . . . at the Post: The 20th Century in Sports From Famed Washington Post Columnist Shirley Povich. He wrote for the paper from 1927 until the day before he died in 1998.

DC writer Mary Kay Zuravleff follows up her well-received first novel, The Frequency of Souls, with The Bowl Is Already Broken, a send-up of Washington museum life. The heroine is acting director of the thinly veiled Museum of Asian Art, part of the National Institution of Science and Art. Zuravleff is a former editor of books and exhibition texts at the Smithsonian.

"You've Got to Read This"

Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and DC resident Ann Telnaes–whose own work is collected in Humor's Edge–recently read Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons by Chris Lamb.

"It explores the declining state of editorial cartooning and gives historical background," Telnaes says. "Obviously, this topic would be of interest to me, but what I found especially fascinating and frightening was the chapter about the criticism and censorship cartoonists faced leading up to World War I. With the current political climate and the question of civil rights' being suppressed in the name of security, I think anyone interested in politics would enjoy this book."

Coming in May

Pretty Birds is the first novel by Scott Simon, host of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday. Set in the early 1990s during the war in Sarajevo–the same time Simon was there reporting for NPR–it's about a teenage Muslim girl, who is recruited as a sniper against the Bosnian Serbs, and her Christian best friend.

Another debut novel, Evidence of Love by Melissa McConnell, has Washington ties. It's about Harry and Catherine, a couple who work for the president and vice president. Then Harry goes missing. The book is full of local atmosphere. The author grew up here and lives in London.

Hitler's Peace by Philip Kerr–a British author whose thrillers and mysteries include the Berlin Noir trilogy–imagines what might have happened if Hitler had tried to negotiate with Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill to end World War II. Washington is among the novel's many settings.

Washington Post Mexico correspondents Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan have written The Prison Angel: Mother Antonia's Journey From Beverly Hills to a Life of Service in a Mexican Jail. It's the story of a well-to-do mother of seven who left her life in Los Angeles to minister to prisoners in Mexico, where she still serves. Jordan and Sullivan, who are married, share a Pulitzer Prize.

Although the publisher isn't sending out advance copies because of a 60 Minutes interview with the author just before publication, chances are that actress Goldie Hawn's memoir, A Lotus Grows in the Mud, will contain memories of her childhood in Takoma Park.

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.