April 2, 2006

A writer in the neighborhood

He might have been a different writer if he lived, say, in Indianapolis or Atlanta, But Jack Canavan, who is working on a book about the 1972 Hotel Vendome fire, is a Bostonian writing Boston stories about Boston people.

“I write because I have to,” he says. “There’s a story to be told and I have to tell that story. Every day I think about it. It’s with me every day. The book I’m working on is all about here, all the resources are here, the characters, the dialogue are all from Boston.”

But more than that, Canavan, born and bred and still living in South Boston, is also a South Boston writer.

“I suppose I could write anywhere, but because I haven’t lived anywhere else but South Boston, I’m a Southie writer. I’m just a Southie person.”

Boston’s neighborhood ties are legend. When I was new to the city I didn’t realize their strength until my first election season here, when one candidate’s victory was explained in part by the fact that he grew up in a neighborhood with a traditionally high voter turnout. Wait a minute--he won an election because of the neighborhood he grew up in? I picture fifth-grade heads down on the desks, hands raised to vote for class treasurer, fast-forwarded to adults pulling the levers at polling stations where their parents once voted. Yes, this is a city of neighborhoods, probably none with a more legendary identity than Southie. And Canavan knows those surroundings well enough to make them real and distinct.

“The characters in my book are from Boston and South Boston, and the behavior of the characters is different. I have to get that down right, that South Boston presence, the language, the dialogue.”

The fact-based novel, which has the working title Without Cause, has been in progress for four years. Much of his writing has been done at the Writers’ Room, where he received two fellowships, including one endowed by Stephen and Tabitha King. He also teaches creative writing at the Boston Center for Adult Education and the Laboure Center and is an editor of the South Boston Literary Gazette. When we meet at the South Boston branch of the Boston Public Library, Canavan knows where we can find an easy place to sit and talk, just as he knows the rest of the neighborhood he translates onto the page.

“There’s a male and female code of dress. You don’t see too many suits. It’s mostly blue collar,” he tells me, noting that my (trust me, pretty generic) outfit marks me as being “not from around here.”

“People here can be tightlipped to outsiders,” he continues. “They keep things to themselves. You know everyone and everyone knows you.”

Sure, we’re talking Southie here, but, except for the names and faces, this could probably apply to a lot of other Boston neighborhoods. This is a city that seems to thrive on believing in distinctions, even when those distinctions define slices of the same pie. The turf is clearly marked, but it’s marked by the same things---the local shops, landmarks, places to congregate; nuances of dress and manner; and most of all, familiar faces--and for the same reasons--the comfort of the known; the urge to create “home.” Isn’t this, after all, where even if it’s fiction, people flock to the place “where everybody knows your name”?

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com. You can see past City Type columns at www.ellensteinbaum.com.

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