Columbia resident writes award-winning first novel

January 21, 1994|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

His book has barely hit the stores, and its official publication date isn't until Monday.

But John Gregory Brown's first novel, "Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery," has already captured critical acclaim and the prestigious Lyndhurst Prize for Fiction for 1993.

In the span of two weeks, the book has received favorable reviews from the New York Times, the Boston Globe and The Sun.

A Columbia resident for the past five years, the 33-year-old writer, teacher and former journalist has written a compelling novel that crosses gender, race and age -- revealing a talent and sensitivity that takes him beyond his own experiences.

"There are some surface details from my life and growing up in New Orleans," Mr. Brown said. "It's related to people I've known and circumstances I've seen. But it's not a typical coming-of-age first novel."

Mr. Brown will read excerpts from the novel for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society at 4 p.m. Sunday in the Lower Lounge of Howard Community College. On Jan. 29, at 2 p.m., he will read at Cover To Cover Bookstore/Cafe.

"It's a wonderful, beautifully written book," said Marsha Berman, owner of the bookstore. "You want to read every sentence -- it's like poetry. I'm proud we have an acclaimed author so early in his career."

Ellen Kennedy, president of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, agreed. "He's a very fine and sensitive writer with an uncanny ability."

The New York Times analyzes the novel as a story that "changes its shape," that "goes its way honorably and pulls us in. It is not about the tragedy of racial difference; it is about the mournful banality of it."

"To have a first novel get noticed and have these big newspapers read it is great," Mr. Brown said.

Set in New Orleans, the plot goes back and forth over 60 years, spanning three generations. The author interweaves different characters -- a young white girl, a middle-aged white woman and an older black man. Each talks from his or her own point of view in a drama that speaks about racism, family and loss.

The book opens with the story of 12-year-old Meredith Eagan at a point in 1965 when she and her brother have been taken by their father from their stepmother, Catherine.

"Then it's 25 years later and she's telling the story," Mr. Brown said."

Other narratives in the book are in the form of four letters Catherine wrote, and the story of Murphy, the black man who worked for Meredith's father and grandfather.

Secrets are revealed in the plot about hidden relationships. "It's a drama -- not a lot of laughs," Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Brown wrote the book when a story he was working on didn't gel. "I abandoned the other book and came up with this," he said.

He spent nine months on the novel, writing from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. each morning before heading off to work as news editor of the Howard County Times and Columbia Flier.

"Being an editor is easy," he said. "It's writing that's tough. Doing what you want to do requires discipline, and this was the only time I could do it. My wife, Carrie, [features editor at the Howard County Times] got up and took care of the kids for me."

A native of New Orleans, Mr. Brown graduated from Tulane University in 1982 and earned a master's degree in English from Louisiana State University in 1984. He taught at North Carolina State University from 1984 to 1987.

He moved to Maryland in 1987, attending the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, then taking a job as county government reporter for Patuxent Publishing in 1989.

"I wanted to be a writer since as far back as I can remember," he said.

"I sort of stumbled into journalism. I was a typical English graduate and I needed a job."

Mr. Brown was able to turn his complete attention to writing when he was contacted last spring by the Tennessee-based Lyndhurst Foundation. The foundation, which gives about seven grants a year to artists, has made awards to such writers as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Peter Taylor and Cormac McCarthy.

"It's like a southern MacArthur grant," said Mr. Brown, who received a three-year stipend to write. "You can't apply; they tell you you've won. I got it in May, which is why I left my job in June."

Mr. Brown also teaches his craft. Five years ago, he taught a creative writing class at the Johns Hopkins writing seminars. Last semester, he taught creative writing at Goucher College and at the Johns Hopkins University's graduate school, where he also will teach the spring semester.

A committed author, Mr. Brown does not plan to return to journalism. "It's not what I wanted to do," he said.

With the extra time to write, Mr. Brown has begun his second novel and has already completed almost 80 manuscript pages. "But I still get up at 5," he said.

Although the story is set in his familiar New Orleans, Mr. Brown is telling it from an unlikely perspective -- an 80-year-old looking back on his life.

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