Return of the Native

Sportswriter Frank Deford comes home to Baltimore to promote his new (non-sports) book

Baltimore Book Festival Pullout

September 26, 2002|By Kevin Eck | Kevin Eck,Sun Staff

Frank Deford has lived in Connecticut for nearly 30 years, but that doesn't mean he has forgotten his Baltimore roots.

In fact, the acclaimed writer, who grew up in North Baltimore and graduated from Gilman, used the city circa 1954 as the setting for his new novel, An American Summer. And this weekend, Deford returns to Charm City as one of the featured authors at the Baltimore Book Festival.

The seventh annual festival takes place at Mount Vernon Place tomorrow from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

In addition to the appearance of Deford and other nationally known authors such as Diane Rehm, Connie Briscoe and Walter Dean Myers, the festival also includes literary workshops, poetry readings, cookbook demonstrations, children's activities, live music, walking tours and more than 150 exhibitors and booksellers.

Deford, 63, does a number of book festivals throughout the country, but only this one provides him with an opportunity to visit his native city.

"I've always said that coming from Baltimore made me a different person than if I'd come from Washington, or New York, or Boston, or someplace like that," Deford said in a phone interview last week. "All of us in Baltimore felt a certain defensiveness, and sometimes defensiveness can be good because it makes you strive to work harder to show yourself. I think that was very important to me growing up.

"I also think Baltimore is a very idiosyncratic city. It's very distinct and very unusual in many ways. For a writer, that's very good. It gives you a lot of material. I think it made me more aware, even if I didn't use all the material from Baltimore. I think if you grow up in a bland place, maybe you don't have as good an eye."

Although Deford initially made his mark as a sportswriter -- he wrote for Sports Illustrated from 1962 to 1989 and still contributes to the magazine on occasion -- he is a versatile writer who is the author of both fiction and nonfiction books on a variety of topics.

For example, in his 2001 novel The Other Adonis, Deford explored the subject of reincarnation, and in Love and Infamy: A Novel of Pearl Harbor (1993), he wrote about the bombing of Pearl Harbor from the Japanese point of view.

"I enjoy writing about anything," said Deford, who also delivers a weekly commentary on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. "I don't think I necessarily have to write about sports. If you've seen enough games, sometimes you get a little jaded. They talk about players not being able to get up for every game; well, I think that's also true for writers.

"Whatever I get interested in, I follow that. Subjects just sort of pop up. I let them simmer and marinate, and then if something becomes interesting enough, I pursue it further."

An American Summer is a coming-of-age tale that centers on the friendship between a 14-year-old boy and a 23-year-old woman who has become a quadriplegic after a battle with polio.

"The book started with the idea of polio. I was always amazed at how quickly we forgot about it," Deford said. "People are always writing about the 1950s, and there's always plenty about I Love Lucy and Elvis, but nothing about polio. I wanted to write something about it. Polio was the canvas, and I painted the story and the characters on top of it.

"This was actually a relatively easy novel to write because it didn't require a lot of research. I could have placed it anywhere, but I put it in Baltimore because that's where I was [in 1954] and I could draw on my past there. It was a great deal of fun for me to relive that time. The story was fictional, but I borrowed bits and pieces of me and my family and my neighborhood."

'Bases Loaded Tour'

Deford is appearing at the festival as one-third of NPR's "Bases Loaded Tour," which also includes Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan and Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon.

While Deford is a renowned sportswriter who is promoting a book that is not about sports, Conan and Simon are news reporters and commentators who have written sports books.

Conan is the author of Play by Play: Baseball, Radio and Life in the Last Chance League. After 25 years as a foreign correspondent for NPR, the Bethesda resident decided to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a baseball announcer. The book serves as a diary of the 2000 season, when Conan was the voice of the Aberdeen Arsenal of the independent Atlantic League, calling games that were broadcast on Harford Community Radio.

Simon's book, Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball, chronicles Robinson's ground-breaking first season in the major leagues in 1947.

Another NPR host, Diane Rehm of The Diane Rehm Show, will be at the festival -- but not as part of the "Bases Loaded Tour." She and her husband of 43 years, John Rehm, co-wrote the newly published book Toward Commitment: A Dialogue About Marriage.

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