You might know Nick Mann from Friday Night Jazz at Westminster Presbyterian Church where he is one of the sound technicians. Nick first lived in Southwest in the late 1960s and then moved back in 2011. He has a Ph.D. from Howard University and is a faculty member at the Federal Executive Institute.
His first novel, Forgetful, which is about a Howard professor who develops Alzheimer’s, won the Beverly Hills Book Award in African American Fiction in 2015. Nick recently completed his second novel, Wounded.
The story, set in Southwest DC, opens with a form letter that was sent to residents in 1955, that the National Capitol Housing Authority intended to purchase and remove buildings in a five-block section between 2nd and 3rd and E and M, Delaware Ave. and Canal to build 450 units of low-rent housing. The 60-year span of the novel covers the effects of historical changes from regional urban development to international events like the Vietnam War on a group of young friends.
Q: How did you decide you were going to write this story?
A: Wounded is both a prequel and a sequel to my first novel, Forgetful, in which I tell a story about various members of what I call the Michigan Park crew. Forgetful ends with unfinished business between two of the central characters—Ben Parks and Levi Chance.
I got the idea that I would go back and tell readers where Levi came from before he moved to Michigan Park and entered high school. That brought me to the idea of setting his beginnings in old Southwest DC in the late 1950s.
Q: How much of this story is true in your life and the people you know?
A: There’s probably less than 10% that’s true. My life is more like Ben’s than Levi’s. Ben does the same kind of work that I did during my career, and Ben’s family life is quite a bit like mine. Levi is inspired by people that I’ve known down through the years, but there’s no single inspiration for his character. Even less about Tracy is true, but there are a few inspirations for him going back to my high school days and my time in the army in the late 1960s.
Q: How hard was it to portray fictional characters in a historical setting?
A: Not hard because this town is so full of historical events that I could write my characters into. The times that I’ve lived through have been rich with events that are easy to imagine my characters being a part of, even if I wasn’t.
Q: What is the primary message of your book, and what do you want people to take away from it?
A: For one, I want people to be informed about the history. Do people know what happened down in Southwest DC? It’s a tragic gentrification story for many but for others it set up an opportunity to build a new community. No story has only one side. But we all know what Southwest has become. It’s the “what Southwest was part of” that many don’t know.
Secondly, my life has been touched by close friends and family who’ve been gripped by alcohol problems. And there’s not just one outcome in their stories. I wanted to show just one of the many paths that are possible when a group of people who really care about someone decides to do something together to help. Maybe someone will be inspired to act on some of the ideas the Michigan Park crew took with Levi.
Q: How does Wounded relate to the story of Forgetful?
A: Ben’s worry about whether or not he was on the front edge of Alzheimer’s was pretty much put to bed in Forgetful. He’s still forgetful, but it’s not Alzheimer’s … at least not for now. He’s still clumsy and scattered but less is made of that in Wounded since Levi’s and Tracy’s roles are so expanded. But Ben is still teaching his seminar every other summer on race and culture. And he’s still working with clients on various organizational problems. It’s important to me that I keep the whole Ben in front of readers, even if it’s not the most important story that I’m telling because the series started with him.
Q: What are the dates and times of the book signings?
A: The schedule is still to be determined but there will be readings and signings at Westminster and at Alice Jamieson’s Jazz and Cultural Society (in Northeast DC) in May or early June. I did several DC library readings for Forgetful and will probably repeat that. I’ll be at the Kensington Day of the Book Festival on April 23—that’s probably going to be before Wounded‘s release. And I’ll be at the Literary Hill Bookfest on May 7.
By: Sheila Wickouski