WWPH’s forthcoming 2009 fiction contest winner, Calvin (October 15, 2009), weaves the divisive and difficult issue of race into a story in which the title character, a black servant, bridges the divide with character and compassion. In the summer of 1940, ten-year-old Billy Smithson’s headstrong and capricious mother abducts Billy from her former husband’s home and leaves the boy with her father in Athena, South Carolina. The boy’s grandfather, in turn, delivers the boy into Calvin’s care. What happens over the summer and the months to follow is explored in spare but evocative prose.William Littlejohn makes his literary debut with the novel Calvin. He holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Virginia. After serving in the United States Marine Corps, Littlejohn practiced law in Chicago for thirty years before retiring to write full time. Littlejohn and his wife, Marcia, now live in Washington, DC.
Not real, not like any sound he’d ever heard before. A dull hollow thump followed by strange night noises, none natural, all sharp, with jagged edges, nothing that sounded like anything that belonged in this world—yet he came awake knowing right away what it was.
But he didn’t move. He lay, waiting. After a time he sat up on the edge of the bed. A big man, he and the iron framed double bed seemed to fill what space there was in the small room. A chipped white porcelain chamber pot sat in the corner a few feet away. The room’s only window etched a dark rectangular shadow on the water-stained and faded wallpaper where once, long ago, pink cherubs had danced among white clouds in a blue sky.
An alarm clock on the floor next to the bed ticked loudly. Every now and then the bell shivered, the muted tingling sound impatient, waiting for its time.
He got up once to piss in the chamber pot, then sat back down to wait. With eyes closed he could have been asleep, except every few minutes he lifted his heavy head, cocking it to one side or the other, listening, as if the pre-dawn silence were full of sounds.
At last a faint gray light crept into line around the drawn window shade.His closed eyes opened, called to account somehow by this shadowy penumbra.He looked around, wide-eyed, as if seeing the room for the first time. With a shake he made ready for whatever was to come.
He stood and walked to the kitchen at the rear of the house. With a few powerful strokes he pumped water at the sink. It rose quickly through exhausted air, then ran rocking and seeking through the aqueduct of the old-fashioned spout to splash heavy and hard against the metal sink below. As the flow of the cold well water eased he caught a glass full and drank it thirstily.
Under a plain wall mirror Calvin Lemoyne checked his kit, a carrying case from his years on the railroad. Except for his cash money, most of the things he owned of any value were in it. He took out a pearl-handled straight razor, opened it and stropped it several times against a wall strop with big, almost careless strokes before returning it to the case. Only then did he raise his head to look at himself in the dim, poorly lit mirror.
A large Negro, flat-faced and heavy browed, stared back.
His dark brown, near black eyes—half eclipsed by heavy brooding lids—were grim, threatening looking. For a moment he didn’t move. Then he smiled, a small smile, but the face in the mirror stayed the same, just a faint golden grimace in the early morning gloom.
From his kit he took out a pair of round, metal-rimmed store-bought glasses and put them on, hooking each ear piece carefully into place, only to find they were broken. One lens was smashed into a cobweb pattern, a honeycombed scallop of jiggling glass. He searched for a narrow box at the back of the shelf below.When he found it he removed glasses identical to the broken pair. He put them on. They were a little stiff at the hinges.
When he’d finished dressing he went outside to the front of the house, where he’d parked the car on the street. A rusty tire iron lay amid broken glass on the front seat. He picked it up, felt its weight, then used it to knock out the jagged glass still lodged in the window. He cleaned off the front seat, picking up as much glass as he could see in the half light. As he worked the shards of glass nipped at his callused hands, like pecking chicks. But he was careful to see that no blood got on the new automobile’s seats. Then, as he closed the car door he saw the metal license plate (‘1940 South Carolina’) bent in half, dented and battered looking, lying in the street half under the door.He put the tire iron and license plate on the back floor board. Then he started the engine.
Q: What made you decide to trade your law practice for full time writing?
When I was a young man in college–and even in high school–I had an intense interest in the theater, and I had always thought I’d like to write a play. Well, as so often happens, I knew I had to earn a living so I went to law school and then practiced law in Chicago for almost 30 years. After that length of time the law business got a little stale, so, with the permission of my partners, I decided to take a sabbatical for a year to try and do some writing.
I started with a play, but it soon became apparent that playwriting was impractical. Not only did I not know how to write a play, I soon realized there was almost no chance of it ever being produced. So my wife suggested, “Why don’t you write a novel?” I took her advice and enjoyed it so much that I never went back to practicing law. I told my partners that this was the life for me, and I’ve been basically writing on and off full time ever since.
Q: Was Calvin the first novel that you were trying to write?
No, Calvin is my second novel. The first was was a sort of a John Grisham type of book, that is, it was based upon the law business . The protagonist of that book, The Law of Iroquois Hart is a young lawyer, in fact a law student, who is accused of murder and then must defend himself. Calvin is more of a coming-of-age book set in the deep South of the early 1940’s.
Q: What made you decide to write Calvin in particular?
I was born in the South, and I grew up as a young boy in the South. And it so happens that my grandfather, who lived in Greenville, South Carolina, had a black man who worked for him whose name was Calvin. But the title character of the book, of course, is completely different from the man he was named after.
Q: How and when did you find out that Calvin was being published?
The Washington Writers’ Publishing House has a competition for poets and fiction writers every year. I saw the request for submissions in the Washington Post, I think sometime in early October , and I decided that I would submit Calvin as my entry. I got a call in February  that I was one of the finalists. And that was, you know, terrific. Frankly I didn’t expect to win. But I got a call the very next week that I had won, so it was a great event!
Q: What is it like seeing your book in print for the first time and finally getting published after so many years?
There is nothing like it. I was a trial lawyer and had my share of courtroom victories. When a jury returns a verdict in your favor it is a great high. When you work hard on a case and you’re able to get a jury to agree with you, there’s nothing like it. At least I had thought so until now. Getting your book published is better.
Q: Can you describe your writing practice, and are there any particular places or times of day that help you write?
I started out with an electric typewriter, which I used for the first year or so after I began writing. And it evolved from there. Initially, what I was trying to do was get a feel for writing on a daily basis, so I would write a journal entry of maybe 500 or 700 w ords every morning, to try to get into the rhythm. Warmed up, so to speak, I would then turn to work on the project of the moment. . That particular routine was good in that it sat me down every day in a certain place at a certain time. And I wrote. I believe that’s the way to do it.
I can’t imagine a routine like J.K. Rowling’s, who is supposed to have written the first Harry Potter book in a coffee shop. I see aspiring writers in coffee shops looking up at the ceiling from their computers amid the hubbub, and I know he or she is trying to emulate Rowling and write a novel. I want tap them on the shoulders and tell them it’ll never work…Anyway, you need a place you’re comfortable in. You have to have a spot where you’re not distracted. If you’re writing fiction you have to enter into it, lose yourself in your story. That’s when you’re at your best and that’s when you do your best writing.
“Calvin is a brilliantly told tale from the pen of someone who truly understands the increasingly rare craft, as well as art, of writing. This is an elegantly crafted tale that illustrates the darkness, mysteries, and occasional joys of life as they all occur: with complexity, natural suspense, and ultimate if bittersweet clarity.”
—Caleb Carr, critically-acclaimed, best-selling author of The Alienist andThe Devil Soldier
“Calvin is a compelling and engaging portrayal of life in the Deep South of the 1940’s. The story of ten-year-old Billy Smithson, and his relationship with the stalwart Calvin, stayed with me long after I finished this book. A coming-of-age story brimming with heart and soul, this is a beautifully written and deeply satisfying first novel.”
—Garth Stein, New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
“William Littlejohn has written an exceptional novel. Calvin is evocative, epic in scope and reminiscent of both James Agee and William Faulkner. This is a novel to savor.”
—Denis Collins, award-winning author of Nora’s Army