Seven years ago, I sent a personal essay about swimming to a Chronogram contest and got a phone call from editor Brian Mahoney, who (after gently informing me the contest was for fiction), asked whether I’d like to write profiles. My first assignment was New Yorker cartoonist Danny Shanahan, such a treat that I couldn’t believe I was going to get paid.
Soon after, Chronogram invited me to become its books editor. It’s been my privilege to profile more than 50 area writers, often working with photographer Jennifer May. While crossing the Hudson on one of many scenic drives to an interview, we started to dream about collaborating on a book. SUNY Press enthusiastically accepted our proposal for River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers, and the real work began.
The Hudson Valley is home to thousands of writers, and choosing our 76 subjects was a daunting task. Jen and I wanted to offer a glimpse of the region’s astonishing literary diversity, including writers of all genres, of various ages and backgrounds, living in different parts of the river’s long watershed. She wanted great faces; I wanted great stories. At some point we realized we could include more people by interspersing the magazine-length profiles with single-page “minis.” Here is a selection of these shorter pieces and Jen’s eloquent portraits. Consider them amuse-bouches, a tasting sampler not only from River of Words but also from the magnificent bounty of the Hudson Valley’s literary feast.
How many Edgar Award nominees have been thrown out of David Hasselhoff’s wedding? “There are not many more embarrassing things that can happen to you,” laughs Alison Gaylin. Fresh from a theater major at Northwestern University, she was hired by the LA bureau of the Star, where her beat included going undercover as an extra on TV sets and crashing Fred Savage’s bar mitzvah.
At Columbia journalism school, the former tabloid reporter was richly amused by the required course on journalistic ethics. “For everything I did at the Star, I never falsely reported there were weapons of mass destruction,” Gaylin maintains.
A lifelong reader of mysteries, true-crime classics, and “darker fiction” by authors like Joyce Carol Oates, Gaylin loves an adrenaline rush. “I never minded having nightmares,” she says. “I liked the feeling of being scared.” So she started writing a crime novel called Hide Your Eyes.
Her first draft didn’t sell. “I had great characters, but not the suspense,” she reports. Gaylin taught herself structure by reading a hundred mysteries, rewrote “top to bottom,” and sold her manuscript to Signet—10 years after she started it. Then her career hit the fast track with an Edgar nod. In short order, she turned out a sequel (You Kill Me) and two hardcover stand-alones (Trashed and Heartless). “My work process involves lots of Red Bull and Rock Star,” she deadpans.
Woodstock, where she lives with her filmmaker husband and their young daughter, may counterbalance the energy drinks. Or not. Gaylin’s just started writing a new series about a missing-persons investigator with a rare form of total recall. Like her previous books, they’ll feature smart, feisty women and plenty of blood. “I write crime fiction with a fair amount of humor, but also some grisly murders,” she says, grinning. Bring on the nightmares.
Eddie Sanchez knows how to make a theatrical entrance. As he steps onto the deck of his mountainside home in Sullivan County, he’s joined by a peacock in full iridescent plumage. This is Percy, who showed up “out of nowhere” three years ago. Sanchez and his partner of 28 years, Alden Thayer, lured him with birdseed and music; Cher did the trick. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, he’s gay. Another dresser.’”
Sanchez was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. His family lived in the Bronx till he was 13, then returned to Puerto Rico. At 20, he moved to New York to be an actor. “At that time, the only roles available to me were stereotypical: You were either a gang member, a pimp, or a drug dealer, and your one big line would be ‘Yo!’”
He wrote his play “Trafficking in Broken Hearts” “to explode a stereotype”: the complex lead, Papo, is a gay hustler. “At the first staged reading at South Coast Rep, they posted a sign that said Adults Only, so of course the whole staff went—they’re no fools. I was so nervous, I was climbing the walls.” The Q&A afterward wowed him. “They were so kind. They called it a lovely play, a love story.” The play launched his career.