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On the first day of the National Book Festival last month, big-name guests such as Joyce Carol Oates and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were still in bed when Ronald Hanna showed up. Around 2 a.m., Hanna emerged from his glistening black BMW armed with promotional materials for his latest novel, Rock Stars: As a Matter of Crack. Then he hit the National Mall, leaving, he says “fliers on every little table and posters on all them trash cans.”
By sunrise, Hanna’s job was done. Too tired to stick around for the festival itself, he drove back to his Garfield Heights home and fell asleep.
Since he retired from his position as an administrative assistant at the World Bank about a month ago, the 52-year-old self-published author has had plenty of time to plug his writing. Most of the available surfaces at Eastern Market and Adams Morgan will attest to that. Usually, Hanna’s posters get removed soon after he puts them up, but he doesn’t mind: With his ex-boss’s blessing, he made them at the World Bank late at night when he couldn’t sleep.
The big, colorful notices bear the words “HOly Smokes!” next to images of drug paraphernalia juxtaposed with a lurid pink picture of the Capitol. “The posters in themselves call people’s attention to the fact that there’s a crack problem here and, hey, it’s still happening,” Hanna says. He estimates that, over the past five years, he’s adorned D.C. with 10,000 to 15,000 posters advertising his three novels.
Adams Morgan is Hanna’s favorite place to advertise, but he doesn’t neglect his own neighborhood. On one recent October afternoon, he greets a young man wearing a hoodie and several gold chains in front of a New York Fried Chicken down the street from his house. After some small talk, Hanna reminds the man that he still hasn’t read Rock Stars. “I’ll stop by later today,” the man promises. “Dealer,” Hanna mutters as the guy drives off. “He should be reading my book.”
Set entirely in Southeast, Rock Stars tells the story of Tracy Stamsford, “a glamorous college-educated professional” who seems poised to escape Glenfield Terrace, the housing project where she grew up. But after her first encounter with crack, Tracy turns into “an unrepentant rock star” who can look no further than her next pipe. Tracy’s younger sister and friends share a similar fate; soon, they’re selling their bodies and double-crossing each other without hesitation. Tracy’s sister eventually dies of AIDS after one last drug-fueled lesbian orgy on a boat, but Tracy herself marries a smooth, supportive doctor who helps her shake her addiction.
Although he admits that Tracy’s romance might be a little far-fetched, Hanna says he “just wanted to offer some hope. My concept here is that some of the younger people will read it and say, ‘Dang, I will never end up like that.’” He adds that he was sometimes too depressed to continue writing Rock Stars because many of the people his characters were based on died before he could complete the novel. “There’s a lot of good people come out of Southeast,” he says. “These are the people that I love. Whether they’re crack addicts or they’re executives, everybody has a value in life. Some people, their value is to show what not to be like.”
Hanna lives by himself in the house where his grandmother, who worked as a maid, raised him and his five siblings. There are collards growing in the back yard and stacks of Hanna’s books in the living room. The walls are lined with photographs of public figures that Hanna took during his stint as a journalist: Jesse Jackson, Bill Cosby, Marion Barry, Dick Gregory. Then there’s the painting of the writer dressed as a pharaoh; a beautiful woman—a paid model—stands next to him, also clad in ancient-Egyptian costume. Hanna, who bought the house 24 years ago, says his neighbors respect him because “I hustled. I worked all my life. My hustles always were legit.”
Or at least more or less. As a teenager at Ballou High School, Hanna says, he got in trouble for stealing rental cars. But in 1968, after the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Hanna found himself at a crossroads. “Before the fires cooled down,” he says, “there was dope all over the streets”—a point that he also stresses in Rock Stars. While most of Hanna’s friends were soon seduced by “Buck Action Caps”—$1 doses of heroin—Hanna held out. “I knew it was a suppressive thing,” he says. “Nobody from my neighborhood made a call over to China or Mongolia and said, ‘We need some heroin here.’”
When Hanna graduated from Ballou, he joined the Army because it seemed like the best way to get out of Southeast. Always an avid reader, he started writing poetry while working as a guard at a military prison in Massachusetts. “At the stockade, after the prisoners go to sleep, there wasn’t nothing else to do,” he recalls. “After I’d beat up prisoners, I didn’t want to be police no more.”
After two years in the Army, Hanna attended D.C.’s Federal City College on the GI Bill. He started writing and photographing for the Free Voice, the college newspaper. After earning a degree in mass communication, he went on to work for the Washington Informer and to write a column about Anacostia for the Afro American Newspaper. “I wanted to have access to the public mind,” he says.
But even as he was writing articles about the scourge of drugs in Washington, Hanna says, he was testing every drug he wrote about—although he tried crack only once. In the mid-’80s, one of his sisters, a crack addict, was stabbed to death. A few years later, another sister was paralyzed in a shooting over a drug deal. In the biography that he included in his second novel, Spirits, Hanna says that this period “quieted his pen and deposited him in attitudinal disarray which was itself near fatal.” He’s more blunt in conversation: “I was really fucked up.”
In 1986, Hanna decided to re-enlist in the Army. He was sent to Korea, where he hammered out his first novel, High Society. The book focuses on two talented Ballou High School football players whose professional ambitions are extinguished by their drug use. Hanna recounts many bits of neighborhood lore in the novel, such as the period when seemingly everyone in the city came into Southeast looking for Murder One, an especially potent form of heroin, and the time some local drug dealers killed a potential turncoat by injecting him with bleach.
“Tee emitted a choking gurgle, his body engaged in a rush of quivering, spastic motions,” Hanna writes of the event. “His right foot jerked as if he were trying to remove one of the ninety-dollar tennis shoes. A final gust of air left the body, his bowels and bladder relaxed. Mercifully the heart ceased pumping blood through the body, blood now contaminated with 70 milligrams of chlorine bleach.”
Although Hanna received only rejections when he sent the manuscript off to agents and publishers, it didn’t matter: He was already planning Spirits, a sci-fi thriller that unapologetically flaunts the influence of his favorite author, Tom Clancy. While in Korea, Hanna also commissioned the pharaonic portrait of himself that hangs in his living room. The picture, he suggests, reflects many of the ideas that he explores in Spirits, which is about a 10-year-old boy living in Lanham, Md., who remembers his past life as Carthaginian general Hannibal and sees apocalyptic visions of the future.
“I’m a continuous spirit,” Hanna says. “During the times of the pharaohs, I was probably a high-ranking person. If I can dream about places I have never been before, I must have known them.”
In addition to his three novels, Hanna has written a staple-bound book of poetry, It Could Have Been VERSE; a screenplay about kids who use fancy gadgets to snitch on their neighborhood’s drug dealers; and Genesis, a play that follows the imaginary journey of Adam, Eve, and the sons of Noah from Biblical times into present-day America. Hanna solicits feedback from other authors on the Internet, where he’s an active participant in Soul City, a chat room dedicated to writing, which he helped establish in 1998.
Sandra Poole, an Atlanta-based office manager, says that Hanna brings a unique perspective to the group because he knows a lot about literature, history, and music. “He’s a Renaissance man,” she says. “He’s very giving, especially to young people.”
Through his Soul City friends, Hanna discovered Internet-based vanity publishers such as Xlibris and 1st Books. He has used their print-on-demand services to publish each of his three novels: High Society in 1999, Spirits in 2002, and Rock Stars in 2004. Recently, he received his first royalty check for Rock Stars from Xlibris. It amounted to $5.50. In fact, so far Hanna has sold only about 1,000 copies of all his works combined.
Yet the author remains upbeat. “I keep a trunk full of books, and I always sell some books,” he says. “They’re evergreen material. My words are valid. If nobody picks me up, I’m gonna still write.”
Hanna’s guerrilla-marketing ventures on the Mall and throughout the city are attempts to reach beyond his core fan base: his family and friends and crack addicts and dealers from the neighborhood. “They’re buying copies from the trunk of my car,” says Hanna, who looks forward to someday having an agent and an editor.
Thirty-one-year-old Andre Reed, who often hangs out in Hanna’s neighborhood, is one of those buyers. He loves Hanna’s writing. “Best proof of that,” he says, “is I bought [Rock Stars] after reading the first and the second one. I went along with the ride because I felt it was true to life. I felt like I knew a lot of the characters in it. When Samantha was waiting by the bus stop, I was like, Bitch, don’t wait there!”
Reed compares Hanna to Donald Goines, a hard-living Detroiter whose fast-paced tales of pimps and hos are particularly popular among prison inmates. But Reed likes being able to recognize the places Hanna writes about—in fact, the only parts of Rock Stars that came as a surprise to him were Hanna’s descriptions of the throes of addiction. Reed didn’t enjoy the gruesome details, but at the same time, he says, “I now understand the sickness better.”
As flattering as the Goines comparison is meant to be, it doesn’t sit well with Hanna. “Donald Goines was not really a writer per se,” he says. “He was just locked up and had a lot of time on his hands. I’m a career writer. That’s my call in life.”
By way of an example, Hanna points to the opening of Spirits, the italicized first section of which represents the internal monologue of a baby about to be born. The next section, rendered in standard text, describes the baby’s birth. The transition, he says, is a crucial artistic detail.
“I write very well, if I say so myself,” Hanna concludes. “Anybody could tell you a story. I craft my work.”CP