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Though he was born in the Washington area and has lived and written in the District since 1986, calling Robert Girardi a local author, or even an American author, isn’t a simple proposition. “Technically, I’m an English writer,” he says wryly. “Me and Thackeray and Dickens.”
Not that Girardi’s latest novel, The Wrong Doyle, is full of yobs and birds eating shepherd’s pie and listening to Cliff Richard. In fact, it’s a thoroughly American picaresque of pirates, land-grabbers, and minigolf set over three hundred years in Tidewater Virginia.
No, Girardi is saluting the Union Jack because the British basically saved his literary career from the gangplank. It took a U.K. publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, to bring into print The Wrong Doyle in 2002, two years after an international communications megamerger led to the loss of supportive editors at Bantam Doubleday Dell. (The new regime wanted something more Oprah-esque, Girardi says, than his eccentric tales.) Although Doyle has just been put out stateside by the Boston-based Justin, Charles & Co., Girardi is still smarting about the abandonment.
“I had something of a following,” laments the 42-year-old Chevy Chase resident, whose previous three novels—Madeleine’s Ghost, The Pirate’s Daughter, and Vaporetto 13—and other fiction solidified him as that most neglected of literary figures: the midlist writer. Though highbrow novelist Madison Smartt Bell once called him “one of the great protean imaginations of the twentieth century,” Girardi has had a bit of trouble finding his feet in the New York publishing world.
“It is cutthroat,” he says. “It’s much more like Hollywood. They don’t want books that are going to make a little money—they want blockbusters.”
Doyle, a whodunit that springboards from the carcass of what Girardi calls a “Delmarva albino fox possum,” also embodies the author’s penchant for confounding marketing departments with books that involve ghosts,
history, and mystery but aren’t quite ghost stories, historical novels, or mysteries. The Doyles are Irish-American scalawags who fight, fuck, and outwit their way through a couple of continents—though they always end up back home in the mid-Atlantic. “I wanted to tell this kind of goofy story,” Girardi explains. “I wanted to trace the course of American history through this one family.”
Unfortunately for him, British critics have been more flattering of Doyle than have their American counterparts. But unfavorable reviews—including one in Washington Post’s Book World that declared, “Girardi can do far better”—and the business setbacks haven’t deterred Girardi from his methodical writing process: After a morning of solo parenting, he escapes to a Georgetown University library, where he does, he says, “six pages a day, which is what Graham Greene did.”
And despite his scorn for the Tinseltown values of the Gotham publishing elite, several of Girardi’s works have been optioned for films. The small screen has also been kind: Girardi wrote the script for a 2001 episode of Judging Amy, and an episode of Joan of Arcadia he penned will appear later this spring. “The executive producer’s a friend from college,” Girardi says, adding that the title character’s surname is Girardi.
“In New York, they don’t seem to have much use for [plot-driven fiction],” he says, “but in Hollywood they need writers who tell stories….If you’re that kind of writer, there’s always something to write.” —Pamela Murray Winters