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While Landover, Md., author Maxine Clair was writing Rattlebone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 213 pp., $19), she imagined it “in terms of a chain link” so that each piece “would fit, wouldresonate with, would extend the story that was going.” The result was a volume of interlocking tales told by or about African-Americans in 1950s Kansas City, Kan. Although Clair herself grew up in Kansas City, it wasn’t until five years ago that she learned of the city’s “Rattlebone Hollow,” which provided the name of her fictional Rattlebone neighborhood. “One story didn’t make it to the book, and in it was an allusion to how Rattlebone got its name [from Native Americans],” Clair explains. “It was almost entirely a prose-poem, with line breaks and everything, and it was so highly stylized it just didn’t fit.” Nevertheless, the collection feels complete, with 11 segments that stand alone or as a unit. These stories of family and community rely on colloquial dialogue and narration, often from the point-of-view of Irene “Reenie” Wilson, a girl troubled by her parents’ unsteady marriage.
Things are still happening for Rattlebone: The book won the Chicago Tribune‘s Heartland Award in October, and will come out in paperback from Penguin next summer. Meanwhile, Clair teaches creative writing at George Washington University, where she’s worked for five years. And, pressed for information on her next book, Clair answers euphemistically. “I’m in the “discovery phase’ of my next project,” she laughs. “It’s much too early for me to say.” Clair reads from Rattlebone at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9 at the Corcoran School of Art’s Hammer Auditorium, 17th & New York Ave. NW; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11 at All Souls Church, 2835 16th St. NW.