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Laura Brylawski-Miller is not exactly the picture of a struggling writer. She answers the door of her corner penthouse in Rosslyn impeccably dressed in a brown wrap dress, artful jewelry, her silver bob cut by someone who knows her way around a pair of scissors.
“They say you get tired of the view,” she says with an Italian accent, in the center of her glassed-in living room. “But I don’t think that’s possible.”
Brylawski-Miller, in her 70s, is the author of two novels and a book of poetry published through the Washington Writers’ Publishing House (WWPH), a small press collective that chooses two books—one novel and one book of poetry—each year.
Many writers in the WWPH have come and gone since its inception as a nonprofit publisher of poetry in 1973. (The collective added fiction to its lineup in 2000.) Authors chosen for publication are required to help edit the next year’s picks, but some are more committed than others.
Brylawski-Miller became involved when the WWPH published her book of poems, The Snow on Lake Como, in 1991. Since then, she’s remained among a core group that keeps the publishing house a vital outlet for local writers who don’t churn out stiletto-heeled chick lit or endless analyses of the Bush presidency. “You have all this talent here and most of it goes unrecognized, at least at a bigger level, at a buyer level. That is sad to me,” she says.
The writers range in age, experience, and background. The novelist published in 2001, Phillip Kurata of Wheaton, Md., works for the U.S. Foreign Service and is in his third year in Iraq. The poet picked last year, 28-year-old Carly Sachs, was a transplant from New York and is now the president of WWPH.
“I feel this is an opportunity to meet and be a part of the history of the Washington literary scene,” Sachs says, citing Brylawski-Miller as an example. “I met her when we were reading together; her book came out when mine did…and it really spoke to me with its images, its sensory details. Laura is somebody who inspired me to write fiction.”
Brylawski-Miller helps screen novels submitted to the publishing house, picking four or five that go to a committee for judging. Her paintings, another of her talents, appear on several WWPH covers, including her novels, The Square at Vigevano and The Medusa’s Smile.
The latter, published last December, begins in Venice, in the snow, which was her inspiration. “When you think of Venice, it’s in the summer,” Brylawski-Miller, who comes from a wealthy Italian family, says. “But in the winter, it becomes a small town. Everyone leaves.”
The narrator is a woman named Marina whose doctor husband has taken up with a resident the age of their daughter and no longer wants to be married. Marina goes “home” to Venice to think; while there, she remembers a defining summer at the famous Lido when she was 17. The book weaves the past and present, building toward both tragedy and young Marina’s crush on an older man who sees more in her than she knows about herself.
The book is dedicated to “the real Marco Albrizzi.” Brylawski-Miller says he is the one truth, an older man she met when she was 19. “Some of the very things he says to Marina in the book, he said to me,” she says.
Sales of the book may not pay for the penthouse, but Brylawski-Miller, like the would-be novelists she screens, doesn’t write for the money. “The past doesn’t exist except in yourself,” she says. “By writing about it, you keep it.”