There’s something exotic in Fairhope for Massachusetts writer Elan Barnehama. Something oddly familiar, too.
“I’ve met people here whose family maybe were on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1600s. They’ve been down here that long but it’s all the same. We’re all connected,” Barnehama said.
The novelist and teacher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has spent June and July as the latest participant in the Wolff Cottage Writer-in-Residence program supported by local government and the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts membership. This magnification of Fairhope’s luminosity in the literary firmament has been a mainstay since Pultizer-nominated author Rick Bragg arrived for the initial sojourn in 2004.
Barnehama’s creations have adorned various outlets like Huffington Post and Writer’s Digest. His screenplay “Just Making Change” earned a Special Mention in the 2012 Table Read My Screenplay competition.
His novel “Finding Bluefield” about a romance between two women in 1960s Virginia was a finalist in the 2014 American Book Fest Internaitonal Book Awards. Its location and period were key.
“Aside from the two women it’s really about what happens when invisible people become visible in society,” Barnehama said.
He discovered the Eastern Shore residency program last year, found Fairhope “fascinating”in research and submitted his application. Come September, his name appeared on the list of honored writers so he found himself packing shorts amidst Boston’s April snowfall.
It was then Barnehama noticed how Alabama nuance gilded his life already.
“It’s like when you buy a car and suddenly that’s all you see on the road. My playlist at home has Alabama Shakes. There was a Fannie Flagg article on Fairhope in Garden & Gun. Morning Edition broadcasted from Montgomery, there’s that podcast S-Town and I found out Food & Wine is moving to Birmingham from New York,” Barnehama recalled.
His stoked expectations were met.
“The area, the bay and what I thought I liked about it from before has just grown exponentially. I went out on Fish River and Weeks Bay. I canoed and kayaked in New England but it’s a very different landscape with marshes,” Barnehama noted.
Bareneham is used to adventure. He’s traveled the East Coast, Maine to Florida. He traversed the continent twice in recent years.
“I also crossed the country by motorcycle after college in the late ‘70s, on backroads and the only prerequisite was to stop at diners,” Barnehama said. Once in California, he went to work as a short order cook in a Burbank diner across from the NBC studios.
“I taught inner city high schools, at-risk youth who checked their weapons at the door and I think short order cook was more stressful,” Barnehama laughed.
Despite the surfeit of activity and allure of Fairhope, he’s knuckled down. He finished a few touches on an agent search for his latest novel “No Small Wonder.” Its central character is the son of Holocaust survivors who experiences the 1960s in New York City. More details can be found at elanbarnehama.com.
Some of his previous notes and ideas gelled into the genesis of an entirely new novel. Despite getting 8,000 words down to date, Barnehama said its essence is so fluid in this stage discussion would be pointless.
“I think this shakes the cobwebs out of your head a little because you’re out of your environment so you’re not thinking the same way. Plus, writers who have been [at the cottage] have left their books in the bookshelves and so it’s an inspiration and a challenge,” he said.
Barnehama’s high school teaching stint included a turn coaching varsity baseball, a pasttime that presaged his Mobile Bay visit.
“I grew up in Queens not far from Shea Stadium so I was and still am a struggling Mets fan. We could sell bottles for money and bike to the stadium,” Barnehama recalled.
Once here, he learned about the all-Mobile outfield — Amos Otis, Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee— that helped the Mets to their legendary 1969 world championship. Another Alabama tie was at Shea, in a different sport.
“I snuck onto the field at Shea Stadium in the fourth quarter when Namath beat the Raiders to go to the Super Bowl in ’69. I was like 10 years old and a bunch of us went on the field and my friend tackled me at the end of the game,” Barnehama chuckled.
The writer described himself as “Northern with a bias toward the South.”
“I have a real dislike for this idea of blue and red states. You know, Massachusetts is 60-40 like Texas but the opposite. It’s not 100 percent one way or another and we need to know these connections,” Barenhama said.