by tracey neithercott | June 24, 2013 | People
BRIAN JAY JONES, DAMASCUS, MARYLAND
There is something completely endearing about Brian Jay Jones, an admitted comic book nerd who became interested in Washington Irving because he's a Christmas junkie, and he might be the least stuffy (former) policy analyst in Washington.
Jones published his first book, Washington Irving: an American Original, in 2008, and in 2010, left his political careerâ€”nearly two decades in public policy and speechwritingâ€”to become a full-time writer.
His latest subject is Jim Henson. "All my life I've been aware of him," Jones says. At 13, Jones had borrowed Of Muppets and Men: The Making of the Muppet Show from the library enough times that he'd memorized all of the people behind the puppets. "I was more than a Muppets fan. I was a Jim Henson fan."
Jones now lives about an hour from where Henson grew up (in Hyattsville, Maryland) and has spent a good deal of time interviewing Henson's children and late wife. Yet while Henson was a local boy, there isn't much identifying the DC area as Henson's hometownâ€”that is, aside from a granite bench on the University of Maryland's campus. There, a bronze Henson chats with Kermit the Frog.
The spot's particularly meaningful to Jones. "There is really a nice piece of him out in the world," Jones says. "The bit I love is that Kermit is sort of laying his hand on Jim's arm."
It's a peaceful setting, but Jones's true sanctuary has a few more books (35 million, to be exact). "I loved when I had to do research at the Library of Congress," he reveals. "I'm a big, big fan."
CHUCK TODD, ARLINGTON
Fans of Chuck Todd (known as "Chuckolytes") turn to him to make sense of political headlinesâ€”and they're rarely disappointed. Todd took an interest in Washington's goings-on from an early age and has become well regarded for his affable approach, keen insights, and encyclopedic knowledge of government and politics. "The switch really went on in eighth grade. My dad recommended Profiles in Courage," he says. "It sort of began when I thought, These are great men."
Today he serves as NBC News political director and chief White House correspondent, hosts The Daily Rundown on MSNBC, and edits NBC News's First Read blog. Somewhere amid this hectic schedule, he finds solace and creative energy in secluded retreats. There's the area around the NBC bureau, where in the past Todd would walk through the woods while writing on his BlackBerry. There's his car, where he spent months working over the details of his forthcoming book, an examination of Barack Obama's first term as president, during his daily commute. And there's the Einstein Memorial, tucked into a grove of elm and holly on Constitution Avenue, where Todd would hang out as a college student at George Washington University. Now he appreciates the site for an entirely different reason. "It's a cool little thing in the middle of all these memorials," Todd says. "It's my favorite DC spot because it's quiet."
JESSICA ANYA BLAU, BALTIMORE
Jessica Anya Blau isn't a Baltimorean, per se. "You always are the place you go to elementary and high school. That's the place you're forming your identity," she says. That would make Blau a Southern California girl through and through. It was the setting for her first two novels, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and Drinking Closer to Home, both based heavily on Blau's childhood.
Her most recent novel, The Wonder Bread Summer, was released in late May and also takes place in sunny California, although it was penned in Baltimore.
The best-selling author lives close to Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches a class yearly. She's finishing a stint as a visiting assistant professor at Goucher College. And, of course, she's writing.
She's also helping young minds learn to love language as much as she does. Blau's an advisory board member of 826DC, a nonprofit that fosters in kids a fondness for the written word. She considers its mission an important one: "It's making writing a part of childhood," Blau says, noting that simply walking through the tutoring center, packed with kids in the after-school hours, inspires her.
The area's energy is part of what drives Blau to work every day. "There are a lot of writers out there, a lot of thinkers and people who are getting stuff done," Blau says. "A lot of it is DC and politics and things happening that will change the world. It's a bit of trickle-down, and you feel it."
SARAH PEKKANEN, CHEVY CHASE
When she was 10, Sarah Pekkanen and her friend sent their book idea to a New York publisherâ€”on Raggedy Ann stationery. They were rejected, but it didn't dash Pekkanen's writing aspirations. Three decades later, the former Capitol Hill reporter and Baltimore Sun feature writer has become an internationally best-selling author who counts Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner as peers.
Now four books in (her latest, The Best of Us, was released in April), Pekkanen holds court in the women's fiction genre and is renowned for creating hyperrealistic characters who bond over dramatic experiences and challenges; they are "fristers," Pekkanen's own term for female friends as close as sisters.
And while her loyal fans from far afield may admire her ability to skillfully examine the relationships in women's lives, it is Washingtonians who can particularly appreciate the Bethesda native's workâ€”especially her choice of setting. "I put a lot of my favorite DC spots into my books," Pekkanen says. "In These Girls, a character is a top aide to a senator on the Hill, so I drew from my Capitol Hill days," she says. "I love weaving in spots I enjoy into my books."
But the city doesn't just inspire scenes in her novels. Although she writes whenever and wherever she can, Pekkanen's creativity is often sparked at area landmarks like Rock Creek Park, where she walks her rescued Lab, Bella. Most often her muse: Politics and Prose bookstore. "You feel inspired when you're surrounded by books," she says of the beloved local spot she frequented even before she became a writer. "There's something really warm and cozy about [it]."
THOMAS MALLON, DC
From an office in the turret of his 120-year-old home, Thomas Mallon can see the Watergate building. It's fitting for a man whose first political memory is of supporting Richard Nixon and whose latest novel chronicles the 37th president's downfall during what was arguably the greatest political scandal in American history. "Nixon loomed large in my life from a very young age. I always seemed to be writing about him," says Mallon, a lauded historical fiction author. "I think I was always getting around to him."
The product of his fixation is the 2012 novel Watergate and, like all of his past novels, it is steeped in history and full of imagination (like First Lady Pat Nixon's fictional lover). The book landed Mallon on the 2013 list of finalists for the esteemed PEN/Faulkner literary award for fiction.
To be considered for the prize was a thrill, but writing about Washington, from Washington, is its own reward. "[The historical sites] do sort of pump up your emotions and enthusiasm for what you're doing," he says. "You feel there's this bigness and glamour to what you're doing." The Watergate building, in particular, became a touchstone for him while penning the book: "I would stare at it and try to peel back 40 years from it," he says.
But Mallon does a great deal of his plotting outdoors. "I do a lot of my thinking when I walk or ride my bike," he reveals, adding that he often bikes the Mount Vernon Trail to Alexandria. "Once I get across the river," Mallon says, "looking back I can see an awful lot of what I consider my terrain."
photography by kip dawkins; stephen voss (pekkanen)