Route 1 has had its share of crime authors. George Pelecanos used to cruise the Hyattsville area and has mentioned it in some of his books. And University Park was home to famed noir author James M. Cain.
Now it has Monica Hesse.
In her new book “American Fire,” the University Park resident explores a series of arsons in Virginia’s Accomack County — and the bizarre backstory behind the couple responsible.
Her previous book was the Edgar Award-winning young adult historical mystery novel “Girl in the Blue Coat,” which has been translated into a dozen languages and was shortlisted for the American Booksellers Association’s Indies Choice Award
She spoke with the Hyattsville Wire recently about her latest book.
Your book is about a series of arsons. Have you written about crime before?
No—my day job is at the Washington Post where I’m a general assignment feature writer, which means I’ve covered everything from the Academy Awards to political campaigns to dog shows. I’ve always thought that if I hadn’t gone into writing, I would have studied criminal psychology, though, so the idea of embedding in an investigation was really interesting to me. And then, of course, it ended up being not really a crime novel so much as a twisted love story.
How did you first hear about the fires?
They made the news in D.C. a little bit. Every few weeks, I’d see a brief AP blurb, just a couple sentences talking about how the number of fires in Accomack County was up to 42 or 58 or 64. By the time the arsonists were arrested, I knew I wanted to try to unravel what had happened.
Your previous book was a young adult mystery novel. How different (or similar) was it to write a true-crime book?
I always say that it’s harder in the technical sense to write novels, because you are responsible for creating the whole world of your book. But it’s harder in the psychological sense to write nonfiction, because you’re writing about real people. There’s a huge responsibility there to be fair and get things right.
What drew you to University Park?
When my husband and I started househunting, after a decade renting in Columbia Heights, we were probably a Realtor’s worst nightmare: we didn’t have a neighborhood in mind, or an architectural style. We just had a sense that we’d know our house when we saw it. Which is exactly what happened: we fell in love with our house first — a 1925 bungalow — and then fell in love with University Park. What I like best about it now is the fact that we use our car as little as we did in D.C. We walk to the movie theater, the library, Busboys, Whole Foods, and Unleashed, where I drag the dog for her baths on the weekends. Most of the final edits for my book happened at Vigilante Coffee; most of my rewards for my completing a day of edits came from Sugar Vault.
Since your two books have been so different, what do you think you’ll tackle next?
I just turned in a draft of my next book! It’s another young adult historical novel, about the friendship between two girls in a World War II internment camp — the only one in the United States that imprisoned both Japanese-American and German-American families.