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Two Local Books: One provides a short history of Richmond, the other a fictional account of local trash collecting

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Clay Blancett's inspiration for his new book was pure garbage.

A carpenter by trade, it took him two-and-a-half years working a boom truck for the Richmond Department of Public Works' solid waste division to realize he had the makings of a novel.

Although "Avenue of Champions" is a work of fiction, it's based on Blancett's experiences working a job that involved cleaning up things as varied as overgrown alleys and the flotsam and jetsam of evictions. Each section is related to different drivers he rode with, often several days of work with one person is combined into a single chapter for clarity. Some chapters focus on one specific stop, others are only a single page.

Blancett was part of a large group of temporary sanitation workers hired in June 2010 through the Mayor's Participation, Action and Communication program. By November he'd begun writing short pieces that would become the novel. It was originally boredom on the job that compelled him to pay attention to his surroundings, he says, for the sake of relating the interesting bits to his family, Facebook friends and girlfriend. When the muse moved him, the stories became blog posts conveyed through poetry or short prose.

Once committed to a book, Blancett quickly realized that his biggest challenge would be combining a fragmented array of memories and short prose pieces into a coherent whole. His goal was for each section to stand on its own while also contributing to a story that would form the novel.

"That's the biggest reason I kept the story nonlinear. Not because of some avant-garde grad-school tomfoolery," he says, "But because I felt each chapter achieved the arc better in the order I finally decided on."

In many ways, the book has been a long time coming. A former Virginia Commonwealth University sculpture student who took a left turn into poetry, Blancett began writing in 1994 and has had several poems published. Two blogs worth of poetry and short prose were followed by a chapbook, "More Than the Residue of My Story," which was compiled of short blog pieces and accompanied a 2011 art show of the same name in New Orleans.

"This novel began the instant I realized I was supposed to sit still in those trucks, calm my brain, and pay attention to my surroundings," he recalls of the years working the city's alleys. "I wanted my novel to be a landscape painting of Richmond, so I did my best to report on what I saw."

"Avenue of Champions" is available at Fountain Books, Book People, Amazon and hystericalbooks.com.

All it took for Jack Trammel and Guy Terrell to write "A Short History of Richmond" was a suggestion from a bookseller friend lamenting that there was no such book available.

"We looked at each other and thought that this might be a good idea," Trammel says. "We began looking around and sure enough, there really isn't a good short history of Richmond and the project was born."

The two had written "The 4th Branch of Government: We the People" together, so they'd already practiced the art of writing collaboratively. Theirs is a synergetic process, where they often write together with one typing while they both talk. Trammel is a professor of sociology at Randolph-Macon College — social history is one of his specialties — and Terrell is retired from the financial world and works part time in local schools.

"A Short History of Richmond," is written in a format that could be read quickly, is aimed squarely at visitors, newcomers and even those who simply want to know more about their hometown. Their research began at Randolph-Macon College before moving to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, the Valentine museum and the National Archives.

"We never intended it to be a scholarly work in the genre sense," Terrell says. "We had notes in our draft text which went away in the print version for readability's sake. We wanted an accessible book that anyone can pick up, be entertained by, and learn something about Richmond."

A reader could learn that Richmond's original appeal to humans was its geography, easily explainable given its location at the fall line, seven prominent hills, proximity to fresh water with Shockoe Creek, river transportation and nearby hunting grounds. 

"But Richmond's strength now is its complicated history," Trammell says. "The very things that have been divisive, controversial and problematic at times work hand-in-hand with the continual accomplishments of dynamic individuals, institutions and businesses."

Both authors have spent much of their lives here and appreciate the complexities of Richmond's history, which for them translates into an obligation to tell the city's story with truth and, when appropriate, great enthusiasm.  

Terrell insists that Richmond is unique as a city because no other city has experienced all the things that Richmonders have, a fact appreciated even by people who know a great deal about the city. Since the book came out, he says more than a few native Richmond readers have expressed amazement at all they didn't know, or hadn't thought about since childhood.

"It was actually a daunting challenge writing a short history, because Richmond has so much to share," Trammel explains. "We didn't want to leave anything out. Ultimately, we think we've done justice to Richmond's complex and rich experience." S

"A Short History of Richmond" book reading March 9, 7 p.m. at Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary St. chopsueybooks.com.

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