RANCHO SANTA FE — Drawing from his own experiences growing up in Rochester, N.Y., author Ross Talarico’s new novel “Sled Run,” is a modern day Robin Hood tale about a teenage boy Rosey who’s seduced by the dazzle (and 1959 candy-apple red Mercury convertible) of a local Mafioso, Carm Carlotta.
It isn’t difficult for Rosey, growing up in a poor Italian community, to be drawn toward Carm’s success and the pursuit of the American dream. He’s an easy recruit for Carm who needs help with Sled Run, the annual event where the Mafioso steals from warehouses and stores to give to orphanages at Christmastime.
“Sled Run is about being in both worlds — the world of trying to do right, and the world of trying to be accepted,” Talarico said. “The American dream comes from just wanting to have expensive things and what you’ll do for them. That translates into everybody’s life — how much you compromise of your values to do well financially.”
The novel is a blend of fiction and memoir, Talarico said. In it he captures the 1964 Rochester race riot that was sparked by allegations of police brutality against the African American community. Rosey loses a friend in the riot and, in an act of revenge, an African American kid is also killed.
Talarico, an award-winning multi-genre writer who made a name for himself as a poet, knows something about underprivileged urban kids from his hometown. As Rochester’s writer-in-residence during the 1980s, Talarico had a unique task — to implement a grassroots program in creative expression that would bring together a community of poor and privileged.
One strategy was to start a poetry basketball program.
“At first they couldn’t play basketball on a Friday night unless they took the poetry workshop,” Talarico said. “Eventually kids came and didn’t want to play basketball. They just wanted to be part of the program. This was a rough neighborhood and everything was always ripped up except the billboard where we put our poems. It had status.”
The end result of his work in Rochester was the publication called, “Spreading the Word: Poetry and the Survival of Community in America,” a veritable blueprint for writers seeking to engage communities. It also garnered him the prestigious Mina P. Shaughnessy Prize for outstanding book of the year on literature and writing.
Talarico’s made a career of eliciting stories from others in short form. From Italian Americans to Indians, he’s found he has a talent for translating oral histories into accomplished works of literary art. His collection of stories from the elderly, “Hearts and Times: The Literature of Memory,” was made into a play in Chicago.
And in San Diego, he’s worked with Native American teenagers in Bonsall and elders of the Pala Band of Mission Indians.
“Storytelling is what we are,” Talarico said. “It is how we pass on our thoughts about life, our values, what we choose to do, what we choose not to do. It doesn’t come alive in a Boy Scout handbook where they give you a list of things. It comes in a more subtle, complex way and from telling stories to each other.”
Now Talarico, who lives in nearby Rancho Santa Fe in a home overlooking Lake Hodges, has announced he’s seeking interesting people for a new project — writing their stories in long form.
“I do something as a writer, by being able to capture that moment in people’s stories that really makes it outstanding,” Talarico said. “Most people just don’t know how to do it. Maybe they can do it with their own work but not with others.’”
Talarico wants to find two people who want to have their stories made into a small book. He warns that this project isn’t for everybody. It will take a significant commitment of at least six months and it’s not cheap.
“There are enough people out there who really feel compelled to have their stories in print, in written form for their friends and so forth,” he said. “They can’t do it themselves and obviously can’t do it the way I do it. They’re getting the foremost expert in the country who’s doing this kind of thing. It will be a very selective clientele but it’s going to be something people are interested in.”
If readers are interested in Talarico’s project, he can be contacted at [email protected] or (760) 489-5815.
“Sled Run,” by Ross Talarico, published by Bordighera Press, is available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble bookstores.