Did Rosecrans Baldwin find Chapel Hill's literary community, or did it find him?
Baldwin's debut novel, You Lost Me There (Riverhead Books, 304 pp.), comes out this week, but the 33-year-old isn't new to publishing. He is the co-founder of The Morning News, a widely read online magazine that Paste called "a symbiotic mix between The New Yorker's crackling insight and NPR's This American Life."
The Morning News dawned in 1999 in New York City, and Baldwin co-edited it there and then later in Paris, where he and his wife, Rachel Knowles, lived for a year and a half. In early 2009, they moved to Chapel Hill, where Knowles grew up and went to college. "We decided we were really sick of living in big cities," Baldwin explains, as we sweat over afternoon beers at the Dead Mule on Franklin Street. "More to the point, we wanted to live someplace where we could afford to both be pursuing our creative projects, as many hours as possible." Plus, he notes, "down here, you have a big community of writers, journalists, authors, publishers."
By virtual blindman's bluff, Baldwin and Knowles joined that community before they even had an address.
"We initially moved in with my in-laws while we were looking for a place to rent," Baldwin recalls. "So we were going on Craigslist. [We] find a listing that we like; e-mail the guy [to ask] if we could come see it. He writes back: 'I'm sorry, I don't rent to writers. They're really unreliable.' But in the next paragraph he says, 'I know your name because of The Morning News. My name's Duncan, you should come check out my house.'" The landlord turned out to be a writer himself, the essayist (and former Indy contributor) Duncan Murrell.
Murrell's rental property in Pittsboro wasn't quite what Baldwin and Knowles were looking for, but their search turned up more writers. "A week later," Baldwin continues, "another listing. Looks great. E-mailed the guy. He writes back that day: 'Sorry, I rented that place yesterday.'" A couple of hours later, though, he wrote again: "Your name is really weird," it read, "so I Googled it." (Baldwin is related to the Civil War General William Rosecrans.) "I saw through your website that you're a writer; I'm a writer, also; I got a weird name, too. Sincerely, Wells Tower."
(The Chapel Hill-born Tower's debut, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, was one of the national literary sensations of 2009. Naturally, Tower also attended Chapel Hill High School with Baldwin's brother-in-law.)
Fast-forward: Praise from Wells Tower appears on the back of You Lost Me There. "So I'm meeting the literary community of Chapel Hill through Craigslist," Baldwin says.
Murrell arranged for Baldwin to meet Chapel Hill novelist Daniel Wallace, clinching a connection that was perhaps inevitable: Wallace used to play rec-league basketball with Baldwin's father-in-law and was sometimes around the Knowles' family house while Rachel was growing up. Speaking of fathers-in-law, Wallace happens to hold that title vis-à-vis yet another writer: Nic Brown, whose first novel, Doubles, about a pro tennis player, was published in July. (The Indy profiled Brown last month and Wells Tower last year.)
Wallace introduced Baldwin to Brown. "Like Nic, I'm completely obsessed with tennis. So we started playing tennis together." Baldwin regularly solicits writers to contribute to The Morning News when they have a book coming out, and he asked Brown to do just that, recently publishing Brown's account of his exhibition match against the professional tennis player who helped provide the real-life inspiration for Doubles. It makes almost mathematical sense that the two writers, who are both 33, are publishing their debut novels within a month of one another (more doubles) and that Brown has just left Chapel Hill (for a teaching job in Colorado) right as Baldwin is asserting his roots here.
Despite all of these coincidences, it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that Baldwin found Chapel Hill's literati so quickly: The Morning News has a strong emphasis on books and writers, publishing not only essays like Brown's but also frequent author interviews and book reviews. Baldwin has worked in this milieu his entire adult life—almost always, however, from the sidelines rather than the bylines. His extensive literary output has been largely anonymous.
Until now. You Lost Me There has received ample advance press—and praise—"so now I'm in a daily cycle of panic attacks and nervous anticipation," Baldwin says, laughing. Set on Maine's affluent Mount Desert Island, the novel tells the story of Victor Aaron, a 58-year-old Alzheimer's research scientist who is ... well, put it this way: The age of 58 heralds your second Saturn return, and Victor is already tightly cinched by its rings. He lost his wife two years earlier in a car crash and is choked by unexpressed grief; he's grown ambivalent toward his esteemed career; he drinks too much for his age; and he is playing dress-up (also undress-up and, later on, dressing-down) with a woman 30 years his junior. The book follows Victor through the throes of what could be either a late-breaking midlife crisis or an early entrance into old age. The novel is, as one character calls Victor's trials, a sort of "scientist's guide to grief."
Closely and smoothly composed, alert all the way down to its synapses and axons, and comfortably, warmly readable, You Lost Me There is poised to push Rosecrans Baldwin's weird name out from behind The Morning News and into the morning news.
You Lost Me There is not especially autobiographical, save for its setting. Baldwin grew up making summer visits to Mount Desert Island, where he has relatives (one of whom provides the model for a major character in the book), and he still goes there every year. He also graduated from Colby College, about 100 miles away from the island. But Baldwin, who spent his first professional decade circling the writing life before making a full-blown career of it (he has been writing seriously for years, however), does share an important life arc with the protagonist of his novel.
"I don't think Victor, when he was doing his undergrad studies, was like, 'I'm gonna be a neuroscientist,'" Baldwin says. "I think he fell into that career or that study. I think it's sort of like you have an aptitude or talent, and it falls into a path at some point."
Having fallen into his own path, Baldwin has hit it running: The Morning News continues to occupy him daily, but he is busy working on two new books—"pursuing ... creative projects, as many hours as possible" seems to have been fully enabled for him by the move to Chapel Hill.
So how does he like it, now that he's been here a year and a half? Baldwin doesn't hesitate. "I love it here," he says. Without pausing, he says it again.