FACETIME- Chestertown bolt: Writing couple gets Starr treatment

Donna Lucey and Henry Wiencek

Bucking a trend in a town that lures writers in and never lets them go, authorly couple Henry Wiencek and Donna Lucey are taking a hiatus from Charlottesville and heading east. And even though they'll be ensconced at Washington College on Maryland's Eastern Shore, they claim they won't escape Thomas Jefferson's reach.

For Wiencek, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his 1999 book, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, that's probably a good thing, as he's currently working on Jefferson and his Slaves and will be writer in residence at the College's C.V. Starr Center for a year.

"It's a really dynamic, new place," says Wiencek, whose most recent book, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, fits in nicely with the Starr Center's focus on America's experiment in democracy. The Center, he says, is "interested in the same things I am– exploring the founding era."

By digging into the very old, Wiencek expects new insights, especially on the issues of race. "America was founded on ideals," he says. "How did Washington and Jefferson deal with the contradiction?"

The Starr Center was looking for a writer with a work-in-process for its $45,000 Patrick Henry Fellowship. Wiencek will teach one class in the spring, and gets a restored early 18th-century house in historic Chestertown, among other perks.

"It's like a mini-Georgetown on the Eastern Shore," says Lucey, a historian herself who, in 2006, penned the story of one of Albemarle's more eccentric couples, Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age. Since that book, Lucey has worked on magazine pieces and has begun developing a book idea about another Gilded Age couple in New York.

"Virginia," she reminds, "doesn't have a monopoly on eccentric characters."

Lucey and Wiencek met when they were writers for Time-Life books. Although they're both respected authors, that doesn't translate into a regular paycheck, so the fellowship offers a little breathing room. "It's hard to make it as a writer," says Lucey. "We're always hanging by our fingernails."

"It's a terrible struggle," agrees Wiencek, noting that books always take longer than expected. "You can't just throw material on the page," he says. "You've got to make sense of it."

Though many books already have been written about Jefferson, Wiencek claims he's found some things in the archives that have been overlooked, and he promises a very different interpretation.

"We've seen Jefferson's relations with slaves entirely through the eyes of Sally Hemings and her family," Wiencek says. "She was just one of 600 slaves at Monticello. Life for the Hemings family was one thing. Life for those laboring farther down the hill was quite different."

And the story of Jefferson and his slaves [see this week's essay– editor] resonates in America 200 years later, as 2008 sees its first African-American presidential candidate while 30 percent of Americans say they'd never vote for a black.

"That's directly out of Jefferson," says Wiencek.

The third president wrote that whites and blacks could never live under the same government, and that "black people were inherently inferior," Wiencek says. "That set the tone for the next 200 years."

And as revered as are all things Jefferson in Charlottesville, Wiencek utters near-heresy: "We followed the wrong leader. Washington freed his slaves and didn't look down on them. And that was troubling for many Americans."