FACETIME-Not military school: Fishburne claims different family branch

Rodes Fishburne

Rodes Fishburne's Charlottesville roots go deep: His grandfather, Junius, was a founder of the law firm Richmond & Fishburne; the long-time Virginia Quarterly editor, the late Staige Blackford, was his cousin, and his great-, great-, great-grandfather was John A.G. Davis, the UVA law prof who was shot on the Lawn in 1840.

Where Fishburne does not claim direct descendancy is from the Fishburne Military School, founded by a cousin on the Waynesboro Fishburne side. "I didn't go there," says Fishburne on the phone from San Francisco. "There are probably some who thought I should have."

 The Williamsburg-raised Fishburne will be back in Charlottesville for the Virginia Festival of the Book, talking about his first novel, Going to See the Elephant. You can tell it's an amusing book just by looking at his website, which along with current time, temperature and tide level, lists other conditions in San Francisco:  drinking conditions ("belligerent"), minor prophet sightings ("everyday") and age of optimism ("hopefully"). 

Fishburne, 38, is remarkably optimistic about being a first published novelist at such a ghastly time in history. His book, which came out in January, was on the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list for six weeks. 

"I'm a contrarian," he says. "During the Great Depression, book sales and tuxedo rentals increased."

He points to a recent National Endowment for the Arts survey that claims an eye-popping 16.6 million more people are reading now than there were four years ago– in total defiance of trends since 1982 that show an ever-shrinking pool of adult readers.

Is it because they can't afford cable? "I think the appetite for novels continues," posits Fishburne.

Certainly his appetite for writing continues. "I've been writing since I was 10 or 11," he says, recounting how he recently found an early notebook with his observations as a 12-year-old, carefully disguised by the word "algebra" on the cover.

For over 10 years, he's written for big-league newspapers and magazines, such as the New Yorker, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle Magazine. Editing Forbes ASAP's annual "Big Issue" of literary essays led to a glowing blurb about Elephant from contributor Tom Wolfe: "Rodes Fishburne is a marksman hunting down first-novel fame, and he never misses."

 But to limit himself to novels is an old-school strategy that Fishburne eschews. "In the 21st century, the person who just sees himself as a short story writer or a poet sees diminishing returns," he explains. "Things come to me in the right bucket. I never had a play idea that came to me as a novel."

His strategy: "I just keep on doing it."

"He's always up to something," says his aunt, Roberta Fishburne Brownfield, who offers what could be the best blurb: "Even if I weren't his aunt, I'd still want to have a beer with him."


Rodes Fishburne sits on "Extraordinary Journeys: A Fiction Panel" at 2pm Thursday, March 19, at Barnes & Noble.