Whitfield, Van ca. 1960–
Van Whitfield ca. 1960–
The group of female African-American novelists who chronicled the pitfalls of contemporary relationships in the 1990s may have found a male counterpart in Van Whitfield. With his comic debut novel Beeperless Remote and its bestselling successors, Whitfield delighted readers of all backgrounds with his tales of the dating misadventures of professional black men in the Washington, D.C. area. Whitfield, whose own website called him “the accidental author,” had little formal training as a writer. But his work embodies one of the first principles taught to any fiction writer: the admonition to write about what one knows. The humor and accuracy of Whitfield’s tales of dating misadventures stem from his ability to communicate things that have happened to him.
Van Whitfield was born in Baltimore, Maryland, around 1960. His father was a probation officer in the Maryland state prison system, and his mother taught special education. In spite of his mother’s expertise in the field, Whitfield was misdiagnosed as learning-disabled when he was a child. He was taken out of Baltimore schools and enrolled in St. Ambrose School, a remedial institution run by the Catholic church. School personnel there identified a hearing problem as the cause of Whitfield’s academic difficulties, and after he underwent corrective surgery his performance in school improved.
A nun named Sister Maria Christine took Whitfield under her wing and inspired in him a love of reading and writing that would remain submerged for some years. “Some of who I am today is because she cared,” Whitfield told the Baltimore Sun. After he became successful as a writer he established the Van Whitfield Education Works Foundation, a childhood reading and writing program, in remembrance of the way he benefited from special language instruction. Instead of pursuing a writing-related career, however, Whitfield followed his father into the corrections field.
Moving to Washington, D.C, he worked for a time at the district’s rough Lorton Prison. In 1995, having done little writing of any kind, Whitfield was working at a youth-program job in the Washington mayor’s office. Literary inspiration struck in the form of a bad blind date set up by a friend. “No, wait,” Whitfield told the Washington Post. “Bad is not fair. I was traumatized.” His date ordered filet mignon, lobster, and five glasses of wine while ignoring Whitfield in order to answer each of the four pager messages she received during the course of the meal. To blow off steam when he got home, Whitfield set the entire episode down on paper—skewering not only the woman but also himself. “The most tragic part is my male ego became prominent, thinking ‘I can still make something happen with this woman,’” he told the Post.
Relatives who read what he had written dissolved in laughter and urged him to try his hand at writing. He got his chance sooner than he thought—the next day
At a Glance…
Born ca. 1960 in Baltimore, MD; son of a probation officer and a special education teacher.
Career: Employed at Lorton Prison, Washington, D.C; worked in Mayor’s Youth Initiative Office, Washington, D.C., until 1995; Beeperless Remote published, 1997; signed contract with Doubleday Books; There’s Something Wrong with Your Scale I published, 1999; wrote scripts for UPN television Grown Ups, 2000 Guys in Suits published, 2001.
Awards: Nominated for six Ben Franklin awards, 1997 (for Beeperless Remote).
he was laid off from his city job because his supervisor thought that he lacked imagination. The layoff would not take effect for another four months, and Whitfield, who did not own a computer, put the time to good use by writing the better part of a novel on the computer at his desk. What he wrote, based on his own nightmare date and on other tales of the D.C. dating scene, became his first novel, Beeperless Remote. The title refers to a telephone answering machine that can be activated using an ordinary phone keypad rather than requiring a special beeper (as most machines did in the pre-touch tone era).
Shopping the book to major publishers, Whitfield ran into resistance based on stereotypes as some suggested his book was not “black” enough. “They didn’t want to see responsible, middle-class, college-educated black men,” Whitfield told the Baltimore Sun. But Beeperless Remote was picked up by a small black-oriented Baltimore publisher and released in 1997. The book quickly became a local cult sensation; Whitfield filed suit against the book’s publisher in a royalties dispute, but by then the Pines One firm had taken notice of its popularity and agreed to reissue it. After Beeperless Remote, Whitfield signed a multi-book deal with a major publisher, Doubleday.
Beeperless Remote garnered six Ben Franklin Award nominations, including Best Author and Best New Voice, was named Emerge magazine’s hardback fiction book of the year, and became a bestseller in Germany after it was translated. Expectations ran high for Whitfield’s second novel, Something’s Wrong with Your Scale! Having lived much of his first book, Whitfield planned to avoid the sophomore jinx by living his second: he took the step, common enough for actors but quite unusual among writers, of altering his physical appearance to probe a character more deeply.
The central character of Something’s Wrong with Your Scale! is Sonny Walker, a fine person with a weight problem. His girlfriend, a talented baker of pies, dumps him as a result and Sonny is unable to resist going for a bite of pie even as she is delivering the bad news. He eventually finds love with a woman he meets at a FutraSystem weight-loss center. To prepare for writing the book, Whitfield himself put on 50 pounds. What he learned, he told the Sun, was “jaw-dropping.” Telling friends on the basketball court that his clothes were shrinking in the dryer, they suggested that he might want to climb into the dryer himself. But, more seriously, he suffered the end of a romantic relationship and found himself isolated from his usual social circles. The depth of Whitfield’s experiences translated itself into another comic gem and solid book sales after a 20-city promotional tour.
In the year 2000 Whitfield tapped still more undiscovered writing talent when he expanded his horizons to screenwriting. He wrote scripts for the UPN network television series Grown Ups and adapted Something’s Wrong with Your Scale! for a film to be made under the aegis of director Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. Whitfield has also written numerous magazine articles and worked on a stage version of Beeperless Remote. His third novel Guys in Suits, which appeared in the fall of 2001, also inspired talk of a film adaptation; the novel, which depicted the romantic misadventures of a bus driver and his stockbroker friend, added an element of class-based humor to Whitfield’s arsenal. A fixture of television and radio talk shows by then, and quickly ascending to the status of beloved American humorist, Whitfield in 2002 was at work on his fourth novel, tentatively entitled Heaven’s Inn.
Beeperless Remote, Pines One, 1997.
Something’s Wrong with Your Scale!, Doubleday, 1999.
Guys in Suits, Doubleday, 2001.
Baltimore Sun, April 25, 1999, p. G3.
Essence, October 2001, p. 68.
Library Journal, February 1, 1999, p. 124.
Publishers Weekly, January 4, 1999, p. 75; September 10, 2001, p. 62.
Washington Post, May 4, 1996, p. D8; July 8, 1999, p. C1.
—James M. Manheim
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