For his debut novel, “Africaville,” Jeffrey Colvin took inspiration from a real place, a community settled by former slaves in Nova Scotia, to tell the story of one family through multiple generations. Colvin, who grew up in Alabama, served in the Marine Corps and is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School and an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. He’ll discuss his new book at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 12, at the Boston Public Library’s Central Branch along with novelist Melissa Rivero.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
COLVIN: I’ve been dipping into something by Zora Neale Hurston, my favorite writer. She is always on my list. I love her autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road.” I’m also dipping into “The Healing” by Gayl Jones. She was well known in the ‘80s, but then she fell out of favor. The imagery in that book is so wonderful with the way she uses sound and smells. Those are emotional tools that are underutilized by most writers She mentions the smell of sardines on a bus. James Salter mentions the sound of ducks flying overhead in a story in his collection “Dusk.”
BOOKS: Are you primarily a fiction reader?
COLVIN: Mostly but I started out reading a lot of nonfiction. When I worked in advertising in Chicago, it was the first time I lived in the Midwest. I would go to used bookstores and pick up old McClure’s magazines. I started reading about the muckrakers, such as Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, who wrote “The Jungle.”. I spent a lot of time reading that kind of nonfiction. My reading really depends on where I am. Another example is when I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan.
BOOKS: What were you reading there?
COLVIN: Every base had a library of some sort. There’d be a corporal or a lance corporal sitting at the desk, who was the librarian. The collection wouldn’t be large but there’d be plenty of books, like a school library, not large but with a range of politics, history, and classic literature. So I was reading a lot of 17th- and 18th-century writers. I read “The Decameron” and a little bit of Rabelais.
BOOKS: When did you become an avid reader?
COLVIN: I have always loved reading but it was really after I left the Naval Academy that I started to read more. At Columbia, I would dip into books that were on the freshman literature curriculum, like Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and Plato’s “The Symposium.” I was curious and could always find an excuse to dip into something.
BOOKS: What had you read at the Naval Academy?
COLVIN: A lot of naval history. You get a certain slant on American history [in the service] so you have to widen that view. For example, when I was at the Kennedy School, I read “Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans” by Herbert J. Gans, which is about the West End of Boston and how it was destroyed to make way for urban renewal. That book had a profound impact on me.
BOOKS: What other books have had a big impact on you?
COLVIN: The short story collection “Lost in the City” by Edward P Jones, “Krik? Krak!” by Edwidge Danticat and “A Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermontov. It was translated by Nabokov. It is such an interesting novel because its structure is so inventive. Another is “The Street” by Ann Petry. She was the first African-American woman to sell over a million books.
BOOKS: Do you have favorite Southern writers?
COLVIN: Flannery O’Connor, of course. “The Good Brother” by Chris Offutt, which I read when I started to write my own stories about the South. Breece D’J Pancake is a wonderful writer. He only wrote one book, a collection of short stories. The essayist Joy Packer is another favorite.
BOOKS: What are you going to read next?
COLVIN: I’m not sure. I’ve also been reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise.” That has one taken me awhile because it’s such a wonderful book. I want to savor it.