Local writer imagines a Baltimore suburb

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Laura Bogart

Patricia Schultheis’s book of short stories, St. Bart’s Way, is inspired by both her childhood home in Connecticut, and her adult years living in Baltimore. Schultheis taught English for many years, but didn’t start writing fiction until her early 50s.
Photo courtesy of Patricia Schultheis

St. Bart’s Way could be any affluent suburb in America: rich with the histories — and the secrets — of the families who believe that their opulent homes with well-manicured lawns, and the high-powered jobs that keep the lights on, will somehow protect them from the seedier side of life.

However, this well-to-do Baltimore ‘burb comes straight from the imagination of debut fiction writer Patricia Schultheis.

In her story collection, called St. Bart’s Way and published by Washington Writers Publishing House, Schultheis takes her readers into the lives of everyday people who must live through and survive such traumas as death, illness, infidelity and school shootings.

The characters in the 13 stories range from a Holocaust survivor to a woman in her 70s, whose dream of her own mother drive her to revisit her childhood home.

Schultheis, who lives in Roland Park, is also the author of the nonfiction book, Baltimore’s Lexington Market, published by Arcadia Publishing in 2007.

When she turned her hand to fiction, Schultheis didn’t initially consider writing a complete, integrated story collection. “I just wrote a story or an essay here and there,” she said.

Whenever she started a story about middle class ennui, however, she would set it on St. Bart’s Way — a place partially inspired by her girlhood in the enclave of Bridgeport, Conn., and by her adopted hometown of Baltimore, where she married and raised sons.

Baltimore society, Schultheis noticed, had a more proscribed set of mores and a social decorum that was rigidly enforced. These observations percolated inside her for quite a while until she was ready to transfer them to the page.

Struck by polio when she was 6 years old, Schultheis became an introspective child, more comfortable “observing than participating.” Her parents encouraged her to “read, read, read,” and Schultheis recalls that she was “drawn to writing from a young age.”

For years, however, she worked first as an English teacher. Then, after raising her sons, she became a proofreader who went on to a variety of publishing and public relations positions while building a freelance portfolio of articles and essays.

Late to the writing life

Schultheis didn’t vigorously pursue her ambitions as a fiction writer until she was in her early 50s, after her older sister’s sudden death.

“Your 50s are really a time to claim part of yourself,” she explained. “Embrace your passion, regardless of age. It gives you strength, a chance to rejuvenate yourself.”

Schultheis submitted one story, “After the Service” (which was only the fourth story she’d ever written), to the celebrated Bread Loaf’s Writer’s Conference. It’s acceptance was a clear sign that she was on the right path as a writer.

In fact, “After the Service,” which follows a young physician’s attempt to determine why his father is estranged from other members of the family, is now one of the stories in St. Bart’s Way, which won the 2015 award for fiction from Washington Writers’ Publishing House.

As a writer, Schultheis has sought inspiration from legendary short story writers like William Trevor, Alice Munro and Stewart O’Nan. O’Nan in particular, she said, is “very humane and forgiving” of his characters.

Eventually, Schultheis realized that she had quite a rich fictional world established on St. Bart’s Way, and enough stories to comprise a collection.

A struggle to publish

Getting the book out into the world, however, proved to be an exercise in persistence. Short story collections are a hard sell in a literary market geared more toward novels and longer works of creative non-fiction.

Schultheis sent her stories to a variety of contests, and placed as a finalist for the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, before St. Bart’s Way found its home with Washington Writers’.

The collection has earned Schultheis rave reviews from fellow writers like Leslie Pietrzyk, author of This Angel on My Chest, who wrote, “After reading these exquisite stories, I was left breathless, pondering the new ache in my heart.”

For Schultheis, one of the more interesting aspects of having a book published is the varied reactions to individual stories. “People have different takes on different stories. Some [readers] see darkness, and others see humor.”

Not one to rest on her laurels, Schultheis currently has a memoir and a mystery novel circulating. Going to long-form fiction after having such success with short stories was a challenge, but it’s one that Schultheis was keen to master. “You’ve got to respect the form,” she said.

St. Bart’s Way is available at the Ivy Bookshop, and online from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell’s.