WHITMAN — Sometimes a safe corner can change your whole life.
Whitman artist and writer Russell DuPont has explored his world on canvas, through a camera lens and with poetry. Now he has turned his direction toward prose, and his lightly fictionalized memoir “King and Train,” the story of his youth on the tough streets of South Boston and Dorchester — available as an e-book through Amazon — is the result.
Names are changed and characters he has developed for the story are composites based on “a number of people” or invented to serve the story, according to DuPont.
“I try to keep the incidents, what actually occurred, as close to fact as possible,” he said of his writing process. “It’s sitting down [to write] and seeing where these characters take me.”
The title refers to the intersection of two streets in Dorchester where he and his friends would hang out “in what I consider one of the most significant periods of my life,” DuPont, who moved to Whitman in 1975, said in a recent interview.
“I grew up in the projects in South Boston, where every day I fought,” he said. “I had to fight — I wasn’t a member of a gang — the local gang was the Mustangs, and for some reason, I was targeted.”
One reason could have been that his girlfriend at the time was connected in some way to one of the gang members. His family moved to Train Street in Dorchester when his fights “reached a danger point.”
“I ran into a group of guys there who were just terrific guys,” he said of the corner at “King and Train.” The concept of fights and gangs was unheard of there and when the owner of the corner store, “a grouchy elderly woman who hated to see us around there,” sold it to two Armenian brothers, and the new owners allowed the guys to hang out there.
“In turn, we’d do things for them and clean up, and make sure there was no mess and no noise,” he said. “It was just the opposite of South Boston. I never had to look over my shoulder or around corners.”
The non-fiction piece published as “The Corner” in the poetry anthology, Streets of Echo, was expanded and fictionalized to become the novel, “King and Train.”
While DuPont says his poetry is based on observation of detail in a scene, his prose, both fiction and non-fiction is based on large incidents and experiences that have affected his life: including “canoe trips over dams and finding, up in Wisconsin, hearing my name in the middle of nowhere.”
One of his two non-fiction works, “Up in Wisconsin,” had brought him face-to-face with another Russell DuPont in a bar in a remote community on the Michigan border.
“We tossed that around for awhile,” he said. In fact checking for his story, he called a county office and was told “we have loads of DuPonts here, they all came down to log from Canada. She said the whole county is full of them.”
If he had it to over again, DuPont said he would still be moved to write the book, but would hold out for a book-publishing contract for “King and Train” as he is doing for a subsequent book, despite the time and effort agents and publishers now require.
“I feel like I rushed into Amazon [eBooks] too quickly,” he said. “I wish I had not been so anxious to get it out there.”
He just finished another novel titled “Waiting for the Turk,” which stems from an old football saying about the process of making cuts during training camp. It’s the kind of noir-ish detective story DuPont says he’s always wanted to write. Set in South Boston it’s about a former football player who reluctantly joins the Vermont-based detective agency started by his father, a retired Boston Police detective.
He has also started a sequel to “King and Train.”
DuPont has done four previous limited-edition, hand-made books — two of poetry and two non-fiction — as well as in Streets of Echo and in two issues of Boston Seniority, a magazine published by the city for its elder population. He has also been a freelance sportswriter for the Patriot-Ledger and has also reported for the Melrose Free Press and the Dorchester Community News, where much of his writing was columns on politics — particularly the Boston school busing issue which engulfed much of the ’70s.
“I started writing poetry in my late teens and had some published in local literary magazines,” he said. “I had my own magazine, The Albatross, back then and I was working both in journalism and [creative] writing.”
When his family began to include children, however, he found that carving out time to “lock myself in a little room after work” was difficult to fit into family obligations. That’s when he put down his literary pen and picked up a camera.
While he became a teacher in the Sharon School District to support his family, he eventually became interested in painting, and a grant from the school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts helped him take a year off from teaching in 1993 to develop his talents in that genre.
“It was one of the most wonderful, productive years of my life,” he says. “When I was there, I decided this was it, as soon as my kids are gone, this is what I’m going to do.”
In 1990, he resigned his teaching job and obtained the first of a couple of different studio spaces, which included Rockland’s erstwhile Fourth Floor Artists, which he had helped found. In 2010, he returned to photography and about two years ago began working through Boston’s Elder Affairs office Memoir Project to hone his prose skills.
“That got me back into writing again regularly and I produced the piece for the anthology and pieces for the city of Boston,” he said.