Monday, March 16, 2009

My Town Monday-Hail to the Writers

Chris Leland reading. (About half the writers in Southeast Michigan have studied with Chris Leland at Wayne State University). Chris is the author of many wonderful novels including MRS. RANDALL, THE PROFESSOR OF AESTHETICS, LETTING LOOSE.

Two books set in Michigan, and published over the last few weeks, are getting terrific reviews.

STARVATION LAKE by Bryan Gruley takes place in northern Michigan and is a mystery set amongst hockey players and fans in a small community. Gruley is a Wall Street Journal reporter stationed in Chicago but with Michigan roots. He's being hailed as the new Dennis Lehane and the book, the next MYSTIC RIVER. For a terrific video that gives you a flavor of the novel and great pics of Starvation Lake, Michigan, go here.

I am 2/3 through this novel and an instant admirer of Gruley's ability to weave several complex story line. At the same time, he creates a compelling character, placing him in a distinctive place that he populates with a large cast of authentic characters. This is one book that will keep you on your toes as well as the edge of your seat.

The second Michigan-authored book shares these same strengths--THE LEISURE SEEKER by Michael Zadoorian. His first novel, SECOND HAND, appeared several years back and was set in a Ferndale, Michigan secondhand store. In his second novel, Detroit is the jumping off place for a couple who leave the state for personal reasons.

Mike also has a book of short stories (THE LOST TIKI PALACES OF DETROIT) coming out this spring. The title story was published in Detroit Noir.

Zadoorian was kind enough to sit down with me (via email) and answer a few questions.

PA: I don’t know if writers from other cities are always asked this question, but does Detroit play a major role in your work?

MICHAEL ZADOORIAN: I think it does. Detroit, good or bad, is a huge part of what I am as a person and a writer. I grew up in the city, got both my degrees at Wayne State University, so it’s ingrained pretty deeply in me. I realize now that my fiction really started to work when I started writing about this area and the people I knew here. When I was writing THE LEISURE SEEKER, I thought I would miss having the story take place in Detroit, like it did in SECOND HAND, but it was just the opposite. Writing about Ella and John Robina (the main characters in THE LEISURE SEEKER) gave me a chance to write about a Detroit that I didn’t necessarily know first hand, but one that I had only heard about from my parents and aunts and uncles. Detroit is still a big character in the book since it was writ so large in the lives of Ella and John. The Detroit of their era is a completely different place, full of wonderful memories, but also conflicted feelings and fear too. Still, it felt important to me to feature the city in the story.

PA: Continuing on this theme for a minute, do you think growing up in Detroit has made you a substantially different writer than you might have been had you lived in say, Hartford Ct or Seattle, WA.?

MZ: Absolutely. I think the fact that I tend to write about things like thrift stores, abandoned roads, and things lost and found again is definitely influenced by my living here. That said, (and I’ve said it before) I think Detroit is a very creative place. I know so many creative people here: musicians, writers, artists, poets, photographers, D.J.’s, designers, screenwriters – you name it. All of them from Detroit. It’s a good place to do your thing. The fact is, for all of us, it’s home. I don’t want to live anywhere else. And believe it or not, there’s something special about this place. Despite all that’s messed up, I think there’s something inspiring about living here. It brings out a certain sensibility, a certain kind of authenticity that you might not necessarily find in Hartford, Connecticut.

PA: SECOND HAND was in many ways a love story. The couple in that novel is at the beginning of their story. It sounds like the couple in THE LEISURE SEEKER, is near the end of theirs. Are these two novels, in effect, bookends to a journey?

MZ: I hadn’t really thought of it, but you could easily look at it that way. Both books are certainly about love and death, things forgotten and found again. And at the heart of both books is a journey as a way to reclaim and redeem one’s life. So I guess they could very well be bookends. I do find myself writing about travel a lot. It seems to pop up in much of my work.

PA: THE LEISURE SEEKER tells the story of a cross-country trip by a couple with health issues. Another Michigan writer (now in Montana), Jim Harrison, has a novel out (THE ENGLISH PROFESSOR) where his character, a newly divorced man in his sixties, travels across country seeking redemption too. These two novels remind me thematically of ones written during the Depression: novels of unemployed men on the road seeking work. It’s interesting that both you and Harrison come from the state most hit by the current economic crisis. Did it occur to you when writing the novel that their journey may also be a flight from Detroit and what it represents? A flight from what the US has become? Is Detroit increasingly a place to leave?

MZ: I guess I think of the couple in my book, John and Ella, not so much fleeing Detroit as just seeking something else out there. For them, Detroit will always be their home and in many ways, they bring it along with them (in the form of their slides/memories or maybe just a bottle of Vernors). Though they do want to get away from their children and doctors back in Detroit, for them, it’s the journey that’s important. California has always been thought of as a sort of symbol of freedom, a golden state. (Certainly in The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, which also features Route 66.) And road novels are often about freedom and independence and finding one’s way in the world. But they’re also often about young people. That’s what was interesting about writing this book. John and Ella are seeking those same things, but they’re at the ends of their lives. They want independence from the people trying to control them, telling them how to live or die. They’re seeking a kind of relief, a freedom of the spirit.

PA: You also have a book of short stories (THE LOST TIKI PALACES OF DETROIT) coming out this spring. Do you find it difficult to move back and forth between the two genres? Do your short stories differ thematically from your novels? Are they sometimes blueprints for future novels?

MZ: Yes, I tend to cannibalize my stories for books. There are a lot of themes that I tend to return to again and again. Stories take me a long time to write and if I work on one, it probably means that I’ve been thinking about certain ideas or themes or just the weird stuff that obsesses me. Which means I’ll probably return to them eventually. People who read the story collection will most certainly recognize certain characters and themes and milieus from the books (the story Mystery Spot was my starting point for THE LEISURE SEEKER), but that’s okay. The stories are their own thing, connected but separate from the novels. I’m really thrilled to finally have them coming out in book form.

PA: Who have been your major influences as a writer?

MZ: Like a ton of writers who started in the Eighties, I was heavily influenced by the work of Raymond Carver, his short fiction and his poetry. His work touched me in so many ways, but also allowed me to understand the inner-workings of fiction in a way that I never had before. I don’t know why, but he allowed me to think that maybe I could write fiction. His work is deceptive in that manner of extraordinarily talented people: he made it look easy. Once I started though, I found out differently. I certainly wound up writing my share of Carver stories. Still, it was a way to learn. And whatever helps you to find your personal style or voice or whatever you want to call it, is a good thing.
SPENCE AND LILA by Bobbie Ann Mason is a wonderful book about an older couple and was a big influence on THE LEISURE SEEKER, as was MRS. BRIDGE by Evan S. Connell. The Mason book is probably more like my book than MRS. BRIDGE, but there was something about Connell's book that I kept returning to, a kind of quiet comedic despair that just felt right.
THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy is an incredible book and one that influenced SECOND HAND considerably. NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND by Dostoevsky ; Kafka’s THE TRIAL as well as his short stories; Charles Baxter’s short fiction and novels; Nathaniel West; Jack Kerouac; Tom McGuane; Flannery O’Connor; Henry Miller; John Cheever; Phillip Roth; Dawn Powell; Martin Amis and Paul Bowles.

PA: Who are you reading now?

MZ: I just started reading HIP: A HISTORY by John Leland, which examines bohemia and the concept of cool from its roots in early American civilization and slavery days right on up through the Lost Generation and the Beats to present day. I’m kind of a slut for anything bohemian/cool/beat/noir, so this is right up my alley. I’m also reading a Hard Case pulp paperback by George Axelrod from the 50s called BLACKMAILER. A book about the graphic artist Jim Flora, and a big anthology called THE ROLLING STONE BOOK OF THE BEATS. I recently finished Celine’s JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT. Slow going, but interesting, if only for its short but important scenes in Detroit.

Go here for more My Town Monday posts.


Iren said...

I managed to pick up a copy of The Leisure Seekers recently and as soon as I get through the library books I have, it's on the top of my list to read...

Barrie said...

What a great interview! And I think you're right; there's lots of creativity in Detroit!

Sepiru Chris said...

Times of challenge bring out ingenuity; the upside of the Detroit's governance and economic issues...

Unknown said...

Welcome back. I hope you brok the bank in Vegas.

Travis Erwin said...

great interviews. Think I'll look for The leisure Seekers in the near future.

Charles Gramlich said...

No city has ever played a major role in my writing. I suppose the fictional city of Timmuzz was fairly important in Witch of Talera.

I'm just so removed from cities and have never been enamored. It's a very different mindset for urban versus rural dwellers, I think.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Charles-Setting is nearly as important as character to me and more important than plot. I think it comes from too many workshops and too much reading of literary fiction. And a city like Detroit can't help but influence you. It's like an octopus. Although I often set stories in other places.
Thanks, Bill. I put a quarter in the machine leaving LV and won $15 so maybe I should have gambled.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Good interview, Patti. Setting can be enormously important, esp. in certain genres, like dark mysteries. Sometimes the setting almost seems like another character. Hope you enjoyed Vegas.

David Cranmer said...

Detroit rocks! And thanks for the informative interview.