Tag Archives: Detroit

Capturing the spirit of Detroit: An Interview with Jim Daniels


Meredith Counts recently had the opportunity to interview Detroit-reared and Pittsburgh-based fiction writer and poet Jim Daniels, whose newest book of short stories, Eight Mile High, was released in the summer of 2014 by Michigan State University press. What follows is a portion of the interview. For the full interview, check out the print edition of GLR Fall 2014, which will also feature Daniels’ story “Pearl Diving.” 

The two stories from your new book Eight Mile High  that have been published in the Great Lakes Review — “Pearl Diving” (Fall 2014) and “Our Lady of No Mercy” (Summer 2014) — take place in a mostly Polish Catholic neighborhood of assembly line workers in Warren, Michigan. It’s such a specific place with its own landmarks and rules and characters. I wouldn’t assume it’s directly from your memory, but it reads as very real. Could you talk about the importance of place in your writing, in this collection in particular?

JIM DANIELS PHOTO FOR GLRPlace has always been important to me in my writing, and it’s often been wrapped up in social class—both a physical place and an economic place, and how those two things are linked. I’ve always had a little chip on my shoulder about the people I know the best and care about the most not showing up enough in our literature. I want to say, these lives are important and deserve our attention. In a lot of my earlier writing, I tended to blur things, referring to Detroit as a more general term for the metropolitan area rather than go into distinguishing the city from its surrounding communities.

For Eight Mile High I decided to zoom in even more on Warren, and even more particularly on the area next to Eight Mile Road, the border with Detroit, where I grew up. Anyone from Detroit knows Warren is not Detroit, and I wanted to focus on the distinctions, this white working-class community next to Detroit. I want this book to be like a magnifying glass or a camera with a zoom lens—to intensify the experience by limiting it geographically. This area in particular tends to look generic, the streets anonymous, but what makes them distinct is the people—the lives lived on those streets.

While the work is definitely fiction, I did want to capture the spirit and feel of the real place.

You grew up in Michigan and you’ve been living and teaching in Pittsburgh since 1982 but your fictional eye is still in your hometown; you are still sending characters in your stories on trips up north and following their lives in neighborhoods designed around auto assembly plants. Are you a Michigan writer no matter where you go?

Michigan has its hooks in me. It’s always pulling me back. I can’t say for sure why, but while I have written about other places—including Pittsburgh—Michigan is definitely still home for me. I am close enough (5 hour drive, though on the Ohio Turnpike, it seems longer….) to get back frequently to visit family in Michigan. I’ve got the emotional and physical distance to give me some perspective on the place, but still very attached to it too. Many of my initiatory experiences took place there, and I inevitably return there in my work.

My wife kids me about my Michigan pride—Michiganders have a state pride that Pennsylvanians simply do not have, with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on opposite ends, and, as I believe James Carville said, “Alabama in the middle.” I think exploring that territory in multiple genres—poetry, fiction, film—has hopefully allowed me to keep making it new without repeating myself too much.

Tell us some of your favorite writers from the Great Lakes region?

Jim Harrison might be my favorite because I came across his poetry (he’s a great fiction writer, but I really love his poems) early on when I was in college and first beginning to read contemporary poetry.  Phil Levine, of course, though I came to him later. I should stop there, otherwise I’d be going on and on….

Besides my teachers, the first living poets I met were Conrad Hilberry and Herb Scott, two Michigan writers who I learned a lot from—they made the whole thing real. Hey, these ordinary guys publish poems! And they weren’t crazy or assholes—and most importantly, they weren’t dead.

One of the stories in Eight Mile High that leaves the neighborhood is “Raccoon Heaven.” It’s about a sort-of-reformed drug dealer and his disastrous attempt at a healthy marriage and a normal vacation cottage. His story gets worse and worse and it’s sensory, like he’s remembering this time in full, with his whole body. The rotten fish alone… It would be a terrible story to read while hungover.

Then in the story “Our Lady of No Mercy,” after a disturbing revelation, the narrator says “Okay, it’s all on the table now. Or, most of it anyway. I don’t blame you if you get up from the table. I don’t blame you if you lost your appetite. Me, I’m always hungry. Me, I never get full.”

Eight_mile_highDo you feel that way as a writer? I sometimes do. What’s so important about writing the ugly stuff?

Yeah, I guess I do. I tend to have a dark sense of humor, so sometimes I’m surprised when some readers find the work depressing and I think it’s kind of funny in some twisted way.

But I do think we have to go there—where the ugly stuff is—if I find myself hesitant to write about something—scared, even—I take that as a good sign. You want to say, oh, that hole’s deep enough, but you have to keep on digging if you want to be honest with your readers, and with yourself.

I’ve got to go with my man, Celine, here—I used this as an epigraph for my second book, Punching Out:

“The greatest defeat in anything is to forget, and above all to forget what has smashed you, and to let yourself be smashed without ever realizing how thoroughly devilish men can be. When our time is up, we mustn’t bear malice, but neither must we forget: we must tell the whole thing, without altering one word—everything that we have seen of man’s viciousness, and then it will be over and time to go. That is enough of a job for a whole lifetime.”

In trying to give a quick synopsis of the “Raccoon Heaven” I didn’t manage to convey any of that dark humor, but it is there for sure. This plague of algae and the illegal fish that eat it, the former homeowner with her yappy dog, the sinister neighbor children with their George-and-Lennie-vibe – it’s funny-grotesque, weirder and weirder stuff piling up.

Have you read this one out to groups yet? It’s the kind of story that if you read it out loud to the right crowd they’d be roaring…

I have yet to read that story aloud. I’ll have to try it and see if the tone comes through.

You write fiction about big issues – death and grief, sexual abuse, domestic violence, shame and addiction. Yet the stories in the end are about the people, not the abstract issues, because there’s also hand-holding and cigarettes and porn and pancakes and unlikely alliances. It’s like story tax, if you kill a character, you have to give the reader something else to keep them reading, to keep us from getting up from that table? Like if there’s a death, you have to give us some pancakes. Is it all intuition? How do you balance the ugly with the sometimes sweet and often mundane?

Story tax—what a great way to put it. I guess looking at the list of subjects, it is a pretty dark book, though I think there’s more humor in this one too. I do hope it is about the people, in the end. With all of our flaws, we still love each other.

For me, maybe it is all intuition, though maybe I do try and add humor as a survival tool. I don’t think I consciously try to balance things—in life, obviously, we can’t. Things are always tilting one way or another. We’re just trying to keep our balance, which I believe is a form of dancing, in order to stay alive. Even though we know that too is going to ultimately result in failure, death. So, eat the damn pancakes, right?

Coney dogs vs. Cheesesteaks?

Coney dogs—not even close. I’ve been taken to the best cheese steak places in Philly, and all I can do is shrug. What’s the big deal? Now, coney dogs, that’s a whole different story. They’re the perfect food to come from Detroit—they have the personality of Detroit. Nothing subtle about them. When I had a Detroit News paper route, every Friday after I collected from my customers, I would go to this coney place on Ryan Road and get two coney dogs and a root beer and sit at the counter with my piles of change and eat like a king. In winter, taking a coney dog in my frozen fingers and taking that first bite—pure heaven.

Visit the MSU Press for more information on Eight Mile High


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Detroit, Michigan: A slice of Detroit pie


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

Southwest Detroit. Courtesy of The Alley Project

Southwest Detroit. Courtesy of The Alley Project

I worked with a woman who my boss described as “salt of the earth.”  Gloria didn’t have my master’s degree social work credentials, but she had enough hardscrabble experience to last several lifetimes. She walked with a spring in her step and seemed to know everyone, frequently stopping to chat.  She hummed all day long, and I imagined she sang full-on gospel alone in her car and at home in the shower.  She sometimes wore a frosted blonde wig, and her smile and cackling laugh were contagious.

I respected her.  And I needed her.  She was the black to my white, the wisdom to my youth, the city to my suburbs, and when making a home visit in Detroit, I wanted her by my side.

The families expected us; we weren’t there to investigate abuse or remove children from homes.  We were a link between a major hospital and disabled children in the community.  But poverty and family dynamics create myriad challenges.  Gloria was a sister, a mother, a grandmother; I was an intruder. She had been there; I had not. She had raised a disabled child into adulthood on her own. She represented what was possible.

We visited homes crawling with cockroaches. A house cordoned off with yellow police tape. A house where we could smell the fires that had blackened the neighboring houses on either side. We climbed to a fifth floor apartment with no air conditioning in the middle of July. We sat on hardwood floors because there was no furniture. We visited far too many homes with no books or crayons.

But we also walked through gorgeous tile and marble arches framing crumbling apartment buildings. Gazed at alleys of garages turned into graffiti artists’ canvases.  Threaded our way through a shadowy basement apartment full of African art. 1920’s brick duplexes and millennial houses built by Habitat for Humanity. Homes where mothers want the best for their children. Homes where families have stayed for two and three generations, remembering what it was like in their childhood – the canopy of leaves over the street, the neighborhood full of children playing, walking to the elementary school a few blocks away.

Every day, I entered a world of hope and decay. And each day ended with a fleeting moment of dismay. Near the freeway on my way home, the green lights routinely turned to red, and there I sat in my car right next to the man in the wheelchair holding a cardboard sign, or the woman wearing a heavy coat in the heat of summer holding a cardboard sign, or the young man with long lank hair and yellow eyes holding a cardboard sign.

God Bless.

Please Help.


Should I give them money? How much? I saw them every single day. It felt disrespectful to ignore them. It seemed I had a duty to at the very least acknowledge their suffering, their humanity. Yet it wasn’t hard to avoid eye contact. I hid behind my sunglasses, and they often stared right past me.

Southwest Detroit. Photo courtesy of The Alley Project

Southwest Detroit. Photo courtesy of The Alley Project

Gloria drove through several miles of city streets to reach her home. Her solution for the homeless was to give them sandwiches. Every evening she made sandwiches for herself and her children; why not make a few extras? How hard was it to spread some peanut butter and jelly on a few slices of bread? Indeed, it was so ingeniously simple, yet the thought had never crossed my mind. I followed her lead, made extra sandwiches, and kept a box of granola bars in my car. I began to carry containers of fresh fruit, strawberries or blueberries, for the children on my home visits.

On my way home from work one day, I stopped at a red light next to an old woman with a weathered face holding a cardboard sign. She didn’t stare past me. She looked through my sunglasses and nodded. I hadn’t made extra sandwiches that day, and I had run out of granola bars. I had given away the blueberries to a two-year-old boy with a speech delay, coaxing him to form the word “more” with his lips. But I had an apple left over from my lunch.

I pushed my sunglasses to the top of my head, rolled down my window, and held out the apple.  Her crinkly gaze met mine.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

She stepped closer and smiled a wide, toothless grin. I almost dropped the apple.

I stammered, “Oh, you don’t have any teeth. I’m sorry, you probably can’t eat this.”

She took the apple, her leathery hand brushing against mine, her face a road map of wrinkles. She smiled even wider. I smiled back.

“Don’t you worry, honey,” she said. “I’m a gonna make me a pie.”

Kristin Lenz is a writer and social worker whose career has taken her from a teen runaway shelter to an urban hospital, from rural Appalachia to inner-city Detroit.  She co-edits The Mitten, a quarterly newsletter for the Michigan chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and blogs at yafusion.blogspot.com.  She frequently twists her life experiences into fiction, but the Detroit Pie story is absolutely true. Mostly.

The photograph was taken in Southwest  Detroit and is being used courtesy of The Alley Project. Check out the project’s Facebook page.


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DETROIT: from “Your Life Idyllic”


The following is a character sketch from the short story “An Affliction of Starlings” from Bernier’s forthcoming collection “Your Life Idyllic,” which won the St. Lawrence Book Award, available April 2014.

My parents were both Quebecois, but stopped speaking French after moving from Quebec City to Buffalo. My father, a welder, eventually followed the trade to the auto industry in Detroit. That was the extent of his travels. He came from a line of trappers but had failed to master the wilderness. Factories saved him from starvation. My mother’s people were transient folk: stevedores, mercenaries, and rail engineers. Bougainvilles were strewn in every sea, buried on all continents.

My parents were naturalized American citizens by the time I was growing up, but they frowned on the idea of cultural identity. Good guests assimilated, at least that’s what my father thought. Aside from their clunky accents and occasional slips for covert speech, French was dead in my parents. Or at least for the most part.

On rare occasions, my father would drink sherry. He’d nip from the glass while sitting at the kitchen table. He’d watch me watching television while he sorted through pocket change, then he would send me off to bed at some point. I’d head to the second floor and he’d clomp down the wooden stairs into our unfinished basement. Later, my father’s music, records from the basement, would wake me. Louder and louder, songs in his native tongue would travel through the ductwork and returns of our old brick home, carried on the currents of the furnace cycling on and off. He would sing along, his voice shabby and out-of-tune.

That sad singing bear howling from his cavern was a mystery to me. That was not the quiet fellow who sorted through pocket change separating silver coins into coffee cans for the basement and alloys back into circulation. That was not the man always shutting off the television, the radio, the record player, or any burning light.

I would head to the basement in the morning to find that bear, but Dad worked first shift and never missed a day. Only the albums remained, their maudlin covers depicting men of the wild, sullen folk clad in flannel, scarves, wool caps, and always at least one raccoon hat. They drank from flasks and enameled coffee pots teepeed over a fire. They played wooden pipes, makeshift drums, banjos strung with lament it seemed.

It was harder to catch my mother speaking French because it came without the fanfare. When she did it, it was in calls to her family: her brother, an open ocean fisherman in British Columbia or up to Quebec for her mother who kept late hours as a radio operator on the St. Lawrence for the Canadian government. I knew when my mother was speaking because it came with the smell of breads and pastries, as she’d always bake during these evolutions. I’d wake to sweets in the air, cinnamon or jams, then murmurs from the kitchen downstairs. I’d creep from my room to the stairway’s edge careful not to incite wooden groans. Her chain-smoking would overpower the finer aromas, but from my mother, French was enamoring. Beautiful, husks of liaison fell from her alongside her speedy riffs of fluency. To me it was like listening to the dizzying run of notes from my dad’s jazz records.

When I think of her now, it is never as the bag of bones fighting cancer until the end, but instead speaking in French while baking; using two ashtrays for one cigarette—one on the table and one by the oven; jockeying back and forth between checking the oven and sitting to listen; sipping red wine from a Mason jar while twirling the long phone cord like a jump rope with her free hand. The meager luminescence of the oven’s overhead sepia bulb bathes her progress into the wee hours while the exhaust fan drones a blanket covering the entire home.
Outside these instances, little French was spoken in my childhood home. I acquired a deep shame years after they were both dead when I realized I’d never asked either of them to teach me, never expressed interest or concern. Not once.

Craig Bernier has worked a range of occupations from technical writer to bartender, carpenter to dish washer, cryptologist to kennel cleaner. Most recently he was employed by Duquesne University as an Instructor of Writing. His stories have been published in The Roanoke Review, Western Humanities Review, Dogwood, Gigantic Sequins, and in a story anthology from Akashic Books titled Detroit Noir. His nonfiction has appeared in the journal Creative Nonfiction. Originally from southeastern Michigan, home is currently a stone’s throw from Pittsburgh, in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. He is at work on a novel and a collection of essays on motorcycling. Find him online at http://www.craigbernier.net/


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