Tag Archives: fiction

Far Behind

hair_metalBY MICHAEL ZADOORIAN

You’re out of the car, I’m afraid you’ve been declined

You shake my hand while you’re pissing on my leg

“Are you playing that stupid Social Distortion song again?” Chloe calls from outside the bathroom, for what seems like the thousandth time.

From behind the bathroom door, Roge ignores her again, for what seems like the thousandth time.

“Why are you doing this?” she says, her voice fluttering somewhere between bored and irritated.

Roge can hear that edge in her voice, especially through the hollow-core bathroom door, which he has found to be a rather effective conductor of anger.  He takes a deep breath to compose himself.  “I’m not doing anything.  I’m just getting ready for work.”

“You play this fucking song every morning is what you’re doing.”

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Upper Peninsula and other Michigan writers take their tales on tour

waynorthMichigan writers and sribes with ties to the Upper Peninsula are taking their tales on tour this summer.

There are 31 events with 32 authors including: Ellen Airgood, Julie Brooks Barbour, Kate Bassett, Elinor Benedict, Jennifer Billock, Julie Buckles, Jennifer Burd, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Clara Corbett, Lisa Fay Coutley, Alison DeCamp, Roxane Gay, Sue Harrison, Barbara Henning, Caitlin Horrocks, Charmi Keranen, L.E. Kimball, April Lindala, Beverly Matherne, Amy McInnis, Nancy J. Parra, Jane Piirto, Saara Myrene Raappana, Janice Repka, Vincent Reusch, Diane Sautter, Andrea Scarpino, Laz Slomovits, Heather A. Slomski, Alison Swan, Keith Taylor, Gloria Whelan

The authors will hit 23 cities inncluding: Ann Arbor, Baraga, Beaver Island, Chicago (IL), Calumet, Copper Harbor, Escanaba, Gaylord, Howell, Ishpeming, Kalamazoo, Lake Ann, Mackinac Island, Mackinaw City, Marquette, Munising, Newberry, Northport, Okemos, Sault Ste. Marie, St. Ignace, Traverse City, Wakefield.

Many of the authors were featured in The Way Northwork collected from the Upper Peninsula by Ron Riekki for the Wayne State University Press.

Jun 17, 7pm, Dog Ears Books, Northport, with Ellen Airgood

Jun 18, 7pm—Beaver Island library, Beaver Island, with Ellen Airgood

Jun 20, 11:30am-2:30pm—Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, book signing only, with Julie Brooks Barbour and Sue Harrison

Jun 27, 4-6 pm—Horizon Books, Traverse City, with Kate Bassett, Alison DeCamp, and Caitlin Horrocks

Jun 29, 7pm—Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, with Bonnie Jo Campbell, Caitlin Horrocks, Alison Swan, and Gloria Whelan

Jul 2, time TBA—Beaver Island library, Beaver Island, with Nancy J. Parra

Jul 8, events throughout the day—Mission Point Resort, Mackinac Island, MRA Summer Literature Conference, with Ellen Airgood

Jul 15, 1pm-2:30pm—Munising Public Library, Munising, reading with Elinor Benedict, L.E. Kimball, Beverly Matherne, and host Jane Piirto

Jul 16, 7:30pm–Women & Children First, Chicago, with Bonnie Jo Campbell, Roxane Gay, and April Lindala

Jul 17, 7pm—Bookbug, Kalamazoo, with Kate Bassett, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Alison DeCamp, and Charmi Keranen

Jul 19, 12-2pm—Falling Rock Café and Bookstore, Munising, book signing and reading with Lisa Fay Coutley, Sue Harrison, Barbara Henning, and Alison Swan

Jul 24, 3pm—Mackinaw Area Public Library, Mackinaw City, with Julie Brooks Barbour, Julie Buckles, and Sue Harrison

Jul 25, 1 pm—St. Ignace Library, St. Ignace, with Sue Harrison, Janice Repka, and Keith Taylor

Aug 6, 6:30pm (Central Time for this event)—Wakefield Public Library/Municipal Building, Wakefield, reading with Julie Buckles, Beverly Matherne, and host Jane Piirto

Aug 8, 3pm—Butler Theatre, Ishpeming, with Jennifer Burd, Jane Piirto, and Laz Slomovits

Aug 15, 7pm—Beaver Island library, Beaver Island, with Bonnie Jo Campbell

Aug 16, time TBA—Grandpa’s Barn, Copper Harbor, with Charmi Keranen

Aug 19, time TBA—Calumet Public Library, Calumet, reading and signing, with Jennifer Billock and Charmi Keranen

Sep 17, 6:30pm– Escanaba Public Library, Escanaba, with April Lindala and U.P. Poet Laureate Andrea Scarpino

Sep 23, 3:30-4:30pm, Falling Rock Café and Bookstore, Munising, with Ellen Airgood and Clara Corbett

Sep 23, 7pm—Snowbound Books/Peter White Public Library, Marquette, with Ellen Airgood, Diane Sautter, U.P. Poet Laureate Andrea Scarpino, and Alison Swan

Sep 24, 7pm—Beaver Island Pub Lib, Beaver Island, with Charmi Keranen

Oct 3, noon—Bookbug, Kalamazoo, with Bonnie Jo Campbell signing copies of her new book Mothers, Tell Your Daughters and also Here

Oct 9time TBA—Schuler Books, Okemos, with Kate Bassett, Jennifer Burd, Alison DeCamp, and Keith Taylor

Dec 12, 1-2:30pm—Kazoo Books, Kalamazoo, Author Hop, with Charmi Keranen and L.E. Kimball

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Bestseller spotlight: Ellen Airgood

Ellen_AirgoodEllen Airgood’s 2012 novel South of Superior has come in at numerous slots on the Michigan bestseller list over the past few months.

Tell us a little about your book and how it came to be?

When I started writing South of Superior, I wanted to convey a sense of place–the  place I’ve lived and worked for the last twenty four years, a small village on the shore of Lake Superior–more than almost anything.  I wanted to evoke the mood and spirit of the Upper Peninsula.  It’s a fascinating, beautiful, hardscrabble place, a rare place.  I hoped to share that.  I began work on the novel on a sleety day in April, 2004, and after at least twelve major revisions, in the spring of 2010 my wonderful agent phoned to say that the Penguin Group’s Riverhead Books wanted to publish the novel.

What is your background? Specifically, what are your ties to the Great Lakes region?

I was born in Caro, Michigan, and grew up on a small farm a few miles out of town.  I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and earned a B.S. in Natural Resources.  I worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Motor Vehicle Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor for a couple of years after I graduated, in the Air Programs Branch.  Then I took a fateful camping trip to the Upper Peninsula with my sister.  I met my husband on that trip–he owned a small cafe in Grand Marais, at the edge of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore–and six months later returned to marry him.

Describe your writing process?

My writing process is messy and slow.  It’s often agonizing.  I like to work in the morning, very early, when it’s quiet and the day hasn’t yet begun.  I will work whenever I can find the opportunity.  I put in long hours on every project–sometimes to its benefit, sometimes to its detriment.   Very rarely, I’ll hear a narrator’s voice in my head.  That was the case with my second novel, Prairie Evers.  I  was sitting on my bed, listening to the rain on our tin roof and Prairie Home Companion on the radio when a young girl’s voice said in my head, Folks said it could not be done, but I did it.  Writing is magic then, and I wish it was always that way, but it isn’t.  Often a small moment sparks a novel or story.  For South of Superior, the ideas that were milling around in my head came into focus when I received a postcard from my sister, an old black and white photo of two elderly women sitting on a lawn, leaned toward one another, talking.  For The Education of Ivy Blake, my third novel (due out this June), the image that kept me moving forward was of Ivy tugging on her braid, frowning, thinking.   I could see how brave and optimistic she was when she had every right not to be; I had to try and discover her fate.

Who is your favorite writer from the Great Lakes region? Why?

This is an unanswerable question!  Many names come to mind, and there’ll be as many I should have thought of and didn’t.

I admire Mildred Walker’s work a great deal.  (Her U.P. novel is Fireweed.)  I’m inspired by Bonnie Jo Campbell’s ferocious talent and heart.  I was fascinated and delighted by Ingrid Hill’s Ursula, Under.  I read Gordon Young’s memoir about growing up in Flint, Tear Down, with feeling–much of my family is from Flint–and pleasure.   Joseph Heywood is a great mentor and friend.  This is the tip of the iceberg, there isn’t time to list them all.  I’ll close by mentioning two short stories I reread recently and sort of wish I’d written:  Janice Repka’s “Tug” and  Jonathon Johnson’s “Notes from the End of my Occupational Life.”  (They’re both included in The Way North, Wayne State University’s 2013 anthology of new Upper Peninsula writing.)  Why are all these writers my favorites?  They’re unique, they’re inventive, they’re real without being bleak.

 

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Lean, Thirsty, Hungry: An interview with U.P writer John Smolens

RON RIEKKI INTERVIEWS JOHN SMOLENS

John_SmolensRR: Authors Beverly Matherne, Austin Hummell and Vincent Reusch claim that your opening chapter to Cold is one of the great all-time pieces of literature for Michigan’s U.P.  Why do you think it is so highly regarded by them?

JS:  The relationship between Liesl, a middle aged woman, and Norman, a young man escaped from Marquette’s maximum security prison, is based on a combination of fear, desperation and a deep sense of isolation.  Liesl lives alone in the woods, rather imprisoned by the deaths of her husband and daughter, which occurred some years earlier.  When she sees Norman, who has walked away from a work detail, emerge from the woods during a blizzard, she picks up her husband’s rifle—but she lets him into the house because he’s so cold.  This first chapter was written as a short story, entitled “Cold,” which was published in Columbia:  A Journal of Art & Literature in 1999; the final image haunted me for months, and eventually I began writing the novel.  I couldn’t not write the novel—the characters, the blizzard, they were knocking on my door, so to speak, and I had to let them in.  Place means a lot to me; that, and weather.  When I’m writing about a storm or Lake Superior, I don’t feel I’m just describing weather conditions or a geographical setting.  I can’t imagine writing Cold without having experienced winter in the U. P.

RR: Chapter one of Cold closes with this passage:

After a while Liesl closed her eyes against the incessant flakes.  Cold seeped into her back and shoulders.  Her arms and legs were outstretched as though she was floating on her back, and she tried to imagine a lake with the blue sky of a hot summer’s afternoon above her.  But it wouldn’t hold, and she opened her eyes again to the snow.  The cold had worked its way up into her ribcage, causing her to shiver.  She closed her eyes again and saw bearded men in robes and fur hats.  They spoke a foreign language and watched her with interest.  She smelled grease.  When the sharp thin needle stabbed into her anus, she remembered Gretchen’s birth.  But instead of descending, the pain ascended, moving slowly up through her bowels, her stomach, her lungs, her esophagus, the back of her throat, then finally, as she opened her mouth, the warm steel slid along the end of her nose, its bloody tip stopping right before her eyes.

Can you discuss the techniques you’re using here to successfully build to a powerful poetic end to that opening chapter?

JS:  It has to do with the mystery of images.  Who knows where they come from?  I think this is one reason we write:  because images are out there—they’re as invisible as this thing known as the Internet—and we hope to tune in a few.  A powerful image is a language unto itself; it can speak the unspeakable, define the undefinable.

I read a fair amount of history, and at some point I read about Vlad the Impaler.  He was a ruthless warrior, and the image in this paragraph is based on what he would do to his opponents—those who were unfortunate enough to not to die in battle.  He would surround his camp with hundreds of people—some historians claim thousands—all horribly impaled on thin metal stakes, suffering an agonizing death that often took days.  The sound these people made was said to be utterly terrifying, and it was intended as a warning to others who might consider attacking the camp.

As for technique, it’s really an exercise in description.  What Liesl imagines in this final paragraph is, to the best of my ability, a rather accurate depiction of what Vlad had done to his victims.  She has taken a fall in the woods and been left alone to die; she can’t move and is in pain, and to deal with the pain she thinks about those people impaled on stakes, taking some solace in the fact that there is pain that is more severe than what she’s experiencing.  Sometimes even the most brutal, gruesome act, when described with a dry eye, can lead to a visceral reaction on the part of a reader.  Ironically, this is sometimes considered “poetic,” which says something about the human condition, no?

RR: As far as contemporary U.P. authors, the old school big three are you, Ellen Airgood, and Steve Hamilton.  You probably write about the U.P. the least of those three authors.  Ellen and Steve are operating outside of academia.  Is this the reason why?  I’ve heard it worded that a person stationed on a military base, say, in Spain, is shut off from truly experiencing the country.  Does Northern Michigan University create a citadel so full-time faculty write about the U.P. only occasionally because they aren’t truly getting to experience the people of the U.P.?

Reciprocally, because you’re one of the top three authors in the Upper Peninsula and you’re the only one at the creative writing program for the region, I view you as the most powerful writer in the entire Upper Peninsula.  Can you talk a bit about the power that full-time creative writing faculty hold?  “Power” seems counter to your general demeanor as you come across as someone who feels humble, yet I’m interested in the realities of the stature you hold in the peninsula and how you approach the influence you have on future writers’ careers.

JS:  I don’t care for the ranking of authors, in the U.P. or elsewhere.  It may work in sports but not in literature.  For a relatively small population, we have a marvelous literary culture.  If I’m considered a part of that, I’m truly grateful.  And I honestly don’t feel that teaching gives me any real “power”—frankly, what I get back from my students, their energy, their enthusiasm, helps me to keep working.  It’s interesting—and it’s no surprise—how many of our students remain in the U.P. after they graduate.  They love this place because it’s vast and wild and unpredictable, and because it gets inside you.  That’s a remarkable thing, when a place becomes a part of you, when its geography seems imprinted on your soul.  For some, it’s the rivers or the forest.  Then there’s the lake.  I love it when people tell me they have a spiritual connection to Lake Superior because I do, too.

RR: Speaking of, when I read someone like Vincent Reusch, who’s one of the big up-and-coming authors with U.P. ties, I see you hovering in his writing.  Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to read authors who you’ve guided into their careers?  Do you see yourself in their words?

JS:  The last thing I would want to do as a teacher is be an overwhelming influence on how someone writes.  Vincent, who’s from downstate Michigan, wrote a story about a fast-food joint in Kalamazoo.  I remember reading the first draft and feeling incredible excitement.  The sentences rolled down the page, the images were so fresh.  I can’t possibly recall what I said or wrote about each draft, but what I do recall is the workshop discussion.  This is where things come alive:  you get a group of writers in a room and you discuss something one of them has written.  I had my say, certainly, but if I’ve learned anything as a teacher over the years it’s this:  it’s most important to listen.  Listen to what each member of the workshop is saying; occasionally reinforce the things you think are particularly valuable for the writer of the piece to keep in mind.  And perhaps more important, don’t be afraid to express what you don’t know or understand.  I sometimes think I’m doing the best job when I’m the dumbest person in the room.  Ultimately, you don’t “teach” someone like Vinny Reusch.  But you do form a bond, you do try to make it clear that you are striving for the same thing, to produce a story or a chapter that works, that’s as strong as it can be.  This takes time; it’s a slow-cook process.  And this is why when we developed our MFA program at NMU we wanted our writers here with us for three years, whereas most other writing programs are two years.

RR: I’ve asked this question before and have had some great answers when the authors haven’t avoided answering, but do you read your critics?  When you’re writing reaches such a mass audience, criticism becomes nearly unavoidable.  Has any criticism of your work actually helped future writings?

JS: I won’t avoid reading a review, but I doubt it has any influence on what I write in the future, largely because you’re writing something different.  What you did “right” or “wrong” in the last one really doesn’t have anything to do with this one.  What I don’t read anymore is stuff on places like Amazon.  First you’ll see something written by someone who has something to say about a book, and says it well; and then the next “review” is by someone who can barely read, barely write, has an axe to grind, or often all three.  No time for that.

RR: I’m a big fan of medical writing.  Quarantine is in alignment with a genre of narrative I love—I think here of films such as Contagion and Outbreak, which were a bit hit-and-miss.  There’s automatically high drama involved, but it seems the genre would be most successful on the page, where the pace can slow down and the minutiae can increase the suspense.  What drew you to this story?  As you get older, are you drawn more towards themes of medicine, death, survival?

JS:  I suppose all novels are about death and survival.  One of the main characters in Quarantine is a doctor named Giles Wiggins who lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1796, when the town was devastated by a deadly fever which was brought into port by a trading ship.  I lived in Newburyport, which is north of Boston, for many years before coming to Michigan.  My first novel, Winter by Degrees, is set there, and, as I’ve mentioned before, I read a great deal of history, much of it about places like Newburyport.  The state of medicine in the late 18th century was dismal, more superstition than science.  The novel portrays two families that are affected by this sudden and mysterious epidemic; more than that, it explores how people respond when they’re threatened by extinction:  lawlessness prevails; opportunists engage in black market activities, while others fall prey to religious fervor.  It’s a novel about how thin the veneer of civility really is; about chaos.

And about mortality.  While writing Quarantine I sometimes felt that people at that time had a greater sense of mortality than we do today; now, we sometimes act as though we’re protected, that we’re exempt.  There’s health insurance, good doctors, good hospitals (if you can afford these things); we can be fanatics about diet and exercise; we can not only live forever, we can remain young and tighten up our abs.  There’s a lot out there to deceive you into thinking you’re immortal.  But then you lose someone to cancer, or whatever, and you realize, despite all these “advances,” we’re still the same human animals we’ve been over the centuries.  People don’t pass or pass on, they die.  Since my wife died three years ago, I don’t know how many times people have avoided using certain words in my presence—they’re afraid to say dead.  I understand and appreciate the fact that they’re being empathetic in some way, but let’s be clear.  People die.  There is no “closure” (nor should there be).  I was raised Catholic, so I’ve had ample instruction regarding notions about the afterlife.  As I said, my favorite poem is The Inferno, even though I don’t think that’s what awaits us.  When you watch your wife die, you simply don’t know where she goes.  You can believe in something, but that’s not the same as knowing something.  The only thing you can really know is she was alive and you can be thankful—very thankful—that you knew her.  She had a soul, definitely, and it still exists in those of us who knew her.

But you have to ask yourself, if there is no reward after this life, if there is no punishment, if only the great Nothing awaits us, why do we behave at all while we’re here?  Why make and observe laws, why open doors for each other, why have a kind word for a stranger?  That’s the real mystery.  I don’t have the answer but I suspect it’s at the core of why we’re human.  Every day we read and hear about tragic, horrific events—war, pestilence, plague, massacres, hundreds of abducted girls in Africa, disappearing airplanes, sinking ferry boats.  Why wouldn’t it make you want to pray for a better life in the next world?  But every time there is a moment of generosity or an act of true kindness, doesn’t it indicate what humans are capable of?  Such acts aren’t performed out of fear or hunger or need, but out of empathy for another human being.  That’s our strength; that’s what we should cling to.  In Cold, after Liesl lets Norman in out of the blizzard, she chains him to the kitchen radiator, puts down her rifle, and cooks him scrambled eggs.  At the end of Quarantine, which I’ve been told is a pretty grim story, a young man named Leander Hatch, who has lost his entire family, takes on new responsibilities which will allow him to build a new family and help his town recover from the horrors of the epidemic.  My hope—my prayer, if you will—is that there will always be such people who show us what we’re capable of, those who will attempt to rise up from devastation and the ashes.  Because we will have the ashes; we will always have the ashes.

RR: As you get older, how is your relationship to story and to writing changing?  Are you a completely different writer from your days of Angel’s Head and My One and Only Bomb Shelter?  What are those key differences?

JS:  For years, for decades, writing has been the center of my life.  I don’t know how I would have gotten through it without the written word.  Sometimes I joke with my students about how we’ve all got the disease, that there’s no cure, and it’s fatal.  But none of us would have it any other way.  If I could find something else that helped me cope with the world and my time in it, I’d give it a try, but for me putting words on the page is the thing.  Call it a religion, a drug, a disease—it doesn’t matter.  It keeps me in touch with what’s important, what’s essential.

Yet what’s curious about this thing is that it’s not about me.  I’m not an autobiographical writer.  When I’m at the desk I’m lost, I lose myself, literally.  Call it an out-of-body experience, if you want.  My dear friend and mentor of many years, Andre Dubus, who died in 1999, used to say to me, back when I was 20-something, “When I read something good or I’m writing, I forget my own name.”  It’s a good thing, a healthy thing to get lost in the language, the sentences, the characters on the page.  Andre also told me that “Failed writers walk different than you and me.”  He wasn’t talking about not finding success in terms of sales and fame, he was talking about people who quit, who, for whatever reason, stop writing.  They don’t have time; it’s too hard; there are too many sacrifices.  Writers who continue to work, who make the effort—often at a great cost to their lives, not to mention their families—he admired them greatly.  If I hadn’t spent all these years getting up in the early morning, sitting at the desk, and writing well over a thousand pages to find a novel that’s maybe 350 pages, I don’t know who I’d be or what my life would be.  But, ironically, you have to learn to lose yourself in those pages; let them take you where they want to go.

As for how I’ve changed as a writer, there’s an old Paul Simon song that has a line that says something like:  “After changes and changes, we still remain the same.”  Amen to that.

RR: Do you get pushed towards writing sequels?  By fans, agent, publisher?  If so, what character(s)—out of all you’ve written—do you think might come back in future novels?

JS:  Characters?  Probably not, though never say never.  I have great admiration for writers who can keep working with the same characters, but my writing brain thus far keeps finding new characters and new places to write about.  But I am currently revisiting a place I’ve written about before (this is not to be confused with a sequel).  I’ve been working on a novel about four people who are brought together during a fierce blizzard in the U.P.  The working title is Out.  I like the connotation of the word when it’s used in the U. P. to mean that somebody lives outside of town, out there in the primeval forest…they live out, and that little word says it all.

When not working on that, I’ve been writing very short things.  I like the concentration of a short story.  Some days I’ve even written a few lines of poetry.  All this is, really, a form of prayer.  I’ll spend hours working on a few lines, a page or two at most.  Afterwards, I’m exhausted, but it’s kind of like the exhaustion you feel after a good workout.  It makes you lean, thirsty, and hungry.

Ron Riekki‘s books include U.P.: a novel (nominated for the Great Michigan Read and by National Book Award-winner John Casey for the Sewanee Writers Series) and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Midwest Book Award finalist, Foreword Book of the Year Award finalist, Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist, and selected by the Library of Michigan as a 2014 Michigan Notable Book).  His next book will be released by the Michigan State University Press on May 1, 2015. He has also published an essay in the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map series

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Capturing the spirit of Detroit: An Interview with Jim Daniels

JIM DANIELS INTERVIEWED BY MEREDITH COUNTS

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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Michigan bestseller list for July 2014

For July 2014, the largest rise on the Michigan Bestseller List was Jerry Dennis’s The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas and for the U.P. Bestseller List, it was Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy, in part due to One Book One Community in Marquette.  LeDuff’s Detroit was the bestselling book in the Upper Peninsula and for the state as a whole.

UPMurderThe Michigan Bestseller list is compiled from 16 bookstores: Aunt Agatha’s New & Used Mysteries, Between the Covers, Blue Frog Books, Bookbug, Book World Marquette, Falling Rock Café and Bookstore, First Edition Too, Happy Owl Bookshop, Island Bookstore, Kazoo Books, McLean & Eakin, Michigan News Agency, North Wind Books, Saturn Booksellers, Schuler Books, and Snowbound Books.  (The Michigan Bestseller List is sponsored by Arbutus Press, www.arbutuspress.com.

1) Charlie LeDuff – Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Books)  [last month #1]

2) Kelly O’Connor McNees – The Island of Doves (Berkley Trade)  [last month #9]

3) Jerry Dennis — The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas (St. Martin’s Griffin)

4) Tobin T. Buhk — Michigan’s Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of Mrs. Mary Mcknight (The History Press)

4) Michael R. Federspiel – Little Traverse Bay, Past and Present (Painted Turtle/Wayne State University Press)

4) Tom Rath — StrengthsFinder 2.0 (Gallup Press)

7) A.J. Baime — The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

8) Ellen Airgood — South of Superior (Riverhead Trade) [last month #11]

9) John Green — The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton Books)

10) Daniel Silva — The Heist: A Novel (Harper)

11) Dr. John J. Agria and Mary A. Agria — Bay View (Arcadia Publishing)

12) Robert Archibald – Northern Border: History and Lore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Beyond (NMU Press)

13) Steve Hamilton – Let It Burn: An Alex McKnight Novel (Minotaur Books) [last month #2]

14) P.J. Parrish–Heart of Ice (Pocket Books)

15) Stuart Dybek – Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

 U.P. BESTSELLER LIST:

The U.P. bestseller list is compiled from: Book World Marquette, Falling Rock Café and Bookstore, First Edition Too, North Wind Books, and Snowbound Books.  (The U.P. Bestseller List is sponsored by Arbutus Press, www.arbutuspress.com.)

1) Charlie LeDuff – Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Books)

2) Ellen Airgood – South of Superior (Riverhead Trade)  [last month #2]

3) Robert Archibald – Northern Border: History and Lore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Beyond (NMU Press)  [last month tied #10]

4) Joseph Heywood – Killing a Cold One: a Woods Cop Mystery (Lyons Press)

5) DeLorme Mapping Company – Michigan Atlas and Gazetteer (DeLorme Publishing)

6) Todd Clements – Haunts of Mackinac: Ghost Stories, Legends, & Tragic Tales of Mackinac Island (House of Hawthorne Publishing)

7) Bonnie Jo Campbell – Once Upon a River: A Novel (W.W. Norton & Company)

8) Sonny Longtine – Murder in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (The History Press)

9) Dennis Cawthorne – Mackinac Island: Inside, Up Close and Personal (Arbutus Press)

10) Loren Graham – Face in the Rock: The Tale of a Grand Island Chippewa (University of California Press) – [last month #7]

10) P.J. Parrish – Dead of Winter (Pinnacle)

12) Holling C. Holling – Paddle-to-the-Sea (HMH Books for Young Readers)

13) Kathy-Jo Wargin – The Legend of Mackinac Island (Sleeping Bear Press)

14) Jerry Dennis — The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas (St. Martin’s Griffin)

15) Mary Casanova – One-Dog Canoe (Square Fish Books/Macmillan)

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Michigan Bestseller List for June 2014

JUNE 2014

MICHIGAN BESTSELLER LIST (includes Aunt Agatha’s, Between the Covers, Bluefrog Books, Falling Rock Café and Bookstore, First Editions Too, Grandpa’s Barn, Island Bookstore, Kazoo Books, McLean & Eakin, Michigan News, North Wind Books, Schuler’s Books & Music Okemos, Saturn Booksellers, Snowbound Books, and Squirreled Away Books; the Michigan Bestseller List is sponsored by www.arbutuspress.com)

QualitySnacksTOP 10–BESTSELLERS FOR JUNE FOR THE STATE OF MICHIGAN

1) Detroit: An American Autopsy, Charlie LeDuff (Penguin Books)

2) Let It Burn: An Alex McKnight Novel, Steve Hamilton (Minotaur Books)

3) Killing a Cold One: A Woods Cop Mystery, Joseph Heywood (Lyons Press)

4) Michigan Atlas & Gazetteer, DeLorme Mapping Company (DeLorme Publishing)

5) Red Jacket: A Lute Bapcat Mystery, Joseph Heywood (Lyons Press)

6) Keweenaw County, Jennifer Billock (Arcadia Publishing)

7) Quality Snacks, Andrew Mozina (Wayne State University Press)

8) Weird Michigan: Your Travel Guide to Michigan’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets—Linda S. Godfrey (Sterling)

9) The Island of Doves, Kelly O’Connor McNees (Berkley Trade)

10) Once Upon a River: A Novel, Bonnie Jo Campbell (W.W. Norton & Company)

11) South of Superior, Ellen Airgood (Riverhead Trade)

 

U.P. BESTSELLER LIST (includes Falling Rock Café and Bookstore, First Editions Too, Grandpa’s Barn, Island Bookstore, North Wind Books, and Snowbound Books; the U.P. Bestseller List is sponsored by www.arbutuspress.com)

TOP 10–BESTSELLERS FOR JUNE FOR THE U.P.

1) Keweenaw County, Jennifer Billock (Arcadia Publishing)

2) South of Superior, Ellen Airgood (Riverhead Trade)

3) The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works, Ron Riekki (Wayne State University Press)

4) Death’s Door: The Truth Behind the Italian Hall Disaster and the Strike of 1913, Steve Lehto (Momentum Books)

5) Geology and Landscape of Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Vicinity, William L. Blewett (Wayne State University Press)

6) Agates Inside Out, Karen Brzys (Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum)

7) Face in the Rock: The Tale of a Grand Island Chippewa, Loren R. Graham (University of California Press)

8) Learning to Stay, Erin Celello (NAL Trade)

9) Love Finds You in Mackinac Island, Michigan, Melanie Dobson (Summerside)

10) Northern Border: History and Lore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Beyond, Robert Archibald (NMU Press)

11) Picturing the Past: Finlandia University, 1896 to Present, Karen S. Johnson and Deborah K. Frontiera (Finlandia University)

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CLEVELAND: ALISSA NUTTING IS NOT A DIRTY GIRL

nutting

Michael Heaton sits down with Alissa Nutting, author of “Tampa.” An excerpt from the Fall 2013 issue. 

Michael Heaton: This book is pure filth. Yes or no?

Alissa Nutting: Gauging the purity of filth strikes me as a difficult task. I will say that there are many types of filth in the book an assortment of elements from the Periodic Filth Table are represented and cause dangerous chemical reactions. Various layers of filth compete against one another in a grotesque carnival of pageantry.

MH: Summarize reading this book.

AN: It’s like stopping in front of a house because you see something very disturbing going on through the window, then when you peek in more closely, you spot a television screen in the back of the room, and what’s playing on the television is even more disturbing that what initially made you stop. It is a Russian nesting doll of impropriety.

MH: Are you going to let your mother read this book?

AN: My mother is incredibly protective of her soul, of her general mental landscape of decency. She will not read the book.

MH: Your protagonist Celeste Price is a peeping tom, an adulterer, a narcissist, a pedophile, a chronic masturbator, and a liar. What are her good points?

AN: Easy on the eyes. Somewhat wizardly with sarcasm. Her patronizing thoughts about absolutely everyone else demonstrate a type of commitment to equality.

MH: How difficult was it to live with this woman in your head while writing this book?

AN: She was a pretty demanding mental roommate, to be honest. Parts of my spirit that were once a lush and radiant garden now look like dehydrated bacon from prolonged exposure to Celeste. One corner of my heart was removed, and in its place she put a Ziploc sandwich baggie filled with tobacco chew spit, etc. I may never fully recover from the act of scarification that was the writing of this novel. That sort of damage never heals.

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