The Writers in the Library Reading Series is thrilled to start it’s 2016-2017 season with author Christopher Hebert, whose novel, Angels of Detroit, was just released by Bloomsbury USA. Below Hebert talks with UTK English alumna Megan Faust (’16) about process, place, and inspiration.
Megan Faust: So first I wanted to ask about your relationship to Detroit. What inspired you to write about the city?
Christopher Hebert: So I moved to Michigan in 1989 to go to graduate school. I wasn’t living in Detroit, I was living in Ann Arbor, which is a suburb outside of Detroit, but Detroit was where all the cool things were happening. Fairly soon after I moved there, I started going into Detroit to go to music shows and museums, and I got to know the city. I got to be sort of startled by the city and the state that it was in. I’m not originally from Detroit, but I’m originally from the Rust Belt. I grew up in central New York, so a city that has suffered a lot of the same problems though on a much smaller scale.
I spent a lot of time in the Rust Belt growing up in Syracuse, and I had gone to school in central Ohio. The year before I moved to Michigan, I was in St. Louis, Missouri, which also had a lot of the same post-industrial problems. So I came to Detroit, and I felt like a lot of things came together. I was in Michigan for quite a while. I was in graduate school there, but then I continued working there as an editor. I was working for a publishing house, and one of the areas that I focused on in the books I was publishing there was music, specifically music about Detroit. It became a personal interest but also a professional interest, conveniently. They built off one another and dove-tailed. So in my day work, I was doing a lot of research and work on Detroit, and at night when I was writing, I was also working on the novel.
MF: Your book is filled with such disparate characters, from this little, insanely adventurous black girl living in poverty to this world-weary, corporate executive white woman who has overcome decades of sexism. I was wondering what gave you the perspective that informed the creation and development of such different characters?
CH: It was not something I really planned on going in. It grew very organically. Part of the reason the book took so long to come together is that I didn’t really have a masterplan going in. I had a few particular characters; I had this wandering guy we start with, although what he was doing I didn’t really know for a while. I had the political activists – most of them. The rest of it just sort of grew as I was going. I kept following these characters to see where they would lead. I had these activists who were pissed off about this corporation and what they were doing, and at a certain moment, I realized I wanted to go inside the corporation and find out who those people were and what their side was. That lead to Mrs. Freeman, the executive. That was the way a lot of the book worked. I would find myself moving in one direction, and then I would get curious about who the people are that are doing this. I was writing a lot about these blighted neighborhoods in which very few people continue to live, and at a certain point I realized I wanted to know who are these people? Who are the native people of this neighborhood who live there and continue to try to make a life? That led to Clementine, the little girl, and her great-grandmother.
I didn’t know this going in, but gradually it became clear to me that what I was writing was a portrait of a fragmented community. I had a lot of pieces. For a while, the pieces create problems as a writer because I didn’t know what these narratives had to do with one another. But then, after years of working on it, I realized that they’re all telling bits of the story. They’re telling the bits of the stories they have. In some ways they overlap, in some ways they diverge, but really there is no way to tell this story except by getting as broad of a taste of what life is like in the margins. Because in a lot of ways that’s what the city is like. It’s a big city geographically. The space is big, but there’s so much abandonment that what you have is pockets of people. You have a few people here and a few people there. That fragmentation is very much a part of what it’s like there too.
I also never entered the book with a particular thesis about the solution to the problems or who was to blame. So that gave me the luxury to just explore everyone, to give that executive as much space to become a person that we can feel sympathy for even though she feels to blame for some of what’s happened. I felt like she still has interesting things to say about all of this. Detroit isn’t simple, what happened there isn’t simple, and the answers aren’t simple. I’m not interested in simplicity. I’m interested in the complexity of all of this and giving everyone a chance to speak.
MF: I think that is a great tie-in with the title too, Angels of Detroit. It made me wonder if there are actually demons in this story or if everyone has a bit of redemption within them.
CH: I like to think so, and I liked to see some of the reviewers tackle the title and come up with who they think the angels are. The responses I get are really interesting. Some people feel like this is a book about the apocalypse and that we’re all doomed. Other people look at it and think it’s a book about struggle but also hope. I think the hopeful people in particular think of Clementine as one of the angels of Detroit.
MF: At one point in the novel, a character refers to Detroit as “the new old West.” To me, this summons up a sense of lawlessness that I saw reflected in McGhee’s plots, the abuses of the corporation HSI, and even Constance’s garden. Can you share some thoughts on Detroit as a new frontier of sorts?
CH: What’s interesting about Detroit is it’s this canvas against which a lot of people see possibility while a lot of other people just see hopelessness. Once upon a time, it was the 4th largest city with millions of people in it, and now it has fewer than 700,000. On the one hand, there are a lot of different things you could do and a lot of different ways to fill that space and replace the auto industry and the manufacturing that fled. But how you do that isn’t clear. In the meantime, what you have is just vast emptiness. In that emptiness, a lot of things grow, and some of it is crime. Living there is extremely difficult because it’s hard to police a city that big when you’ve got five people here, ten people there, and twenty people over there.
So it’s not exactly that it’s lawlessness but that the very layout of it stretches services. Also, the bankruptcy has made it difficult for a lot of things to happen that you would expect in a city. Policing was a big problem for a long time. Until very recently, there were very few streetlights. There’s very little working public transportation. People are really vulnerable to a lot of different things. The city has recently been really active about tearing down all of the abandoned houses, but for a long time they didn’t. That bred a lot of what you would expect to happen when you’ve got endless quantities of empty structures for people to go into and do whatever the hell they want. That was breeding a criminal element where drugs, guns, prostitution, and everything else can happen. When you have a vacuum, things have a way of coming in to fill it up, and one of those things is criminal entrepreneurship.
I also wanted to balance that with what Constance is doing, as you said. Another big part of what’s going on there now is that people are seeing this emptiness and thinking, what can I do with it? For a lot of people, their answer is, I’m going to build a garden. They don’t actually own the land that they’re building it on, it’s just that nobody else is taking it, the city isn’t going to stop me, so I’m just going to do. And they do it. There are some enormous, really successful gardens. But that’s a good observation. Technically, what she is doing isn’t legal. On the other hand, no one is going to stop her, and it seems like a worthwhile thing to be doing. There’s a lot of DIY going on there. There are a lot of people reclaiming stuff just because it’s there and no one else has any plans to do anything with it, so why the hell not?
But things are getting better. Even as we speak, more streetlights are going up, the police are receiving more funding. When they were going through bankruptcy, there was just no money and no resources. Yet in the last year alone, they’ve torn down around 10,000 abandoned buildings. Even the house that I write about in which Dobbs has set himself up – for a long time, that was standing. But the last time I was in Detroit, it was finally gone after many years. It was a real house. I had modeled after an actual house that had been in the area.
MF: Were the places in the book modeled after buildings that actually exist?
CH: It’s a mix. Some of them definitely were, some of them aren’t. A couple are borrowed from St. Louis, which was where I lived before. The loft/industrial apartment that McGhee and Myles have is actually the remarkably shitty place I lived in in St. Louis.
MF: I noticed that the relationships between people in this book are a little unconventional. For the most part, the bonds formed between absolute strangers are stronger than those between family members or lovers.
CH: I’ve never heard that before, that’s interesting.
MF: Yea! I was thinking, since this book is connected largely to the breakdown of our civilization and environment, both industrial and ecological, I felt like the relationships arising in this city were products of their context. I was wondering if you saw a connection between the breakdown of an environment and the rearrangement of relationships between people?
CH: Yea, absolutely. I mean, I’ve revealed that I obviously didn’t plan it that way. But I think I was cognizant that I was working right from the start with nontraditional characters and people who are living on the fringe in a lot of different ways. So yea, I’m not surprised that the familial relationships are also strained. I think the only healthy one is between Clementine and her great-grandmother, and even that is sort of combative. They have a certain kind of understanding, but it’s still one that’s often in conflict. That’s really interesting. I would totally buy that. No one has ever mentioned that before, but yea, I could totally see that.
Join us tomorrow for the remainder of the interview and more about Hebert’s forthcoming reading at 7PM on Monday, August 29th in Hodges Library!
Christopher Hebert is the author of the novels Angels of Detroit (Bloomsbuy, 2016) and The Boiling Season (HarperCollins, 2012), and the winner of the 2013 Friends of American Writers award. He is also co-editor of Stories of Nation: Fictions, Politics, and the American Experience (forthcoming UT Press). His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such publications as FiveChapters, Cimarrron Review, Narrative, Interview, and The Millions. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee.
Megan Faust is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She graduated with degrees in English literature and psychology and plans to pursue a doctorate in English. In her spare time, you can find her kayaking on the French Broad or arguing with someone about social disparities.