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Writers in the Library

Interview with Christopher Hebert : Part Two

Part two of Megan Faust’s interview with Christopher Hebert, this year’s first reader for the WIR reading series and a former Writer-in-the-Library!  Come see him read  from his newly released novel, Angels of Detroit, at the University of Tennessee on Monday, August 29, 2016. The event is part of the university’s Writers in the Library reading series. The public is invited to this free reading at 7 p.m. in the Lindsay Young Auditorium of UT’s John C. Hodges Library.

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Megan Faust (’16): You mentioned in our last interview that this was up to the interpretation of the reader, but as I was reading Dobbs’ thoughts on how the planet is careening towards disaster and Clementine’s musings on the 6th Ice Age and what scientists in the future will find of our destroyed planet, I’m also watching news stories about the horrific flooding in Louisiana.  It’s all reminding me of hurricanes and tropical storms, An Inconvenient Truth, etc.  Did you at least somewhat intend this book to serve as a kind of warning?

Christopher Hebert: Yea, as I said, I didn’t really have my own particular thesis or angle that I was interested in announcing.  What interests me as a writer are complex, volatile situations in which there are no easy answers.  I think what interests me about the world is the lack of simplicity in things.  Where you see simplicity, you imagine simple solutions.  But simple solutions don’t honor what’s actually happening.  If we can’t really face the complexity of many problems from many angles, we’re never going to figure out what to do about them.  We see that a lot on our political stages.  People are just giving you a 10 second soundbite like, oh, this will fix everything.  And it sounds good, but generally when that happens, it just digs a deeper hole.  So what I was interested in doing was taking seriously a lot of the different things you see in places like this.

You go to Detroit now, and you see billboards with slogans saying nice things about Detroit.  That grows out of the very bad publicity Detroit gets a lot of as there are a lot of people saying bad things about Detroit.  And I see those signs, and I’m like, yea, I’ve got a lot of good things to say about Detroit.  I like Detroit in a lot of ways too.  But I don’t think you can say only nice things about Detroit.  I don’t think that actually makes anything better.

You can look at Detroit and see a lot of things that are improving.  Since I moved in 2008, billionaires are buying up buildings in downtown, there’s a lot of development there.  There are all kinds of fancy new restaurants and new bars and great mixology happening.  There’s a lot of cool stuff you can get, like fabulous crepes and coffee.  There’s a Whole Foods there now.  So you could look at that and say, this is great.  And it is, but a lot of that is gentrification, and a lot of that is not remotely helping the poor people that continue to live there.  I feel that still needs to be acknowledged too.  Yes, there are good things happening in Detroit, but Whole Foods is not going to solve the problem of people living in abject poverty in houses that are falling down who have no public services of any kind and are extraordinarily vulnerable to everything.

There are plenty of people who look at a place like Detroit and think that it’s beyond saving.  It’s beyond hope, and all we can do is cut it loose and move on.  Or that it’s an example of our hubris or the mistakes we’ve made in the past.  But I don’t necessarily think that solves problems either.  What we see in Detroit is not limited to Detroit.  That was part of what really resonated with me.  I looked at Detroit and I saw St. Louis, I saw Ohio, I saw where I grew up in Syracuse.  You can’t just cut loose all of these places when they become inconvenient.  So I wanted to take seriously that particular view – that we have created these ruins through a lot of destructive practices and a lack of foresight – but I didn’t want that to be the dominant view of the book.

I wanted that to be in juxtaposition to people who are like Clementine.  To me, she’s a little different from Dobbs in that she’s aware of ecological problems and she reads up on them, but she’s also not giving up like he is.  He’s sort of leaning into it and aligning himself with the cockroaches of the world because they survive, and she’s not.  She is still spirited and smart and doing her thing.  And then there are people like Constance.  She lives there and she knows how grim a lot of it is.  She’s one of those people who doesn’t have very much, but she’s planting this garden, and by the end of the book, she’s creating this new place where people can eat who otherwise can’t.  So I think it was my attempt to grapple with the many sides of this.

When I went inside the corporation, I found even that is complex.  Since both of our presidential candidates were in Detroit this past week, we’ve been hearing talk about policies to turn around the outsourcing of manufacturing.  That’s often an easy line: all of these jobs went to China, and we need to get them back.  But that’s not that simple either because often when you’re talking about that, you’re waxing nostalgic about 1950s manufacturing, which doesn’t exist anymore.  There are far fewer people doing manufacturing.  It’s now all automated, and those jobs don’t pay very well.  Even if you steal back from China all of the Detroit jobs that we sent over there, it would be like 1/50 of the manufacturing base that we once had.  And so when I was inside of the corporation, I wanted to try and take seriously what it meant to try to run a business in a place like this without putting up a paper demon.

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MF: So maybe it would be closer to say that this is more of a warning against simplicity than it is a warning against disaster.

CH: Yea.  I don’t really think that books, especially novels, are good for teaching people lessons.  People don’t want to be taught things that they don’t want to learn.  What books can do, and what they do better than anything else I think, is give you an opportunity to dwell in someone else’s life for a while.  One of the results of doing that is you come to sympathize a bit with them.  You come to understand who they are and what they’ve gone through.  They aren’t necessarily demanding your sympathy or asking you to feel sorry for them, but a lot of that inevitably happens.  You learn what it’s like to be a poor person living in a Detroit neighborhood.  At no point does any person say, I want you rescue me or make all of this go away.  You spend enough time with them, and you begin to care about them.  You begin to see that this is complex.  And once you recognize that complexity, I think you’re less likely to go tossing out innocently ignorant solutions to problems that aren’t actually solutions.  A lot of the things that we spout about, like all we need to do is this, is true only if you ignore 3/4 of what’s out there.  But if you recognize that there are people living in Detroit… It’s part of the gentrification that’s going on.  It’s nice that there are now shiny buildings in Detroit, and you can get an awesome espresso.  Those things are great, but there are still those other people out there.  How are we going to deal with that?

But on the liberal end, it doesn’t do any good to demonize corporate entities.  We’re all complicit in buying their crap and supporting this world that we live in.  We can’t pretend that the poor are all innocent and the corporations are all the guilty monsters.  There are things that they do that are troubling and that make us unhappy, but we can’t shift all of the blame.  We need to see that we are all cogs in this machine that has a lot of problems.  So that’s something that I think a book can do successfully instead of demand that readers shut it and take a position.

It does leave a lot of room for interpretation and space for some reviewers to close the book and say, well, the apocalypse is coming.  And there are some who will close it and say, yea, there are problems, but this is a hopeful book.  For me, it’s hopeful.  I didn’t really anticipate the apocalypse reading, but I’m responsible for writing an ambiguous book, so I’ll take it.

MF: Gotcha.  If you were to write a similar novel about Knoxville, what kinds of characters would you populate the city with?  What conflicts or tensions might you weave throughout the narrative?

CH: Oh man, that’s a good question.  I don’t know.  I’m still getting to know Knoxville, and I’ve been wondering lately if I’ll ever be able to write about it.  I don’t know the place well enough.  I do have a thing for political struggle; my first book was set in Haiti, and it was about race and politics there.  I don’t know – this town in a lot of ways is the opposite of Detroit.  I got here at just the moment that Knoxville was really blooming.  It was in the very recent past that Market Square was just a dump, and there was nothing there but Tomato Head.  The Old City wasn’t there either.  This was all very recent, within the last 10 years.  You hear a lot about cities reinventing themselves, especially in the Rust Belt.  It’s been remarkable to see the transformation here and how successful it’s been.  On the other hand, it was on a much smaller scale, and it wasn’t industry that needed to be replaced.  We’re talking about a downtown district of tourism and restaurants, and that’s easier to manage than replacing vanished manufacturing plants.

I see a lot of wealth in this town.  I live in Bearden, and I drive past Sequoyah Hills, Lion’s View, and the endless mansions on the river.  I’m often quite curious about what’s going on in East Knoxville.  I’m curious about immigrant communities here, and what their view of this place is, and how all of this development is touching them or not.  So I wonder about the other Knoxville.  But between campus, Bearden, and downtown, you see a lot of success and money and good things.  Maybe it’s the dark side of me, but I always wonder about what’s hiding in the corners or what we are sweeping away that we don’t want to look at.  Just like when you drive a bit north and you cross under the bridge, and you see leagues of homeless people.  I remember shortly after I moved here, people were saying that we don’t have a homeless problem here or that it’s fairly well maintained.  Whether that is true, I don’t know, but what certainly seems to be true is that the city has succeeded in attracting them all to one place.  I don’t know if that’s a way of making the problem less visible because it doesn’t occupy all parts of the city.  I don’t know, but it’s interesting.

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MF: So there’s no upcoming novel on Big Orange Country?

CH: There’s not.  I’m working on something that, as of now, is set in New York.  It’s very different.  I’ve written a lot of stuff that pulls in politics, revolt, tumult, and stuff like that, so I’ve decided to try to do something a little lighter and see how that goes.

MF: A little lighter… So you’re not setting your story in an industrial wasteland?

CH: I’m not!  No industrial wastelands, no political violence, no crushing riots.

MF: Wow.  No one will recognize Christopher Hebert.

CH: Yea, it’s a quieter book.  As of now, it has none of those elements in it.

MF: Is it a different experience writing a book like that?

CH: Every book is different, and having written books, you feel that you have the experience now to keep writing them.  But in a lot of ways, every book is a new project that you have to completely figure out from the ground up.  It creates entirely new challenges.  Angels of Detroit is my second book, but it took forever to write because I had all of these pieces and I needed to figure out how they went together.  Some of the challenges of the new book are formal.  One of the ideas I have is that it takes place over the course of a single night, so it’s compressed.  And hopefully shorter.  My last two books are both exactly 432 pages, so that’s a specialty of mine.  I’m determined to write a slim little quick read, but I suspect that somehow or another – and actually already as I’m writing it, I see little things about economic disparity pulling in.  The main protagonist is a high school kid, and I already see an awareness of socioeconomic difference in the community and different students in school.  But I’m going to maintain the plan that this is a…

MF: Light-hearted summer beach read.

CH: Exactly.  But we’ll see.  Maybe I just can’t help myself.  Maybe it will transform into something else entirely.  In broad strokes, it’s about a kid who’s drawn into this mission that falls in his lap that he doesn’t want to do yet he has to, and it takes the course of a single night.  What it will lead to, I don’t know.  There are a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of space for it to bloom into something else.  Maybe 432 pages of something else.

MF: It sounds like these books have a mind of their own.  They’re coming from you, but they very much so demand certain things from you.

CH: Yea, and for me, that’s the pleasure of writing.  I do know writers who start with an outline and then just write that outline in book form.  I like to be challenged, and I like to not know where I’m going.  I think I would just be bored if I knew what the book was about and who these people were.  My favorite characters in the book are the ones who surprised me, who I didn’t really know at all.  I take pleasure, and I think a lot of writers do, when our characters come to life and do things that we never intended.

MF: Do you have a favorite character in Angels of Detroit?

CH: There are a lot of characters I like, but the writing experiences I enjoy grew out of chapters just spiraling out of my control, like the chapter on Mrs. Freeman as a young woman in Detroit.  That was one of the later chapters I wrote, and I wrote it because I was aware that it was hard to get a sense in the book of the glory days of Detroit.  There’s a very clear sense of the grimness and how difficult things are now, but not of what it was.  And also no nostalgia for what it was.  So I realized I needed to do that, and she was the person because she was from there and she came from a wealthy family.  She would have known and experienced this other side of Detroit.  That chapter is one of my favorites because I feel it does both simultaneously.  It allows you a breezy walk through the glory days and shows you what it would be like to be a young woman from a wealthy family with access to all of the resources of the city.

At the same time, that ultimately gave me an opening to talk about what happened, what it led to, and the ways in which Detroit’s problems grew out of racial conflict, segregation, and policies that separated white from black.  In a lot of ways, that’s really what drove the city to what it is today.  So I enjoyed being able to do something light while having something very dark happening underneath.  But I also learned a lot about her and the complexities of her position in writing that chapter.  She has a lot of warm and nostalgic feelings about the place.  She loves the city in a lot of ways, and she can now, with the benefit of hindsight, see her responsibility and the responsibility of her family and the wealthy families she knew who were able to just cut themselves off from all of the inequity, inequalities, and brutalities of life for poor people and African Americans.  That I found interesting.

Clementine too was a joy to just spend time with and hang out with and see where she took me.  Those scenes where she’s just running through the fields discovering things – part of that is reflective of the writing experience.  Where is she going?  I don’t know, let’s see where she goes!  And then she goes there and it’s like, oh yea!  Cool, of course she has a little hideout in a bush where she keeps all her stuff.  Of course she would, why wouldn’t she?  But I didn’t know that until I wrote it.  That’s the way for a lot of us: I don’t know it until I write it.  And they cease then to be characters, and they start to become real, credible people.  They need to be credible people for anyone to care about them.  Readers can tell the difference, even if they don’t know why.  They can’t see what a writer is doing, they can’t see how their emotions are being tweaked, but they know when they care about a character and when they don’t care about a character.  We often talk about how much you relate, but relating doesn’t necessarily mean they look and sound like you.  It means that you recognize their experiences and their emotions, and that you can understand what it would be like to be this young girl in this place.

MF: It’s more about empathy than relating in a more one-dimensional way.  Very cool.  I really liked that chapter too.  To me, it was kind of shocking when she was talking about the riots that occurred in Detroit.  She said that it took her a long time to not look at the African American population as this angry mob hell-bent on destruction.

CH: Yea, and I think that was the immediate response: rage.  She’s thinking, why are they doing this?  Why are they destroying this city?  It takes a while before she can step back and see that it’s because we’ve set these conditions in motion.  They’re destroying the city because they’ve been left out of the workplace, they’ve been targeted by the police, they’ve been prevented from moving into most of the city, they’ve been ghettoized.  That’s why they’re burning the city down.  But it’s hard if you’ve never been exposed to them.  If you’ve lived in this cloistered, privileged life, you would have never known that, so of course your first response would be, what the hell is wrong with these people?  But before she can get to the point of seeing her responsibility, she first needs to be able to see these people, recognize them, and see what’s happened.  In some ways, that’s the project of the book.  You need to see before you can understand.  There’s only so much you can come to abstractly.  You need to be able to affix concrete feelings and experiences to people and places so then you can realize, ok, this is what happened and this is what we’re dealing with.  And then you can move forward in some ways.

MF: That’s wonderful.

CH: I think so.  Whether or not it works, I guess we will see.  It at least makes things interesting for me as a writer.  We’re all different, but I… I like complexity and unanswerable questions.

MF: That makes it really easy for interviews, I’m sure.

CH: [laughs] You’re welcome.

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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.

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