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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Interview With John Jeffire about MOTOWN BURNING

Motown Burning is a fine second novel by Detroit writer John Jeffire. In it, he tells the story of an usual love between a small-town upper middle class girl and a lower class city boy. By the end of this novel, which is set in the late 60's, Detroit burns in the worst riot in US history and we visit painful and debilitating scenes in Vietnam.

1. Congratulations on winning the award for "Motown Burning." Could you tell us a bit about it? The book actually won two awards. The first was the Mount Arrowsmith Novel Competition when it was still in manuscript format. The second was the Independent Publishing Awards Gold Medal for Regional Fiction. The second award was cool because Dave Eggers won a gold medal in the same competition in a different category, so to be in the vicinity of someone like that, even if it’s just out in the parking lot, is kind of a rush.

2. Could you tell us a little about yourself -- family, work, interests, history with writing?
Me? I turn 48 this year and I’m still trying to figure out what the hell I’m about. I was born and raised in Detroit, and later I grew up working in my parents’ bar in Ohio. They were regular blue collar people, no college education, working very long hours every day. I was actually the first person in my family to earn a college education, whatever that’s worth. But I didn’t go to college right away after high school because I was a competitive wrestler and had a chance to train overseas for a year. In fact, wrestling has been a large part of my life, and I just gave up full-time coaching a few years ago after my second spinal surgery. I didn’t really understand writing until I got to college, and one great teacher, Albert Glover, lit the fuse. We studied Philip Levine, and that was it for me, I was hooked. Levine described Detroit and its decay and pride and fierceness and I got it, probably the only kid in that class of upper-crust budding yuppies who understood what the hell this poet guy was talking about. I said to myself, If this is poetry, I think I can do it, or at least try. Beginning as a very bad poet, I’ve branched off into decent poetry, short stories, a play, and two novels. On a personal note, I was married right after my sophomore year in college, and my son and daughter are both grown and out of the house now. Life is moving very rapidly.

3. How would you describe this book to someone who has not read it, but needs enough information to follow our interview? Why did you entitle it Motown Burning?

In a basic sense, it’s a love story. Aram Pehlivanian, A.P., the protagonist, is a high school drop-out working at his uncle’s bar. One night at local concert, he meets Katie, and they are crazy about each other. It’s a classic match of opposites: the inner city street punk and the prim, proper suburban girl. Their relationship is complicated when A.P. gets into trouble during the 1967 Detroit Riots, and he is given an ultimatum: go to jail or go to Vietnam. He chooses to go to Vietnam, which a lot of kids in the same situation did back in the day, and that’s where the title comes from. While he’s over in Vietnam, he learns that Katie is pregnant. So literally the city of Detroit is burning from the riot, a true historical event, but A.P., who is nicknamed Motown in Vietnam, is also burning to get back home to be with Katie and his child.

4. What sort of research did you conduct for this book? Did you interview people? If so, what effect did it have on your writing?

I actually began researching just by going back through my memories of that time period. I was a little kid in ’67 and remember the tanks and army men in the streets. That was quite a sight for a kid. My family was living in Dearborn at the time, and the mayor, Orville Hubbard, called in the National Guard and ordered them to shoot on sight anyone crossing the border into the city. I also talked quite a bit with my parents about this when I was younger before they passed away, and it’s funny but people from Detroit in that era can tell you exactly where they were when the riots broke out, kind of like people today know the exact moment and place they were when they learned of 9/11 and the towers being hit. It’s indelible, there forever, and it’s never going to leave. I also talked to a number of Vietnam vets to get a sense of what it was like, the fear, the nerves, the futility. I also recalled some of the sergeants and officers I worked with when I was in ROTC in college. I eventually got kicked out of the army at my officer’s basic course in Fort Bragg after I flunked the physical because of a knee injury I got wrestling, but I remember those people and the stories they told. That’s probably what fuels me most as a writer; I’m a real listening junkie.

5. Please tell us a little about the Detroit riots, and why you wanted to work them into your book. Why do you think they have received so little attention in the national mythos?

The ’67 Detroit Riots were one of the most significant events to take place in this country’s history, certainly its history in the 1960s, and yet there’s basically nothing on it out there in movies, books, plays, and the like. It’s bullshit. After my book was out I picked up Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex because I had heard that it mentioned the riots, but the book bored me in the early going and I never even got to the Detroit parts. That probably makes me sound lunk-headed and probably isn’t very fair to the book, but so be it, I get impatient with stories that don’t move at a certain clip. If you want to understand the United States in the 1960s, though, and all the tensions that were fomenting there, you just have to look at Detroit to see what it was all about. The social, racial, political, and artistic conflicts plaguing America at the time blew up in Detroit. The brief mythology is that two black Vietnam vets returned home and their neighbors were going to throw them a party a local blind pig, an unlicensed after-hours club. Well, the cops, who were notorious for cruising around the city in their Big-4 units abusing minority citizens, showed up but they weren’t prepared for such a huge crowd on hand. And the crowd said, That’s it, we’re not taking it anymore, fuck you, and the place erupted. The next four days were total chaos; Baghdad today has nothing on Detroit in July of ’67. The 82nd Airborne Division and the National Guard had to be called in, tanks, troop carriers, out and out warfare in the streets. The official death toll was 43, but they were finding bodies long after the riot was officially over and some bodies were never found. I talked with one woman who was a nurse and she said that her hospital alone had at least that many people brought in who died. But officials wanted to downplay everything, like they had the whole ordeal in hand, the iron fist bringing order. The old-timers say the death total was closer to 200, and over 7,000 people were arrested. Fourteen square miles of the city burned down. No city in America has experienced this, and yet where are the stories? To this day several neighborhoods have never recovered. Which is why I shake my head when the government is giving out millions to the silk-suited executive assholes of these companies they ran into the ground, like that is helping America. There are real people in real neighborhoods who could use a small fraction of that money to make their city livable and safe. I better stop there because I’m starting to get pissed off.

6. This book keeps switching the first person point of view among characters, in the manner of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." For instance, Opie narrates the first 10 or so pages, Saint the next 25, and so on. Why did you choose this point of view?

You know, the story is born in a riot, so I wanted there to be a sense of chaos, of confusion, in the narrative. In several cases, the different characters’ accounts overlap but their perspectives are very different. In one way or another, A.P. is in every chapter, sometimes just in passing. Like any traumatic event, though, it can seem to make no sense when you’re in the middle of it trying to survive, but afterwards, when you have the safe distance to reflect, you can say to yourself, Oh, so this is where it started, and that’s why this person did that, and that’s what happened off in the corner that I was unaware of. So much of what happens in the book centers around the riot and the war in Vietnam, so it didn’t make sense to me to tell the story in traditional narrative. There had to be some confusion, frustration, dislocation. Structurally, though, the story is as old as it gets, following The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Iliad begins in medias res and we’re already on the shores of Troy; Motown Burning begins with A.P. already in Vietnam. A.P. is a Motor City Odysseus, and Katie is his Penelope. The story is based upon a journey and a return, and someone who likes to find parallels can find several others. But I didn’t want the book to be a mere retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey with names and settings changed. If readers get that layer of meaning, fine, but it shouldn’t carry the entire story. At least they should like the chapter epigraphs, which are from Detroit music of the time, The Temptations, the MC5, Iggy Pop, Dinah Washington, Bob Seger. It don’t get no better than that.

7. From my reading, I think the difference between your point of view and Faulkner's is that you do not write in stream of consciousness. Usually, the characters seem to be narrating something in the past that they have already processed. Am I right? Does this square with your sense of how the book unfolds?

Absolutely. A.P. is the only character who speaks in stream of consciousness; outwardly, he is inarticulate and would never be able to express himself verbally at such length, so it was necessary to get in his head a bit. He’s not a talker, but a lot is going on in his thoughts and he feels very deeply. With the other characters, I wanted to create a kind of confessional tone, like this was their chance to tell someone what happened to them, to set the record straight and explain how they saw matters, like they were talking to a journalist.

8. I was really impressed with how adroitly you had various characters approach the same incidents in the book. The one that sticks out the most for me is when you have this skinny kid show up during the riot. Only later do we learn that it was the main character whom we have already gotten to know. What do such techniques show us about point of view, perspective, attention? (Here, I am asking you to offer some thoughts on what your book can offer readers in terms of enriching their experiences.)

I’ve always been amused by the statement, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” It’s also interesting how much the world today knows of Jesus Christ, yet very little appears about him in Roman records; he simply didn’t matter very much to them, barely a blip on the radar. So much of what we think and believe today is based upon point of view, much of it often manipulated or based on outright lies. Weapons of mass destruction, anyone? In the chapters dealing with the riot, the narrative voices are from a cop, a Black Panther sniper, a National Guardsman, and a citizen who loses a child (this was actually based on the death of Tonia Blanding, the youngest casualty in the ’67 Riots). In the Vietnam chapters, we hear from various soldiers in A.P.’s unit but also a Vietnamese soldier. History as a story is hardly fair, but I at least wanted to try to be fair in telling this particular tale.

9. Does A.P. die in the end? Does the disconnect between he and Katie -- Katie can't figure out how to hug him and he falls into his own hands, not hers -- signify the impossibility of bridging the differences in their experiences?

These are great questions because 90% of the comments I get about the book focus on the end. A.P. doesn’t die, but he is definitely broken, both in body and spirit at the end. I wanted to show that he has come to the realization that he cannot face the world in the same way he always has. Whenever something got in his path, he responded physically with violence out of pure instinct. It was how he was raised. Now, however, he cannot even physically stand up. This is devastating to him, and he must try to figure out who he is and how he can get about in the world. Katie is there waiting for him, and she isn’t sure how to approach him, to touch him in a way that won’t cause him any more pain. This is where I needed to leave the characters—no easy closure, no happily ever after. So many of the Vietnam vets I talked to expressed that sense of alienation and uneasiness when they returned home, and many still struggle with knowing their place in the world after what they experienced. A.P. is home and Katie is there to greet him, but he is a new man, tragically reborn, and he must face the world in a new way he does not understand or necessarily embrace. That split second with his hands covering his face will be the last he has before he must see the new world and his new self within it. I wanted that sense of uncertainty because that is what the characters are challenged with.

10. Tell us about the journal and press that you are starting up. What other projects do you have going on now?

I was approached by a fellow Detroit writer, Rhoda Stamell, about starting an on-line magazine, as if I don’t have enough to do, and Renaissance City was born ( I wanted something that was sharp but straightforward and unpretentious, something that would be more than just poems on a blank flat screen. So we do have stories and poems, but several of the pieces are film clips of the authors reading, which I think is new and vibrant. We’ve also got art and music in the form of live performances I’ve taped and sound files I’ve been sent. My hope is to have more input and submissions from more artists in the future, but the start has been fun and we had one hell of a launch party! The press I started is Motown Rising, and I began by publishing my daughter Lea’s memoir, Lady Hazardous. It’s about her struggles with drug addiction, and for me it was a challenge to edit the book but also to confront what she says, because so much of it is personal to our family, and not always very flattering. It was draining. The book is solid, though, and it’s built on truth, so we’ll see where it goes.

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