13 December 2010

Find Your Way to Grand River and Joy: an interview with Susan Messer

The Books for Walls Project had the wonderful opportunity to interview author Susan Messer. Instead of a "regular" interview we decided to collect questions. Each of us thought about what we'd like to learn from Susan, as a person, as an author, and about her book Grand River and Joy.
Enjoy the interview 
and enjoy the book!

Note: The Mom read the interview aloud to The Sisters (which they loved) so we suggest reading it aloud to younger audiences 
and click the links to learn more.
The Little Sister asked:
Grand River and Joy (Sweetwater Fiction: Originals)
How does it feel to write a book? It feels so many ways. It feels scary because when you start out, you really have no idea where you’re going or whether you’ll manage to do what you hope to do. You might not even completely know what you hope to do. And it can take so long to write a book—years—so what if you put in all that time and then you get to a point where you don’t think you can finish it or you don’t believe in it anymore or you don’t think you can make it work? But in addition to being scary, it’s exciting because you don’t know what you’ll discover—about yourself or your art or other people or the world. It’s like starting out on a new adventure, and anything is possible. Writing Grand River and Joy and now living with it afterward—hearing what people have to say, meeting so many interesting people (including you) as a result—have definitely contributed to my growth as a human being and a writer. Some of it has been painful. I won’t lie to you about that.

What do you do for fun? I read novels. I get together with my friends. I hang out with my family. I go to an array of cultural events that the city of Chicago has to offer—film and theatre and art and music and dance. These are especially fun to go to if my husband or friends come along. Sometimes I stay home with my husband and watch amazing movies from all over the world and then talk about them for hours. I go for walks and try to notice as much as I can. I try to exercise my imagination as much as I can. I don’t know . . . does any of that sound like fun to you? Maybe I don’t have enough fun in my life. Maybe I’m too serious. (Note from The Little Sister: "Working on your imagination sounds like fun! All of that sounds like fun to me!")

The Bean asked: 

Where did you grow up? How old were you during this time? When did you realize that you wanted to write about this era and racial event? Any particular personal (that you wouldn’t mind sharing) reason for this book? 
Click photo to learn more
about Susan.

All these questions go together, so I’ll answer them as one. The book has many autobiographical elements. I grew up in Detroit, my father owned a wholesale shoe business, I am one of three sisters, I went to Mumford High School, I was about the age of the two older sisters (late high school/early college) during the era of the book. All that said, the big events and scenes of the book are imagined: the writing on the window of Harry’s business, the women’s meeting, the bike giveaway, the Moroccan luncheon, the boiler scene, Harry in the shul, Marvin Gaye’s party, and so on.

I decided I wanted to write about this era when I realized that the community where I now live is very much like the community where I grew up—a place with a very wide socioeconomic range in a fairly small geographic area. I noticed this in particular when my daughter started at the high school here and I went to visit. I was thinking, “Hmmm. How is it that I’ve ended up in this kind of place again?” You don’t get that everywhere—the wide socioeconomic range, from very wealthy to very poor, all in there together. It’s a complicated environment, with lots of potential for growth and lots of potential for tension and misunderstanding. These are themes that come up again and again in my writing. Not just in Grand River and Joy but in work that came before and since.

The Mom asked:
What did you want to be when you grew up? When I was very small, I wanted to be a ballerina or a gypsy. For a while I wanted to be a Mouseketeer. When I got to be a teenager, I wanted to be the girlfriend of the Beatles. After that, I was fairly directionless. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I didn’t have much confidence, and no particular interests, and I didn’t realize that I had much imagination, or that imagination is a powerful tool in life. In college, I majored in anthropology because it seemed exotic, but I didn’t really understand anthropology back then. I always say that life happened to me rather than vice versa. My husband is very goal oriented. He always knew where he was heading. In contrast, my life evolved in a very organic way—working hard, paying attention, running into the right people at the right time, being lucky. That was how I became an editor and also how I became a writer.
Grande Ballroom
How much research is involved with your books? For Grand River and Joy, I did A LOT of research, especially about the history of Detroit. I spent time in the archives of the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University. I read many books. I drove around Detroit with a local historian who explained lots of things to me—architectural style, neighborhood development. I talked to Russ Gibb, who owned the Grande Ballroom, which was located on Grand River near Joy Road. And for the boiler scene, I did extensive research on how boilers work and what can go wrong with them and what it smells, sounds, feels like when something is amiss. I’ve told that story elsewhere—about the boiler research and the great people at heatinghelp.com who helped me find out what I needed to know. That was such a wonderful experience. That was fun.

Where do you/did you get your ideas for your book/s? 
Ideas come from so many places. I once wrote about a broken ceramic pot I found while I was out walking. I once wrote a piece that was inspired by a period—you know, a grammatical period. I pass a sidewalk square every day that has an inscription in it: “I still love Alan.” I’ve wanted to write about that for a long time. Who wrote it and why? Especially because of that word “still.” If it just said “I love Alan,” I wouldn’t be as interested. But the “still” makes me think there’s a story there. How long has this person been loving Alan? What did Alan do that the person who wrote it has to say “still.” It gets my imagination working.
What is your favorite color? If I have to choose one, I’ll say purple, but if I can give a more complete answer, I’d say the range of colors that cluster at that end of the spectrum, including lilac and fuchsia and sapphire/delphinium. Those are the colors I tend to go for.

The Dad asked:

Why do you want people to read your book? I have written and discarded at least five versions of an answer to this question, so this time I will be as straightforward and plainspoken as possible. I want people to read my book because I hope they will think and feel something as a result. I want them, for a short while, to walk alongside me in the world I created.
Do you support yourself solely by writing; if not how do you support yourself? I work full time as an editor (self-employed) and have done so for 20+ years. It’s very difficult to support oneself as a writer, especially with the kind of writing I do, which is referred to as literary fiction and creative nonfiction. Most people who do this kind of writing also teach or do something else to pay the bills. Editing has been a wonderful complement to writing, as it involves the close study of language on the page. This close study has taught me a great deal about what makes a good sentence, a good paragraph, a good structure. So, although I wish I had more time for creative writing, and perhaps someday I will, I’m lucky to have work that is meaningful to me and that helps me as a writer. 

The Sisters picked this baby
meerkat to highlight Susan's
exotic pet choice!
The Dog asked:

Do you have a pet? If you could have any exotic pet in the world what would it be? 
I don’t have a pet. I feel a little bad about that because so many people have them and love them so much, but I just want to put my time and energy elsewhere (see, above, under “What do you do for fun?”). I hope you won’t think badly of me. As for an exotic pet, I am intrigued by meerkats. I like how they look in groups, so I guess I might like to have about a dozen of them.

Maureen asked:

What happened to Harry in the ShulWhen I think about this scene, I think back to Ruth at the women’s meeting, and to that feeling in the air for the women, of having something very important to explore but not having the time to follow it through all the way (need to pick up the children, get dinner in the oven, put together the Halloween costumes, all the pressing concerns of daily life). In contrast, I wanted Harry to have something few of us have—a time and a place to fully and deeply explore the path of his life, the bigger questions. That was the gift I hoped to give him in the shul.
The thing about the tefillin is that they press into and symbolically connect the mind and the heart, the two “organs” through which we understand and connect to the world. And then there’s the strange contrast of the world outside exploding and him discovering a sanctuary, a very private space to withdraw into for reflection. So it’s not that he becomes a religious man (or a religiously observant one). I didn’t intend it that way at all. More, it’s about the power of deep reflection; it brings him to a peaceful acceptance that he has the resources to go on, no matter what.
Did Marvin Gaye really move into the area and throw a party? Marvin Gaye did move into the area, but if he threw a party, I wasn’t invited. That was all imagined.

The Poet asked:

How did you come up with the moving scene of the two men in the boiler room rolling over laughing about the line about zebras and God? A boiler seemed to have so much metaphorical potential—because it relies on the building up of pressure, and because of the explosive potential of water and electricity, gas and flame, in such proximity—and I wanted to explore that. I also was (and am) concerned about power differences in society. Harry as landlord has the power advantage over Curtis. He has an additional power advantage in being Curtis’s sometimes-employer. And then of course there’s the whole socioeconomic/racial power difference between the two men.

Harry’s a basically good man, so he doesn’t abuse his power. But as landlord, he has responsibilities—for one thing, to provide a warm, decent place for his tenants. And he has let some things go (who among us doesn’t?), and now he’s going to have to pay for it—financially as well as emotionally. Curtis, of course, is no push over. He can dish it out, and he does.

So the night in the basement offered a wonderful opportunity for a power seesaw and a “teach-in on race,” as Harry calls it--two men, cold and uncomfortable and slightly inebriated, letting it all hang out. I say “letting it all hang out,” but these two men have good inner controls, so it never gets to violence, boils over or explodes. I knew I could rely on them for that.

By a lucky chance, while I was writing this scene, my husband and I went to a jazz concert at Chicago’s Symphony Center, and a musician named James Moody* told the zebra joke from the stage. Symphony Center is a huge auditorium, and hundreds of people (black and white) burst into uproarious laughter. I was pretty sure right then that I wanted to use that joke in my book. Of course, that became a bit of a research project too, trying to determine if someone held the copyright to the joke, whether I had to get permission to reprint. (*Note from the Mom: Sadly, James Moody died last week, December 9, 2010 the Sisters play the flute and will enjoy learning more about this talented soul.)

Books for Walls Project asked:
Do you have any favorite stories from your work life?
Two stories: one from my work as an editor and one from my work as a writer.
1. Years ago, when I was working as an editor for a scholarly journal, I edited a long, complicated article by an author named Richard something (can’t remember the last name). The people who wrote articles for this journal were all big-deal college professors and generally pretty intimidating, as were the higher-ups in this organization I worked in. At any rate, when Richard and I were at the tail end of editing his article, he had to leave the country for a conference or something. He wrote me a note saying, “Use your judgment in finishing this. I trust you completely.” One day, the man who was in charge of the journal (let’s call him X; another intimidating character) came into my office all in a huff because he had heard that Richard had left the country with the article still unfinished. I showed him the note, and he said, “Cranky Dick wrote that??!!!???” After that, X seemed to have a lot more respect for me.
2. Last March, I did a reading at Marygrove College in Detroit. Afterward, my husband was standing in the crowd, and he heard a woman say that she came to hear me because the week before, her minister had been reading from my book from the pulpit, and she got interested. My husband turned to her and said, “You should tell Susan that. I know she’d love to hear.” But the woman said, no, she didn’t feel comfortable talking to authors. My husband encouraged her, and in the course of the evening, she did come up and tell me. This made me so happy, to think of my book having a life out there all on its own, and being honored in this way. And also, there was the serendipity, that I might not have even known if my husband hadn’t heard or the woman had been too shy to speak up.

Have you taken a BFWP Challenge? If yes, do you have a favorite?
I have taken several BFWP challenges: What are you reading right now? What is your favorite library? Literary sidekicks. My favorite one, weirdly enough, is one I haven’t taken yet. The one that asks about the first and last lines of a book. I keep wanting to do that one, as I think it would be so interesting to look at a book in that way, but somehow I have not yet gotten around to it.

The Four of Us give grateful thanks to Susan, the writer, and Susan, the woman. We feel honored that she shared so much of her time, and so many of her words, with us!


  1. I'm "The Poet" and most grateful to know how metaphoric and multi-layered the boiler room scene was to Susan Messer. I enjoyed the UofM audio interview, and want her to know that whwen I finished her book, my response was precisely the same as Dan Holohan's: I held it to my chest, wrapped both my hands around it, and wept in the mystery of it, and how it KNEW me even as it reminded me of who I'd forgotten myself to be.

  2. Thank you SO MUCH Susan, for taking the time (so precious!) to answer so many wonderful questions & also, for being a part of our wonderful little community! I love the Books for Walls Project more & more every time I visit! Way to go "The Four of Us" & the gang! Woo-hoo!

  3. My 87 year old dad, a retired Detroit fire fighter is reading Grand River and Joy now. He asked, "is this a novel or is it a true story?" The scenes are so true to the Detroit I grew up in, with one of my favorite being the police arriving at the scene of the graffiti. It helps to understand why a whole group of people reached their boiling points. (Have to wonder if the boiler problems wee metaphorical)
    Glad this got done today. I will take it to book club tonight.

  4. The Librarian9:41 PM

    What rich answers!

  5. (aka The Bean) Thank you, Susan for the gift of your writing and now, for your interview insights! What a great visionary work about a tough time in Detroit‘s history. I lived in Detroit at that time … thankfully, people like Harry and Curtis were there as well and we all grew despite the racial animosity and deep-seated hurt surrounding us.
    As Alexander Pope said, “Hope springs eternal”.

  6. Richard Newman7:25 AM

    I have the great good fortune to be in a book group with Susan, and my life has been greatly enriched as a result. But she seems to have shared more about herself with you than she has in the our book group. Thank you for doing this interview. And thank you, Susan, for telling me about it.

  7. Hi, commenters. John, Jenn, Maureen, Librarian, Kathy. Thanks so much for reading and for your interest in me and my book. It was a pleasure to be part of this and to cross paths with each of you.

    I'm in a great book group with Richard, and he has chosen some truly memorable novels for us to read. But we usually spend our time together talking about the books, not ourselves. I'm sure there's plenty I don't know about him.

  8. Mike Baron11:35 AM

    Great interview, great questions, great answers. I'm in a book club with Susan, too, and she's as interesting and insightful there as she is in this interview. Long live great writers and readers!