Two critically acclaimed novelists speak at March 19 UMP Author Series event

by Heather Newman on March 9, 2010

Good for the Jews Debra Spark set her novel in Madison, Wis. Susan Messer placed hers in downtown Detroit the summer of the 1967 riots. Both make you feel as if you actually stepped into those cities.

And both will be in Ann Arbor on Friday, March 19, from 5-6:30 p.m., as a joint presentation from the University of Michigan Press Author Series and the UM Library Spotlight Series to read from their books and discuss their methods. A book sale/signing and Q&A will follow.

Spark’s book, Good for the Jews, is a funny, sharp story about a Jewish family facing everything from love triangles to Antisemitism in the Midwest. Messer’s book, Grand River and Joy, is about a shopkeeper who must decide whether to stay the course in his racially torn neighborhood or move out to the suburbs. Both were published last year, and both have won critical acclaim.

Grand River and JoySee both authors at the Screening Room on the second floor of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, on the University of Michigan campus. For more information, and directions to the free presentation, visit the Author Series Web site. Tea and coffee will be served.

We asked both writers to give a little insight into their approach to creating a living, breathing setting for their novels.


“A few years back, around 5:30 a.m., I heard an NPR report about Rowan Oak—William Faulkner’s home in Mississippi. What I thought I heard was a quote from Faulkner, along the lines of ‘I wanted to portray my Mississippi world in a way that made it feel like the center of the universe.’

Messer author photo 148x222 “Granted, 5:30 a.m. is 5:30 a.m., so I’m not surprised to now learn that I didn’t get this quite right. In fact, as I just discovered, it wasn’t Faulkner who expressed this idea. It was Richard Howorth—Oxford, Mississippi’s mayor and book store owner—and what he said in the NPR interview was ‘good writers know that no place is really the center of the universe, and every place can be made to seem so.’

“At the time, I was working on my novel about Detroit, a place with a dramatic and troubling story, a place that within a handful of decades went from ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ and ‘Automobile Capital of the World’ to ‘America’s First Third-World City”’–a soulful place where much was grand and much was lost.

“In my fuzzy morning-mind, on hearing the NPR story, I thought, ‘I want to do what “Faulkner” did’—make Detroit the center of the universe.”


“I once heard the novelist Rick Russo say that people were always asking him when he was going to write his Maine novel. At the time, he lived in Maine, but had yet to set any of his novels there. He set most of his work in a fictional version of the upstate New York towns where he grew up.

“Russo said that what people didn’t realize was that when they asked him when he was going to write his Maine novel, they were really asking, ‘When are you going to move?’

Spark_authorphoto_148x203 “He said this, because he’d never (at that time) been able to set anything in the community in which he was living. He said he had to have some distance on a place to be able to write about it. And in fact, he only wrote about the mill towns of Maine, when he moved away from them, to a more affluent coastal community.

“Russo’s words resonated with me, as I’ve never written about the place in which I live. My first two novels were set in the Caribbean and my last in Madison, Wisconsin. I was long gone from all of these places, when I set about writing. The one exception:  I wrote a story about Switzerland, when I was in Switzerland on my honeymoon. But perhaps being on a honeymoon doesn’t count as really being in a place.

“For me, I think the issue is that I need not to fully know a place in order to write about it. I feel constrained by too much knowledge. It’s harder for me to imagine fictional things, when I know that the house I’m imagining doesn’t really exist where I am imagining it, etc. I’d been away from Madison, Wisconsin for twenty years, before I set a novel there.

“Virginia Woolf once said, ‘There must be great freedom from reality.’  And for me, at least in terms of place, that has been true.”

For more information on the Author Series presentation, call 734-615-6477. Admission is free.

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