Q&A with Amy Kenyon, author of Ford Road

by Emily on July 27, 2012

Ford Road, a new Michigan-based novel by historian Amy Kenyon, tells the story of Kay Seger, a historical consultant to a Los Angeles film company who abandons her career to return to her childhood home in Michigan after the death of her mother. There, Kay rekindles a teenage love affair with Joe Chase, now a Vietnam War veteran and Ford auto worker, and begins an investigation of her family’s past that transports readers to Detroit at the dawn of the automotive age and Michigan’s rural western counties after the settlement of the frontier. In this Q&A, Kenyon, who was born in Dearborn, Michigan, and spent her childhood in suburban Detroit, offers insights into her approach to writing the book and how it was inspired by her own family’s history and influenced by her historical work on suburban Detroit.

The University of Michigan Press: Like Ford Road’s main character, Kay, you grew up in suburban Detroit and became a historian. To what extent is Kay based on you?

Amy Kenyon: In a novel so clearly conceived as a kind of love letter to particular times and places from my Michigan past, this question was always going to be asked! It is fair to say that a number of my own preoccupations – my background in urban history and film history, my enthusiasm for the Detroit Tigers, to cite a few examples – have been filtered through Kay, and to a lesser extent through Joe and other characters. At the same time, Kay is crafted. By that I mean she is subject to the shape and substance of the story and its writing – the language and strategies that come into play.

In a wonderful recent essay titled “What is Real is Imagined,” Irish writer Colm Toibin helpfully described the approach he takes in his own fiction, much of which is set in and around the Irish town of Enniscorthy:

“What occurs as I walk in the town now is nothing much….What happens, however, when I remember my mother, wearing a red coat, leaving our house in the town on a morning in the winter of 1968, going to work, walking along John Street…is powerful and compelling. It brings with it a sort of music and a strange need…I don’t know what she thought, of course, so I have to imagine. In doing so, I use certain and uncertain facts, but I add to the person I remember or have invented. Also, I take things away.”

This is a process I recognize, and in writing Ford Road, it was no less true for Kay than for my other characters. And so, although we can say that Kay casts a shadow that is to some extent shaped liked me, she also has a shape and a life force of her own, derived from the writing of the book, the needs of the story and the course of the narrative, its language and tone. Kay is as much a creation as any of the other characters.

UMP: There is a passage in the book in which Kay and Joe talk about their hometown, Garden City. The town is described as “having no center,” and Joe claims that “Most of the people in this town are terrified of strangers, even though they never actually meet any.” Kay goes on to reflect on the fact that no one seems to want to stay in the town, and she notes that “the story of Garden City is inseparable from the story of the automobile.” Can you explain what Kay means by that statement?

AK: In some of these discussions between Joe and Kay, I am giving voice to findings in my historical work on suburban Detroit, how suburbanization was bound up with industry, race, postwar housing practices and forms of segregation found in the urban north. I hand much of the critical voice to Joe who, as an auto worker at the Rouge Plant and a blue collar suburbanite, but one jaded by other experiences in life, is well placed to measure the cost of some of these processes. In a sense, and to those of us who grew up in the region, none of Joe’s comments are entirely surprising.

Yet despite her formal training as a historian, Kay is really quite naïve about these questions.  So when she finally arrives at that statement – that the story of Garden City is inseparable from the story of the automobile – she is drawing on what she has learned from Joe, but also what she has learned as a family historian. Her grandfather was essentially the last Detroiter; her father was a suburban commuter: both father and grandfather worked for Ford, albeit in very different historical moments and capacities. In tracking their stories, and in setting those stories in what she has learned about Ford, Detroit, cars and roads, indeed in Ford Road itself, Kay finally grasps the myriad invisible ways in which these private and public histories have shaped the spaces and lives of virtually everyone who grew up in that area.

It is helpful here to remember that Kay is a historian, but she worked for Hollywood as a historical consultant. This explains some of her naïveté, but also her somewhat obsessive tendency to read history through popular film and song. As a result, she finds it difficult to disentangle the history of the car and the road from their representation on film, and from peculiarly American ideas about home, leaving home, taking to the road, returning home. For example, Kay’s love of the Orson Welles film, The Magnificent Ambersons, comes as no surprise in this context. The film speaks to her own ambivalence about the American Dream, the small town, and the impact of the automobile on our history and culture.

In Kay’s mind, all of these elements – Joe’s critical commentaries, Ford history, her family history in relation to Detroit and its suburbs; then road movies and movies about home – all of these come to litter the historical highway that is Ford Road.

UMP: As Kay investigates her family’s past, scenes that take place in Detroit at the dawn of the automotive age and in Michigan’s western counties after the settlement of the frontier come to life. How did you research these settings?

AK: A number of scenes – for example, the route from New York to western Michigan followed by Alonzo Shaw in the 1830s, the story of Shaw farm on the Michigan frontier, recollections of baseball in Detroit and the corner that would eventually become Tiger Stadium, the introduction of the moving assembly line at Ford, Detroit’s first auto fatality, and many others – required the time to visit particular locations that provide settings for the novel, as well as a fair amount of reading and research, and finally, approaches to other historians, all of which I have documented in the Acknowledgments.

At the same time, I was acutely aware that I was writing fiction and that I needed to silence the historian in me – that little voice that worries about sources, documentation, quoting and referencing. As a first time novelist, this was perhaps the hardest task initially, but also a pleasurable one, to free myself of the rules of academic writing in order to let the story and the characters carry history as lightly as possible. When I look at particular chapters, I may know that weeks of digging went into the production of a few short passages. But I hope I judged well enough when to let things go, let historical fact be embedded in the story but not directly evident, so that the reader does not feel the burden of my research.

Finally, I was lucky in having friends and family members who generously shared memories and stories. For example, my father told me a great deal about the terms of the GI Bill, buying his first home in the 1950s, and a number of other topics. A childhood friend shared his memories of coming home after Vietnam. These are great gifts to any writer of historical fiction.

UMP: As she delves into her family’s past, Kay stumbles across the lost history of nostalgia. What surprised you the most as you investigated this subject? How much of what you write about nostalgia in the book is real, and what is fiction?

AK: Before I started the book, I did not know about Johannes Hofer, the Swiss physician who coined the term nostalgia in 1688, or his description of it as an organic disease characterized by a “sad mood originating from the desire to return to one’s native land.” Nor did I know much about the subsequent history of nostalgia as it gradually morphed from medical ailment to our current views of it as a kind of bittersweet, personal experience or as a cultural condition.

I found this material absolutely compelling, particularly in light of the fact that nowadays we often think of nostalgia in negative terms, as an experience of memory that is backward looking and unproductive.  I wanted to see if I could draw upon this history to restore something, however small, of the positive potential in nostalgia, its connection to how we grieve and remember, but also how we use memory, loss, and the past to move forward. By creating my fictional Dr. Thisroy, his writings and his somewhat eccentric attempts to resurrect nostalgia as a disease, I was asking whether nostalgia might still be part of a positive and therapeutic engagement between past and present.  I don’t think the novel provides a definitive answer, but it fantasizes that possibility.

UMP: In the Acknowledgments, you write that two discoveries relating to your own family’s past led you to write Ford Road. Can you describe how finding out about your great-grandfather’s suicide and your great-grandmother’s disappearance compelled you to write this novel?

AK: I originally set out to write a story loosely based on my grandfather’s early life in Detroit and his move to the rural counties of western Michigan. I had almost no information about his life, but I always thought of him as the “last Detroiter” in the family and that interested me as the basis for a novel. So it was specific places that motivated me at first – not only Detroit, Tiger Stadium, and the Ford plants, but also Middleville, the Thornapple River and western Michigan, the streets and playgrounds of Garden City, and finally, the differences between city, suburb and small town – and that is why Ford Road remains, in many respects, primarily a novel about place or what some might call a “regional novel.”

Much of my writing constitutes an attempt to come to terms with this mysterious impact of place, including the absence or erasure of place, on our sense of who we are. In the case of Detroit, I never lived there; as a child, I lived in Garden City, a suburb that had implications for the history of Detroit. There remains much that I don’t know about Detroit, and for me, some sense of loss. This may explain why I can’t seem to stop reading and writing about it, along with a number of other Michigan locations. The fact that I now live in London, an ocean and culture away, probably only serves to heighten these preoccupations.

But it is also true that my attraction to these places came from earlier family history searches – first into my grandfather’s life, but then into the preceding generation with these two mysteries: a suicide on the Detroit side of the family, and a missing unwed mother on the other side of the family and the other side of the state.

I was clear from the start that the real fate of Allie Green, the missing woman, would probably never be known. I was equally clear that any attempt to explain a suicide is fraught with peril, and certainly, in the case of my great-grandfather, no evidence existed to shed light on this event. So in a sense, the novel was created out of my frustration with family history – with the awareness that however hard we search, it remains difficult to get inside the minds of our ancestors, to truly understand their feelings and motivations, how they experienced on a cognitive and emotional level, the times and places in which they lived.  Therefore, I felt that the best way to honor them, and these two particular histories, was to liberate myself from the few facts I possessed in order create characters and stories that any reader might recognize and care about.

Virginia Woolf once remarked that where the truth is important, she preferred to write fiction.  I wrote in that spirit, in the belief that fiction can deliver something of the truth of our ordinary lives, of how quiet lives conceal tragedies, lonely struggles, painful decisions and loving sacrifices, and sometimes inexplicable acts.


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