Author Interview: Christopher Hebert
The author of Angels of Detroit on propulsion, polyphony, and the fifteen years spent working on this book
Christopher Hebert’s second novel, Angels of Detroit, is “a kaleidoscopic novel of an iconic American city, of abandonment, hope, violence, and resilience — and of lives intersecting on the city’s margins.” I read the book in a frenzy, the alchemical combination of Hebert’s propulsive prose and his incredible cast of characters keeping me up far past my bedtime. I wasn’t the only one instantly enamored — and ultimately convinced — by this rendering of the city and its inhabitants. “Hebert gets Detroit right,” says National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon. “His careful drawing of its physical catastrophe locates the city at the exact boundary between gritty-real and surreal, between last hope and post-apocalyptic nightmare.”
I spoke with Christopher about making characters move, the benefits of many voices, and how this story took fifteen years to tell. He reads at Literati with Leaving Orbit author Margaret Lazarus Dean on Monday, September 26th at 7pm.
Q: Someone — James Wood, maybe? — has made the distinction between a beginning writer, who tends to describe things in stasis, and a more mature writer, who knows that things (and people) are much more interesting when they move. Angels of Detroit begins with literal movement, its first few pages nearly addictive in their propulsion. And a lot of travel happens in the pages that follow: we readers rarely get to skip from one setting to the next, and instead have to take the car ride or bus ride or long walks alongside your characters. Why so much motion in a novel that’s largely set in one titular place? And why linger in these moments of travel?
For me, physical space is one of the intriguing elements of the world I’m writing about. Detroit, for anyone who’s been there, is anything but a neutral environment. But it’s often discussed monolithically. Or abstractly. Part of what motivated me was a desire to personalize the city, to humanize it. I wanted to step back from Detroit-the-social-problem or Detroit-the-cautionary-tale. I wanted to make it concrete. For me that meant being aware of the relationships lots of different characters have with the physical space of the city. In those first pages, a stranger is arriving there for the first time, and I tried there to capture that feeling — the overwhelming sense of how disorienting it is for him. But other characters, having lived there their whole lives, naturally take it more for granted. And they notice different things. Dobbs — the newly arrived stranger — is constantly trying to reckon with the city on a large scale. Whereas Clementine, the little girl who’s lived there her whole life, cares just about her neighborhood. Her great-grandmother, Constance, cares about her garden.
It’s also the case, though, that the environment of the city is a basic source of conflict for a lot of people. Negotiating that environment, especially if you’re poor, isn’t easy.
Q: Angels of Detroit has an ensemble cast; one of the incredible pleasures of reading was how immediately distinctive each character is, how necessary every one of them feels. It’s a pleasure that reminded me of reading Jennifer Haigh’s latest novel, Heat & Light, which also employs about a dozen point-of-view characters in an attempt to tell the story of a very particular place (in her case, a fracking-fraught Pennsylvania town). Is there a particular virtue, do you think, in using a multitude of voices when writing about a place? What were the challenges of balancing so many inner lives and driving needs?
I definitely think polyphony lends itself to capturing something of the feel of a place. And I wish I could say I was aware of that going in. It seems obvious now, but this book came together in a (sometimes painfully) organic way. I felt my way through it. One character led me to another, and from there to another, and for a long time that felt like an unsolvable narrative problem. In one chapter I’d be following a bunch of activists, and next thing I knew I’d be inhabiting the target of their activism. Not just that, I found myself empathizing with all of them, even when they were totally at odds with one another. The challenge was understanding why I had all these distinct voices and what I was supposed to do with them. And it turns out to be an incredible narrative challenge to advance connected storylines when you’re constantly shifting from one perspective to another. Because I didn’t want this to be just a collection of character studies. I wanted these distinct conflicts to accrue and gather momentum. Eventually I discovered that these many points of view weren’t just a means to an end. For me, perspective and misunderstanding and the struggle for empathy came to form the heart of the novel. Ruth Freeman, the exec who grew up in the city in the 50s and 60s, goes so far as to blame her community’s failure to see beyond their own privilege as part the tragedy of what happened to Detroit.
Q: You began this novel, in an earlier form, when you were a student at the University of Michigan’s MFA program in Ann Arbor. In the intervening years, you moved away from Michigan: how did that geographical distance affect your feelings about and writing towards Detroit? Did you feel like Joyce in Paris, only able to write about Dublin once he’d gotten away from it? Or did you ever fear that the impetus to tell this story might lessen with time and distance?
What’s amazing is that over the course of the fifteen years I spent working on this book, the story never threatened to lose its impetus. I lost my way a few times, but I never lost my sense that this was something I needed to write.
Although I didn’t finish the book until after I’d moved away, I was still in Michigan for the majority of the years I was working on it. But it’s absolutely true that the way my relationship to the city changed over time had a big effect on the book. I started writing more or less the moment I arrived, when Detroit was still new and disorienting to me. And over time I came to know the place a lot more intimately, and through research and because of my day job (after graduation I became a book editor working on a lot of books about Detroit), it became a place I understood with a lot more complexity. And then, once I left, nostalgia become a part of it. As far as the actual writing went, though, distance from the manuscript was more important than distance from the city itself. You can only work on something for so long before you start to lose perspective. There were stretches when I hit walls and needed to set it aside. I spent that time writing another book, which turned out to be my first novel. That was a very different, more conventional project. Writing it helped me understand Angels of Detroit better, that it was a book with its own very distinctive vision.
Q: Are there authors or books or other works of art that served as this book’s patron saints (or angels, of course!)? Were you responding or reacting or trying to converse with any other works in particular (or perhaps, any portraits of Detroit in general)?
There have been a lot, and a lot of very different ones. I suppose that’s inevitable when you have something that comes together over the course of so many years. There are some clear tributes in it, in particular to writers who influenced me when I was first starting out. You mentioned Joyce. There’s also some Gaddis in there, a clear shout-out to David Markson. In the shifting of perspectives I see a lot of Virginia Woolf, especially The Waves, a book I discovered in high school that was probably the first to blow my mind and really make me want to become a writer. Coetzee is a writer who’s been important to me in the oblique tackling of political material. Franzen’s first book, The Twenty-Seventh City, a novel about St. Louis, stood out early on as something driven by similar questions as mine. But in terms of dialogue and conversation: Joyce Carol Oates’s Them. I’ve often felt (or hoped, I should say) that mine might be a kind of bookend to hers. Them is a vast, densely brilliant canvas of life on the margins in Detroit during the boom years, leading to the riots. I was interested in picking up the story from there. But JCO is a tough act to follow.
Q: What’s next? In your writing life, on your reading list?
I’m working on a new novel, something very different from either of my first two books. I’m aiming for something lighter and hopefully shorter, maybe even a little autobiographical. We’ll see how it goes.
And I can’t wait to get my hands on Peter Ho Davies’s new book, The Fortunes.