No heroics, please

Feb 18, 2009 at 12:00 am

It's a damn-near-balmy Thursday night (for February, in Detroit), and 50 or so folks have gathered at Oak Park's Book Beat. They're seated on folding chairs before a lanky, bespectacled, clean-headed, soft-spoken dude in an Army surplus jacket and jeans who's suddenly been transformed into an elderly woman whipping her wig out the window from a moving RV. An accordion accompanies his words, keying in on the word "tumbleweed" and complementing it with its aural equivalent. The man is Detroit writer Michael Zadoorian, a mild-mannered advertising copywriter by day. The accordion accompaniment is provided by his pal, Grammy Award-winning songwriter and keyboardist Luis Resto. Zadoorian's reading from his recently released second novel, The Leisure Seeker. It has been nine years since his first critically acclaimed novel, Second Hand — a tale of Richard, a garage- and estate-sale hound finding complicated love and loss with animal rescue worker Theresa — earned praise from no less than The New York Times and even piqued screenplay interest. This gathering has been a long time coming, and the assembled couldn't be more rapt as Zadoorian reads in the voice of his narrator, Ella Robinas, and her husband John. At turns laugh-out-loud funny and able to induce a meditative hush, this feels as intimate as a reading should; that's to say homegrown and familial, like a hometown coming-out party. Later, the book-signing line will stretch from the back of the store to nearly its front door.

As it turns out, it's not just hometowners queuing up to read this story, either. Zadoorian's gotten solid critical marks including a USA Today notice that tipped Hollywood that this might make a moving film too. In fact, Hollywood Reporter just reported that Swedish filmmaker Jens Jonsson's in the mix to helm a film adaptation with the same production company that shepherded Boys Don't Cry. (The news is so new that, at press time, Zadoorian didn't know much about it.) The confluence of story and commerce couldn't be more perfect, in fact, as the novel's Detroit setting dovetails perfectly into the state's sapling but successful efforts to lure filmmaking communities to the Motor City. It'd be a coup for Zadoorian, a writer who has a true love of his hometown (as you'll read) and the kind of 24-7, "why not?" work ethic that has defined Detroit artists from Berry Gordy to Elmore Leonard, Glenn Barr to Eminem.

METRO TIMES: How did you get started down the road to writing? Has it been something you always knew you'd do to try to make art for a living?

MICHAEL ZADOORIAN: I came at it in kind of a half-assed way, actually. I've always envied those writers who knew they wanted to write from the time they were 5 years old. I was most definitely not one of them. It really wasn't until I was into my 20s that I realized that I wanted to write. Raymond Carver's stories really inspired me, like they did a lot of young writers in the '80s. I think he made it look simple. Then, after you dug deeper into his stories, you realized they weren't simple at all, but by that time, you're hooked. I spent a couple of years writing Carver stories instead of Zadoorian stories. Once I shook off Carver's influence, I think I did retain his notion that everyone is worthy of a story. Your characters don't have to live some glamorous life in order to be interesting.

As it turned out, by the time I was writing stories that felt like my stories, I had a career as a copywriter. It's a great way to make a living, but you're still writing what other people want you to write. So for me, fiction was a way to write exactly what I wanted to write.

MT: Second Hand seems like a story that could translate quite well to film. Was there any interest in optioning it? If so, any interesting developments that came of it?

ZADOORIAN: Yes, some other people thought it might make a good film as well. And I actually wrote a script for it. Nothing's happened so far, but you never know. Either way, it was fun to do and a good exercise that helped me to understand that craft a little better.

One strange thing that happened as a result of Second Hand was that I was contacted by a very well-known video director who had read and loved the book. He wanted me to write a script for a feature film project of his that was completely unrelated to Second Hand. I did one draft of the script, then another. Eventually, it came out that he essentially wanted me to take the character of Theresa, the tortured animal shelter worker from Second Hand, and transplant it into the script I was working on for him. Needless to say, I wasn't so crazy about that idea. He never called back after that. But I got paid for all my work, so that was cool.

MT: How did the process of writing Second Hand — and the experience of having it published, reviewed, received well — impact your approach to your writing?

ZADOORIAN: I thought that getting another novel published would be easier after Second Hand, but it turned out to be just the opposite. The book that I was working on after it never really came to fruition. After a couple of years, people started asking me, "So when's the next book coming out?" What could I say? I didn't have a next book coming out. I had the choice to lie, which is sad and generally a bad idea, or to tell them the truth, which was complicated and depressing for me. I ended up telling them the truth. People kept asking and I kept telling the truth. After a while, I was officially depressed and they just stopped asking. That's how nine years went by between my first and second books. So the difference between a first novel and a second one is this: With the first one, if nobody wants it, you at least fail privately. With a second novel, you get to fail publicly.

MT: Why such a long gap between novels?

ZADOORIAN: A variety of things contributed to the long gap: an abandoned manuscript, agent problems, and a certain amount of time dealing with family stuff, including my father's illness with Alzheimer's.

MT: You've had two well-received novels published by a major house. From the outside, that's success. To some, that's "making it" — and yet you do still keep a day job and you still live in your hometown. What defines success for you? Can you envision a life of writing fulltime? In other words, what's your vision of the life of a successful novelist?

ZADOORIAN: I wish I knew. Maybe then I would know how to act. Even though the advance for The Leisure Seeker was considerably more than for Second Hand, it's still not enough to live out my days in some deluded fantasy of an artistic lifestyle. I'm lucky to have a job (which seems to be the new Detroit mantra). In a lot of ways, it's a really good job. Aside from the pay, it also gives structure to my days. A good friend of mine had the opportunity to quit his job and write full-time. He really missed the social aspect of working, seeing people, eating lunch with others. Writing can often be lonely, so those things start to mean a lot.

In many ways, I'm living like a lot of folks do in the Detroit area. We have day jobs and then we fit in our art, music, writing, etc., whenever we can. It's one of the things that I love about this area. Even the artists have that goddamned Midwestern work ethic. But it doesn't stop them from creating. I think Detroit is bursting with creativity. Glenn Barr told me that he's constantly being asked by people in L.A.: "Why would you live in Detroit?" like it's some sort of leper colony. He always says, "Why the fuck not Detroit?" He likes it here. To paraphrase him, he says the advantage of being from a place where no one expects anything to happen is that you can do want you want and everyone leaves you the hell alone. (Hope I got that right, Glenn.)

It would be great writing fiction full time. I'm just not entirely sure I could do it. At this point, success for me just means seeing if I can do it again and write another book.

MT: You talked about how the genesis for the story that became Leisure Seeker was in a short story. And you have a short story compilation coming out soon [April, actually, called The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, Wayne State University Press —Ed.] too. Is there a theme uniting the stories you've chosen for your collection?

ZADOORIAN: Well, looking over all my work, it would appear that I write a lot about love and death, things forgotten and found again, memory and the eidetic power of photography. And the story collection has a fair number of stories that deal with those very subjects. And with a name like The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, Detroit is certainly one of the themes as well. Almost all the stories take place in this area, except the one called "Mystery Spot" which was the story that was the basis for The Leisure Seeker.

MT: How does your short story work differ from the longer works? And what do each of the forms offer in terms of constraints, opportunities and approach?

ZADOORIAN: Obviously, stories are nowhere near the time commitment of a novel. That's a distinct advantage. The way I work my way into a novel is not a particularly efficient method. I'm not much of an outliner. I really have to write and write to figure out if I'm onto something. If it turns out that I'm not, I've wasted a lot of time, which is pretty awful. With stories, you can finish something in a week or a month and feel good about it. But then you're starting from scratch again and looking for the next idea. For me, that's its own kind of agony. But once you're into a novel and you really feel like it's happening, it's a wonderful feeling. You know you have something to work on for the next day and the next and the next. It's strangely secure for me.

MT: How did the writing of this novel differ from Second Hand? I don't want to assume too much, and correct me if I'm wrong, but was Junk, the protagonist in Second Hand closer to your life stage, closer to you? Whereas Ella, the narrator here, is an elderly woman.

ZADOORIAN: Absolutely. Richard (Junk) was a man in his 30s and I was at least in my 30s when I started the book. Writing The Leisure Seeker with Ella, a woman in her 80s, as the narrator wasn't some big intentional plan or statement. It just felt right.

MT: Who did you talk to, interview or otherwise involve in getting inside the minds and hearts of two elderly blue-collar Detroiters?

ZADOORIAN: I'm at a time of my life where a lot of my friends are in the middle of parental issues, so I certainly did talk to people about their mothers and fathers. And that definitely helped. But for the most part, let's just say that through my whole life, as a child and as an adult, I always listened to my mother. She really inspired a lot of Ella's character. Of course, as you get farther into a book, the characters take on their own histories and personalities, so everything evolves. That certainly happened with these two characters.

MT: Ella's voice is a really spry mix of language. Like she's trying on new phrases while sticking to her old standbys. How did you approach crafting her vocabulary?

ZADOORIAN: I love strange and arcane language. Second Hand is filled with it, but much of it is used in an ironic manner. The Leisure Seeker has a lot of it as well, but used in a completely unironic way. It's simply the way these characters talk, strange little expressions left over from the '30s and '40s and '50s. A friend of mine used to keep a list of her mother's favorite expressions. She and I would compare notes. She did have a few that I hadn't heard of (which I promptly lifted for the book), but, for the most part, it turned out that our mothers used a lot of similar slang. To me, the challenge is always to make it sound natural and work within the rhythms of the writing.

MT: I've read quotes from some authors — one from Jim Harrrison stands out in my mind — about the difficulty in shaking characters once they've become such a big part of your imagination and mental landscape. Did you have that experience? It would seem that once you got into the head of two people who are so different from you in age, gender, life stage, you'd want to hold on as long as you can. What was your experience with these characters, and letting them go?

ZADOORIAN: Once you do get deeply into your characters, they do become hard to shake, I suppose. Still, I love that feeling of emerging from a good morning of writing, of shaking off the characters. It's a very satisfied feeling, kind of euphoric. Maybe it's because the characters of John and Ella were influenced by my parents, but writing those two felt very natural to me. I do know that sometimes writers miss their characters after a book is finished, but my rewriting process tends to take care of that. After a while, I rewrite so much that I can't stand the sight or sound of them anymore. Actually, I can't stand my writing either. I start to hate everything. And that's how I know I'm done.

MT: The Leisure Seeker uses Route 66 as a backdrop to the couple's travels. What kind of travel did you do to get into the mode for this novel? And what surprised you about the road that you maybe weren't expecting?

ZADOORIAN: I actually wrote a couple of drafts of the book before taking the trip. There's so much written about Route 66 — guidebooks, turn-by-turn directions, history, folklore — not to mention endless photo books and websites of other peoples' journeys, it was not that difficult to piece together a credible journey. But at a certain point, I knew that I would have to take the trip. It worked out well, since my wife and I had meant to travel Route 66 for many years. Here was the perfect excuse. It was a fantastic trip too. Certainly full of the ruins of an America which no longer exists, but there was also so much that hadn't changed. Landscapes, skies, the air, the look and feel of the earth. And of course, much of the crazy tourist stuff. Afterward, I felt like we had a true American adventure.

MT: Which, if any, of your own travel experiences particularly inform the narrative?

ZADOORIAN: Landmarks, odd little exchanges with strangers, the food, but, more than anything, I decided that all the giant roadside icons that we encountered along the way were something that needed to be turned up thematically in the book. Everywhere you go on Route 66 you run into something big — a giant spaceman, a huge dinosaur, a jumbo chicken or cow, the Cadillac Ranch, the Big Texan Steak Ranch. These are things that will not be ignored, which is why they are there along the road. It occurred to me that there were some issues that the characters were dealing with, their illnesses, certainly, and their ultimate fates, that were in some way like those colossi. They were there and would not be ignored, as hard as Ella might try.

MT: Did the characters come to you first or the notion of a road trip? Or did they emerge fully formed as a dynamic duo?

ZADOORIAN: I started writing the book shortly after my father died in 2004 and needed to write something. I turned to a short story I had written a few years back, called "Mystery Spot," about an older couple on a road trip, who get a glimpse of their not-so-distant future at a cheesy roadside attraction. I just started there. It wasn't long before I realized that, in many ways, I was writing about what my family had just been through with my father and his Alzheimer's. The idea of Route 66 came after. It was later that I realized that it was the perfect road for these two to travel — fading, falling apart, but still full of history and memories.

MT: How on earth do you balance a gig copywriting with the sort of dedication that a novel demands? What kind of a writing ritual do you keep?

ZADOORIAN: I am very lucky to have a part-time job at Campbell-Ewald Advertising in Warren. I've been doing it for a long time now. I come to work in the afternoons, so I have my mornings to write fiction. It works pretty well for me. I'm usually at my desk by 7:30 or 8 a.m., then I write until I have to go to work.

MT: There are many reveries in the book about Detroit "back in the day," as it were, and Route 66 is portrayed as a metaphor for what was in the same way. What connection did you see that made pairing these two make sense?

ZADOORIAN: I certainly wanted Detroit to be part of the book because it is so large in the histories of John and Ella, but I guess I didn't look so much for Route 66-Detroit connections. It just worked out that way. But Route 66 is interesting and evocative for many of the same reasons why Detroit is. You can see both what was once there and what it has become. While Detroit and Route 66 are both often amazing and vital, there are a lot of ruins. Still, you can discern and feel the history amid the ruins. There's always something interesting about faded glory.

MT: Your two novels both trace themes of the forgotten, overlooked or neglected parts of, not just pop culture, but people, technologies (the slide projector here, in particular) and (in Second Hand) animals. Why, if I'm characterizing it correctly, is this an important theme for you?

ZADOORIAN: I think it does have something to do with living in the Detroit area all my life. None of us are happy about it, but as people who live here, we are somewhat overlooked and neglected in the eyes of the rest of the country. So as an artist, living in the Detroit area, you gain an appreciation for the imperfect, the forgotten, the broken, the abandoned, and it imbues your work. Though it's probably the obvious choice, the Heidelberg Project is the perfect example of this. Sorry to quote myself here, but I did say it in Second Hand that it's good to love that which seems to have no worth. We create our own value, our own beauty. We find it wherever we find it. And that's OK.

See Also
Book Review: The Leisure Seeker
Road tripping seniors in a tale worth reading

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]