Detroit Author Explores Mich. Literary Giants You've Read -- Or Should

April 21, 2015, 6:18 AM by  Alan Stamm

First of two parts. An excerpt from the new book and the author's reading suggestions is here.

Writing about distinctive Michigan storytellers is a project so custom-tailored for Anna Clark that she almost seems to regret it's over.


" 'Michigan Literary Luminaries' was created as a labor of love," the Detroiter says of her wide-ranging book, coming out in two weeks. It's a collection of essays developed from original reporting and literary analysis about "fiction writers and poets who explored life in Michigan," the preface explains.   

Clark, a Southwest Michiganian who moved to Detroit in 2007, spent page-turning days and nights revisiting authors she knew well and discovering a few she didn't. "This was my favorite part," she tells Deadline. I could have continued this kind of 'research' indefinitely -- and I suppose I will."

The 160-page book from The History Press is Clark's first as sole author. She assembled and edited last year's "A Detroit Anthology," and is involved with seemingly every major Detroit activity touching on literature, authors and emerging writers.

Yet even a lifelong language lover with two creative writing degrees had a Michigan reading gap, Clark found while exploring "the literary talent that has emerged from Michigan's woods, small towns and grand old cities," as she puts it in an email interview.

"Harriette Simpson Arnow (above) was the only one I had never read before I began writing this book," Anna Clark says, "and I just went head over heels for her."

"Harriette Simpson Arnow was the only one I had never read before I began writing this book, and I just went head over heels for her," she says. Arnow, who lived in Detroit from 1944-50, died at age 77 in 1986.

Her best-known works are "Hunter's Horn," a 1949 best-seller, and "The Dollmaker," a 1955 National Book Award runner-up. Those books "are just riveting," says Clark, who suggests that only a timing fluke blocked Arnow from top prizes: "She had a tendency to publish in the years when Faulkner had a new novel out."

Both acclaimed books "draw from her upbringing in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky," adds the Detroit author. "Arnow first came to Michigan when she worked as a waitress at a resort in Northern Michigan during her college summer vacations. She moved to Detroit in the last year of World War II and eventually settled in Ann Arbor.

"Her writing sits at the point where rural and urban meet. It is brash, big-hearted, searing, utterly original. Joyce Carol Oates called  'The Dollmaker' 'our most unpretentious American masterpiece' -- and I agree." 

Others Clark reports on and assesses include Jim Harrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Elmore Leonard, Robert Hayden, Philip Levine, Donald Goines, Dudley Randall and -- inescapably -- Ernest Hemingway.

"I grew to like Philip Levine a lot more than I did before I wrote this book," the avid reader tells us.

Anna Clark: "It would have been easy for this 'Michigan' book to be entirely about the Detroit area, . . . but that isn't the book I wanted to write."
(Photo by Michelle and Chris Gerard)

Here are highlights from our e-conversation with the Detroit storyteller about Michigan storytellers:

DeadlineHow did you reach beyond the usual suspects to surprise yourself and readers?

Clark: In two key ways. First, it was important to me to not simply string together known facts about all of these writers. I didn't want the book to read like an extended Wikipedia entry. And so original reporting and literary analysis was important to this book. New information and insight, I hope, bring surprises. I certainly navigated unexpected questions along the way:

  • Why, for example, was  Northern Michigan so reluctant to embrace its Hemingway legacy for so many decades?
  • There are haunting parallels in the lives and fiction of Elmore Leonard and Donald Goines: How does one man's story illuminate the story of the other?
  • And, as I ask in the final chapter, how do you build a literary culture?

Deadline: Is “literary” confining or interpreted broadly enough to include middlebrow or "pop" authors such as Loren D. Estleman and William J. Coughlin?  

Clark: I don't discuss those writers in this book, but I did include genre writers like Elmore Leonard and Donald Goines. I pushed up beyond the word limit I was given by the publisher, but God knows there were so many more writers I wish I had space to include.

The most confining element of the book -- if that is the right word -- was not genre, but geography. It was important to me to shine a spotlight on terrific talent who wrote in and from different corners of Michigan. Since it is home to most of the state's population, it would have been easy for this "Michigan" book to be entirely about the Detroit area just by sheer numbers. But that isn't the book I wanted to write. So, geography became more of a tiebreaker than anything else when it came to selecting the writers that are featured.

Deadline: What types of sources and research sites did you use?

Clark: Basically everything I could find in the amount of time I had. I read a lot of fiction and poetry by these writers. I also read terrific nonfiction about these writers. I relied on a lot of top-notch journalism by local and national outlets, oral histories and biographies.

Marygrove College's "Literary Map of Detroit" was helpful. I did do interviews, some original to this book and some that are rooted in reported articles I have done for outlets like the Detroit Free Press, Next City, Model D, The Daily Beast and Publishing Perspectives. Huge gratitude to them for supporting literary journalism. That really laid the groundwork for this book.

DeadlineDid you travel around our pleasant peninsulas?

Clark: I did! Detroit, of course, and Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Petoskey, Traverse City, Horton Bay, my native ground in St. Joseph/Benton Harbor. I only wish I had the time and budget for more travel to more of these communities, and longer stays.

Deadline: Who's a regrettable also-ran not mentioned? 

Clark: If I had room for just a few more chapters, they would have been about Christopher Paul Curtis, Naomi Long Madgett, Pearl Cleage and Toi Derricotte. Maybe another book is in order to give them their full due.

Pre-order 'Michigan Literary Luminaries':

  • Pages Bookshop: $19.99 and $1.20 state tax (free shipping), or pick up after May 4 at 19560 Grand River Ave., Detroit
  • Amazon: $19.99 and shipping
  • Barnes and Noble: $19.99 and $3.99 shipping
  • Rakuten: $12.57 and $2.90 shipping

Part 2: Clark tells why "nearly all [writers in her book] are male and white," even though "that certainly is not a reflection of how talent is distributed among Michigan writers." 

Part of the back cover of "Michigan Literary Luminaries," which comes out May 4 from The History Press.

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Photo Of The Day 

Potd_img_5014-2_630 James J. Brady monument built on June 23rd, 1928 and located on Belle Isle. James J. Brady was the founder of the Old Newsboys Association. The monument was designed by Samuel A. Cashwan and Fred O'Dell.

By: Michael Lucido