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Midwestern Gothic staffer Henry Milek talked with author Michael Zadoorian about his book Beautiful Music, music, alternative mediums, & more.
Henry Milek: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Michael Zadoorian: I’ve lived in Michigan all my life. I am a Midwesterner.
HM: As a lifelong resident of Detroit, what would you say makes Detroit unique among American cities, and how has this influenced your writing?
MZ: Detroit is an enormous part of who I am as a person and a writer. I grew up in the city, got both my degrees at Wayne State University in Detroit, met my wife here, lived my life here, so it’s deeply ingrained in me. It’s home. I love it here and don’t want to live anywhere else. There’s a determination and spirit that Detroiters possess that you won’t find anywhere else. There’s something about being from a place like this that inspires creativity. Part of that is because of Detroit’s many troubles, from being a place that felt abandoned and broken, that the rest of the country mocked and derided. You worry less about “making it” here. You just want to make something.
HM: Detroit has a tumultuous history over the last century or so, from the automobile boom to the Civil Rights movement to the economic collapse. How would you say this history has influenced Detroit’s sense of identity – particularly in the arts? Why is it important for Detroit artists to tell stories of the city from their own perspectives?
MZ: Being from a place like Detroit affects you because the city has been on a fairly downward spiral for the past 50+ years or so. And in the last 20 or so, we’ve pretty much been a joke to the rest of America. Not long ago, if you told someone that you were from Detroit, you’d either get a look of pity or they’d expect you to pull a gun on them. Pathos or badass, that’s all we’d get. We were perceived to be a desolate, abandoned place, a broken city. And in many ways, we were. How can that not affect what you create?
That said, I think there’s definitely a Detroit aesthetic. I see it in the writing, the music, the art, everywhere. Living around here, you gain an appreciation for the imperfect, the forgotten, the broken, the abandoned, and it imbues your work. Artists from around here often find beauty in things that others may not find beautiful.
Detroit is very much a character in Beautiful Music since it is set in the years following all its violence and social unrest of the ’67 Rebellion. I have memories of that time. I was a child, so it was scary, though I’m not entirely sure I completely understood what was going on at the time. I don’t think my mother and father were letting me watch much of the coverage on TV. But I do remember seeing towers of smoke rising into the sky from all the fires. The air in my neighborhood was hazy and there were the cinders falling from the sky. There were constant sirens from police cars racing down Fenkell Road, not to mention the rumble of tanks or other military vehicles. We were lucky not to be in the middle of it, but still, it was chilling.
At a certain point, it was inevitable that all the racial tensions would be a big part of the book. That’s when it started to feel like it was coming together. The ’67 Rebellion casts a long shadow over this book. There is lingering evidence of the damage and after-effects on the city and the characters throughout.
HM: Your new novel Beautiful Music takes place in the Detroit in the early ‘70s. What was your thinking in writing in this setting? What attracted you about writing on the ‘70s?
MZ: One reason is that it was the 70’s when I came of age and I think in some ways, I wanted to do some detective work on my own past. Writing a coming-of-age story is certainly an excuse to look at one’s early life as a way to figure out how you arrived at your version of adulthood. When I started making notes for the book, as I was writing out all this high school stuff, I kept thinking: “What am I doing? Am I writing a YA book?” I have nothing against YA, but it was nothing I ever set out to do as a writer. Still, I decided not to worry about any of that and just to see where it would take me. I see now that I was kind of uncoiling my own past.
Also I wanted to write something about music. It’s not a very literary thing to say, but I kind of wanted to write my own version of the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous. I really love that film. I certainly didn’t want to copy it, but I knew there was a story of my own in that era that I wanted to find. I just kept thinking about rock music: all the joy it gave me in my teenage years and how it helped create my identity. I wanted to think about the music that my later adult self was sort of embarrassed for liking – Foghat, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath.
HM: How did you approach writing a story that takes place in this period? What kind of research was involved in crafting an authentic recreation of the era?
MZ: I started by just writing things down, anything I could remember. There’s usually a reason why you remember something from decades ago. It made an impression on you in some way.
I’m also a bit of a pack rat, so I was able to look through a lot of the actual magazines and books I was reading at the time. I also did research, but it was kind of arcane research: I listened to the music I liked at the time, looked through yearbooks from that era, listened to voice checks of the disc jockeys of the time, scanned through 1970s Detroit newspapers on microfiche to find small, but exact things that were going on during the time frame of the book. I went to the main branch of Detroit Public Library and checked the 1970’s city directories of the area where I grew up in northwest Detroit. (It’s also Danny’s neighborhood). That sort of thing. During research, I certainly write many things down, but I also just try to absorb details. Not too difficult because all of this was very interesting to me. As I said before, it was like doing detective work on my own past.
In any case, details are important to me. I like to put in a lot of them, but I want them to feel natural and not obvious or crammed in. Still, details are one of my very favorite parts of writing a novel. I get to choose a world, and then I get to furnish it.
HM: Music plays a large role in the story, as it becomes a means by which protagonist Danny copes with the difficult world around him. What does this say about the importance of music – or art overall – in giving one a sense of fulfillment?
MZ: The book is absolutely a paean to music and its transformative power. Music pretty much changes everything about Danny in the course of the book. After Danny discovers rock, it becomes so important to him that he filters his entire world through it.
In the book, he talks about something he calls “The Fade,” which he experiences while listening to a song he loves, over and over again. After each listen, as the song fades out, he notices his joy slowly start to wane. He knows that he will never hear the song again with the same pleasure that he had listening to it for the first time. Eventually, “The Fade” becomes a kind of metaphor for his sadness. When something goes wrong, when he’s scared, when the world beats him up or bullies him, he feels “The Fade” crashing down on him. So music becomes a way for him to interpret his own pain.
While music is certainly his safe place, it also becomes a source of power for him. Music makes him believe in himself. It helps him take his first shaky steps toward being his own man, regardless of the obstacles in his path, be they absent father, unstable mother, bully or bigot.
That’s what I wanted to write about in this book: music as refuge in a hostile world. That special, secret hiding place inside the LP or 8 track or mixtape or CD or iPod or wherever, that place where you can seek refuge when nothing else seems to make sense. For Danny, it’s rock and roll. But it’s the same way for every generation of young person, whether they’re listening to doo-wop, acid rock, gangsta rap, death-metal or EDM. The melody changes, but the song remains the same.
MG: As a music lover, to what extent does music influence your writing process? Do you listen to music while you write, or is it more of an indirect influence on your process? Which musical artists would you say have been the most influential on your work and why?
MZ: I am a music lover. It’s always been a big part of my life. Like with the character of Danny, music for me was transformative. It changed me enormously and helped me to figure out who I was and how I felt about things. It changed me intellectually. (Which is kind of the opposite of what rock and roll is supposed to do.) Through music magazines, I discovered writers that I still love to this day – Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, Lester Bangs, and a lot of others.
I can’t really listen to music while I write, but as I was writing Beautiful Music, I found myself often going over to my turntable to put on an old record just to remember what that felt like. I thought a lot about vinyl when I was writing the book. The whole ritual of it – of going to a store (Korvettes, in Danny’s case), looking at albums, choosing one, then buying it and taking it home. All the while, your anticipation is building. Everything you do is working toward that moment when you sit down with a turntable in front of you. That moment when you slit the cellophane on the LP, carefully pull the disc out to place it on the player, then lower the tone arm on to the vinyl.
There’s a moment where Danny, as he listens to an album over his earphones, is just staring at the center label of the record as it is spinning around and around, almost putting him in a trance. That’s another part of the ritual, completely immersing oneself in the music. It’s hard to do nowadays. We tend to multi-task as we listen to our music now.
Rock and Roll certainly influenced me, perhaps not so much in the way I write, but in the spirit of what and how I write. It probably taught me about letting go, and letting what you’re working on take you away, and perhaps to not think so much. If something feels right, it’s probably right. I think rock music is more about instinct than intellect.
I think the musical artists that influenced me most as a writer are probably jazz musicians. Not that there’s some sort of jazziness to my style of writing. I write in a fairly clear, straightforward way, but I had to arrive there through years of work. I do strive for a kind of intentionally canted quality to my work, like you might feel when you listen to Thelonious Monk. If I could write the way Monk plays, I would be happy. For me, it’s that detail or moment in a story that makes everything unsettled, slightly crooked. The note that feels wrong, but is actually right.
HM: Why is it important for writers to take influence from other mediums, such as music or film? Are there particular insights to writing that you feel you’ve gained by taking in alternative mediums?
MZ: I think it’s important to look to other mediums. I learn about writing from music and films, but other places as well. The way a good comedian crafts a joke is extremely interesting to me. I’ll listen to comedy podcasts and hear the way comedians talk about writing comedy and how just altering a word or two can change everything about how a joke goes over. The power of silence, the well-placed glance, the tag at the end. Sometimes it’s about knowing when to stop and when to let the audience fill in what happens next.
HM: Your last novel, The Leisure Seeker, was recently made into a film. What was that like, both the process of how the book became a film and the experience of seeing your work play out on the big screen?
MZ: The best word I can come up with for the experience is surreal. It was something I never expected to have happen. I was amazed when it became a book, so for it to end up as a film, was simply beyond the ken. It’s always been so difficult to just get a book published, so to even expect anything like that to happen was just plain surreal.
As for the film itself, I don’t think it’s surprising when an author wishes that some things hadn’t been changed or added. For instance, in the film, the characters of John and Ella are from the Boston area. I really wish they had remained from Detroit because the Midwest is terribly underrepresented in films. In American films, it seems like most characters are either from New York/Boston or Los Angeles, instead of the so-called “flyover” states.
And when I first read the script, I seriously wondered why there was political content in the film. I think they took a story that could have felt timeless and universal and made it strangely specific by placing it in the middle of the most contentious election in American history. It seemed completely unnecessary. The critics agreed.
That said, the film looked beautiful and I enjoyed the tone of it. Many critics felt that the film couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be a comedy or a drama, but what was interesting was that no one ever said that about the book. People liked that the book had humor in it. Of course, the performances from Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland were wonderful. Best of all, since it was an Italian production, I don’t think that it ever occurred to the director or the writers or producers to change the ending, which some people found controversial or at least quietly shocking. If an American studio had made a film of The Leisure Seeker, that probably would have been the first thing they discussed: what to do about the ending?
All in all, it was thrilling to see it on screen and best of all, there were twenty new translations of the book, so my work was exposed to many new readers all over the world. Hard to beat that.
HM: What’s next for you?
MZ: I just sent my new novel to my agent for him to read. So it’s that nervous period of waiting to see what he thinks. There were nine years between my first and second novel, then another nine years between my second and third, so I’m trying very hard not to let that happen again. We’ll see.
Michael Zadoorian is the author of three novels, Beautiful Music (Akashic Books), The Leisure Seeker (William Morrow) and Second Hand (W.W. Norton), and a story collection, The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit (Wayne State University Press). A motion picture of The Leisure Seeker starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland was released in 2018.
Zadoorian is a recipient of a Kresge Artist Fellowship in the Literary Arts, the Columbia University Anahid Literary Award, the Michigan Notable Book award, and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. His work has appeared in The Literary Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, American Short Fiction, Witness, Great Lakes Review, North American Review and the anthologies Bob Seger’s House, On The Clock, and Detroit Noir. He has worked as a copywriter, journalist, voice over talent, shipping room clerk, and a plant guard for Chrysler. A lifetime resident of the Detroit area, he lives with his wife in a 1937 bungalow filled with cats and objects that used to be in the houses of other people.