Tough economy. Dangerous streets. Lousy weather. These are things countless people have listed as reasons why they left Metro Detroit or even Michigan. The tough times that make Detroit the pugnacious town that it is can be enough to make just about any sane person leave. The struggle is sometimes just too much.
But that struggle is a main reason why southeast Michigan is such a fertile ground for artists, especially established and aspiring writers. It provides more than enough material to write about or at least draw ideas from.
"It's great. It's absolutely great," says Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice, a novel about the race, riots and murder in Roaring 20s Detroit. "I think good writing comes out of difficult circumstances. Detroit is a hardscrabble town. It has an edge to it. I think the best writing, and art in general, comes from places with hard edges."
It makes sense. Metro Detroit lays claim to a large variety of world-renowned artists that are giants in genres ranging from painting to music to performance. Many of them draw on their experiences coming up in southeast Michigan for their art. The obvious example is Eminem in the movie "8 Mile" and his music. But there are others, like film director Mike Binder whose films Crossing The Bridge (as in the Ambassador) and The Upside Of Anger which was set in Birmingham.
The written word is no exception. The hard streets of Detroit served as key sources of inspiration for the likes of Elmore Leonard and Loren Estleman. If the Motor City hadn't been earning its Murder City moniker, there wouldn't be Leonard's world famous descriptions of Detroit or Estleman's private investigator Amos Walker.
"These challenges are all things that affect our work," Estleman says. "It also enriches our work."
Up and coming
Rough and tumble aren't the only words that drive Metro Detroit's literati. Not all of its inspiration comes from hard streets. Much of it comes from the hallowed halls of higher education, idyllic vistas and blue-collar shop floors.
"I am always amazed at how much talent is here," Estleman says. "Years ago I was a judge at the (University of Michigan's) Hopwood awards and I was blown away by what's coming up."
The Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area is one of the prime breeding grounds for that talent, drawing some of the 20th century's most innovative wordsmiths from the universities of Michigan and Eastern Michigan. World famous poet Robert Frost (The Road Not Taken) and playwright Arthur Miller (The Crucible, Death of a Salesman) are probably two of the best known. But handfulls of other lesser-known but still significant writers, such as Elizabeth Kostova (The Historian), have called the east side of Washtenaw County home.
Craig Holden is one of them. The longtime Ann Arbor-area resident, currently a visiting professor at New Mexico State University, penned his best works (Matala and The River Sorrow) in the Huron River basin. To him it was easy to find a place to write locally where it wasn't necessarily quiet but anonymous, such as the Espresso Royale in downtown Ann Arbor or a branch of the Ypsilanti District Library.
The Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area's infatuation with books and higher education only make it more fertile. The nation's No. 2 bookseller, Borders, calls the area home. The area is also home to locally famous independent booksellers, Shaman Drum and Nicola's, and publishers, Sleeping Bear Press.
"It's kind of a writing Mecca," Holden says. "There are a lot of writers and students there writing. It's a great place to be."
Wayne State University is home to many similar writer-friendly traits. ML Liebler, a Wayne State University English professor and poet laureate for St. Clair Shores, notes how that Bohemian college atmosphere easily melds together with Detroit's overall blue collar ethos. In his mind even though the factory jobs may be leaving, "the culture is still here."
Liebler, a prominent player in the local poetry and music scene, notes that Metro Detroit is a very welcoming place when it comes to artists. Boyle also points out that everyone opened up and welcomed him when he was researching and writing Arc of Justice. Liebler adds that in his experience other metropolises can be quite provincial but Metro Detroiters make a point of keeping an open mind.
"It's very inclusive," Liebler says. "No matter who wrote different stuff it all comes together under one umbrella here in Detroit. It's black and white, urban and suburban, lower and upper class."
What keeps such talented writers here goes beyond the local scene and aesthetics. Often the main reason these authors choose to stay boils down to family and the overall feeling that southeast Michigan is home.
Even though Boyle now lives in Columbus, Ohio, he lived his first 30 years in Metro Detroit, growing up on Detroit's far east side. He still has strong family times in the Motor City that regularly brings him back to his old stomping grounds. Neighborhoods that he is grateful still influence his writing today.
"It's shaped everything about my writing," Boyle says. "Take Arc of Justice as an obvious example. Not only is it about Detroit but shows a lot of me growing up in Detroit. The very idea of that book was an attempt to explain Detroit to myself."
For Estleman, a novelist for 30 of his 55 years, the Ann Arbor area has always been his home. He grew up on a 120-acre farm not far from the city, worked for years at a small newspaper nearby and now writes his 60 plus novels from his 80-acre farm close to where he grew up.
He sums his attraction to southeast Michigan succinctly as "I was born here. I grew up here. I like it here. This is my home." He adds that living here has its added benefits. The four distinct seasons and constant change in weather helps keep his senses sharp. And sometimes a lull in the forecast plays into his favor, too.
"Some of the greatest writing comes from the Midwest," Estleman says. "With the weather there is no distraction. There is not much else to do when you're snowed in for three days."
Liebler echoes a similar mantra when it comes to staying in Metro Detroit. Even though he has crisscrossed the world more times than most and has an affinity for exotic places near and far, Detroit is the place he feels he belongs. The place where Liebler feels he is doing what he should be doing.
"I've always said that a bad day in Detroit is better than a good day anywhere else in the world," Liebler says. "I can say that because I have been around the world a couple of times and it's true."
photo courtesy Loren Estleman
Photograph by Marvin Shaouni
Jon Zemke is the editor of metromode's Development News and a Detroit-based freelance writer. His previous feature for 'mode was Hard Truths: Q&A With Rick Weddle.