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Detroit Muscle: The Story Behind the Story

Detroit highway sign

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Detroit Muscle: The Story Behind the Story

Detroit Highway SignWhy did you write the book? As an author, that’s a fairly common question to receive. Are you in recovery? Is a new question I’ve also been asked quite a bit lately since writing Detroit Muscle, a novel about an OxyContin addict in early recovery. The answer is that no, I am not in recovery for alcohol or drugs. I have experienced the addiction of both chewing tobacco and cigarettes. I also watch myself very carefully when it comes to my use of alcohol. Alcoholism is prevalent on both sides of my family, and I have witnessed the havoc it can cause in people’s lives. I saw familial relationships destroyed. I saw my mother struggle for years trying to understand her father’s cruel behavior. I saw my father and his brother sit long into the night drinking at our kitchen counter, trying to understand their father’s suicide, which happened when they were both very young. I remember, young myself, sitting at the bottom of the stairs, unbeknownst to them, watching their reflections in the dining room window. “Why, Johnny, why?” I remember my uncle sobbing one night. “I don’t know, Butch,” my father answered. Then they drank. I attended funerals of family members who died in active addiction, although I was young, and it wouldn’t be until years later that I would understand the circumstances behind their deaths. I also saw family members get clean and stay clean and rebuild damaged relationships.

Even if there weren’t addiction in my family (although I have trouble imagining any family that hasn’t been touched by addiction) I firmly believe in the ability of fiction writers to intuit accurately a wide range of experiences, especially with the help of research. One need only consider Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage – a novel known for its realistic depictions of battle and its haunting portrayal of the mind of a soldier at war. Crane wrote the book at age 24 and had never experienced combat at the time of writing it. Nevertheless, the book is heralded as one of America’s greatest war novels.

Maybe I’m avoiding getting back to that first question: Why did you write the book? The why part of that question is more about an evolution than a definitive stance that never wavered. I started Detroit Muscle four years ago. Two things were going through my mind at the time. First, because I teach screenwriting in addition to fiction, I was really fascinated by the stripped-down style of screenplay description. I wanted to write a novel that moved like a movie. I wanted to dispense with simile and any other figurative language devices and write a novel in plain, sparse language—not boring, just not flowery. The story and dialogue, not the wordsmithing, would be the elements on display. Sticking to this cinematic approach, I wrote Detroit Muscle in scenes rather than in chapters.

Also on my mind at the time was my home state of Michigan. To me, it feels like there are two Michigans. First, there is old Michigan, the automotive, Motown, mega power that churned out cars and music on two seemingly inexhaustible assembly lines. The opulence of that Michigan can still be found in its cities… in the rotting husks of abandoned mansions and regal downtown buildings.

Then, there is this new Michigan, the Michigan that is trying to find its way now that it has detoxed from its addiction to the auto industry. What’s it going to be? It has tried to be a state that caters to the creative class through cool cities. It has tried to be a state that focuses on solar panels, wind energy, and lithium ion battery production. It has even, through tax incentives, tried to become a film state. Each effort has fizzled or hasn’t quite exploded economic recovery the way it was hyped to do. This new Michigan is in a tentative place of recovery — groping, floundering, and having setbacks. I chose to represent that Michigan in Robby Cooper, the twenty-year-old recovering OxyContin addict hero who returns to Michigan after six months in a Florida rehabilitation facility. Old Michigan would be represented by Robby’s recovered alcoholic grandfather, Otto (I wonder why I named him that?) Otto needs Robby to take him on a road trip to see his estranged sons. Like the auto industry, he has amends to try to make of his own. They climb into Otto’s ’68 Firebird, and young Michigan and old Michigan take a road trip across … well, Michigan (okay, it sounds silly when you say it like that!)

So, yes, Michigan has a unique story to tell, and its story is still unfolding…much like anybody in early recovery. Still, as I worked on the book—even in the earliest attempts— it struck me as disingenuous to reduce Robby and, for that matter, Otto to mere metaphors. I needed to know them as people, especially Robby. I needed to tell his whole story and make him a whole character. I needed to write a novel about a young man struggling in early recovery from OxyContin addiction, who might also be able to be viewed as a metaphor for Michigan’s current circumstances. He needed to be a person first and a metaphor second, not the other way around.

To accomplish this, I started to do research. Most of my research took place on the Internet, and that research opened up a whole world to me. I really didn’t know the epidemic that is addiction. I read so many blogs, so many statistics, so many heart-breaking stories of parents who had lost children to addiction. I really couldn’t believe how many people had been affected by addiction and had been lost to it. It wasn’t all bleak, though. Something kept emerging again and again through the darkness of addiction, and that was the possibility of recovery. As I searched online, I found people who were in the process of beating every kind of addiction, even meth. Many had decades of recovery under their belts. No matter the addiction, I discovered that there is always the possibility of hope. My novel then moved into its final phase of metamorphosis.

I wanted it to include hopefulness, not just for Michigan, but for anyone struggling with addiction. Hope had to be Detroit Muscle’s final message.

My own experience with reading addiction-related fiction is not expansive. More than anything, I remember the books of the Eighties and Nineties: The Basketball Diaries; Bright Lights, Big City; Leaving Las Vegas and Less Than Zero. As I recall, those books and others like them spent more time describing the desperate nights of active addiction rather than dealing with the redemption of recovery. They seemed to exploit addiction…if not glamorize it, then turn it into a car wreck from which readers could not turn away, but always felt a little guilty for watching. Hope for something better might have been hinted at near the end, like with The Basketball Diaries. Or hope was almost made an impossibility, like in Less Than Zero and Leaving Las Vegas. I’m in no way saying that these novels are bad. They just don’t offer any real sense of recovery. I’m sorry Mr. McInerney, but that bag of fresh baked rolls at the end of Bright Lights, Big City is just crumbs compared to the hell your character has been through.

For Detroit Muscle, I wanted something different. I wanted a character to be in the days of early recovery. No party scenes. No nearly pornographic displays of lines of cocaine or tied-off arms and syringes. No liquor bottles and tumblers of ice with amber liquid glowing in moody lighting. Instead, I wanted the struggle of making amends, of trying to find one’s new path, of learning that one can still have a purpose in helping others, and finally, of staying clean. I wanted to offer a real hope to those struggling with addiction and, I guess now, I can say that’s why I wrote the book.

Here are some links to where the book can be purchased: 

http://www.whistlingshade.com/detroit_muscle.html

https://www.amazon.com/Detroit-Muscle-Jeff-Vande-Zande/dp/0982933568/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1469642990&sr=1-1&keywords=detroit+muscle

  • Jeff Vande Zande
    Jeff Vande Zande

    Professor at Delta College

    Jeff Vande Zande teaches fiction and screenwriting at Delta College. His books include the novel Into the Desperate Country (March Street Press), the novel Landscape with Fragmented Figures (Bottom Dog Press) and Threatened Species and Other Stories (Whistling Shade Press). His novel American Poet won a Michigan Notable Book Award from the Library of Michigan. In May of 2016, Whistling Shade Press released his most recent novel, Detroit Muscle, which was influenced by Vande Zande’s screenwriting knowledge.

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