Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A trip back in time to Detroit's seedy side: An interview with author D.E. Johnson

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about one of my favorite Michigan-based authors, D.E. Johnson ("If you like history, mysteries, and Detroit, you'll love these books..."). Johnson was nice enough to grant me an interview, which appears below. Two weeks ago, the fourth book ("Detroit Shuffle") in  Johnson's Detroit-set historical mystery series was released, and it's gotten rave reviews (including a starred review from "Publishers Weekly"). In "Detroit Shuffle," Will Anderson, the protagonist of Johnson's series, along with his girlfriend, Elizabeth Hume, find themselves stuck in a web of intrigue, corruption, and murder during the time of the women's suffrage movement. I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but it's definitely on my list!
Read on to learn about Johnson's writing process, what's ahead for him, and why older women in the early 20th century should have "just said no" to drugs.
D.E. Johnson

You’ve said that, although you’ve written fiction since childhood, it took a “midlife crisis” for you to realize that you needed to get serious about writing. What was it about this point in your life that led you along the literary path?
"I had been working in business for twenty-five years and felt very unfulfilled. My dream had always been to write, but I'd never tried to really pursue it. I was at a crossroads---I could continue doing what made me unhappy and be "secure," or I could strike out in a new direction and take the chance of failure. I finally had the initiative to take the chance, and I'm so glad I did."

Out of all the topics and eras about which you could have written, why did you choose early-twentieth-century Detroit? What was it about the city and the auto industry that inspired you?
"The biggest draw to me is the early 20th century. It was such an explosive time in this country. We were coming of age as a world power, immigrants were flooding in by the millions, completely changing the social dynamic of the cities, the rich were incredibly wealthy and the poor were incredibly poor, and all this was held in the most tenuous balance. It was a time of turmoil in almost every way imaginable, which makes it an interesting time to write about.
"I chose Detroit because it's a city that has always fascinated me. During my entire lifetime, it's been in decline. I was never able to experience the greatness and vitality of the city as it was, and I wanted to try to recreate that city, both for myself and for readers.

"As far as the cars are concerned, that was really secondary. When I started researching 'The Detroit Electric Scheme' [the first book in the series], I was looking for a historical backdrop that was interesting and was representative of the city during the time period. Cars of course were a topic that came to mind, so I started there. When I came across all the information about the early electric cars, I knew I had found my backdrop---the rise and fall of the early electric car." 

Where did your fictional characters and your plots come from? The lifestyles portrayed in the “Detroit” series are pretty sordid, so I’m guessing it wasn’t personal experience J
"That's a hard question to answer. All of these people and stories occupy various sections of my mind and make appearances when I need them. Since I don't really know what it's like to be in the situations into which I thrust Will, I have to visualize being that person in that situation. Of course, it's all colored by my personal responses, which makes Will's sometimes dopey behavior really mine (I admit sheepishly). I try most of all for emotional honesty. That's the most important part. If a character's reaction rings false to a reader, it can pull her out of the story, which is the worst thing that can happen to an author."
Describe the process you use to portray real-life characters like Edsel Ford and Vito Adamo. (Ed. note: See the "For more information" section below this interview to learn about these Michiganders.) Were they easier or more difficult to “write” than the fictional characters?
"The answer is 'yes.' They were both harder and easier to write than fictional characters. Easier in that I have historical data to work with for what they looked like and the things they did. Harder in that I am boxed in by history to keep their actions and attitudes as close as possible to the historical record and still work within the story I'm writing. Edsel had no friend named Will Anderson (at least not my Will Anderson), so I can't be completely accurate, but I want his fictional life to be consistent with his personality, social standing, known actions, etc.
"In Edsel's case, he became a project for me. History doesn't remember him well, and I think he was a remarkable person, so I tried to show that in the books. The Adamo brothers were harder, in that there are no books about them or their short reign in the Detroit underworld, so I just used what I could glean from the newspapers and my imagination to create them."

Who is your favorite character in the series, or the character you most empathize with, and why?
"My favorite, and least favorite, is Will. He shares a lot of my strengths and weaknesses, so it's a lot of me on the page---though not all, thank God. His best traits are loyalty and perseverance, his worst, impetuousness (most of all!) and his addictive personality."
"That said, Elizabeth Hume is awesome. Both she and Will make some huge strides personally through the series, but I love Elizabeth because she's tough and very modern, though (barely) within the bounds of society at the time."
What are some interesting or unexpected facts you learned while conducting research for this series?
"Wow. Where do I start? There are so many historical tidbits I've picked up over the last four years. One example is a greater percentage of Americans were addicted to drugs in 1900 than in 2000 (about 5 percent [were addicted in 1900] versus an estimated 5 percent who used drugs, including non-addictive drugs, in 2000). [Ed. note: Emphasis is mine.] Why? Patent medicines that contained opium, cocaine, morphine, etc. The average addict was an older woman who started taking a medicine for a legitimate problem, only to find out that she couldn't quit."
What’s next for you? Will there be a fifth book in the“Detroit” series? Any other books on the horizon?
"My work in progress is tentatively called 'Ashes,' and it's a story set in 1900s Chicago. I found a great story to tell of the biggest Chicago gambler of his day, which I'm telling as part of a coming-of-age story. I'm about halfway through the first draft right now. I'm definitely open to writing more Will Anderson books, but those people have occupied my mind non-stop for four years now, so I had to evict them to bring in a new set of characters (and I didn't give them back their security deposits!)."
And, finally, a random question in keeping with the blog’s “Michigan” theme: What’s your favorite place to visit, or favorite thing to do, in Michigan?
"Honestly, my favorite thing to do in Michigan is to write, which I can do anywhere. I used to be one of those people who would whine about the weather, but I've really grown to appreciate the change in seasons to the extent that winter doesn't even really bother me anymore. As far as favorite places, I've lived in Southwest Michigan my whole life, and I love it here. However, Northern Michigan in the summer is fantastic, and nothing beats going to a Tigers game, so I can find something to enjoy most anywhere in the state!"
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For more information:
Johnson's books include as characters several real-life Michiganders, including the two mentioned in this interview. So just who are Edsel Ford and Vito Adamo?

Probably most people have heard of Edsel, or at least his last name. He was the son of auto tycoon Henry Ford, and was CEO of the Ford Motor Company from 1919 until his death in 1943. In Johnson's books, Edsel Ford is a friend and confidante of protagonist Will Anderson.

Vito Adamo is a lesser-known character in Detroit history, but certainly one of the most colorful. He and his brother Salvatore were among the city's first and most prominent Italian gang leaders, taking part in illicit activities like extortion, smuggling, and murder. Vito Adamo died in 1913 after being shot by a rival gangster. 

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