In this interview, Connor Coyne discusses his newest novel, the 4th in the series "Urbantasm." The series is set in deindustrialized Flint, Michigan.
Connor Coyne is a writer living and working in rust belt Flint, Michigan, a town devastated by deindustrialization. Connor spent his teenage years in Flushing, Michigan. Connor represented Flint's 7th Ward as its artist-in-residence for the National Endowment for the Arts, Our Town grant. In this grant, artists engaged ward residents to produce creative work for the 2013 City of Flint Master Plan. Connor's work has appeared in Vox.com, Belt Magazine, and Santa Clara Review. He lives with his wife, two daughters, and an adopted rabbit in Flint's College Cultural Neighborhood (East Village).
Coyne's novel describes a fantastical plot founded upon a mythical city where the main characters grew up. The story revolves around parts of a dying industrial rust belt town. In the interview, the author, Connor Coyne, acknowledges that this factory town is Flint, Michigan.
The book sets out the good, bad, and ugly way of life in middle America, where the characters navigate the vices and demons of urban life in a blue-collar America that struggles to survive.
You can learn more about Connor Coyne and his books by visiting his author's website.
The music for the outro, Flint River Blues, about the Flint Water Crisis, was written and performed by Colton Ort and used with his permission.
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This transcript is generated using speech recognition software and human transcribers. and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before using it as a reference or source.
Interview with CONNOR COYNE, Author
All right, this is Arthur Busch. You're listening to Radio Free Flint today's episode; my guest is Conner Coyne. He's an author. Welcome to Radio Free Flint, Connor.
I invited you on radio free Flint to talk about your books, especially the one coming out. Urbantasm, is that it?
OK. Your background is quite interesting. You have published several books, and your publishing experience includes some blog articles and well-known national publications such as Belt Magazine, a magazine dedicated to the working class.
Your book Urbantasm is part of a four-part series. Tell us the trailer version of this.
Sure, it's a serial novel, so they have to be read to make sense. So, kicking off the first one, you have a 13-year-old boy named John Bridge, and he's about to start junior high. He's excited and has a plan to become one of the most popular kids in 7th grade.
In his new junior high school in Highway Michigan, which is based in Flint. On the first day of school, he steals a pair of strange sunglasses from a homeless person. This plunges him into this conflict involving, you know, different games and feuding families across the city and a magical drug that can distort space. Just sort of the floor falls out from beneath him, so that's sort of how the story launches.
And then how does it end? Then no, you don't have to tell me.
This is a series of books that are set in Flint, MI, and is set in the part of town where you grew up.
Yes, yes, it takes place during the 1990s.
I lived in the city until I was 11 years old, over by the Franklin Longway area when I was 12. My parents moved out to Flushing, where my grandma lived, and I went to Flushing Schools. Until, you know, through the rest of high school.
You're from the Flint area. The book informs life in the city itself. Yeah, you're not writing about Flushing or some other place.
It's a Flint book, although you know you have a few scattered chapters that take place in the suburbs here and there, and there are characters based in the suburbs?
Yeah, it's definitely a Flint book.
Who is your intended audience?
That's where things get gnarly with the fine print. So, we have marketed this in part to young adults because these days, the way the publishing industry is structured is if you've got protagonists who are young adults and teenagers. The assumption is that that is the audience for it, and I think you know.
This is a book that young people have read and have enjoyed. Still, from a genre perspective, I would also say it would be described as magical realism. That is basically like a story where supernatural or extraordinary events are incidental to the setting, so they're not seen as being completely bizarre and fantastical. They're just part of the reality where the books take place.
When I wrote these books, I did not have an age in mind for them. I wanted to tell a romantic, compelling story, dynamic and complex.
My goal is that anybody who would enjoy it would pick it up and read it. The arson ring in Flint in a, you know, I think it was 2009, 2010 when you had the serial stabber when you had the Flint water crisis. I was working on this book as all of those contemporary events were happening, and I wanted to incorporate them. And because it's a fictional setting, I was able to do that. So that's despite its temporal setting.
There are a lot of references that are much more contemporary. Still, I also think that people have an expectation when they read historical fiction for a certain amount, out of either nostalgia or an emphasis on the trappings of the time. And I don't think these books have that emphasis like there are reasons that it's clear there.
In the 1990s, you know, payphones keep popping up. Then nobody can just like, you know, hop on their computer and look up anything at the same time. I think the questions and the conflicts are much more universal and not anything that would need to be rooted in a particular decade. People who picked it up looking for 1990s nostalgia would probably come away disappointed. That's just not something that offers a lot.
What makes your book unique?
Well, I think the problem I had when I went to try to get it published is that it's a little bit too unique, and I'm not saying that to both. That's just a double-edged sword. Taken together, it's 2000 pages. It's got a sort of romantic sweep to it, you know, Victor Hugo.
There are these junior high kids who are trying to figure out their romantic lives and try to figure out their desires for the future, while this city is essentially like imploding around them, yeah. It makes use of like a lot of history, a lot of like magical, almost hallucinogenic dreams.
You know whether people like it or dislike it. Nobody, I think, has ever read anything like it.
Drugs are very significant in the plot of this story, and you know, part of the reason is that I drafted this as a 17-year-old, and at the time, a lot of my friends' lives were very defined by drugs. Either they were developing addictions of their own, or their parents were on drugs, or there were people in their neighborhoods or their families selling drugs. Drugs were everywhere, and drugs are a visible presence in this.
I also think you know when I talked about solution agentic passages. I also meant that this is kind of like modeled on a strain of romantic literature going back to Frankenstein and before, and part of what part of that? Is the idea that these sensory experiences can be intense? For example, in the second book, you know there's a scene where the main character gets very sick. He's got the flu, and he starts imagining the sick's history from going back to when it was an Ojibwe settlement and then back. Even before that, you know that the whole sequence is trippy, even though you know there aren't any drugs involved.
He's just awakened sick in the middle of the night and imagining what this place was like before he was there.
What is it about this book that makes it work?
I think the thing that makes it work to stand out to me compared to other things that I've written is the real depth of light characterization. I think that these are very fully realized characters. Different writers have different strong suits.
I'm a rhythm guy. I can write great sentences, I think. I'm usually pretty good at coming up with nuanced themes and settings, but I would not say I'm generally a great character writer. And yet, because this one is so personal, it comes from experiences that I had, and my friends had a very intense time in our lives.
I feel like all the characters in this, even you know those that just have like a few lines here or there, have rich in their lives, and readers care about these characters and truly believe that they know them. That is what I think makes this book work more than anything else. I think that's what makes the more esoteric choices have meaning. Otherwise, you're just showing off because you can't.
Yeah, but if you can use those choices to reveal a character or a relationship that somebody will care about, those creative choices have to.
Is Flint a great place to find these characters?
Oh, it's completely unparalleled in my life. I've lived in Chicago for many years. I went to grad school in New York. You know, I spent those years in Flushing and spent the summer in Romania.
All great places, but I've never seen a place with characters like Flint.
Having the book set in Flint, even the cover of your book features Flint.
There are their illustrations. There's one feature in all four covers that's actually from Flint.
This radio tower replicates a tower on the South side of I-69. I want to say like between Grand Traverse St and Fenton Rd. So that's an actual radio tower.
I think it's a decommissioned tower, but my cover designer is Sam Perkins. He's a Flint Central alum, so when we were designing the covers together, you know, when we were talking about the different images, we both had a strong picture of Flint in our mind. Still, these are also meant to be suggestive.
Like you know, I would like to think that you know somebody picks up this book and you know their city, that they're familiar with is I don't know, maybe it's Toledo. Maybe it's even Richmond, CA. Or some other place with an industrial history, and there would be points of recognition, and the covers are also meant to suggest that.
You seem to focus on some of your interviews from previous work on deindustrialization, which makes its way into this book. How does that fit?
I'd like to take a bird's eye view of it, and of course, I guess I'm somewhat limited by it. My own experience, but I was born in 1978, and you know, it was in the Flint or the Flint area.
Do you know all the way? Basically, through 2000, practically, so I think that was an era when Flint was de-industrializing. You know, I? I moved back in 2010, well, 2011. Flint is de-industrialized now.
So, you still have an industrial presence here. Still, I think you know the largest sectors of the economy are just about as much like the municipal government; education and healthcare are almost up there with industry.
If you go back before my time, Flint was an industrial city. I mean, GM employment maxed out in 1978, when I was born. It was about 80,000 my experience growing up in a city. It was a city that still had plants but was constantly in the process of shutting them.
I think that you know that question about what's next. Where is this going? Where are these jobs going? Where is this revenue going?
I do think that that, you know, comes into my writing a lot because that was, you know, the city.
When I was coming of age.
That was the soundtrack of your life. Yeah, I listened to something you told another reporter.
About your family explaining to you the rules of the road when it came to getting a job in a General Motors factory, could I get you to repeat that story?
I think it was not to count on one because it wouldn't be there. At least that's the conversation I mostly remember.
What did they have to say about that your future with General Motors?
Yeah, I think there was one week where I was aspiring to go into the shop. They put the lid on that pretty tight. There was not the future they wanted for me. I think they hope that by getting, uh, getting my brother and sister and me a good education, we'd have, you know, lots of options available to us. But I also think they were aware that those jobs were going away, that they simply were not going to be there in the numbers, which was entirely correct.
Well, you know we've had a couple of guys come out of Flint, Ben Hamper, who wrote the Rivethead, a nonfiction book. Although it sometimes reads like fiction, we had Christopher Paul Curtis, one of the world's top children's books authors. One of the most sold authors on the planet who grew up in the South end of Flint and worked at Fisher Body Plant number one said he couldn't take it anymore.
He left, and there he is. He became unbelievably successful. So, it is possible. So, there's hope, right? There's hope for your books.
I hope so. Have you tried other mediums like film or broadcasting, or do you know some other things like poetry, or is this just your game? Just writing is your game?
I'd say fiction and essays are the two forms I use most. The two that I'm most comfortable in. And I'm a bit of a perfectionist. At least we know where we're writing is concerned. I don't like doing things poorly, and part of the problem is that all those mediums are extremely challenging. Well, it's, I guess, easy to do some of those things poorly, but my passion is for fiction. I would enjoy writing essays and sort of like that personal nonfiction.
Oh yeah, I've tried poetry. I was never particularly impressed with the poetry I could write.
I thought it was pretty pedestrian. I've done journalism here and there, and I feel like that's one of the most rigorous and demanding forms of writing there is out there. So, I have so much respect for anybody that can like to sit down and write an article.
But I don't think it's for me.
Now this book took you a long time to write, 27 years to write. Now in 27 years, a lot of life has gone by. Yeah, and so there are a lot of changes along the way, such as crime, crack cocaine, epidemic, kids getting shot and killed in schools, guns on the street, bad water, and factories closing seemingly one year after the next.
How did that affect your book? Do these historical events in the community make their way into the book, or do they?
I'd say most of the major events that I'm aware of in Flint from the mid-1980s until the last several years have made it in in some form or another. So, in the very first book, there's a reference to a failed theme park downtown, and you know the land that was cleared for that and its ultimate fate. That's obviously auto world, and the characters are talking about it and noticing this huge grassy field where you'd expect to see you know infrastructure and buildings and commerce close to the heart of a city.
And then you know, going forward to the third book, you know there is a water crisis in that book. It occurs with situations, the deterioration of the schools, the city being under receivership by the state, and other things surrounding that.
But I think other than the fact that they're included. You did; it's almost like I had to approach each of them differently because this story is about these characters trying to survive in their own situations. So, the way that they're going to engage each of those different things is going to be more personal in some cases and less personal in others.
Well, they're shaped by history. You've kind of broken a rule that is sort of an old axiom, and that old axiom is once you've left, you can't go home. You've kind of followed that path. You left Flint you came back to Flint. What you discovered when you came back to Flint was a much different city than when you left. I think you referred to that earlier. How does it work? How does that work, and how is that gets into this book?
I think that part of it has to do with the age of the characters. Going back to what you just said.
Yeah,, I agree. Like I came home, I came back to Flint, MI. I didn't stay in Chicago or go to some other place. In that sense, you know you do have the opportunity to connect with what's familiar. But the city is a fundamentally different place. It changes. Every city changes just the nature of what a city is in terms of the book.
The main character starts it when he's 13 years old, and he's 16. When he leaves, I don't know of any 13-year-old who is the same person when they're 16, like those are years. Three years of incredible growth and transformation. So, in a way, it was kind of appropriate. I don't know that I planned it out this way exactly, but as the city is changing rapidly throughout these four books, the characters are also growing and maturing quickly. I think that people who get to the end of the fourth book go back and re-read the 1st ten pages of the first book would think, wow, this city is very different. While these characters are very different.
Back to the real world. Do you think people understand that their city is changed once they've left? I don't think people are great at recognizing that. At least it's taken me
Four decades to feel like I recognize that. I think we have memories and experiences that are fundamental to our sense, not only of ourselves but of a place.
If you walk up to me and just say the words, Flint, MI, I'm probably going to imagine the Atlas Coney Island on Corona Rd, circa 1997 or 1998.
At about 2:00 o'clock in the morning.
Exactly, yes, 2:00 o'clock in the morning. The best time to be there then. Well, that's 25 years ago. Anybody under 25 years old living in Flint that Flint does not exist anymore like it. It has never existed. For those people, I think that, however good our intentions are, we tend to view places as being more fixed as we encounter them than they are. They're always going to be different from person to person, and they're always going to be different from time to time.
The city is not a static entity. The older I get, the better my old neighborhood looks. You know, I don't remember the smoke going across Pengelly Rd, Browning St.,
Milton Dr or the black smoke from Fisher Body. I don't remember the traffic jams. I don't remember. Do you have some of those moments in your book? Although you're a generation or two generations apart. Do you have moments like that today where you look at your city and say wow?
My God, what do you mean like we are nostalgic for the pastor?
Yeah, where you look at it, and you're startled by what you see?
There are specific things that I miss. We talked about going to the Atlas at 2:00 in the morning, and actually, that's a very specific one.
I am not as interested in hearing the answer to that story we can find that on Facebook, we cannot find is what we see today, and for those expatriates like myself, we cannot.
Some things are happening there today that we don't see, and that's a lot more interesting than, you know, the US 23 Drive-In during the 1970s.
Tell me a few things you see today that might not have existed even in the 90s.
I'm not asking you to put shade on Flint. I just want to see whatever the reality is.
At one point, you described this confusing picture where you see people who live this life where they have to navigate some unimaginable things. At the same time, they perhaps navigate a city as if it wouldn't be any different from any other place.
I think a couple of things I've seen in the last few years, one of them, I feel like it began back in 1995 when Rhonda Sanders came out with her book bronze pillars.
That book has been out for a while, but I see people going back to it over and over again to the point where you know it's in reading groups today.
I think the Flint Public Library had a reading group that was reading a Rhonda Sanders book, and then you know, the font color lines project came out. I think that one thing that is happening now is especially in the last couple of years with the rise of Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd protests, is the civil rights era of Flint from the 1960s. Going forward, it's gotten a refreshing second look and is being taught and understood deeper than it has been in the past, so that is something that I would say has changed in the city. You know, since the 1990s.
That, I think, is a very positive development. Another thing that I think is it's difficult to pin down, but those years that I was in Flushing, there were maybe like Flushing High School at 1300 students. There were maybe a couple of dozen nonwhite students in all of Flushing High School.
And that would have been, you know, a similar experience throughout most of Flint's mid suburbs. Part of what has happened is that as Flint has continued to contract by about 2000 people a year for the last 30 years, most families stay within Genesee County. They leave.
But they have moved from Flint Township to Burton to Flushing Davis and Swartz Creek, resulting in these suburbs. Do you know which were all white?
You know, not that long ago are now much more integrated and diverse than they have been in the past, and I think that is paradoxical.
Even as that has, you know, resulted from Flint contracting. I think there are closer connections between city residents and some suburbanites than there have ever been in the past, and I would say that that is also something which was not, which was not the case.
You know when I lived in Flushing.
But all my friends lived in Flint. I drove into Flint for my son and social life. They did not come out and visit me. I think that the ground is shifting a bit on that, so those would
be two things that I think are new and, at least from my perspective, unanticipated.
You are a young father, uh, you are educated. You live in the college and cultural area and have decided to put your stake down in Flint, is that right? What is it about Flint that makes you hopeful?
It's the people I don't know that I could have said answered that question with any confidence. Even five years ago, I think I was still guilty of magical thinking, looking for the next downtown redevelopment. To get us over or you know the next umm expansion to get us over and partly like those always feel like mirages they are always further away you approach them, and they receive before you. No, but I mean, what it comes down to is, this is a community I know intimately well because I have been involved so much of my life here. I know the people here, care about them, and see what they offer. And hopefully, you know, they see what I have to offer.
It could sound cynical to say why Flint and my answer. Would be like, well, why not?
But that's kind of what it comes down to. You know I care about this place, so why would I go somewhere where I do not have that intimacy and familiarity when I can help and be part of this community?
Thank you for appearing on Radio Free Flint. I enjoyed talking to you. I wish you every success with your book. Please show the book again if you put this up on YouTube.
Urbantasm, it's the third in the series of four.
It's the last one, which will be published on May 1st.
OK, very good, and you'll be around town with it, and we'll put a link to Connors's website at the end of this podcast.
Thank you for joining us, everybody out there.