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Author Angela Flournoy wants to "help people understand the beauty" of Detroit

Mar 11, 2016

Angela Flournoy
Credit LaToya T. Duncan

Angela Flournoy’s new novel, The Turner House, is receiving praise across the literary spectrum, from The New York Times to Buzzfeed.

It was also a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction.

Flournoy tells us her father grew up on the east side of Detroit, in a neighborhood similar to the one she portrays in the book. She says the titular Turner family is sort of a “hodgepodge” of family on both her mother and father’s sides, as well as other families who cared for her growing up.

“Every family has a different family culture, so I wanted to kind of make a mash-up of all of those cultures in one book,” she says.

The story spans six decades, following a young Francis Turner as he moves to Detroit during the tail end of World War II, and exploring the family’s life through 2008. Flournoy says the idea of tackling such a story of such scale was daunting at first.

“I thought the novel would all be set in 2008,” she says. “You know, I’d never written a novel successfully before, so I was intimidated by too many different time jumps. I thought I had enough characters to work with, and that was enough of a challenge. But the more that I researched about particularly the challenges placed on black people as far as finding homes and home ownership when they first migrated in those years … I realized that it’s really exceptional that any of them ever owned homes, and then it’s sort of that much more tragic what happens on the tail end of that 50 years when so many of those homes became devalued.”

"I just think that one thing that fiction can do is tell you how that felt versus how it sort of was."

Flournoy tells us she worked hard to inject a lot of Detroit realism into the Turners’ story, and that in many ways their story is reflective of the city itself.  

“I’d read all these books, and it was really, you know, the statistics of who lived where, what sort of jobs that they had, and I just think that one thing that fiction can do is tell you how that felt versus how it sort of was,” she says. “So there are ways that I did try to pick jobs that are kind of typical Detroit jobs, and some experiences that I thought would both be universal as far as wide-ranging for people who lived in that city for the past 60 years, but also make it very specific, with specific memories and feelings.”

Flournoy grew up in Los Angeles, but frequently visited her family in Detroit. She tells us that while she did a lot of outside research to prepare for the novel, those visits helped inform much of her writing.

She says she usually visited during the spring, and so carried with her memories of “a riot of green,” recalling that “Belle Isle is all green and white and yellow.” When she spent time living in other metropolitan areas, Flournoy says she started to realize her memories of Detroit didn’t really line up with the way many people look at the city.

"The thing that really has impacted me the most is when someone tells you that you got it right, even when it's just on the level of place, that's the thing that you stay up nights revising, hoping you can do."

“I would tell people, ‘I’m going to Thanksgiving, I’m going to go to Detroit,’ and people would just be like, ‘why?’” she says. “And that bothered me … it was like a shock that people had this perspective of the city that was so different from my own, and that was one thing that I thought, well, if I write this thing that’s set in this place, I’ll be able to at least a little bit help people understand the beauty that is there.”

The praise and attention The Turner House has received has been “surprising and delightful and wonderful,” Flournoy says. But she tells us the response from readers has meant far more to her than any award, review or endorsement.

“My first two readings were in Detroit … and both of them were just, like, full of people,” she says with a laugh. “And I was just really surprised that Detroiters specifically embraced the book.… The thing that really has impacted me the most is when someone tells you that you got it right, even when it’s just on the level of place, that’s the thing that you stay up nights revising, hoping you can do.”

“If I can help somebody feel like some part of their life was exceptional when they didn’t think it was, that’s always really enjoyable to me.”

Angela Flournoy tells us more about The Turner House and reads from the book in our conversation above.