Q&A with Scott Lasser, Say Nice Things About Detroit

  • September 4, 2012

Did your mother ever tell you to say something nice or don't say anything at all?

Back in the 1970s, Motor City cheerleader Emily Gail launched a campaign to “Say Nice Things About Detroit.” Shortly afterward, disaffected youth launched a counterassault in the form of T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan and a picture of a man clutching a dog in a headlock, pointing a gun to its head. Scott Lasser’s new novel, his fourth, is set in the grim wake of this second campaign. When David Halpert’s mother begins to slip into dementia, he returns to his native Detroit, only to be greeted with the news that his high-school sweetheart, Natalie, has been found in a car shot to death with her black half-brother. Over the course of the novel, Lasser plunges into Detroit’s extensive drug subculture and the more affluent sectors of what was once America’s fourth most populous city. As David becomes increasingly intertwined with the city of his birth and Natalie’s younger sister, Carolyn, he begins to understand the deep roots of Detroit that lie beneath the decay.

Q&A with Scott Lasser, Say Nice Things About Detroit

You grew up in Detroit and have written about it in both your novels and your articles. Besides the fact that you grew up there, what makes this city such fertile literary ground for you?

For me Detroit is the American city. Everything that’s happening here is happening everywhere, it’s just a bit worse in Detroit. Stories are about trouble, so the country really doesn’t offer up a better setting for a novelist, at least for me. Most importantly, despite its troubles, Detroit possesses a toughness of spirit that I find intoxicating. The virtues we often name as the American virtues — hard work, undaunted determination, openness, a belief in merit over connections — are very much Midwestern values, and Detroit is at the center of that. Now is an especially interesting time. The city seems to be going through a death and rebirth at exactly the same time.

The geography of Detroit is a prominent feature throughout Say Nice Things. How do you think that this particular urban environment influenced your story?

I very much want my readers to experience the city as I experience it, with all five senses. There’s a certain kind of light here, a smell that changes by season, different sounds, and much more I wanted to get in the book. The look and the feel of the place do seem to influence character. The city breeds resilience, especially at its extremes. Take the weather. When I was a college student I spent a term in Germany. The family I lived with asked me what were the extreme temperatures of my hometown. “Plus 40 and minus 40,” I told them, using the Celsius scale (or 104 F to -40 F). They insisted I didn’t understand the Celsius scale; I told them they didn’t understand Detroit. (I later learned the record low in Detroit is actually 30 below C. Close enough.)

More broadly, do you think that there is a unique tone to Detroit literature, in the same way that literature that takes place in New York City or Paris is often easily identifiable as coming out of those cities?

Maybe. First, though, I’m not sure there’s, say, a New York tone. New York is certainly identifiable in books set there, but it’s hard to say these books have a similar tone. Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, for example, is very different in tone from Michael Cunningham’s most recent novel, By Nightfall. Both are set in New York, and could only be set in New York. If there is a “Detroit tone,” then it’s to be found in directness and economy, with hope heavily tempered by fatalism, and vice versa. But I’m out on a limb here.

Do you think that this kind of regional literature is underrepresented in today’s literary landscape?

Regional? Hmm. To riff on the answer above, no one called Bonfire a regional book when it came out. Why? Because it’s set in New York? That book is more regional than mine (I have a few scenes that take place out of the city). In any case, novels need to be specific in their details, and this includes setting. I suppose you could view the term “regional” as a badge of honor, or condescension from the coasts. Or both.

There’s a certain fluidity to many of the families in Say Nice Things. Was this a deliberate choice, or do you think that it just reflects the reality of many relationships in the U.S. today?

Both. I’m simply trying to write about where we are now.

Race relations are a major theme that crop up again and again in your novel. Do you see this as a necessary part of any story about Detroit?

Absolutely. You can’t write a novel about Detroit without taking on race, which, let’s face it, is something many of us are hesitant to do. I know I was. But once I’d taken on this subject, what choice did I have?

One of the subplots of the story portrays the underground drug culture that exists in so many large American cities today. How did you go about researching this environment? Do you think that it provides an important counterpoint to the main plot that circles around David Halpert?

I do think it serves as a counterpoint to David’s story, until, in a way, it becomes David’s story. As for research, there’s plenty of information out there. I’d like to tell you I went out on the streets with the DPD — and I hope to someday — but I read and studied and seemed to get what I needed. Imagination helps. You simply think as if you were someone else, then ask yourself, what would you do if you couldn’t find work?

Your website notes that you’ve completed a screenplay adaptation of Detroit for Steve Carell’s Carousel Productions. What led you to want to turn this novel into a film? How different was the process of writing a screenplay from the process of writing a novel?

Well … I love movies and it’s a delight to be paid to turn your own work into a movie. It’s not just that I jumped at the chance, I asked for it. As for process, screenplays require tighter structure and even greater economy than this book, which is, in my opinion, a rather economical novel. I was forced to make choices, and jettison many things from the book. In a way, I might have been freer to do this than another writer, who might have worried he would upset the author. I felt very free to hack away, and turn the novel into a screenplay that would work.

Sarah Vogelsong is a freelance writer and editor from Richmond, Virginia. Her work has also appeared in The Neworld Review and Pleasant Living Magazine.

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