Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel marks the debut of novelist Gregory A. Fournier, who puts his spin on heavy industry in the grimy backwaters of Detroit's steel and iron mills. The story set in 1967, follows white Jake Malone, kicked out of college, and Theo Semple, a black worker at Zug Island. Together they discover a friendship that challenges the conventions of the times, as the cauldron of racial animus bubbles over. We caught up with the author to ask a few questions about the story's creation and its origins in a blue collar world that is rapidly vanishing.
Bruce: How do you feel about Zug Island, the actual location? On the one hand, you must have an affection for the place, given that you've devoted enough focus on it to create a work of art. On the other hand, your book pulls no punches on its aesthetics.
Greg: I am still in awe of the enormity of Zug Island and the raw energy it takes to make iron and steel. The Medieval base elements of fire, earth, water, and air all play their part in the alchemy of steel making. It was the education of my life, and every time I'm in the Detroit area, I make a pilgrimage there. The steam cloud still billows like clockwork from the quenching station.
Bruce: Tell us about the people Zug Island is based on. Are they employed there out of desperation or desire or inevitability, as your character seemed to be?
Greg: People who worked on the labor crew weren't looking for careers; they needed jobs. These guys were working class people with no middle-class pretense. Life at Zug Island was raw and close to the ground, and it had a primal energy about it lacking in the suburbs of Detroit. Most of the characters in my novel are based on my memories of real people.
Bruce: Most novels are escapist in their settings. Yet you chose to look at some ugly truths. Tell us your reasoning.
Greg: Racism is an issue more often swept under the rug than openly discussed these days. But many of the same attitudes and prejudices that created an atmosphere for the race riots of the sixties abound today, more subtle perhaps, but still deeply rooted in white supremacy. Whether you hide it under a sheet or a teabag, racism steeps through.
Bruce: Was Zug Island a hard book to write emotionally?
Greg: No! But when I finally came up with the ending after four attempts, it did break me up some, and it still does each time I read it. Fortunately, many of my readers share that experience with me.
Bruce: Tell us your impressions of Detroit today.
Greg: I believe Detroit is moving in a positive direction after over fifty years. Much of the old city has been razed, but some of the historical architecture can still be seen. It's tough being a Detroiter. It's either boom-or-bust depending on the trends of the automobile business. The Big Three have been reporting strong earnings, but the area needs jobs and diversification. Overall, I'm optimistic that the city is on the rebound thanks to the leadership of Detroit's mayor, ex-Detroit Piston, Dave Bing.
Bruce: What advice is there for someone who is trapped in a Zug Island situation?
Greg: Save your money and look for another job. But this is the reality, there is a class of men who don't mind physical work or getting their hands dirty. The pay and the benefits are good, so the hardships pale in comparison. Zug Island is a world unto itself, and most people seem to tolerate life there pretty well.
Bruce: Would you write about race relations again?
Greg: Yes, and I may. Though this is a topic many people shy away from, it is a fundamental aspect of American society that needs to be explored in a contemporary context. Because of the issues complexity, the story lines are endless. Racism in America is an issue that should be on the trash heap of history, but first it needs to be documented. I think there is an attitude of white supremacy that lingers particularly in people who are socially unsophisticated. That's one of the things that bothered me about the era then and bothers me today. There was a very pronounced color line and there were areas you just don't go into as a black person and areas that white people were not welcome to go in. I was privileged to walk on both sides of that line for a short period of time.
Bruce: Where were you when the Detroit riots happened? Has your perspective on its causes changed?
Greg: If you haven't guessed, Jake is a representation of myself, and I was with my buddy from work, Otis, wandering around 12th St. a few hours before the riots began when a blind pig was raided by Detroit police. That part of my novel is directly based on personal experience, as is most of it. When I returned to college a year later, I was able to place the riots in a larger sociological context.
Bruce: Was writing the book harder than you believed it would be?
Greg: Compared to book promotion, writing seems easy. Once I retired from teaching, I cobbled together several short stories I had worked on for the previous five summers. Then I researched Zug Island, wrote an introduction, and the project took off. The ending was the hardest part for me, and I wrote four different ones until the final ending revealed itself to me in an epiphany. All-in-all, I enjoyed writing Zug Island, so it didn't seem like work to me.
Bruce: Although Zug Island is a difficult place to work, you have to wonder if there are not enough "Zug Islands" anymore....
Greg: Not everyone can become a celebrity or a professional athlete. There has to be something for people who are not particularly motivated to be white collar workers or service employees. There are people who prefer physical work - there is a certain Zen to it. But most of those jobs are permanently gone.The world is rapidly changing and so must the people in it.
Bruce: What's next for you?
Greg: My next project has the working title, The Water Tower. It is the true crime story of John Norman Collins, the alleged co-ed killer in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, Michigan, between the summers of 1967-1969. This case fell through the cracks nationally because of the Charles Manson case which broke open at the same time. I'm discovering some interesting things about the Collins case.
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