This week we’re talking with Kevin J. Garrity, the author of Sparrow River. Come along as we learn about Kevin and his debut novel!
I grew up in northwest Detroit, went to school in Redford, and got my degree from Wayne State. Since then I’ve bounced around a bit, moving from Detroit to Traverse City to Seattle to Chicago, and back to Detroit again. I lived In Grayling for 11 years, before moving to West Bloomfield in 2010.
Tell us your latest news?
I’ve just released my first novel, “Sparrow River,” set in a fictionalized Grayling and a fictionalized Pigeon River Forest. It’s a murder mystery with multiple twists.
When and why did you begin writing?
I’ve written all my life. For years I played guitar in bands in Detroit and wrote most of my own material. I soon realized I was a much better writer than I was a musician. I’ve written short stories and other things. It wasn’t until last year that someone convinced me to try my hand at something bigger, and thus “Sparrow River.”
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I think when I penned my first good song. At least I believed it was good at the time. I must have been about fifteen years old, and when we performed, people thought the song was great. Ten years later it was still my most requested tune. I realized right away that if you pen your own stories, you control your own destiny. I’m still adjusting to the idea of being an “author,” in the “I’ve got a book out” sense of the word.
What inspired you to write your first book?
I had the time to write and I had a specific story in mind. What I lacked was the confidence to sit down and actually do it. I had a hard time with the concept of sinking six months or a year’s worth of work into one single project, and not having any idea if it was worthwhile until it was completed. When you write a song, you learn pretty quickly whether or not it’s any good. With a novel, you don’t get that instant feedback. And by the time you do get that feedback, you’re probably committed to most of the book’s content. You can make adjustments, but the gist of the story is generally what it’s going to be. My brother kept pushing me to finish this book, see where it went, and I’m glad he did.
Do you have a specific writing style?
It’s still a work in progress. For “Sparrow River” I tried to keep things clean and simple. I’m a lover of old crime noir and pulp fiction, and I like the fact that these authors didn’t waste words in telling a story. I tried to replicate that style in a modern way, make every word count. On the other hand, I’m working on a new book that’s more in the realm of literary fiction, and I think more depth and description are required to capture the essence of tiny moments.
How did you come up with the title?
It’s a play on words. The Sparrow River is actually the Pigeon River, but I didn’t want to be married to the truth. I changed the names of a lot of things in this book, so that I could arbitrarily change anything that might make for a better story. The fictional names gave me the ability to lie whenever it was convenient to the plot. There’s also a bit of an homage to Hemingway in there, his “Big Two Hearted River.”
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I deliberately created some ambiguity throughout the story. I didn’t want it to be a cut-and-dried murder, with a nearly perfect hero and a tidy little ending. Those stories have been written a thousand times over, and I doubted I was going to improve on the classics. I tried to create something that is more like real life, where things aren’t always what people assume they are, and perceptions are often deceptive. Two people can read this book and end up with very different views of what it really means.
How much of the book is realistic?
The setting is very real. The town of “Rasmus” is Grayling in disguise (with a few changes when it suited the story). Sparrow River is real, it is the Pigeon River hiding under a pseudonym. I tried to capture the north woods and small town life as best I could. There are pieces of the area that folks will find familiar. Some are just plain made up. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which is which, or whether it even matters. The plot itself is pure fiction.
Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
My protagonist is loosely based on a good friend of mine. He is not always warm and fuzzy. I took the strongest parts of his personality and put them on steroids. At the same time, I tried to humanize him whenever possible. I didn’t want to write a cartoon character: in the end, nobody wants to root for a total jerk. In the end, you want to like him. So I tried to create a slightly over the top version of my friend, and put him in an exceptional situation. I also borrowed liberally from my own life and from incidents that happened to people I know, wherever it made for good reading.
What books have influenced your life most?
When I was younger, Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. “Babbit” and “Elmer Gantry” captured a page in time like nothing else, and let me fall in love with the use of specific language to create an environment. Those books made me an avid reader at a very young age. Later it was E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime” and John Irving’s “Setting Free the Bears” that inspired me. I read Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” when it first came out, and thought it was the best thing I’ve seen in over a decade.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Walter Mosley. I can’t put his books down. His primary characters are often flawed and broken souls. They’re real. He captures dialogue like you’re standing in a bar room in Watts, listening in on a stranger’s conversation. Nobody compares. And he proves you don’t have to follow the formulas of every author that came before you in order to succeed.
What books are you reading now?
Bryan Gruley’s “Starvation Lake” and John Irving’s “In One Person.”
Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
When I’m not writing, I consume novels. Sometimes I read two or three a week. And I’m always a little wary of calling any writer “new,” because they might have been at it for twenty years before I’ve even heard of them. For example, someone recently gave me a copy of Jonathan Lethem’s “Gun with Occasional Music.” It’s not a genre I’d normally choose for myself. It’s a mystery, but with strong elements of a dystopian society. It was printed in 1994, though I just recently discovered it. I thought it was brilliant. So there’s a “new” author in my world. The good news is, he’s since created almost two decades’ worth of work, that I can read whenever I’d like.
What are your current projects?
I’m working on a novel that’s set in Detroit, more literary fiction than mystery. The writing is a little more time consuming, because it lacks the typical construct of mystery and resolution. I’m planning a sequel to “Sparrow River,” which I hope will be done sometime next spring. In the meantime I try to put a new short story on my blog (KevinJGarrity.com) at least once a month, so people remember that I’m still alive.
Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
I can’t thank the Devereaux Memorial Library in Grayling enough. When I first discussed “Sparrow River” with them, they gave me a royal welcome and all the resources they could muster. The NextChapter Bookstore in Northville gave me my first signing. Libraries and independent bookstores are my friends.
Do you see writing as a career?
I certainly hope so. At the same time, the traditional models of publishing and marketing a book have been turned upside down in the last few years. The big publishing houses seem less and less willing to sign an unknown and then allow him a few books to build his audience. They need immediate results. There are tools and technologies that make it simpler and less expensive than ever to self-publish, but at the same time independent bookstores are disappearing at an unbelievable rate. And it’s hard to do a book signing at Amazon. We need places like The NextChapter and Book Beat. The landscape is shifting at an ever-quickening pace. It will be interesting to see how things play out.
If you had to do it over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
I joke that I should have titled it “Fifty Shades of Grayling,” and I’d have sold another million. But no, I wouldn’t change anything. I’m pretty happy with the book.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I think I’ve always been a story teller, and I’ve always written in some form or another. I’d much rather create my own reality than try to improve upon someone else’s. To me, a novel was the logical next step in my progression as a writer.
Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Earth and wood, it turned out, weren’t enough to hold back the volume of water that races through the Sparrow River in the springtime. “Sparrow,” a misnomer if ever there was one. In the dog days of summer it flows smooth and shallow. It meanders through her deeper stretches, hiding cool dark holes where the big trout lay until the evening hatch. It riffles and purls its way across the gravel bars that stretch like fingers into her current. It wraps around corners and dumps sand from her load, only to pick up where it left off and continues upon its former course. In the summer months hikers are easily enticed to take a dip, washing off days of sweat accumulated during their hike across the lower peninsula’s shore-to-shore trail. Horses have watered there since before time was measured. The Sparrow can seem gentle enough, but most of the locals called it the “Bitch River” for a reason.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I have to remember that dialogue is almost never written in proper english. People simply don’t converse in full and complete sentences. They talk in bits and chunks. And proper grammar is usually not true to any character. I’m getting more comfortable with dialogue the more I write.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Right now it’s Walter Mosley. Sometimes his books are a little graphic, but his characters have a realistic grit that is lacking in mystery fiction. There are too many books where the lead character is a former cop with one fatal flaw (he drank too much….he wouldn’t take a bribe…he failed to solve one crime and has been haunted ever since) that leads him to become an outcast private investigator. Mosley smashes those stereotypes. His protagonists are usually an everyman, with both good and bad inside. Their actions are sometimes shaped by their circumstances, and tend to be more believable because of that.
Do you have to travel much concerning your book?
I’ve been traveling some, mostly to the northern lower peninsula and around the metro Detroit area. Having to travel more would be a good problem. I’d view it as an indicator that Sparrow River is building a larger audience.
Who designed the covers?
The cover photos that I used were taken by a friend of mine from Grayling, George McKim. The cover design itself was done by my twelve-year-old son, Teemu. He was laid up for six weeks this past winter with mono. He was too sick to get off the couch, was sleeping eighteen hours per day. I didn’t want him playing on an Ipod for the six hours a day that he was awake, so I put him to work. All of the graphics, the fonts, multiple color changes and design tweaks, even the logo for Hammer Handle Press, it was all him. He taught himself how to use Gimp and invested about 80 hours into the cover layout. I think that by the end of the process, he’d rather have gone to school than be asked to change one more detail.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
It took me a while to find a voice for my lead character, Walt Pitowski. I could hear Walt in my ear, but it took some serious effort to capture the right tone on paper. I didn’t want him to be a total misogynist, yet that is certainly part of who the character is. Once I finally figured him out, the words came quickly.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I learned that, even when you have a clearly defined outline of where you want the story to go, you have to be willing to change and adapt. Sometimes the story has a mind of its own.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Keep at it, and don’t be intimidated by the process of publishing. I know too many people that have spent decades talking about the book they intend to write, “someday,” “when they have some time.” It looks scarier than it actually is, and not every thing you do needs to be perfect on the first run.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Sparrow River should be fun to read. It is at heart a mystery. At the same time, I tried to weave in slices of rural northern life, with all of the prejudices and flaws and problems that accompany that world. “Rasmus” could be any small town, and Walt Pitowski could be a lot of people you’ve already met. He’s rough around the edges, but underneath it all he is a man that wants to find his place in the community, wants to be loved. I tried to make Sparrow River as much about a place and time, about a person making his way in a specific environment, as it is about one single incident.