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Current Feature Author:
📚 Conner Coyne ❤
Connor Coyne is a writer living and working in Flint, Michigan.
His novel Urbantasm, Book One: The Dying City is the 2019 winner of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards for Young New Adult Fiction as well as the 2019 Kindle Book Awards for Young Adult Fiction. Hugo- and Nebula-nominee William Shunn has praised Urbantasm as “a novel of wonder and horror.”
Coyne has also authored two celebrated novels, Hungry Rats and Shattering Glass, as well as Atlas, a collection of short stories. His work has been published by Picador, Vox.com, Belt Magazine, Santa Clara Review, and elsewhere.
Coyne is on the planning committee for the Flint Festival of Writers and in 2013 represented Flint’s 7th Ward as its artist-in-residence for the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town grant. In 2007, he earned his Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the New School.
Coyne lives in Flint’s East Village, less than a mile from the house where he grew up.
- BOOK: Urbantasm, a serial novel (two of four volumes published, third forthcoming this September)
- WEBSITE: http://urbantasm.com
- AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/3dKqnqP
- FACEBOOK LINK: https://www.facebook.com/connorcoyne
- TWITTER LINK: https://twitter.com/connorcoyne/
Where are you from?
Tell us your latest news?
This autumn, Gothic Funk Press will release the third volume of my four-part serial novel Urbantasm. Urbantasm is a magical teen-noir inspired by my experiences growing up in and around Flint.
When and why did you begin writing?
When I was seven, my parents bought an IBM 286 desktop computer with a word processor. I loved reading fantasy novels, and when I found myself behind the keyboard I couldn’t resist the temptation to try it myself.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When I went off to college I was taking classes in playwriting, and I started to consider myself a legit writer about that time, though I wouldn’t be published for many more years.
What inspired you to write your first book?
My first published novel, Hungry Rats is about a teenage girl who runs away from home to pursue a serial killer. That summer (2003) I was living on the Eastside of Flint — the State Streets neighborhood — and the area had gone through a lot of hardship since I had grown up. Most of the local factory jobs had left for good, Buick City had been closed for a few years, while the factory on the other side of the neighborhood, Delphi East, was also closing that year. I felt haunted by how empty the State Streets were becoming. One night my girlfriend (now wife) and I were coming back home from a middle-of-the-night coney, and we discovered what appeared to be a human body in the middle of the road. We called 911, but I had a hard time sleeping in that house afterward, and so my brain started spinning stories to fill in the blanks. That eventually became the plot of Hungry Rats.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I describe my writing style as “gothic funk,” that is, experimental writing imbued with rhythm, romanticism, darkness, depth, and swagger. I’m not a “less is more” writer. I think “more is more.” I like to sweep readers into an intense experience, and I’ll try any trick in the book to do that.
How did you come up with the title?
The title of my biggest project, Urbantasm is a portmonteau of urban — ie. of cities — and phantasm, which is an illusion or apparition. It is meant to suggest the way that cities are in constant change and flux, and how the people and experiences we encounter there live on as ghosts in our minds, able to influence events far long after the flesh has faded.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I think the message at the core of all of my writing is rooted in the gospel message of radical kindness unto others, although I feel that many appeals to our better selves ignore how complicated the world is, how cruel and unjust, and make it seem like kindness is always a clear and straightforward choice to make. My characters are always struggling to understand themselves and each other, to define and discover a true kindness, but it is a two-steps forward, one-step back kind of journey for them. None of my characters are heroes, but most of them do want to be decent human beings.
I also think that kindness is interwoven with urgent questions of justice, and so often there is an historic or political perspective in play.
How much of the book is realistic?
Urbantasm is magical realism in the sense that the characters and most of the day-to-day situations in the novel would feel very familiar to readers, but supernatural things do occur, and when they do they are often treated as being ordinary features of the world of the story. It shares a lot with the uniquely Midwestern magical realism of Toni Morrison, who I think is a wonderful inspiration and model for writers today.
Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
A lot of this story is rooted in personal experience and people I have known growing up. Most of the characters are invented with composite identities, so there shouldn’t be much “this is obviously so-and-so,” but a lot of the book is semi-autobiographical.
What books have most influenced your life most?
When I was a teenager I read an abridged version of Les Misérables, and I loved it for the audacity of its vision and its willing to talk about whatever it wanted for as long as it wanted. I’m a “more is more” kind of writer, and few writers excel Victor Hugo at writing a book as though it were a hurricane.
As an adult, I’ve been drawn to Toni Morrison and William Faulkner — their writing and social and psychological insight is unparalleled — and to Ann Radcliffe. The latter is an early Gothic writer, but she is able to craft a description better than anyone else I’ve ever read.
I’m also a big fan of Gothic fiction, mysteries (especially noir), and genre fantasy writing. J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula LeGuin, and Raymond Chandler, just to name a few. And some poets, like Anne Carson and Rosemarie Waldrop have inspired me. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Djuna Barnes. Italo Calvino. Zora Neale Hurston. This is a bottomless question, because there is so much inspiring writing out there!
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Jeffery Renard Allen was my MFA advisor — he was such a nuanced and kind guide, and a brilliant writer in his own right — and I grew tremendously under his guidance.
What book are you reading now?
Right now I am rereading The Sound and the Fury for the first time since grad school. It is just as much a whirlwind now as it was then!
Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
My good friends Reinhardt Suarez and Marco Rafalà have recently put out novels that are tremendously rewarding. Reinhardt’s Yellowstone Trilogy features surreal young-adult romps deeply informed by his love of adventure and pop culture, whereas Marco’s How Fires End is a profoundly affecting autopsy of the Sicilian American experience (and no, there’s no mafia in his book!) Megan Abbott’s writing welds brooding neo-noir to startling gorgeous prose. I’m still reading fellow Flintstone Bob Campbell’s debut novel Motown Man, but the language has a confidence and a verve that makes me jealous. In recent years I’ve discovered Detroiter Angela Flournoy via her evocative The Turner House, S.C. Megale, Jesmyn Ward of course. The poetry of Roy Guzmàn and Jan Worth-Nelson. And, to brag up a fellow Gothic Funk Press, alum, the startlingly bright and propulsive feminist poetry of Sarah-Jean Krahn. And I’m very much looking forward to my friend and editor Kelsey Ronan’s brilliant debut, Chevy in the Hole. That’s another Flint epic large enough to bludgeon a burglar with!
What are your current projects?
Trying to wrap up Urbantasm and run Gothic Funk Press keeps me plenty busy. When the books are finished in 2022, I’ll take a month to recuperate and then see where things stand! In the meantime, I’m running the Flint Public Library’s Teen/Tween Writers Workshop, editing the Paramanu Pentaquark literary and arts journals, running a Zoom salon series, and am on the board of directors for the Flint Festival of Writers.
Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
My friend Paul has been a brother to me for more than thirty years. We’ve lived through a lot of the same stuff, we’ve hit ups and downs aplenty, and he gets, as much as anyone case, the peculiar passion that is life as a writer.
Do you see writing as a career?
I see it as a vocation, similar to the priesthood. The compensation is crappy, and one feels underappreciated a lot of the time, despite a lot of mindfulness and prayerful thinking. At the same time, you feel compelled to write because you are summoned to add something to the world that will hopefully make it better and more whole. By most conventional metrics, writing isn’t a particularly viable career, because the competition is tough and payment is always iffy. But when that little voice tells me to write, I write!
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Oh, lots of things. But I find that being finished is not the same as being perfect. Once you’ve gone through so many revisions, worked with editors, meditated and pored over every sentence, there comes a point where you have to say goodbye to a book and send it out into the world. It’s possible to finish, but not to perfect.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
The first book that ever truly engrossed me was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, which my first grade teacher read to our class. The story might have been a bit over our heads, but once we met “the man with the red eyes,” I felt that anything was possible if I was just able to choose the words to express it.
Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I like to concentrate very closely on theme and language, but the genres I move through — mysteries, in particular — require a very tightly controlled and organized plot. This can be a challenge for me, because even even your crime story isn’t a whodunnit, readers want to know that the details all add up to a coherent whole. Managing those details gets me into trouble sometimes.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
That is a hard, hard question to answer, but if I only get to pick one I’ll probably have to go with Ann Radcliffe. Her descriptions in particular just fuel my imagination to the point where I imagine that I am right there in the story, walking with her characters, experiencing what they do right alongside them.
Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
Overall, no, although I did get to go on a national book tour when the first Urbantasm book came out. I got to see friends in Denver and San Francisco and Philadelphia and Minneapolis. I was a winner in the 2019 Indie Book Awards and attended the awards ceremony in Washington D.C. It was all very stressful, but still a very thrilling and rewarding experience to be able to travel around the country sharing my writing. I remember driving from Denver to Phoenix over the course of one grueling day. At one point I came down into this stony valley and there were cacti all over the place. Just two days before I’d been dealing with all the sludge of a Michigan November, and suddenly there were cacti all over! It was wild.
Who designed the covers?
All of my covers have been designed by Sam Perkins-Harbin of Forge22 Design, and he has a fresh, innovative approach; indelible images rich in detail, with a nostalgic appeal. He’s great at collaborating with writers too, which is a rare gift because most cover designers don’t interact so extensively with the writers they’re assisting. A good cover is so essential to a successful book.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The anxiety of wondering whether I’m doing the stories and the characters justice. In the case of Urbantasm, these are the stories of people who have struggled with abuse, with addiction, with homelessness, and more. And yet there is gratitude and generosity in their words in actions. I am fully aware that I am bearing witness to the lives of others’, and I need speak of these things with truth and sincerity, but you can never be completely certain.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Twenty years ago I assumed (foolishly) that I knew just about all there was to know about Flint town. But the more you dig the more you find. I suspect that this is true of every community.
In wanting to tell Flint stories I have had to mine deep, and I am fortunate that there are some truly wonderful and rich histories written about Flint: The Daring Trader by Kim Crawford, Bronze Pillars by Rhonda Sanders, and Teardown by Gordon Young. Writing Urbantasm has been an opportunity to learn far more about my home that I ever would have learned on my own!
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Keep reading, and read widely. Read every day. Read stuff you find fun and read stuff you find challenging. Everything you read has something to teach you.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Thank you for reading my stuff, and I hope you are enjoying it!
Excerpt from Urbantasm, Book Three: The Darkest Road:
I took off my shades and my eyes fought to adjust. I stood in a dim, hot lobby, low-ceilinged without any windows except for the narrow panes on the dented metal doors. In the midst of the concrete floor, I made out a massive mosaic, every bit as intricate and ornate as the Wheels downtown. The picture stretched from wall to wall, projecting faint light from shards of fused glass. Steely grays, sandy browns, pearled silvers, and airy blues. The Eastern Mariners had been conceived when Akawe had money, so here, in this shadowy room, barely visible under the coalescing sneakers and sweatpants and tracksuits and girls’ shaved calves, I glimpsed rafts and waves, clouds and water, everything moving, nothing static, and it seemed an autumn storm was building against some foreign horizon.
“It’s a Bonbright,” said Chris, who had come up beside me.
“Arnold Bonbright? He’s the guy who did the mosaics on East Street. He went to City High, and then made this mosaic so people would feel loyal to Eastern.”
“Yeah, I know. I think it’s based on some Dutch painting or something.”
“It’s too dark to see it, though. They need to put on some lights.”
“You think it’s too dark here? Just wait ‘til you see the rest of the school. Later.”
And Chris moved along. I slid my sunglasses back into place and started walking. The dim lobby gave way to even darker halls, vaguely lit by spasming fluorescents and the occasional lights that struggled out through open classroom doors. I passed clusters of kids, hulking, whispering, laughing, throwing their hands up at a glance, a gesture, a greeting, and then I saw a narrow face watching me as we passed. It was Adam. He stretched his right arm under his left as he pivoted on his right foot, walking backward now, his left hand hooking his right elbow, his right arm turning up, the back of his hand toward me, fisted with his middle finger extended, his eyes glassy and his mouth a horizontal line. I turned away. I didn’t have nothing to say to him.
I reached my locker, squinted to see the numbers on the lock, spun them and dropped my backpack inside. I grabbed a single notebook and folder – it was all I needed – and started making my way toward my English class with Mr. Esper. I passed Majenta and gave her a sharp nod – the sort of greeting she’d appreciate – but she was too intent on parting the crowds and I lost her. A moment later, I passed Ken Lessard, immaculate with his pale face and his hoodie drawn up, hiding his single earring.
“‘Sup loser? ‘Sup freshman?” he asked, reminding me why we all called him “the fucker.”
And then I saw Selby, walking with a tender-faced, agate-eyed white boy. He had dark hair and teeth that gleamed against the shadows. She quipped. He laughed, nervously. They parted. The boy with the perfect teeth swept ahead of me, the kids ahead flowing around him without resistance, and then he stopped at a point where the mass of students broke around another boy sitting sullenly in a wheelchair, docked at his locker, unloading some books. The agate-eyed boy leaned over his stark-shouldered friend and whispered in his ear. The boy in the wheelchair – older, larger, wiry – shook his head, but the agate-eyed boy grinned a nervous grin, patted his back, and moved-off. The boy in the wheelchair gave the locker a casual flick and it slammed shut, shaking the adjacent lockers. At the same moment a distant door opened and a single ray of sunlight illuminated him. A slender girl stood at his side. She had big bangs and a stupid grin, but she stood with her back against the wall and her ankles crossed and she clutched a pink notebook in front of her stomach. The boy in the wheelchair pointed toward the light in the distance. The girl with the bangs gave him a nod and they parted, moving in opposite directions. The door shut, and with it went the light.
“John!” I heard Omara’s voice. “You made it!”
“Way to go, man!” Shannon was with her.
They both looked older in their day-to-day school clothes – khakis and second-hand polo shirts – than they did in their festival garb.
“Welcome to high school!” Omara said. “Welcome to Eastern!”
It took me a moment to respond.
“Go Mariners,” I said. “Go Blue.”
“Go Blue,” said Shannon as he waved goodbye.
Omara hooked her arm in mine.
“Where you going?” she asked.
“That’s not this way,” she said, pulling me toward another, even darker, hall. “Over here.”
The girl with the big bangs was moving ahead of us. I knew it was her because she was wearing a pink knit sweater. She was moving slowly, too, trying to push her way up the left side, against the flow of kids, instead of riding the current of movement on the right. But then a hand from the right reached out and pulled her over, and I caught a glimpse of furrowed brow and pale face. It was Lucy. She’d cut her hair short like a boy’s. I felt a shock as I recognized her. She’s here?! But now she was chatting easily with the big-banged girl, and they moved on ahead of me, oblivious to my presence.
“Were you tired this morning?” Omara was asking. “I was so tired! Three days at the festival, and I was so excited last night, I couldn’t sleep.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Lucy and the girl with the bangs said goodbye and divided into opposite directions. I tried to follow Lucy, to see where she was going, but at that moment Nova turned away from his locker and crashed into a sylphy blonde teacher in her late forties, and almost knocked her over. She was smaller than most of the students and groped about the floor, trying to find her binder.
“Oh, damn, sorry Miss Pavilik!” Nova said.
Miss Pavilik stood up, her yellow-gray hair tumbling in front of her face. I saw her mouth “It’s fine,” but “Mr. Richards!” barked Principal Newsome. “Slow down! Watch where you’re going!”
Nova nodded, winked at Miss Pavilik, and turned the corner.
“He’s a clown,” Omara said fondly.
I felt dizzy in the darkness and motion.
“Well, I’d better…” she went on, leaned in and gave me a kiss on the cheek, and left.
I watched Mr. Newsome as he turned the other way, into the main office. His penny loafers whispered against the aqua olefin carpet. He breezed past the secretaries saying, “Miranda, I hope your situation is better today than it was yesterday.” She answered with a sweet smile. “Much better, Mr. Newsome. Thank you for asking,” but “how’s the coffee today?” he wondered, and “I don’t know,” she said, because “I’ve got tea,” and she lifted the mug to her lips and took a tired, lukewarm glance out into the halls where the last of the students, a loose knot of cheerleaders, leaped and laughed toward their classroom doors, their bangle earrings swaying.
They passed the girl with the big bangs who had evidently forgotten something at her locker and had turned against the waves of kids, trying to make up for lost time. As she passed the cluster of cheerleaders, she noticed that one of them was wearing a charm bracelet with dolphins, dice, and a yin-yang circle. It glimmered in the greenish fluorescence – an almost phosphorescent light – like pennies piled at the bottom of a fountain. She looked at this bracelet as if it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
When the bell finally rang, I was sitting in a desk near the back of Mr. Esper’s classroom. The radiator mote swirled around me and I found a bookshelf filled with some authors I had heard of – Melville, Dickens – and many I had not: Calvino, Cortázar, Robbe-Grillet, and Sarduy.
“Hey!” said Mr. Esper. “Dr. Watson at the back! No sunglasses in my classroom!”
“Sorry,” I said, taking them off. I had forgotten that I was wearing them.
He splayed his hands in front of him, taking in the whole classroom.
“Welcome to ninth grade,” he said. “Welcome to high school.”
Check out other weekly featured authors at: https://motownwriters.wordpress.com/category/feature/
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