Lost in the madhouse: Aspen’s Scott Lasser on his Detroit hometown
July 5, 2012
ASPEN – Scott Lasser loves a good epigraph, so here goes.Mary: “I’m just from Philadelphia, you know. I mean, we believe in God.”Isaac: “What the hell does that mean?”- Exchange between Isaac (Woody Allen) and Mary (Diane Keaton) in Allen’s “Manhattan”Scott Lasser has many well-formed thoughts on what it means to be from Detroit, and on what Detroit itself means. For his novel “Say Nice Things About Detroit,” published this week by W.W. Norton, Lasser cut out hundreds of pages in an effort to keep his book concise and to the point. He says that, as a reader, he doesn’t like confronting long sections of a book that don’t move the story along; thus, he spends a lot of time as a writer chucking out the things he has written.”Maybe I’m just getting frustrated with myself,” he says of the process.Lasser reconsiders, then puts the idea in a context that better fits the theme.”I’m from Detroit, man. Do we have time to waste?” said Lasser, a 50-year-old Aspenite who has lived in Colorado for most of the last 30 years. “One of the things I like about being from Detroit is, Let’s get to work. But without the New York nastiness. It might seem strange to call Detroit ‘friendly,’ but it’s the Midwest. And now there’s the camaraderie of shared suffering.”Lasser, who as a young man spent a summer working on the line in a Detroit steel plant, and who for years has held two jobs, as a writer and as a financial strategist, says “Say Nice Things About Detroit,” his fourth novel, is not about Detroit, per se. “I didn’t want a Michener-esque book, pretending to be a novel,” Lasser said. And this is true. “Say Nice Things” is about its characters, how they respond to challenges and tragedies, and how they continue to hold onto hope. Like Lasser’s last novel, “The Year That Follows,” whose story began on Sept. 11, 2001, “Say Nice Things” is a novel about family that happens to have a strong identifying hook.”You can make an argument that all novels are about family. Even if it’s not about blood relatives,” said Lasser, who is divorced and has two kids. “The subject of family is the heart of the novel. But I prefer my family dramas not to be domestic and quiet. I wanted a novel set in Detroit that gives you a feeling for being there.”The main character of “Say Nice Things” is David Halpert. Divorced, his only child dead from a car accident, Halpert can find no reason to continue living in Denver. So when his father asks him to come home to Detroit, to help take care of David’s mentally slipping mother, he decides to stay. Detroit is the only place that feels real to him – “real” in this case meaning a landscape of abandoned neighborhoods, drug dealers, low expectations. And violence: On the day of his return, David sees a newspaper article about the murder of his old girlfriend, the pretty blonde Natalie, and her black half-brother, Dirk. Following the thread of the crime, David finds romance, a new family, and a renewed sense of home.David may be the main character, but only Detroit gets to boast of being the title character. Lasser may not have written a book about Detroit, but the story and its characters seem to spring up inevitably from the city. The spectacular fall from its heyday as America’s manufacturing hub, the populations collapse, the race riots all form a vivid backdrop to the book – as do more sanguine elements like Detroit’s massive contribution to popular music, and the resourcefulness required of its inhabitants.Lasser opened a reading this past Monday at Explore Booksellers by reciting some telling statistics: More people have left Detroit than live in San Francisco. Between 2000 and 2010, Detroit lost 100,000 more residents than did New Orleans – “And they didn’t even have a natural disaster. It just got washed over by America,” John Sinclair, a Detroit poet-activist said, in a quote used by Lasser in an epigraph. (The other epigraph in “Say Nice Things” is also worth noting: “I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn’t anyone left to kill,” Stanley Christmas, who ran for mayor of Detroit, said of the city’s dropping murder rate. Also notable: Lasser warmed up for his Explore event by watching Youtube videos of early-era Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.)Lasser was born in Detroit; his formative years took place in Oak Park, just outside the 8 Mile Road that divides the impoverished inner city from the better-off suburbs to the north. Later in his adolescence, after his mother was remarried, Lasser moved to affluent Bloomfield Hills, 20 miles from downtown. He left to attend Dartmouth, where he studied government, but returned in the ’80s to the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, 43 miles west of Detroit, for an MFA in creative writing.In 1999, while working in the financial field, Lasser published his first novel, “Battle Creek,” centered around an amateur baseball team in Michigan. “In sports novels, you know it’s a piece of fluff if the team wins in the end, and it’s a serious book if the team loses,” he said. “I wanted to write a real book about a team winning, and the irreconcilable consequences of that.” Lasser’s 2003 novel “All I Could Get” was about a guy chasing Wall Street dollars; “The Year That Follows” was, akin to “Say Nice Things About Detroit,” about a guy piecing a family together.The idea for “Say Nice Things” began with a distant memory Lasser had from his 20s. Going to pick up his girlfriend, he was introduced to her black half-brother, a scene that made Lasser realize there were things in the world he knew nothing about. “I was dating this woman – shouldn’t I know who her family members were?” he said. Lasser pulled out the incident when he began writing a Detroit-centered novel. “Because you can’t write about Detroit without writing about race,” he said. “The story of Detroit, post-World War II, is about race relations. You want to talk about what went wrong in Detroit, I’d argue you start with race. Though you’d have to mention the auto industry too.” Lasser adds that, for a lot of Detroiters, when you mention the Detroit race riot, they don’t instantly think of 1967, when American cities from Newark to Los Angeles experienced racial turmoil. Detroit history includes the 1943 riot, when black workers, lured to Michigan with the promise of good wages in manufacturing jobs, faced a housing crisis fueled largely by discrimination.Detroit was already on the way down during Lasser’s childhood. The phrase, Say nice things about Detroit, was coined in the ’70s by Emily Gail as part of a pro-Detroit campaign – a sure sign of a city in need of a boost. Lasser actually took the title for his book not so much from the original slogan, but from an ad lampooning it, that featured a dog with a gun to its head, forced to obey Gail’s command.”Being from Detroit and black humor go hand-in-hand,” Lasser said. “One of the really attractive things about Detroit and Detroiters is a can-do toughness: Don’t just sit there and take it. It’s a tough place, and in an admirable way. It’s a non-whiner attitude.” Lasser said that character trait, which he associates with all the Midwest, kept sentimentality out of the picture as he wrote about his hometown. “That kind of irreverence doesn’t mix well with nostalgia,” he said. He was likewise adamant that “Say Nice Things,” which opens with a murder, would not become a by the numbers crime drama.”Isn’t that always disappointing?” he said. “You think about the average murder mystery – and I’ve become enamored of crime writing – but if it’s just a whodunit, it’s always a let-down. Because it involves some little surprise or trick. It’s a withholding of information – but then what? Where we really get satisfaction is understanding a person, why they act the way they do, especially under duress. That’s why we read, when you really get down to it.”And in this case, understanding a place, and a collective character. In the Detroit of “Say Nice Things,” Lasser finds a rich mix of bleakness and resilience.”That phrase – ‘It can’t get much worse’ – has no meaning in Detroit. You wanna bet?” Lasser said. “The ability to persevere and work and not give up in the face of all evidence that you should – that’s what’s really appealing about all Detroiters.”Lasser keeps a close eye on Detroit and visits when he can; he was last there in November. What he has found is a small surge of young creative types lured by dirt-cheap prices and the idea that Detroit allows them to start from scratch. His novel, of people moving back to the city, is coming a little bit true.”David’s attitude is, If I’m going back, I’m going all the way,” Lasser said. “I’ve read more and more about that attitude: ‘I’m not going back to live in the ‘burbs.’ Sometimes you make something up and realize later you got it right.”Ten months ago, Lasser quit his day job, as a senior strategist making investment decisions in the bond market for a hedge fund. He says that, in his financial jobs, he was never good enough to make the huge dollars that some of his colleagues made, but never bad enough to get fired. “It was a long career of muddling through,” he said.”I believe in a writer needing an outside life,” Lasser continued. “But my writing has been in the wee hours, exhausted. At some point you need the time and space to do the work.”His life of being just a writer has gotten off to a good start. He sold the option for “Say Nice Things About Detroit” to a film production company; he is also pitching the screenplay that he wrote based on the novel. The book got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, was the lead item in The New York Post’s Required Reading feature, and is lined up for reviews in Book Forum and The Wall Street Journal.Lasser is deep into the writing of his next novel, this one set in a Colorado mountain town (though one smaller, more remote and more innocent than Aspen). What distinguishes this book is not so much that he’s writing about the sort of place he has come to know as an adult, rather than in childhood, but the small-town nature of it. “It’s where everyone knows everyone and you can’t look at a piece of land without knowing the ownership history of it,” he said. “People look at each other differently because they know the family history; they know whose grandfather screwed who.”But, as mentioned above, Lasser edited long sections of “Say Nice Things” out of the final draft. Lasser has plenty more to say about Detroit that didn’t make it into the book.”I think I’m going to write another book about Detroit. It’s so fertile. It’s just another side of the American dream that never gets written about,” he said. “If I could find a way to spend more time there, I would.”
Scott Lasser will appear in a book event on July 26 at the Pitkin County Library.