Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Bringing the Dead to Life

(Editor’s note: Just a year after the release of her debut novel, Concrete Angel, Michigan author Patricia “Patti” Abbott is back with a brand-new second yarn, Shot in Detroit [Polis]. I included a short write-up about that work in my latest Kirkus Reviews column, but I also asked Patti to pen a short original piece for The Rap Sheet about the work she did concocting back-stories for each of a dozen dead African-American men—all under 40 years old—who become photo subjects in Shot in Detroit. Her fine submission is below.)

In Shot in Detroit, Violet Hart, trying to succeed as a serious artist, comes up with the idea of photographing the young men her boyfriend, a mortician, buries with alarming regularity. Initially, she's caught up in the artistic aspect of this project. But gradually the horror of what she sees, the possibility that she is exploiting the situation in Detroit, Michigan, takes hold. Black Lives Matter, or the foreshadowing impetus and circumstances around that movement, begins to have an impact on her work. Is she exposing her own insensitive ambition in her pictures, or is she exposing what's happening in the city where she lives? Has she crossed a line?

I suffered those same qualms about the book’s subject matter as I wrote her story, and as it became a several-years-long project. Violet and I, in essence, followed the same path. Yes, it seemed like an interesting idea and one that was once used by a New York photographer with access to a mortician’s Harlem practice. That New Yorker’s gallery show and the subsequent book (Elizabeth Heyert’s The Sleepers, 2003) was a great success a decade ago. By changing the setting to Detroit, by making Violet’s relationship with the mortician more personal, by making her photos focus solely on young black men, by having Violet involved in some of their lives, I upped the ante for accusations of exploitation.

An early reader made a suggestion: Why not include a short chapter about each of the dead men on whom Violet turns her camera lens? Inoculate myself from seeming callous by giving those subjects more airtime in the minutes before their death. Initially this seemed like a good idea. In Shot in Detroit, the 12 men meet their ends due to various causes: smoke inhalation, HIV, West Nile virus, a skirmish at a mall, an altercation at a bar, an aneurysm, and several are victims of robberies. Why not write short pieces that bring each man to life? I began to work on that. And it was very useful. I felt I understood, in a small way, the situation leading up to each man’s demise. But when I began to insert these pieces into the book, they diluted Violet’s story. They broke into any suspense I’d been able to generate from the narrative of how Violet becomes increasingly involved with the police, with gangs, with some dangerous situations. I read a few of these pieces to members of my writing group, and although they liked the stories, they agreed that they were more an intrusion than an enhancement to Violet’s yarn.

I eventually settled on using only a death notice at the front of each chapter in which I dealt with one of those dozen men. In a few cases, there is more than the notice, but only when I thought it served Violet’s story. However, I still wanted to get those back-stories out there. So I began posting them in my blog, Pattinase, for anyone wanting to know more about each individual. (You should be able to keep track of the posts by clicking here.) Some of these deaths closely resemble ones that took place in Detroit between 2006 and 2008. Others I completely invented. Sadly, it was not due to a scarcity of actual deaths (you can Google “shot in Detroit” any day of the week to find some tragic tale similar to those found in my new novel), but strictly to avoid repetition of the same distressing stories. Men die in Detroit because of guns most often. Guns in the home, guns in the car, guns in the schools, guns stuffed deep into pockets. I could have easily had Violet Hart photograph 12 men who perished because of the ease with which Americans can now acquire such deadly weapons. And perhaps that would have been the most honest approach. Over and over and over again.

READ MORE:My Five (Actually Six) Favorite Novels Set in Detroit (or Near Detroit),” by Patti Abbott (Crimespree Magazine).

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