M.A. alumnus Joseph Harris publishes debut story collection with Wayne State University Press

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On September 16, Joseph Harris presented his debut story collection, You’re in the Wrong Place, in a virtual book launch hosted by publisher, the Wayne State University Press. Harris read excerpts from the book and conversed with award-winning author V.V. Ganeshananthan about the intricacies of the stories, works in progress, and even his experience of being infected with COVID-19.

As we watched, the introductory story of the collection, “Would You Rather,” unfolded as Harris’ calm narration worked its way through our speakers. We were presented with a jovial opening scene of a 21st birthday bar gathering of Dynamic Fabricating employees followed by a more somber one of a car ride in northern Michigan with dialogue focused on materialism and the melancholy of a world devoid of religious morality. In his work, Harris delves into intimate descriptions of working-class middle America, describing characters who shuffle back and forth between a life in academia and blue-collar living. Harris showcases the intricate balance of going to college and working the available jobs,  an occurrence that is all too common for many metro-Detroiters. While we were mesmerized by these gritty Detroit scenes, the light slowly crept out of the background as dusk settled itself into Harris’ pixelated living room.

Harris holds an M.F.A. from the University of Minnesota, M.A. from Wayne State University, and a BFA from Emerson College. His works have appeared in Midwest Review, Moon City Review, Great Lakes Review, The MacGuffin, Third Wednesday, and Storm Cellar. Harris is also a Pushcart Prize nominee as well as being a recipient of the Gesell, Tompkins, and Detroit Working Writers’ Awards for fiction. Joseph Harris’ debut story collection, You’re in the Wrong Place, can be purchased from the Wayne State University Press Website.

-- Jacqueline Kinnaird

The following is an interview done earlier this year by fellow Wayne State alum Laura Kraftowitz.

In your stories, the city is sometimes the central character, even more than the people.

I’ve always thought of Detroit as larger than the city itself.

Your stories are linked around Dynamic, a factory that closes during the recession, a bleak moment for Detroit.

Dynamic is a symbolic place where all these changes occur—a physical place that provides employment, and through employment money, and through money a modicum of meaning. In the first story, the two main characters are on vacation asking how we make meaning in the absence of a religious framework. Well, through money. But what about when that’s taken away? That’s what I was thinking about when I was writing this, and it’s an important question for a lot of people in Detroit right now.

How does that time period look to you now, a decade later, amidst gentrification, coronavirus, and the 2020 elections?

I think one of the realities of American life, especially in Detroit, is that there will always be recession. I remember being in sixth grade and there was this recession because of the auto industry, and then when the dot-com bubble burst, and then in 2008. Recession is never far away. You always have to wonder, am I prepared for the next one, is my rent too high, should I not take this vacation?

What authors influenced your collection?

Reading Charles Baxter was the first time I realized you didn’t have to write about narcissists in New York. You could write about people you knew in your own life. His stories are so elegant. They start with normal people, and then something will bring them out of it, however briefly.

A number of philosophers were also influential—Camus, Duras, Wellbeck, the French existentialists. What I wanted to do was to take materialist and existentialist philosophy and set it in Detroit during the recession.

Tell me about going from an MA at Wayne to a fully-funded M.F.A. in Minneapolis. How does the MFA compare to the M.A.?

They’re incredibly different structures. At [the University of] Minnesota, it’s a full-time job. You take at least two writing and reading-intensive courses per semester, while teaching, finishing a book, and pursuing careers in the academy and in creative writing.

In Wayne, it was more about your life. I loved that so much. I was working full time at this local publishing company that’s since gone out of business. I’d work till five, have dinner on the quad, go to class from six to nine twice a week. On weekends, I’d write. It was this malleable thing you could fit around your life.

There’s also no way I’d have gotten into UMN if I hadn’t gone to Wayne. I wrote so much, experimented, and that’s something the faculty supported.

The protagonist in your book is often in the Ferndale area, as you were, growing up. How do you simultaneously write yourself and outside yourself?

The only time I’m in there specifically is seven or eight lines in the story “Memorial.” I’m the friend who’s going back to Wayne State because the factory has closed and I want to be in academe. I think with a lot of these stories, there was an image that I thought was interesting. In “Would You Rather,” the two protagonists watch the sunset from a parking structure because it’s the highest point of the city. I had this image of two young people in a really rusty car. Then, in “Don’t Let Them Win,” that car that has broken down.

What’s the most surprising part of publishing a book for the first time?

The relief! I worked on this collection for six years straight. It’s a demoralizing process. I published nine stories individually and faced something like seven hundred rejections. I was ready to set it aside and write a commercial novel and sell that. Then, out of nowhere, Wayne State University Press said they wanted to acquire the collection, for the Made In Michigan series, which I grew up on.

What’s next for you?

On the first day of the last week of my last job, I got Covid and ended up in the ICU. Now I’m using my time on unemployment to finish two writing projects. One is a loosely linked set of stories in Empire, Michigan. It’s more expansive and contemplative than my first collection. There’s also a novel about a soccer team. I was the captain of my team in high school and played at Emerson and in the Detroit League. When I switched to writing, I lost some of that, and this will be a way to reconnect.”

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