FLINT, Michigan — In November of 2020, Flint-based writer and essayist Bob Campbell released his debut fiction novel, Motown Man.
The book touches on love, hope, and humanity as well as ethics, identity, and race relations. Contrary to the book’s title, it doesn’t take place in Detroit, but in a small industrial Midwest city in the early 1990s, significantly similar to Flint, Michigan.
Published through Urban Farmhouse Press, Motown Man follows the lives of Bradley and Abby, an engaged interracial couple who are set on building a life together in the sleepy factory town. During an unseasonably cold week in November of 1991, the two are faced with challenges that shift how they view their relationship, their city, and the bonds that they have with others.
Although Campbell never mentions that the city in Motown Man is indeed Flint, there are subtle hints throughout the book that may tip off fellow Flintstones. The term “Buick City” is used to reference the city, and the predominantly white suburban area within the city’s proximity is aptly-named “Grand Heights.”
These elements and others in Motown Man help add a sense of familiarity to the setting without taking away from the centered focus of Bradley and Abby’s experiences.
The new author recently spoke with Flintside about the conception and creative process of Motown Man, his use of music to set the mood in particular scenes, and what he wants people to take away from the novel. Motown Man is availble on Amazon as well as Totem Books, and Comma Bookstore & Social Hub of downtown Flint where book signings for the novel were held.
Flintside: When did you decide to start working on your novel, and how did you initially come up with the concept of Motown Man?
: “The idea for Motown Man came from a local news story in Flint from the early 1990s. I had just started working full-time as a reporter for the Flint Journal. Without giving away the plot, I thought the incident could make for an interesting story by rearranging certain elements and introducing new details. However, I didn't begin working seriously on the novel until 10 years or so later. I had to learn how to write a novel and took some creative writing courses along the way.”
Flintside: What was the process like working on the book and how long did it take?
: “I sort of knew how the story would end when I began writing. So, I worked backward from there, in terms of developing the characters, the setting, and the time period in which the story takes place. Slowly, an outline of sorts began to take shape, but I didn't begin with an outline. How long did it take? It was probably close to 20 years from initial idea to publication. But the first draft was probably completed in two or three years. I then began querying literary agents and later small publishers almost immediately.
“I failed to realize then that the first draft was just that -- a first draft. I would soon learn there was a lot more work -- editing and revisions -- that needed to be done. However, I went for long periods -- years, in fact -- when I would set the manuscript aside and do nothing at all with it. But it continued to nag at me, the belief that I had a story worth telling. And while I considered self-publishing at different times, I really wanted the professional validation of having the backing of a traditional publisher. I'm not knocking self-publishing, by the way. Still, there were a lot of rejections from literary agents and small publishers along the way.”
Flintside: Do you usually listen to music while you write? If so, what music inspired or accompanied certain parts of Motown Man?
: “Music is used to help set the scene and mood in different parts of Motown Man. So, a club scene comes to life in the reader's mind if he or she knows that folks are doing the electric slide to Steve Wonder's “My Eyes Don't Cry.” They hear it. They see it. I tried to use music in the same way you might describe a character's face, a room's furnishings, or the smell of a factory. I listened to different songs as part of my research to see if a song conveyed the right or appropriate message for a particular scene. However, I don't have music playing in the background while I write. That would be too distracting for me.”
Flintside: Are there any particular moments in the book that were taken from your own personal experiences?
: “Well, I grew up in a city very much like the one depicted in Motown Man. I worked in an automotive factory for seven years. I'm a former newspaper reporter. Those experiences informed my writing, and I sampled and borrowed here and there to create something new. One personal experience that I did include in Motown Man is a family story about how my Uncle Melton came to be known legally as Sam Jones. Uncle Melton was actually an older first cousin-once-removed. I didn't learn of the story about how he came to be known as "Sam Jones" until after he had died and the newspaper obituary identified him as such. The grandfather of the main character, Bradley, is nicknamed "Sam" and the story of how he got that name came directly from family lore. Also, the fictional grandfather's real name is Ernest, which is the first name of my maternal grandfather.”
Flintside: What are some important elements in Motown Man that you want readers to specifically pay attention to? And what is the overall message of the book?
: “Race relations is an important theme in the novel and the humanity of black men looms large. The story is partly an allegory about the prospect of interracial communion. Motown Man also touches on the issues of identity, deindustrialization, gender relations, and journalism ethics. But Motown Man is, at its core, the story of a romance between Abby and Bradley in a faded industrial Midwest city.”
Find more of Bob Campbell’s work on his website and order his book online.