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Wednesday, April 8,2009

Write what you know

Michigan authors spin experiences into compelling fiction

by Bill Castanier

When author Michael Shilling’s old bandmates found out he’d penned a rock ‘n’ roll novel, some thought it could be one more chance at some kind of stardom, or in the case of Shilling’s characters, infamy. “Members of my former bands were disappointed,” he said. “They assumed it was about them. I did use my experiences to create the book, but surprisingly very little is real.”


Shilling, a lecturer in the University of Michigan’s writing program, has written what could best be described as a dark comedy. Make that really dark. His first book, “Rock Bottom,” follows the fictional Blood Orphans, a once acclaimed, now hapless rock band with a trajectory of nothing but down. Shilling used to drum for Seattle rock group The Long Winters; although he draws from that experience, the author said “Rock Bottom” is pure fiction.


In his book, Shilling examines the inner workings of a band as it completes its final, bombing European tour with a gig in, where else, Amsterdam. There’s the lead singer who’s found Buddha and uses the stage as a pulpit; the bassist with hands he wraps against the rages of eczema; the sex fiend drummer and the moderately talented guitar player who is the target of his bandmates’ rage. “The characters are totally gross people, but because of that, they become sympathetic,” Shilling said.


At first, publishers told Shilling his manuscript would be better if it was more romantic than black comedy. But Shilling refused to give up his characters’ nasty edge.


As a result, we get to meet sex-addicted Darlo, introduced to his habit by his porn-producing father as a middle-schooler, and whose credit cards are refused at an Amsterdam brothel while on tour.


And then there’s Bobby, the bass player, who sometimes takes to nibbling his hands “like a rat pinned in a trap.” Disgusting? You bet, and this isn’t even the best stuff. Just wait until you meet the cokehead manager with a Mohawk.
With “Rock Bottom,” Shilling has found a home among the likes of Chuck Klosterman, Chuck Palahniuk and Donald Ray Pollack, other writers known for pushing the envelope of good taste.

Shilling said his next book would be quite different; It’s a historical novel revolving around the life of Jane Eyre. “Gothic has always been a fanatic interest of mine,” Shilling said. “On some level I wanted to get away from ‘Rock Bottom,’ and in the new book I can’t use the F-word,” You can still expect a mighty twisted look at Ms. Eyre.


Shilling will appear with Lansing rock band The Plurals (performing as Blood Orphans) 7 p.m. April 15 Schuler Books & Music, Eastwood Towne Center, Lansing. (517) 316-7495. www.schulerbooks.com ***



On the other side of the dust jacket, Detroit author Jean Alicia Elster pulled from her own family’s history in Detroit to write “Who’s Jim Hines?,” a 2009 Michigan Notable Book Award winner. Growing up, Elster said she had heard the family story, which she has weaved into a fictional account of an African American entrepreneur and his young son in Depression-era Detroit. Although the book is classified for juvenile readers, Elster believes it transcends age. “The book is family history,” Elster said. “We all knew about Jim Hines growing up, but we really didn’t give it much thought. Then one of my cousins called me up and said, ‘I just heard about Jim Hines; it would make a great children’s book.’”


Taking her cousin’s advice, Elster wrote the story as a picture book and “shopped it around.” Although publishers liked it, she said it wasn’t going anywhere. Then Wayne State University Press suggested she drop the pictures and rewrite it as a chapter book.


Elster’s uncle, who was still alive when she finished the book, served as the prototype for the fictional 12-year-old boy who loses his schoolbooks and is pulled into the family’s wood business, delivering firewood to pay for his textbooks. In his travels, the young man learns about unions, the auto industry, racism and segregation, as he dis covers the identity of a mystery man named Jim Hines.

Elster said the story is ultimately about succeeding in life. “We were brought up to believe that’s the way life was supposed to be,” she said. T hat message seemed to have worked for Elster, a lawyerturned-grant-writerturned-author who once wrote literary snippets for tests. She said she left the law practice, because she found law to be too all consuming. “I’d rather be all-consumed as a writer,” she said.


Elster will talk about her book from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, April 11, at the East Lansing Public Library, 950 Abbot Road, East Lansing. (517) 351- 2420. www.elpl.org.


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