Watching and Listening: An Interview with Bob Campbell – Michigan Quarterly Review

Watching and Listening: An Interview with Bob Campbell

MQR’s Online Series, “Celebrating Writers in Our Community,” is inspired by our upcoming special-themed issue, “Why We Write.” The series of interviews is a celebration of the diversity of Southeast Michigan writers, their talents, their motivations for writing, and their significance to our community. 

Bob Campbell is a writer based in Flint. ​His work has appeared in Belt Magazine, Forge Literary Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, All Write in Sin City (podcast), and Gravel Magazine. He is a contributor to Belt Publishing’s Midwest Architecture Journeys, published in October 2019. Bob was a staff writer for the Flint Journal, Lexington Herald-Leader, and Detroit Free Press. He was also an electrician at AC Spark Plug, formerly a division of General Motors, before moving into journalism. His debut novel, Motown Man, was published in November 2020 by Urban Farmhouse Press.

Lillian Pearce (LP): Can you speak on the motivations behind your debut novel Motown Man? How did your experience working as a reporter/journalist influence the motivations for your novel? 

Bob Campbell (BC): My previous work as an industrial electrician for AC Spark Plug (formerly an automotive components division of General Motors) and later as a reporter for newspapers in Flint, Lexington, Kentucky, and Detroit provided both inspiration and material for Motown Man.

I was motivated to become a journalist because I wanted to be an author at some point. I read somewhere that Ernest Hemingway called newspaper reporting a good training ground, in part, because you are writing daily and the discipline it instills. I’m also drawn to the words of Gabriel García Márquez, who, in a Paris Review interview, said: “I am basically a journalist. All my life, I have been a journalist. My books are the books of a journalist, even if it’s not so noticeable.”

I understand what García Márquez meant with those remarks. In terms of observing the world around me and mentally cataloging experiences, the way a journalist would, I’ve done that my entire life. It probably has something to do with me being the youngest of my parents’ six children. I also have a niece my age. (I became an uncle at just ten days old!) There were a lot of kids running around the Flint working-class neighborhood where I grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s. As a child, I tended to hang around and tag along with older kids. In the seniority-based system of my childhood, the little kids didn’t have any say-so, or not much, compared to the older, bigger kids on the block. So, you learned a lot by just watching and listening. 

Working a decade as a newspaper reporter provided access to a range of experiences and honed my ear for dialogue and speech patterns. 

Motown Man was inspired by a news story in Flint from the early 1990s. Without giving away plot points, I rearranged the circumstances and introduced fictional characters, of course, to explore different themes of interest, including the racial dynamics of our society and the promise and perils of industrial automation in a Midwest factory town in transition. 

The love story at the heart of Motown Man involving the main characters – Abby, who is white, and Bradley, who is Black – is an allegory about the prospects of achieving genuine interracial communion in our society. Abby and Bradley are engaged. So, it’s not unusual for an engaged couple to think about how their lives will change as a married couple. What do you keep identity-wise, and what do you relinquish? How will you get along with the in-laws? What might your children look like? And so forth. 

The novel also questions or challenges the idea of whiteness as the so-called default identity of what it means to be a true American. This plays out with Abby as she considers whether to accept her editor’s offer to represent the Daily News at a diversity training conference in Miami. It was a fact-finding mission. The decision to send a staffer to the conference came as a result of a racial incident at the newspaper that left the staff divided along racial lines. Abby muses: 

Abby, though, imagined herself being asked what it meant to be a white American. There were false conclusions. … An adequate explanation escaped her, that is, until she began dating Bradley seriously. That's when she resumed her private inquiry into the meaning of whiteness.

Black identity, in the words of Bradley and his brother James, is scrutinized as well. They chafe under the broad characterizations, often mischaracterizations, of what it means to be “Black or African-American.” Bradley tells James, at one point:

"After a while, you just start to think why does it always have to be, 'Yo, I'm a Black man.'? Why can't it just be, 'Hey, I'm a man. I just a regular fella. My name is Bradley Cunningham.'?"

LP: How does your debut novel connect to your geographical experience as a Michigan writer? 

BC: We are products of our environments, or communities, for better or for worse. I borrowed heavily from my hometown of Flint in crafting the setting for Motown Man. The city isn’t named, but the fictional suburb—located in “a township masquerading as a city”—where Bradley lives is called Grand Heights, which is a composite of different cookie-cutter suburbs.

Flint was a grittier place when I was coming up. Grittiness, in my mind, isn’t synonymous with crime-infested or socio-economically deprived. I mean gritty and coarse like sandpaper. Something used to smooth out the rough spots, to finish the job. Sure, the city was grimy in places, but it was a working-class town where people weren’t averse to putting in long hours in the shop and relaxing in the bar or nightclub afterward. Now, sometimes relaxing at the bar meant going across the street at lunchtime, downing a couple of brews, and coming back for the second half of your shift in the shop. Folks worked hard and played hard. 

I think the O’Jay’s 1976 hit Livin’ for the Weekend really captures the spirit of the era, as I remember it. 

Let me just sit down and relax a minute
Gonna tell you about it. Huh
Uh huh, it's Friday
Aw, aw, aw, thank God it's Friday and I just got paid
Goin' crosstown
Gonna pick up my lady
Have a little bit of fun
Just ain't no tellin' where I might end up
You might see me on the East Side, ha, the West Side
I'm even goin' across the bridge y'all
'Cause I, 'cause I, 'cause I hear they can get down over there
(Well, well, ah.) Owe it to myself (Well, well, ah.) doin'

I tried to hit on that spirit a little bit in Motown Man but updated for the story’s period, which is 1991.

Life inside an automotive factory—the plant or the shop—also figures into this geographical experience. The shop was an interesting, closed environment that did so much to define the identity of the broader community. Consider this passage from early in the novel:

"Okay, can someone tell me how the original inhabitants of North America got here?" [Bradley's] high school history teacher, a decade or so earlier, tossed them a softball from a previously assigned chapter.   

"In a Buick!" The answer blurted from the back of the room that day was buoyant and confident.

Bradley laughed right along with the rest of his classmates that day. His teacher, a short, balding man with a chip on his shoulder, even cracked a wry smile at Marcus' smartass reply. The shops were hopping in those days, and a clown like Marcus had no worries because his future was assured. After graduation, he'd follow in the footsteps of so many others and enroll in UCLA—the University of Chevrolet Line Assembly, a euphemism for the city's auto plants. Yes, he would enroll in UCLA and maybe play a little softball, basketball, or bowl in a rec league after work. 

LP: How do different motivations influence the genres or subject matters you write in or about?

BC: As a former newspaper reporter and opinion writer, I understand how to construct a news article, whether it’s hard news, a feature, or commentary. Nonfiction, creative nonfiction, and essays are close relatives of journalistic writing. 

I will turn to nonfiction to recount or explore events of which I have some personal knowledge or connection. It may be a personal reflection, such as the essay I wrote about an annual reunion of current and former residents of the neighborhood where I grew up. Nonfiction also allows me to share some insight or perspective on a timely issue, and the turnaround time is much shorter.

For instance, I published a piece titled “Relinquishing the safety of silence on race” on a popular blog hosted by a friend and former newspaper colleague. It recounted a conversation I had had with a white neighbor in the aftermath of George Floyd’s homicide and the civil unrest that followed. This also occurred after Ahmaud Arbery’s racially motivated murder in Georgia. The neighbor, a friendly guy, had stopped me one evening while I was walking my dog. He had questions and wanted to talk. Some of the answers he got weren’t what he expected to hear. An excerpt:

There's a critical point, I added, with too many white people when our sons transition from being cute little black boys to young black males to be feared, controlled and minimized. It usually happens overnight right around middle-school age. From there, it's a fairly short distance to your son (or you) becoming the next Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Arbery, Floyd or Christian Cooper. I shared with him an experience from several years earlier when my then-15-year-old son and I were approached aggressively and questioned by a white man in an adjacent subdivision under construction. A near-perfect course to practice the rules of the road, I had taken my son there to hone his driving skills on the largely empty streets lined with mostly vacant lots. The white man, who felt he was empowered to know what business we had there, had no more claim to that public space than we did, a point made all the more egregious since he didn't live there either.  …

Fiction is an emotional journey of a different sort. You have freer rein to create, but the process takes much longer for me. Because I’m drawn to realism, my journalism instincts and training are very helpful. I refer again to the García Márquez Paris Review interview:

"In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That's the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it."

Sometimes, the challenge for me as a fiction writer is not to get too hung up on delivering “just the facts.” There are chapters in Motown Man that really tested me and stretched my imagination. The best example of that is writing from the perspective of Abby, a twentysomething white woman. I kept asking myself: Is this real? Does that sound believable? Of course, that’s what writers do, but I wanted to be certain to exercise care and judgment to avoid stereotyping and creating a flat character who is central to the story. I finally just had to trust myself and the creative license I felt I had earned. It was quite liberating afterwards to get through it, especially when my beta reader gave her seal of approval on the plausibility of certain actions, thoughts, and emotions of the character.

In general, I tend to think of writing nonfiction as more of a sprint (books excluded in this instance), whereas fiction writing is more like distance running, maybe even a marathon.

LP: In his 1947 essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell breaks down his motivations for writing into four distinct categories: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. How would you define your motivations for writing?

BC: Orwell’s essay definitely resonates with me. I would replace “political purpose” with “racial purpose” but with the desire unchanged: “to push the world in a certain direction, to alter people’s idea of the kind of society we should strive after.” In America, race must be part of the conversation in examining the state of our society because, as stated in Motown Man, “race always has a way complicating otherwise trivial distinctions.”

Of the four, however, I was probably the least motivated by “aesthetic enthusiasm.” At least initially. I came to this craft from an interest in writing research papers (in high school), essays, and journalism. I am still an information packrat. So, the “historical impulse” meshed perfectly with my interest in writing.

My enthusiasm for the aesthetics of writing didn’t take off until I became a reporter. I learned that being able to “turn a phrase” had value. It was 1991 or ’92. I wrote an article for the Flint Journal about students returning to school amid a heatwave, with temperatures into the 90s and no air conditioning in the classrooms. The angle was a report on how schools were coping with the oppressive heat. Upon visiting the school, I noticed how the faculty and staff had fans positioned throughout the building. So, I wrote: 

"At Southwestern Academy, the sound of humming fans fill the halls like the low tones of monks worshipping in a monastery."

I remember my editor’s response after filing the story. “Ooh,” she said. I thought maybe it missed the mark or was too much, but she said, “No, I love it.”

My aesthetic impulse is also fueled by a desire to capture and express the richness of black vernacular in dialogue. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the Afterword of the 75th-anniversary edition of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, discussed how Hurston was a master at employing the “figurative capacity of black language” in her fiction.

Once in the barbershop, I overheard a fortysomething patron bragging jokingly about his exploits as a defensive back on the high school gridiron. Somebody asked about how many interceptions he snatched back in the day. He paused momentarily, dismissed the question quickly, and re-took the floor. “My specialty was knockouts,” he said. There were laughs all around the shop. I used that bit of dialogue in my novel.

Lastly, regarding the “sheer egoism” aspect: Yes. There’s some of that, too.

LP: MQR’s special-themed issue, “Why We Write,” seeks to illuminate perspectives and examine the motivations of writers specifically in relation to how they are influenced by social and political conditions and social justice. How do these concepts influence you?

BC: As I noted previously, a “racial purpose” does influence my writing. It’s partly why I write. The rise of factory automation and the deindustrialization that occurred as a result in places like Flint and the impact on individuals is a secondary theme in Motown Man. I have also covered the topic in my creative nonfiction, most notably in “Home Again at the Southside Reunion,” published by Belt Magazine. It’s about the emotional and cultural significance of an annual reunion of residents in the southside neighborhood where I grew up.

For seventeen years now, current residents, former residents, and descendants of residents of Flint, Michigan's Elm Park-Lapeer Park neighborhood have gathered every August at Brennan Park for the Southside Reunion. The park is adjacent to Stewart Elementary School, which opened in 1955 to educate the Black families that would flood it as Flint rode the wave of a surging automobile industry and closed in 2009 after years of falling enrollment and a receding population citywide.

The receding population citywide and school closures are tied directly to General Motors’ disinvestment in Flint brought about by the financial pressures on the company. Even though this is a Black neighborhood, the flight of white residents, first, and later middle-class Blacks, to the suburbs also was a significant contributor to the city’s economic decline. That’s capitalism at work, right? I am a product of this environment, of this community.

Incidentally, I am a contributor to Midwest Architecture Journeys (Belt Publishing, October 2019), a collection of essays about some of the architecture and urban designs that dot the region. My essay is titled “The Flat Lots of Flint: A Liminal State of Mind.” In a CAN Journal book review, my essay was among the handful singled out by the writer. He wrote:

Opening with lines from Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," [Bob Campbell] takes us on a tour of the grand, late-19th– and early-20th-century buildings of Flint, effectively set into relief by the parking lots. The subtext is that capitalism is cannibalistic.

The idea that “capitalism is cannibalistic” certainly wasn’t top of mind when I wrote the piece. But it’s an interesting interpretation and more elegant, perhaps, than writing that “capitalism is dog-eat-dog.” Anyway, I suppose the influence on my writing is both conscious and unconscious.  

LP: In reference to the act of writing or the writing life, how do you think about community?      

BC: Writing is such a solitary endeavor. It also can be very private, in terms of what you’re willing to share, when, and with whom. It helps to be connected to a community of writers to commiserate, if for no other reason. I’m a founding member of the Flint Festival of Writers, which seeks to support the literary tradition and writing done in and about Flint and to nurture Flint writers. We have hosted a few readings from both locally and nationally renowned writers and authors, panels and workshops, and a book fair. Even though it’s still largely in the startup phase, we were making good progress in growing the organization. And then COVID struck. 

But my involvement with the Flint Festival of Writers was instrumental in helping me to connect with some terrific writers—Anna Clark, Christine Maul Rice, Connor Coyne, Jonah Mixon-Webster, to name a few. The All Write in Sin City (Windsor) podcasters— Kim Conklin, Irene Moore Davis, and Sarah Jarvis—have been tremendously supportive. Of course, Urban Farmhouse Press in Windsor and publisher Daniel Lockhart, along with his wife, Emily, who runs the By the River Reading Series, are essential members of my writing community. 

I must also acknowledge Belt Magazine, which has provided a home for several pieces of my creative nonfiction. Belt’s focus on the Rust Belt region has been a great platform for me to tell stories about a place I know a little something about. So, on the question of whether community has geographical connotations for me: Absolutely. As writers, editors and publications, we understand one another, I think. That, in turn, emboldens us to enlighten the rest of the world with our stories. 

LP: How have your motivations for writing evolved during the pandemic? 

BC: The pandemic has allowed or forced me, perhaps, to slow down a bit. The restrictions on social gatherings mean I’m spending much more time at home. So, you could say that I’m motivated to make good use of the time. Some time ago, I bought a book of writing prompts. I try to spend a portion of each day, 10 to 15 minutes, completing one or two prompts. I see it as a form of calisthenics. 


Creative nonfiction story 

(first published by Gravel; publishing rights revert to the author.)

The End of a World, as I Knew It

lsa logoum logoU-M Privacy StatementAccessibility at U-M