Set on the gritty southeast side of Grand Rapids, Michigan, an impoverished area known for drugs and violence, THE CONCRETE centers around the home of Jackson and Mae Carter, foster parents of two boys―Isaac, who is white, and Miles, who is black―who share dark and intersecting histories that neither one is aware of. As the boys try to escape the grim reality of the violent streets―i.e. “the concrete”―in different ways―Isaac through basketball, Miles though music―the novel shifts back and forth in time, in the process revealing the story of an entangled community plagued by trauma and death, trying to confront the ghosts of its past, and seize a better life. A multi-point-of-view work of realistic and often graphic literary fiction, The Concrete is a striking debut that grapples with the effects of childhood trauma on teens, lost dreams, human sexuality, and the difficulties of marriage.
TFP spoke with Daniel Abbott about crafting his first novel, THE CONCRETE (published May 1, 2018, by Ig Publishing), its sense of place and how he handled sexuality and its multiple points of view.
TFP: Your novel takes place in Grand Rapids, Michigan and you, yourself, are from the Midwest. Do you think it’s meaningful to talk about a Midwestern literature? And if so, where do you see your novel in relation to your take on Midwestern literature?
DA: Until now, I hadn’t considered THE CONCRETE Midwestern literature, and now thinking about Midwestern literature as a whole and what that means, I admit, it staggers me. My mind keeps taking me to Toni Morrison and small-town Ohio, but that doesn’t really capture the Midwest as a whole, does it? I think of Chicago and Detroit which are far different than the small towns you’ll find in Iowa and Indiana and upper-peninsula Michigan. I suppose (and I’m brainstorming here) I’d have to view Midwestern literature as a diverse canon. What it means to be a Midwestern novel, I think, is much harder to define than being say, a New York novel, or a Southern novel. So, I’d see THE CONCRETE as part of a diverse canon. A portrait of one neighborhood in one Midwest city.
TFP: Many people outside of the Midwest conceptualize the region as homogenous. What does THE CONCRETE have to tell us about race and ethnicity in Michigan?
DA: THE CONCRETE cannot speak to race and ethnicity in Michigan as a whole. It can definitely speak to race and ethnicity in Grand Rapids and the greater Grand Rapids area. The novel is written from twelve different points of view. The POV characters vary from men, women, and children. White, black, and biracial. Drug dealers, prostitutes, athletes, and school teachers. The attitude and language varies with each character. There is a ton of intermingling of race in THE CONCRETE. I think that creates an honest observational experience for the reader.
TFP: There’s a great scene toward the start of your novel when Frank is watching Floyd Mayweather, Jr., who was himself born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on television. How has place shaped your characters?
DA: Place built THE CONCRETE and the characters in it. The southeast side of Grand Rapids is the biggest villain in the book. It’s an area of drugs and violence, a place one must survive. While revising I was constantly looking for ways to use language to make it come alive, to read abstractly like an actual character in the book (i.e., “a street with teeth in a neighborhood with claws”, “A white moon hovers over the city like a curious eye”, “A Sunday morning sun slow cooks the concrete beneath Joy Green’s yellow thong sandals”). I wanted the neighborhood to always be present, lurking, an added threat to the immediate threat the characters were facing.
TFP: I like that idea of lurking. We have this narrative in America that anyone can come from anywhere and succeed, do you see THE CONCRETE as fitting with that narrative or challenging it?
DA: I think THE CONCRETE embraces the narrative, but at the same time shows how easy it is to fall victim to our circumstances. Failure and success is anyone’s for the taking. There are people born into privilege that squander opportunities. There are people born with nothing who create opportunities through hard work and perseverance. Circumstances and self are the real obstacles, I think. What are we going through at a given point in our lives and do we have it in us to overcome it? THE CONCRETE is full of characters that are succeeding and failing. But I think all failure and success is temporary. Your path can be altered in a bad way with poor choices and in a good way with enough will and determination. I think THE CONCRETE shows that.
TFP: You deal very frankly with sexuality in this book. Could you talk a little about how you approached that aspect of your characters when writing the novel?
DA: Lots and lots of revision! When you’re dealing with prostitution and pornography you obviously cannot avoid sex, but when the sexuality is loud, like it is in THE CONCRETE, if you’re not mindful always of why you’re writing a particular sex scene, it is easy to write porn. Sexuality is a major part of the human condition, and I think it should be represented in art honestly and realistically. But it needs to be artistic and purposeful. I approached that aspect of my characters with that belief in mind. Sex is just sex unless there is interiority. That is my sweet spot for any sex scene that I deemed necessary. Yes, this character is having sex. Yes, I am describing what is physically happening during sex. But the most important thing about the scene is the interiority of the character in the moment: What is he/she thinking about? What is the reader learning about the character? How is the scene developing the character and advancing the plot?
TFP: Could you talk for a moment about writing THE CONCRETE from multiple perspectives? Was that your original intention when you began the novel or did it evolve through drafts?
DA: It was definitely an evolution. I began my first draft knowing that Isaac Page was going to have a father with a drug problem, that his neighbor, Joey Cane was going to be his mentor, that Joey was going to be murdered, and that Isaac was going to somehow end up in foster care. The thing sprawled on me. The back stories became as important as the forward moving narrative and in the interest of not having a novel with a heavy amount of back story, I decided to tell the stories instead, and arrange things chronologically, and give sort of a slow reveal for all of these intersecting arcs.
TFP: Having been through that tunnel and come out the other side, what advice would you give to someone crafting a novel told through multiple perspectives?
DA: Try your hardest not to be married or have children (laughs). It is truly maddening. I know writing this novel required a ton of pacing and staring off into space, or rather, staring into the world of THE CONCRETE. It was really hard on my family. And the POVs: It’s like that movie, The Butterfly Effect. The subtlest change can alter everything. One interaction can alter a relationship, the tone of a relationship, and maintaining that consistency is hard enough writing from one point of view. I handled it by stepping away from a draft for several weeks and then giving it a really critical read, taking notes, and making sure everything was cohesive before diving back in.
Daniel Abbott is a novelist and short story writer from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He earned a BA in Writing from Grand Valley State University and an MFA in Fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Daniel’s short fiction has appeared in the Noctua Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, and Owen Wister Review. His debut novel, THE CONCRETE is forthcoming Spring 2018 with Ig Publishing.