Author Angela Flournoy describes her experience driving through Detroit's east side as a mystery, full of questions like, "how did we get here?"
It is this particular question that gave birth to her debut novel "The Turner House" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23), a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Flournoy, who was raised in Southern California by a mother from Los Angeles and father from Detroit, combines the real and the supernatural, the past and the present, in this book about the advantages and challenges of being raised in a family of 15.
The Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for more than 50 years. Their house has seen 13 children grow up and move on; it has also seen the fall of Detroit's East Side. After the matriarch is forced to leave, the family discovers that the house is worth just a tenth of its mortgage. The Turner children are called together to decide the fate of a house that stands in an evolving city.
A graduate of USC and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Flournoy spent time throughout her childhood at her grandparents' home on Detroit's East Side. Flournoy will appear at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on Sunday, April 19, at 3:30 p.m.
Your father was raised as one of 13 children on Detroit’s East Side. How much did you draw from your family's reality when creating the characters in your novel?
Not really much when creating the characters. When creating more of the larger context, I used it as a jumping off point. As far as the characters, I’m a part of four families. There’s my dad’s side, my mom’s side and because my mom’s mom passed away when she was very young, she was raised by what was like two adopted families. So a lot of the big-family dynamics weren’t specifically drawn from my dad. They were more a combination of all of these experiences I’ve had.
The Turner house plays a huge role in your novel, almost becoming its own character. Tell me more about your decision to put the house at the center of the story.
The first image I had when I started writing the story was of Lelah. After she’s evicted, she goes to the house on Yarrow Street. That was the first image I had of the book: somebody in a vacated house on the East Side. I knew that person wasn’t your run of the mill squatter, this person had a claim to the house but still didn’t want people to know that they were there.
So from the very beginning, the house was at the middle of the story. The more I researched about Detroit, specifically when I became interested in how the parents even got there and what it took for them to get a house, I started to realize how huge homeownership is in general to the story of Detroit development and devolvement; everyone devolved, both black and white, but specifically for black Detroiters the challenges they had to homeownership and the bittersweet result of that.
I knew then that from a historical standpoint, the house was important. And from a structural standpoint, a lot of the main characters don’t talk to each other for most of the book, but the house is the thing that makes you feel like they’re all together -- they’re all thinking about this house.
When you visit Detroit’s East Side today, what do you see and how does it make you feel?
For me, because I came from being a storyteller, I’m interested in: How did we get here? How do you get to a place where you have three operable houses on a block that used to be full of houses? How did we get there?
I think if I wasn’t interested in narrative so much, I probably would be more depressed. But I also know, for my family in particular, that house served its purpose, as far as: Everyone made it out of the house and they’re all upstanding citizens and successful human beings. It served its purpose as far as shelter; in an ideal world, it would have been able to do that for more generations than it did.
Part of me is also just indignant. The last time I went there in October was the first time that I could tell there were squatters in the house. So basically it was the last insult to me. I certainly don’t want to speak for my family, people probably feel different things. But for me, because I’m a storyteller first and foremost, I just have a lot of questions. For me, it’s like having a mystery on the first page.