Mary Minock has been writing since the '70s, but the poet and creative writing professor at Madonna University never planned to try her hand at memoir, despite the fascinating childhood she had growing up in the upper flat of a house on Clark Street in southwest Detroit.
But the idea for her new book, "The Way-Back Room: A Memoir of a Detroit Childhood," germinated several years ago. After four years researching, writing and editing, Minock now shares her past with friends, neighbors, Detroiters and others, kicking off with a release party in her old neighborhood on Friday.
Southwest Detroit is the backdrop to Minock's memoir, but the real story is less about the city and more about Minock's rocky childhood. Her father died when she was six, which led to Minock caring for her mother and a strained relationship with her extended family. At Catholic school, Minock was an outcast, a deeply troubled child whose way of dealing with her grief caused her to be misunderstood. At the same time, Minock doesn't dramatize her misfortunes, and instead readers see a self-possessed, sharply honest girl who tries her best to confront challenges head on.
The Huffington Post recently spoke on the phone with Minock about publishing her first memoir and the city she still calls home.
When did you decide to write a memoir?
I moved back to the upstairs flat in 1996. I lived there practically 12 years, in the same place where I grew up. There are so many ghosts and so many reminders and so much continuity. I was kind of in a place where it was natural to be very reflective about the past. So many people can't get back to the past; I feel so lucky be able to especially in this neighborhood where much hasn't been torn down.
Did you rely mostly on your own memory or find yourself doing extensive research?
I did a lot of research. What's really nice about the research is finding stuff out will lead you to more memories. My mother had kept so many things; I had papers and things like that. I also did a lot of research in the Burton Archives. I was very careful to try to describe the neighborhood the way it really was. The book ought to be walkable.
In your book, your younger self deals with her grief over her father's death in a way that readers might be shocked by: she unconsciously engages in public masturbation. Was it difficult for you to write about -- and share -- something so personal, and potentially embarrassing, that was linked to emotional trauma?
It's about comfort; it's about something this girl can rely on. She's something like shell-shocked. At the time people of the working class, like my family, had no knowledge of psychology. Pop psychology is a very recent phenomenon. Now people don't do terrible things to their kids without knowing it. I couldn't have left it out without sentimentalizing things, and I just decided the only way to tell it is straight. It may make me vulnerable, but I'm going to have to deal with that. It's not something I ever think about it anymore. It's not raw. If it were, it wouldn't be in the book.
There's a taboo, a very strong taboo. I didn't set out to break taboos, but if I have, and it opens some discussion, that would be great. I wonder how much it could strike a chord with someone. The book wasn't meant to be a misery memoir, though. I had some real bad problems, but I had some real lucky breaks too.
Your book captures a very different city and time period. What are your thoughts about Detroit and its changes?
I root for it. It's still the center of things and there's a lot of diversity, a lot going on. Back then it was totally possible for kids to explore things on their own; we had transportation and we felt safe. I don't know what I would have done with out the libraries; the museums.
But it's not something that was great then, scary now -- that dichotomy. I'm so tired of these people who talk about Detroit like it was all Boblo Island and ginger ale. They just leave the whole thing agentless like nothing happened. If you were there, you could see that what we were dong then affected where we are now.
A lot of books about Detroit have come out recently. Is there an uptick of writers in the city, or has there always been a strong writing community in Detroit?
The poetry community here is just incredible. It's just supportive here, and there's so many things going on. I could go to readings and workshops every night.
Writing my book I saw there was this steady stream of sentimental "remember when" Detroit books. All around the area there's this longing to try to touch Detroit the way it was. We need to have a lot of books that are really situated [in Detroit] so people can get an idea of what it was like to live here, not just remember it. I hope nobody picks my book up thinking it will be one of those sentimental treatments and be disappointed. I hope that it transcends enough that people are thinking about their own memories and growing up.
The release party for "The Way-Back Room: A Memoir of a Detroit Childhood" will be Friday, Nov. 25, 5-7 p.m. at Cafe Con Leche, 4200 W. Vernor Highway, Detroit, only a few blocks from the house where Minock grew up. She will be reading and signing copies of the book.