John Jeffire was born in Detroit. In 2005, his novel Motown Burning was named Grand Prize Winner in the Mount Arrowsmith Novel Competition and in 2007 it won a Gold Medal for Regional Fiction in the Independent Publishing Awards. Speaking of Motown Burning, former chair of the Pulitzer Jury Philip F. O'Connor said, “It works. I don't often say that, but it has a drive and integrity that gives it credible life....I find a novel with heart.” In 2009, Andra Milacca included Motown Burning in her list of “Six Savory Novels Set in Detroit” along with works by Elmore Leonard, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jeffrey Eugenides. His first book of poetry, Stone + Fist + Brick + Bone, was nominated for a Michigan Notable Book Award in 2009. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine called the book “a terrific one for our city.” His most recent book, Shoveling Snow in a Snowstorm, a poetry chapbook, was published by the Finishing Line Press in 2016. For more on the author and his work, visit writeondetroit.com.
Why do you write?
Wow, tough question right off the bat! I think we all have the urge, as August Wilson said, “to express what beats in one’s heart.” I spent much of my youth silent—later my older brother told me I was thought to be autistic. I can’t be sure, but I think I was just watching, storing away little pieces of experience. Now, hell, good luck shutting me up.
What other creative activities are you involved in?
I’m a high school English teacher, so I try to be as creative as I can with the kids. Kinesthetic stuff, jumping on tables, cracking idiotic jokes, acting out the part of The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan with a student supporting cast. Nobody does the lunk-headed imbecile better than I (actually felt kind of crushed when I didn’t get the role in the DiCaprio version). I also coach youth wrestling, which takes a pile of creativity to keep it fresh and alive for them. A bit of drawing and photography on the side. And cooking. Lots of cooking.
Who is your favorite author and why?
Philip Levine. He saved me from a life of petty crime and stupidity. I was a sophomore in college when I first read him and I got it—a blue-collar guy writing about Detroit, the factories, the breweries, the will to fight on in the face of all the everyday pointlessness. He resonated. Others? Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Yusef Komunyakaa, August Wilson, Wallace Stevens, too many to name. And my writer friends in Detroit, who get nowhere near the praise and attention they deserve. Love and respect them.
Tell us about the mechanics of how you write.
To quote the Joker, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” I have to be struck by something, a line, a combination of words, an image or moment of reflection, and then I’m off. I have no idea where I’m headed. I follow until something happens, a draft, usually horrible, then I go back and see if I’ve got something worth keeping and shaping. Tools? Initially, pens and lots of bar napkins, newspaper margins, the backs of Home Depot receipts.
Finally, what do you think about Carp, the fish, not our website?
Man, could be my spirit animal: bottom-feeder, none too pretty or glamorous, still serving a damn-useful purpose in the great chain of being. Think I’ve got an idea for my next tattoo….