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 calls the book “a terrific one for our city.”
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Detroit. Did you grow up there too?
John Jeffire: I was born in Detroit but grew up in Dearborn, just a few blocks from the Detroit border. My grandfather worked at the Ford Rouge Plant and later on the line with GM, and my father worked for Ford, too, before moving on to eventually owning a family bar. Detroit is in the family blood.
Geosi Gyasi: How would you describe Detroit to any visitor?
John Jeffire: The magical city. The ethnic communities are incredible, Greektown, Corktown, Mexicantown, Dearborn, Hamtramck, and the food and drink unparalleled. We have given the world cars, Motown music, punk rock, electronic and techno. Bar none, in my eyes the greatest city in the world. When I say that, the usual response is, “You haven’t been around much, huh?” I’ve been to Moscow, Stockholm, Barcelona, Munich, and many other places, all very nice and lots of fun to explore. But my heart keeps trekking back to the D.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re a high school English teacher at Chippewa Valley High School. Could you tell us about some of your daily routine as a teacher?
John Jeffire: It’s the most exhausting job imaginable. Five classes a day, minimum 150 students, no time to reflect, breathe, catch up. Very stressful, but also very fun and rewarding. I am fortunate to work with some great kids who are eager to learn and grow and push themselves. I get to school around 6:45 a.m. and it’s a sprint. Teaching, grading, copying, talking to kids personally as much as I can, dealing with parents and administrators. I also help sponsor our student writing club, InVoice, and coach wrestling for the Motor City Wrestling Club, so some nights I don’t get home until around 10. Long days. Oh yes, and grading all weekend. Anyone still want to be a teacher?
Geosi Gyasi: What does it take to be a teacher?
John Jeffire: What did Dickinson say, “Much madness is divinest sense.” A pretty good outlook if you want to survive in this field. If you don’t embrace the madness and learn to tolerate all the incessant foolish demands, you will be miserable and eventually the job will consume you. I just focus on what I know makes sense and does right by my students and nod through the rest. And there’s a hell of a lot to nod through.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a writer?
John Jeffire: I’m still working toward that goal! Alice Munro is a writer. In my estimation, I’m some sort of work in progress. But I’m getting better. Word by word, I’m improving and trying to move forward. I’ll get there.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the main difference between a teacher and writer?
John Jeffire: That’s such a damn good question I don’t know if I can answer it. I don’t fully subscribe to the bromide of “Those who can….” Ideally, you can be both, but I’ve known great teachers, absolutely brilliant when it comes to understanding and explaining what makes a poem, story, play, or novel work, but they had no gift with any of those forms themselves. I think we play different parts at different times, but I guess if I had to separate the pure writer from the pure teacher, the writer is more zeroed in as far as one ultimate purpose and eliminates all impediments or obstacles related to writing. The pure teacher can write, but if he or she never gets anywhere with it can always feel fulfilled if some kids learned or some lives were made better. I think the teacher is content with the small victories. I don’t know that the pure writer can live with the defeat of never having gotten anywhere. And then again maybe I’m full of shit and don’t know what I’m talking about.
Geosi Gyasi: How long have you been writing poetry?
John Jeffire: I began writing wretched poetry in high school. I was very fortunate to have an incredible teacher in college, though, Albert Glover, who took an interest in me and pushed me to turn these manic, fragmentary rants into something resembling poetry. Without him, I’m nothing. I’ve been at it ever since.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your experience as a Wrestling Coach?
John Jeffire: I actually started coaching over in Sweden. In 1980, I had the opportunity to travel there to compete and part of the deal was that I had to help train their youth wrestlers, and I was hooked. I’m a far better coach than I was competitor, and I see how the sport can transform lives in a positive way. It did mine. Wrestling started for me as a daily means out of a not always happy house, and it grew from there. It’s allowed me to see the world and meet incredible people. I’m very thankful for what the sport has done for me, and coaching is a way to help repay that debt.
Geosi Gyasi: What position did you hold at the University of Findlay?
John Jeffire: I was Head Wrestling Coach but also Senior Lecturer of English. I coached the team and taught sections of Freshman Composition on the main campus but also four years at the Allen Correctional Institute, a medium security prison. We did well in wrestling and won a small college division national championship in 1995. It took a while to win the academics over that I was not just some nitwit dumb jock and I was eventually allowed to develop a course called “Getting Fit With Sport and Lit” with the head women’s basketball coach and it was cool, reading works like August Wilson’s Fences, Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty, Thomas Hauser’s The Life and Times of Muhammad Ali, and Hemingway’s “The Battler.” I would love to teach a course like that again. The prison was a transforming experience. I saw how much I was like the men who sat before me. In fact, a few wrong turns in my life and I could have easily been in that classroom as one of them and not the teacher. It was very humbling. My life is always teaching me to never feel above or better than anyone else.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Motown Burning”?
John Jeffire: I was on a family vacation and I decided I had time to devote to a project I really wasn’t artistically fit to undertake, but I went ahead anyway. I grew up hearing all these amazing stories of Detroit and, in particular, the ’67 Riots. I was a kid then and Orville Hubbard called in the National Guard to seal off Dearborn’s border. At that time, my father worked in the city as the operations manager at Olympia Stadium downtown, though, and it was so bad he couldn’t get in. I was little and didn’t get the enormity of what was happening until years later, and wherever I looked I found nothing, no novels, no movies, no plays. I wanted to tell that story, and I wanted to tell it in a way that was as chaotic as a riot. So I went to work and labored through the entire summer until I had a very rough draft completed.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you struggle finding a publisher for “Motown Burning”?
John Jeffire: I struggled so much I said piss on everyone and published it myself! This has been the frustrating part of writing. I’ve never been able to secure an agent and the larger presses in Detroit have all thumbed their noses at me. I suppose the consolation is that I’ve had full control over what the book looks like and I’ve been able to make my path on my own terms. I have a wrestler’s mentality. I’m not going to wait around whining. Get straight and make it happen. And I did.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your book, “Stone+Fist+Brick+Bone”?
John Jeffire: I’d had individual poems published for years so I felt it was time to put together a collection. I was fortunate to meet Heather Buchanan of Detroit’s Aquarius Press and she loved the manuscript so much it become the inaugural book in the Living Detroit Series. As far as the individual poems go, the major inspiration was my childhood. I guess it’s like my version of Blake’s Songs of Innocence.
Geosi Gyasi: When do you normally write?
John Jeffire: I cannot make a set schedule because my life is always being interrupted. I write whenever I have a few minutes. Summer is the time when I can focus most intensely and I generally accomplish quite a bit when school is over. However, when the muse calls, I carve out little scraps of time to do what I can.
Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you write for?
John Jeffire: At first, I write for my inner reader. I have some urge, an idea, a line or an image, and then I try to capture that. When I get something down, I get the crap detector out and go to work to make something. At that time, I’m writing for someone who may have felt or seen or experienced the same thing. At that juncture, I have to get it right for them. It becomes a more outward process, much more aware of others and what they see and feel and think.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you feel like not writing?
John Jeffire: Of course. For me, you have to devote a certain amount of time to living so you have something to write about. That’s part of the process. Living with all the senses so you have something to say when it’s time to write.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you often do when not writing?
John Jeffire: I love spending time with my wife and going places with her. We love music and dancing and laughing. She is what I live for. I also try to make time to work out and read whenever I can, just as basic sanity maintenance. In some sense, though, I’m always writing and composing and considering ideas to pursue with words. It’s just how I’m wired.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your interest areas as a writer?
John Jeffire: Overall, the basic worth and dignity of common people. I don’t like what I see in this country right now. Greed, selfishness, and dishonesty are rampant, even touted as virtues. All the goodness I value I find here in Detroit and its people. People often say, “Oh, you write about Detroit.” That’s true, but most of all I write about people.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever gained anything from writing?
John Jeffire: Myself. Clarification of what I believe and how I think. I am more certain of my values and beliefs because of writing. I am more convinced of a purpose to being here.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the most inspiring fan mail you’ve ever received from a reader of your books?
John Jeffire: The best mail is from my wife. When I can say something that speaks to her or moves her and she responds, I’m fulfilled. I have also enjoyed hearing from people who lived through the ’67 Riots and know Detroit. When they identify with something I’ve written, I feel as though I’ve accomplished something.
Geosi Gyasi: Have your works ever been rejected by publishers?
John Jeffire: Oh man, it would be easier to list my publications than rejections. I’m a rejection aficionado. However, I think my training as a wrestler helps with this. You compete, you lose, you learn what you did wrong, you work to improve your weaknesses. No crying. No complaining. Just get back to work.
Geosi Gyasi: In 2005, your 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. Why do you think “Motown Burning” won all these awards?
John Jeffire: Perhaps some mass delusion on the part of all the judges. In reality, I think it goes back to what I was saying before. The story had never been told before. The Detroit Riot was one of the seminal events of 1960s America and as a culture we’ve ignored it. I guess I’ve got a chip on my shoulder about that. If you want to understand America in the 1960s, look at Detroit. Every social, political, racial, economic, and artistic issue of that time was right here on our streets. Personally, I’d heard enough stories set in New York or Chicago or L.A. or some quaint Southern town, so I stepped up. Detroit is the keeper of stories waiting to be told. I’m fierce about my city.