Flint, MI–Flint-based author Bob Campbell has recently released his debut novel, Motown Man, through Urban Farmhouse Press.
“Motown Man is set in a city much like the city of Flint in the early ’90s,” says Campbell. “It’s the story of tension and romance in a faded industrial Midwest city. It follows an interracial couple, Bradley and Abby, who are engaged to be married. During the course of this unseasonably cold week in November, their relationship takes a significant turn.”
Bradley works as an engineer, and Abby as a reporter. The novel follows their respective narratives throughout the week they are apart while Abby is in Miami for work. The Flint-like city comes alive through glimpses into Bradley’s abrasive workplace, smoky music clubs, local barber shops, and more.
While Flint is never explicitly mentioned by name, Campbell says the inspiration and parallels match that of the city.
“Some of the things that are covered in the story are certainly interracial relationships, interracial communion, deindustrialization, and family relationships,” says Campbell. “I think the humanity of black men is an important theme in the story.”
Another major theme of Motown Man, Campbell says, is the subtleties and nuances of how systemic racism manifests itself. “You don’t see people out burning crosses in people’s yards anymore, by and large,” says Campbell. “But there’s these subtleties and elbows and being pushed in the back while the ref isn’t looking.” These subtleties are discussed through Bradley’s conversations with co-workers, articles he reads in the local newspaper, and time spent with his younger brother, James.
Campbell says he finds his inspiration and influences in the works of James Baldwin, Ian McEwan, J.M. Coatzee, Gabriel García Márquez, and more. He says he tries to read a variety of authors to find inspiration.
Campbell’s initial idea for Motown Man first came to him around the same time the story takes place, in the early 1990s. It wasn’t until roughly a decade later, however, that he began to seriously work on it.
“I got the first draft done in roughly two to three years,” says Campbell. “I immediately started trying to get an agent, and get some publishers interested. I got a lot of rejections, though.”
Campbell then set the novel aside for some time before digging back into it several years ago. “That was a five- or six-year period where I didn’t do anything with it,” says Campbell. “It really wasn’t until five or six years ago when I picked it up again and blew the dust off of it. That’s when I did a heavy rewrite on it.”
After years of work, Campbell was pleased with the novel and began searching for publishers once again.
“There were three publications I had sent it to,” says Campbell. “I told myself that if nothing becomes of this, I gotta push this thing aside. I’m kind of tapped out at this point.
“It was the last of the three that I got this email acceptance notice from the publisher, Urban Farmhouse Press. They enjoyed the story and wanted to publish it. It felt great.”
Campbell says he considered self-publishing if he couldn’t find an interested publisher, but strove for the accomplishment and perks that came along with a publisher. “I wanted that validation of an outside entity that says, ‘Yeah we want to publish this,’” says Campbell. “Then there’s the production aspect of it, too. That’s part of the traction once it’s released.”
Campbell says there was still work to be done on his end in terms of promotion aside from just the publisher, but that his background in reporting and public relations has helped him in that regard.
Before he was writing, Campbell was an electrician for General Motors. Campbell is now fifty-six, but it wasn’t until the age of twenty-seven that he became a reporter at the Flint Journal, quickly moving from an internship to a full-time position. His reporting journey then jumped to Lexington, Kentucky, for the Lexington Herald-Leader before returning to Michigan to work at the Detroit Free Press. Since then, Campbell has worked at a number of publications and institutions.
“In between that time, I took some creative writing courses,” says Campbell. “I had started doing some short stories. I didn’t get anything published at first, but I just dabbled around with it.” Campbell says those initial short stories were slice-of-life observations and experiences, some of which were reworked into his debut novel.
Since then, his works have appeared in Belt Magazine, Forge Literary Magazine, Gravel Magazine, and others.
Campbell currently lives in Fenton, but having grown up and lived many years in Flint, he says the city is very much a part of him and considers it home. “It’s been an interesting place to observe as it’s gone through its changes,” says Campbell. “I’ve seen it try to go through these reinventions a couple of times over the years, even though I’ve lived elsewhere.”
His experiences and observations in Flint gives Motown Man a thorough sense of authenticity. Campbell keeps his ears out for bits of dialogue he hears in everyday life to incorporate into his writing to flesh out his setting and characters. One of his favorite examples comes from overhearing a discussion from two people in a barbershop discussing their experiences playing football when they were younger.
“My specialty was knock-outs,” one claimed, which ended up becoming dialogue in Motown Man.
“After hearing that, I remember thinking: I’ve got to use that one day,” says Campbell.
“One of the takeaways I hope the reader gets out of Motown Man is that they care for these characters, that they find them believable,” says Campbell. He says that, although Motown Man is not autobiographical, he takes it as a compliment when someone asks if it is.
“What that tells me is you’ve found the character credible and believable,” he says.
Campbell says he has plans to write more novels in the future. He’s currently working on an outline for one, and tinkering with ideas and bits of dialogue.
Motown Man can be purchased at Comma Bookstore and Totem Books in Flint, and Open Book in Fenton. It can also be purchased online through Urban Farmhouse Press, Barnes and Noble, Bookshop.org, and Amazon.
Follow Campbell’s works at https://www.bobcampbellwrites.com/