Equal parts biography, fiction, and an ode to family and Detroit, Barbara Henning‘s Ferne: a Detroit Story captures the Midwestern magic of mid-century Michigan. Barbara retells the life of her mother, Ferne, through a series of vignettes, news clippings, photographs, and biographical details, fleshing out the contours of Ferne’s life from the 1920s through the 50s.
Ferne: a Detroit Story toes the line between fiction and nonfiction, and much of the book has been reconstructed through the author’s memories and research. We asked Barbara to talk about her writing process, her motivations, and what she learned through detailing her mother’s life. Her responses are just as insightful as her teaching, so read below to learn about Barbara’s latest book!
Your book, Ferne a Detroit Story, takes place in Detroit throughout the 1920s to the 50s. How did you immerse yourself in the world you were writing in?
Well, first of all, I was born in 1948, and I lived through the 50s, and I still have a vivid memory of my life during that time. My family lived in a near suburb of Detroit, but we traveled in and out of the city every weekend, visiting with my grandmother and aunts and uncles in the house where my mother had grown up. For me, as a child, Detroit was a magical place with old houses, shops and streetcars. Also as an adult, I lived in Detroit proper until I was in my mid-thirties; it is my hometown.
For me, as a child, Detroit was a magical place with old houses, shops and streetcars.
Because my mother died when I was eleven years old, I had perhaps six years with child memories of her. I interviewed as many relatives as I could. Then I decided to inspire the writing by delving into historical context. I studied photographs in her albums; one of the photographs taken in 1939 was of three paper boys posing in the alley beside their house. I remembered stories my mother had told me about how The Detroit Times had rented a garage from the Hostetters as a paper pickup station. It struck me as an interesting way to learn about context by going directly to the newspaper. I followed that lead and ended up scouring microfilms in the main Detroit Public Library. I discovered that The Times was a working-class newspaper and that seemed appropriate to my project. Eventually I had to narrow down my search, however, because there were so many interesting articles of importance to women and families and lots of newspapers; I started concentrating on only the days that were special to Ferne, such as her birthdays and marriages.
Besides traveling to the libraries in Detroit and spending weeks on the machines, I also searched for material on the internet, and I read many biographies and books about Detroit and the political situation during those decades, as well as historical books on marriage and the family in the 50s.
Parts of Ferne are biographical, while other parts seem fictionalized. How did you approach writing across the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction?
Even if written by a traditional historian, there’s a fictional aspect to any biography. As a novelist and a poet, I used my skills at writing and inventing narrative to develop the stories I had heard from my mother, my siblings, my cousins and from the narratives I found in photographs. I think of this book as a novelized biography told through text and image. It would be impossible to write a formal biography of a working-class woman who didn’t leave a written published trail.
Even if written by a traditional historian, there’s a fictional aspect to any biography.
As an undergraduate in a Women’s Studies class in 1972 (one of the early Women’s Studies classes at Wayne State University), I wrote a short biography of my mother. Most of the vignettes in this early biography, came from interviews with my Aunt Jeane. Forty years later, and several novels later, I rewrote, developed and extended those vignettes as part of Ferne. Since I had listened to my Aunt Jeane and my mother talking to each other all through my childhood, it wasn’t difficult to write the stories about Jeane and Ferne. Jeane and her husband lived to an old age, and my Uncle Marv had talked to me and given me documents relating to when he was a prisoner of war in Germany. I also located (with the help of another cousin), a document that detailed and followed the experiences of the soldiers in the 377th Infantry Regiment from boot camp through their deployment to Europe. That material combined with other research helped me imagine and develop dialogue, letters and the sections about the effects of the war on the women waiting at home. Throughout, I combined factual information with fictional presentation.
I sometimes created a fictional event. For example, I found a photograph of Ferne’s brother Lynn playing his trumpet under a sign, Café Madrid, 1936. My mother was very close with Lynn. (Lynn, Jeane and Ferne were the youngest of the eight.) I researched the cafe, read books about the jazz scene in Detroit, and again I interviewed my cousins. Aunt Jeane had told me some stories about how they used to go out to the Vanity Ballroom and dance. Also, I knew what it was like to be young, to dance and enjoy life. I also had gone to after hours clubs in Detroit in the late 60s, and I knew from memory and from the photos that my mother was very social and enjoyed her life. I brought these strands together and invented a scene where her brothers take her to Café Madrid and then to an after hours Black and Tan club in the Black neighborhood in Detroit. I don’t know if they ever actually went to a Black and Tan; however, I was sure she would have gone to hear her brother play at the Café. Also, I knew my mother and my grandmother were critical of racist speech and ideas, and I wanted to recognize the struggle of the segregated Black community in Detroit at that time.
What was it like incorporating multimedia elements, like photographs and news clippings, in the work as a whole?
The idea of incorporating the photographs and clippings into the story evolved draft by draft. When I first started collecting material and writing passages, I thought of this project more as a documentary-biography, maybe like James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I hadn’t thought about Agee’s book until right now, but I had had a love affair with his book when I was younger. Surely it must have influenced the collage-like structure of Ferne. In early drafts of Ferne, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my writing. I was on a search for the right form. At first, it was a big messy collage. I used the photos to stimulate the writing. Would it be a long poem or a prose work? I wasn’t sure.
In early drafts of Ferne, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my writing. I was on a search for the right form. At first, it was a big messy collage.
Once I started writing the narrative in a novelistic way, I didn’t want to illustrate the story with the photographs or the photographs with the story, although some of that happens. My intent was to push the narrative forward so that the photographs and clippings would become equal partners in telling the story of her life. I definitely enjoyed the process of collaging and writing the stories.
You started working on the book as an undergraduate, then revisited it after you were given Ferne’s photo album and finally, several decades later, you put it out into the world. What was your experience of working with this story over an extended period?
After my father died, in 1996, my stepmother gave me the albums, but I didn’t really start working on the manuscript until about 2015. I worked on it intermittently and overlapping with other projects: two collections of poetry, A Day Like Today and Digigram; a novel, Just Like That: and the book about teaching, Prompt Book.
One personality trait that has helped me as a writer is that I don’t like to abandon projects; I’m driven to finish things and this project became important to me. Another related trait that aids my writing is that ever since I was a young woman, I have been very conscious of my mortality (surely because of my mother’s early death), and with this book in particular, I was nervous about whether I would live long enough to finish it and get it in the world. That kept me awake many nights working on it.
You have written several novels and you’re also a poet. Has the process of poetry writing influenced your writing in Ferne?
In Ferne, I weave together a novelized narrative, facts, clippings, photographs, historical research, letters and other documents. I think the experimental structure of the biography/memoir is similar to the way I write poems, using collage techniques and pulling narrative threads, but on a much larger scale.
Also, I begin Ferne with a poem I wrote for my undergrad biography—
When the air is dry
and the spores are ripe
the cases break—
When I read these three lines, I recognize some sadness in the poem, the breaking of the case. My mother’s life was cut short because of her heart disease and her desire to have a big family. But then, there is the new birth, Spring, and a new generation. My siblings and I took care of each other after our mother died, and we still look in on each other, even though most of us live hundreds of miles apart.
I closed the book with a prose poem that I had written in 2012, “Like a Stairway.” In the poem, I take a stranger on a tour of our family house while we are still children and still living there. It’s kind of a surreal poem with embedded sestinas and a surprise ending.
How have your childhood memories of home, family, and your mother informed the way you wrote about Ferne’s life and personality?
When writing about Ferne, in her early life I tried to bracket my experience as “daughter” and my “loss” in order to celebrate her life. I think this is what writers often do. We bracket our experience in order to write about others or even about our own experience. One becomes a witness, and then without over-intention, the writer’s emotions and ethics subtly influence the writing.
One becomes a witness, and then without over-intention, the writer’s emotions and ethics subtly influence the writing.
After Ferne gives birth to her first child, I become part of the story. At this point, there was a writing problem I had to solve; I couldn’t write all the stories observing and listening to Ferne. I had to slowly segue into my direct experience. I solved this by letting the first person (my voice) intervene during the earlier chapters and then it wouldn’t be so surprising for the reader when my memories started appearing in between third person vignettes.
What lessons for your own life have you learned by writing about Ferne’s?
I think of the practice of writing as similar to a yoga practice; it’s something I do in order to live better. In Ferne, I learned a lot about the life and world into which I was born. Some of the problems we have in our present society stem from not feeling connected or knowledgeable about what happened before we were born. Then we repeat our mistakes. This is one of the reasons, we read and write books. I now have a better understanding of the history of Detroit and the U.S. in terms of unionization, migration, World War 2, gender and racial politics and so much more. On a personal level, I was able to dwell with my mother and perhaps to know her better, and I’m glad for that. Also, I learned to accept and forgive my father for his emotional absence. Given a very difficult situation, he did the best he could.
Links to Purchase Ferne
Reviews of Ferne
You can find a chapter excerpt of the book here, at Three Fold Press.
Additionally, two Zoom readings are scheduled for Ferne. Three Fold Press will host a Zoom reading on March 6th, 2022, at 3 P.M. EST, and Lunar Chandelier will also host a Zoom reading on April 3rd, at 3 P.M. Eastern. Anyone interested in attending can email email@example.com, and we’ll be happy to send you the link.