I am a writer. I am a reader. But there are times when words fail me. This is one of those times. I have some big news. I want to tell you about it. Just this once, though, let me tell you this story with mostly pictures.
This is my old copy of James and the Giant Peach, where I experimented with what my byline would look like:
This is the “About the Author” page from the first “novel” I wrote in fourth grade, which I copied into a blank book and gave to the Lincoln Elementary School library after it was summarily rejected by a publishing house. Miraculously, it got back into my hands on my 21st birthday, thanks to my enterprising sister. I plainly modeled my mystery series on Nancy Drew books.
These are the archives of The Michigan Daily, my college newspaper. I partly picked the University of Michigan because it had such an unusually ambitious and accomplished paper. It’s where I learned, made mistakes, and first began to see myself as a real reporter.
This is late spring 2004 at my parents’ home. I’m reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I like this picture because I know how, even during a particularly tumultuous time of my life, I was purely happy to be reading a novel I loved, in the sun, in a place that felt like home.
This is a somewhat awkward photo from July 2007, near the end of my time in Boston, with two beloved friends. Harvard Square became “Hogwarts Square” for the release of the last Harry Potter book. While we’re here posing as we look at the first page for the first time, it actually was the beginning of a beautiful and nearly sleepless 48 hours where Katie, Paul, and I literally read the whole novel aloud to each other. We went straight through, chapter by chapter, being a listener and a reader by turns. There were many mugs of tea. Katie and I knit when we were listeners. Reading, which is usually such a private experience for me, became beautifully communal and intimate.
This is the main branch of the Detroit Public Library. We’re all outside waiting for it to open. This is one of many public libraries that have been life-changing places for me. Another kind of home. Not only has it proved essential for my work time and again, a place where I can chase down many curiosities, but its constant presence affirms the belief that knowledge, information, and art are a civic good.
At the book launch party for Michigan Literary Luminaries at a Detroit letterpress, with my parents, whom I love very much.
The title comes from this line by Toni Morrison: “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” It’s a line that haunted me for years, maybe because I grew up in a tiny town shaped by its river and by the shore of the inland sea that we call Lake Michigan. I wrote a short story called “The Memory of Water” that was included in my fiction thesis for Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers. This line was the epigraph. But that was a very different kind of story.
This is a breathtaking project, and I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to pursue this. I’m especially honored to work with such a smart insightful agent and Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt. Both have represented books that I admire — the work of people like Stephen Greenblatt, Caroline Elkins, and Matthew Desmond, at the former, and at the latter, Atul Gawande, Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Faludi, and Mark Binelli. It inspires me to square my shoulders and give this my all. More to the point, these are partners who really get what’s at stake in the Flint water crisis, a manmade public disaster of historic proportions. If “Watts” came to be synonymous with the 20th century urban crisis, “Flint” is synonymous with the 21st century urban crisis — a cascading series of obstacles that sets certain cities up to fail.
I’m alert to the responsibility that comes with this project. This isn’t just a story; this is people’s lives. It is a story that will play out for generations.
And so, here at the beginning, I make these promises:
- To listen and to pay attention.
- To give fair credit where it’s due.
- To do my best to tell the truth, which is the best way I know how to do right by the citizens of Flint and other disinvested cities.
- To share a portion of whatever earnings I make from this project with people and organizations rooted in Flint. I’m still hammering out what this will look like. But I think it’s important to maintain this as a priority from the outset, like a tithe.
Onwards, my friends.