Today we have author Connor Coyne with us to answer our three favourite questions. Let's get to know him a little better!
SC: Tell me a little bit about your main character of this book.
CC: At the beginning of the Urbantasm saga, John Bridge is this thirteen year old white kid in a blue-collar family in a city inspired by Flint, Michigan. John is an only child and his parents keep reinforcing this idea that he's exceptionally intelligent, steeping him in jazz and culture that's a bit different from what most of his friends know. He isn't spoiled exactly, but he is reflexively selfish and self-centered. I think readers will connect with both his adventurous spirit and his social anxiety – he wants status, he wants a grand romance, he does not want to sit in a boring classroom all day long – but they will also want to correct him when he does something reckless or is unkind or takes others' feelings for granted. John is growing up in this book. He is changing fast, as are his friends and the city in which they live.SC: This blog is all about the supernatural, so I need to ask you, do you believe in the paranormal and if so, do you have an experience you can share?
CC: I do not believe in the paranormal in the traditional sense. I do believe that the universe is much bigger and weirder than we are able to comprehend. Physicists are constantly discovering new kinds of particles that we are unable to detect with traditional tools. Twenty years ago, the entire model of the expansion of the universe was upended when concurrent studies demonstrated that the rate of expansion was accelerating; not slowing as virtually every prior model had suggested. And of course, we're always learning new things about the way our brains work; the way they respond to music, or art, or memory, or history. My point is that there is a wide-open space for unexplained phenomena, between ghosts in bedsheets and empirical skepticism. I try to put myself into that space; I try to remain open-minded to experiences that I have difficulty explaining in a straightforward way.Sometimes I will be out for a walk – walking is the only exercise I get so I try to walk a lot – and I'll be shocked by a sense of place so achingly specific that I can only describe it as magical. There is a park near my house, for example, and most of the time it is just a park, with some swings and a tennis court, and kids and parents coming and going. But if I go there alone at the right time of night, at the right time of year, with fireflies glowing through the dewy grass, and a fog rolling across the lawns, and the surrounding houses all dark and silent, and the rush of the nearby expressway is soft, almost like the sound of a river, then the place feels magical in a way that transcends any of these things on their own.
SC: Fair enough. What titles are you working on now that you can tell us about?CC: At the moment, all of my energy is going into the Urbantasm series. I've been working on this serial novel since I was sixteen (25 years ago!) but even after all that time and tens of thousands of hours, there are changes and edits I'm still trying to make.
Urbantasm is magical realism inspired by the writing of masters like Toni Morrison and William Faulkner. The characters are realistic and recognizable – kids growing up in a declining city and trying to navigate the day-to-day struggles of life and school: this hardass teacher and that unfortunate murder – but everything is touched by this possibility that incredible, inexplicable things can happen: a pair of strange sunglasses really can shield you from evil, predatory angels really do haunt the earth, a homegrown drug called O-Sugar really can help you travel through time and space. And time is travel.SC: Thanks for stopping by today to chat. Let's take a look at your series now.
Urbantasm Book One
The Dying CityConnor Coyne
Genre: YA, Magical Realism, New Adult, Teen Noir, Lit Fic
Publisher: Gothic Funk Press
Date of Publication: September 6, 2018
Number of pages: 450 pages
Word Count: 85,000
Word Count: 85,000
Cover Artist: Sam Perkins-Harbin,
Urbantasm is a magical teen noir serial novel inspired by the author’s experiences growing up in and around Flint, Michigan.
Thirteen-year-old John Bridge’s plans include hooking up with an eighth-grade girl and becoming one of the most popular kids at Radcliffe Junior High, but when he steals a pair of strange blue sunglasses from a homeless person, it drops him into the middle of a gang war overwhelming the once-great Rust Belt town of Akawe.
John doesn’t understand why the sunglasses are such a big deal, but everything, it seems, is on the table. Perhaps he accidentally offended the Chalks, a white supremacist gang trying to expand across the city. Maybe the feud involves his friend Selby, whose father died under mysterious circumstances. It could even have something to do with O-Sugar, a homegrown drug with the seeming ability to distort space. On the night before school began, a group of teenagers took O-Sugar and leapt to their deaths from an abandoned hospital.
John struggles to untangle these mysteries while adjusting to his new school, even as his parents confront looming unemployment and as his city fractures and burns.
“A novel of wonder and horror.”— William Shunn, author of The Accidental Terrorist
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Excerpt Book 1
I have to become the Antichrist.
I realized this one night when I was standing on an overpass looking down through a chain-link fence onto the expressway below. Blue neon light shined off icy puddles. The gutters were flush with slush. Empty houses, ragged wrecks, hung out on tiny lots to my left and right. Beneath me, the cars that this city had built were leaving it – some of them forever. Across from me, on a rusted trestle, a freight train slowly passed, bringing in the parts for more cars.
As the train moved on through, I thought about Drake and about how God had fucked him over. How he’d fucked us all over. Then I thought about the house with Jesus graffitied on its side. Orange skin, blue eyes, green thorns. A welter of wounds. I clenched my jaw and my teeth squeaked together. Across from me, the train wheels squealed.
If I wanted to save my friends, I would have to murder God.
This is mostly my story, but I’m gonna start out by telling you about what happened to Drake. Just so you know – just so you can see right off the bat – what a bastard God could be and why a lot of us had it out for him.
In the summer of 1993, Drake had just turned sixteen.
He was going to be a junior, and his horror-show-of-a-life finally seemed to be turning a corner. He’d been living with his dad and sister in the trailer park when his mom finally moved out of her little house in the Lestrade neighborhood. She’d given it to Drake’s dad. She knew damn well that he wasn’t going to pay any rent, but she didn’t care as long as he kept the kids. Now Drake would have empty houses next door instead of empty trailers. He, his sister, and his dad had filled a couple dozen Hefty sacks with all their stuff and dropped them in the trunk of their scraped-up Benedict.
One trailer over, Sapphire watched, leaning back against the bent wall, her narrow eyes shaded behind her too-big sunglasses. She was a white girl, also sixteenish, with hair so light it glowed like tallow dripping from one of my mother’s candles. Blue eyes too, quiet laughter, nervous all the time, but silently thrilled to be growing up as fast as she could.
“I ever gonna see you now?” she asked.
“See me at school,” Drake said. “Summer’s done next week.”
“Suck a dick,” she said and laughed.
“Come over to my new place tonight. Come over, what, nine? Bring DeeDee. I’ll get Jamo and TK. Drinks from my dad. We’ll bust up that hospital like we said. I got gold now, you know. Crazy gold.”
And he did. Drake wasn’t a Chalk – fuck those racist fucks – but they were a North Side gang wanting to sell some coke and E out on the East Side, and Drake was their man. Okay, their middleman. EZ set the whole thing up. Drake hated the Chalks but he liked the money and he also liked EZ. How could you not like EZ, talking the way he did? Dude had magnetism.
Even before Drake had unpacked all his shit at the new place, even before the sun had dipped behind the swampy trees shadowing the creek, EZ pulled up in his moon blue Starr Slipstream. A sweet make and model for a blue-collar beater. Rust patches shaped like Martian mountains silhouetted against a dusty sky. EZ called Drake over to the window.
“You straight over here, D?” EZ said. “This all new to you?”
“Naw,” said Drake. “I got all the fiends back on Ash and I’ll get some here too. See my moms lived here years. Lestrade Hood. I know it. Every street. Every liquor store. Every squat the kids go to fuck.”
“What about you?” EZ asked. “You gettin’ some, D?”
“Not now, you know,” Drake said.
“But you got plans on that.”
“You better stitch it up then. If boys don’t fuck they die.” EZ grinned without parting his pink lips. Crows feet in the cracks of his mellow yellow eyes. He was white-ish, but he had some black in him, too. It always struck Drake as funny when black kids joined up with the Chalks.
Now EZ leaned out of the car, looking forward, turning to look back, taking in the whole street with its tidy ranches and its burnt-out wrecks. “Le Strayed,” he said, the tip of his tongue probing his teeth like he was rolling a Werther’s.
How old is he anyway? Drake wondered. Older than Drake. Younger than Drake’s dad. It was hard to tell.
“You know,” EZ said. “Jesus was a fool to crawl up on that cross. God made the devil. Devil is God’s tool. Hammer in his hand. And the devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the Earth, and don’t you think that was part of Yahweh’s plan too? What you think woulda happened if Jesus had just said ‘yes?’ I bet we wouldn’t be slumming in Akawe.”
Akawe is the name of this city.
A poor city. A beat-up city. A car-making city an hour’s drive from Detroit, but then the cars it made left, along with the money, along with the people. Akawe.
“I don’t know,” said Drake. “I ain’t religious.”
EZ laughed. “No, you ain’t,” he said. “Here. I got something new for you to test for me. Make some night special. Full of secrets.”
He beckoned. Drake leaned in through the open window. In EZ’s palm, a sandwich bag with five white pills.
“What’s that?” asked Drake.
“A new thing,” EZ said. “Chalks call it O-Sugar. Kinda like E. Kinda not. Try it out. Give it some time. Don’t go to sleep. Gonna see the world through God’s eyes. Feel like Jesus would if he’d said yes to his good friend the devil.”
After EZ signed off, Drake helped his dad and his sister unpack until the sun went down and his friends came over. They all sat on the front porch, passed a 40, smoked up, and put the pills of O-Sugar on their tongues and swallowed. They talked about music and cars and love and sex.
About big old TK who had built a Frankenstein sedan from the soldered guts of four different cars.
About DeeDee, sad-in-her-heart that this boy Shawn would never see a woman in her like she saw a man in him. “He’s on varsity, you know,” she said.
Then, there was skinny Jamo with his horn-rimmed glasses. He kept farting. He said he liked the kids’ urinals best because that way his dick didn’t brush the puck.
Drake didn’t talk much, though. He kept looking at Sapphire – her eyes, her face, her perfect nose – and he felt her laughter run his spine like blue notes down a keyboard. She was a song he hoped he might play some day, but not in a crude way. He hoped he was a conversation she might have.
The kids’ hearts started to glow in their chests with a slow, soft burn. That was the beer talking. They walked down the driveway to DeeDee’s Aubrey.
They left Lestrade and crossed the expressway into Anderson Park – brick houses, neat lawns, where the mayor and the college presidents lived – but even these exalted ones couldn’t keep St. Christopher’s Hospital open in crumbling Akawe. The hospital towered in the midst of the neighborhood, full of empty-dark windows and stern staring statues.
DeeDee parked on a side street of prim Cape Cods and the kids walked the last half block to the hospital complex. Above them, the moon waxed, and the whole sky – the everything – seemed to unfurl and offer itself to Drake, limpid and tender. Is that the O-Sugar? Or just the weed? Drake swelled into the wide space of that raw and thrilling moment.
TK led them across the cracked parking lot to the loading dock.
They hauled up the service gate, slipped inside, and descended into the fluorescent-lit basement. There were seven buildings in St. Christopher’s, but underground tunnels connected them all. After hitting a few dead-ends, the kids found their way to the central building. The six-story main building with a floor plan shaped like a giant cross. As they climbed, floor by floor, moment by moment, the shadows around them expanded with opportunities, with regrets redressed, and the future converging upon their pasts. Infinities of little universes hid in the dark corners of that empty space, clear of matter but clouded with tension, ready to emerge.
By the time they reached the roof, they all felt dizzy and disoriented. Before, their yearning spirits had stretched into each new second, each new room. But now that the potential for movement threatened actual motion – now that acceleration accelerated – they put their hands in their pockets and tried to slow down. The speed of everything was getting weird on them.
“Babies, I gotta sit down!” said Jamo.
They all sat.
“I feel like, like sad and sore,” said Sapphire and she plucked at her hair.
“Hold my hand, Saph,” said DeeDee, and they all held hands.
Far off, the sound of a train rang out and, at that moment, the city lights opened wide like eyes, and the stars glowed and exploded, and heat spilled like syrup from above. Dust and clouds, spinning and shining with lightning and friction. Planetoids and asteroids whirling with volcanoes down jets of solar steam. As the train whistle sang, its sound was compressed, compacted, tonally shifted upwards, higher, with panic. As the pitch got higher and higher, Drake felt better and better, and it terrified him. He climbed on top of himself – palms pushing down on his head – to hold his soaring heart in place, but the shadows everywhere slid up convex hypotenuses from the streets below. They weighed down invisible tightropes that connected to the tallest buildings Downtown. Everything kept turning bluer and bluer. Turning to blue and purple.
The shadows swung their arms. They were the remnants of that abandoned place, humanoid, with blue coins replacing their eyes. They had flown away when their owners checked out and went home or died at the hospital. Now, they returned, suctioned in, pulled back toward the points of departure.
But as the shadows converged and became more humanlike, Drake’s friends had been reduced to matter and residuals. TK and DeeDee and Jamo and Sapphire had all lost their eyes and their ability to speak. Their faces had become smooth planes of flesh and, finally, pure fields of electricity. Small blobs, data balls, started to grow and divide. Oxygen bloomed. The kids floated – impossible! – but happening, and as they did the lights got brighter and brighter, heightened and compressed, flattened and overheated.
“Sapphire...” Drake tried to say, and he leaned toward her, straining to see her features again. He wondered what had happened to him and his friends. What was happening around them. On every side. He imagined their height, sixty feet up. The death it represented.
Then, as if in response, space itself pressed in and Drake felt himself stretched out over the edge of the building. He fell. He was falling. Yellow-blue parking lot lines dropped away behind him and approached. They got small. The last thing he saw before he hit were black streaks of grypanian spirals, dotting away and multiplying.
The sky was a dome, but the parking lot was deep.
Urbantasm Book Two
The Empty Room
Publisher: Gothic Funk Press
Date of Publication: September 2019
Number of pages:
Word Count: 175,000
Cover Artist: Sam Perkins-Harbin, Forge22 Design
Urbantasm: The Empty Room is the second book in the magical teen noir serial novel inspired by the author’s experiences growing up in and around Flint, Michigan.
Urbantasm: The Empty Room is the second book in the magical teen noir serial novel inspired by the author’s experiences growing up in and around Flint, Michigan.
John Bridge is only two months into junior high and his previously boring life has already been turned upside-down. His best friend has gone missing, his father has been laid-off from the factory, and John keeps looking over his shoulder for a mysterious adversary: a man with a knife and some perfect blue sunglasses.
As if all this wasn’t bad enough, John must now confront his complicated feelings for a classmate who has helped him out of one scrape after another, although he knows little about who she is and what she wants. What does it mean to want somebody? How can you want them if you don’t understand them? Does anybody understand anyone, ever? These are hard questions made harder in the struggling city of Akawe, where the factories are closing, the schools are closing, the schools are crumbling, and even the streetlights can’t be kept on all night.
John and his friends are only thirteen, but they are fighting for their lives and futures. Will they save Akawe, will they escape, or are they doomed? They might find their answers in an empty room… in a city with ten thousand abandoned houses, there will be plenty to choose from.
Excerpt Book 2
In the perfect past, in the flushest years at Ellis Island, as overladen ships waked the gray waves and passed into New York Harbor, small groups of Greeks clustered at the prows and pointed at the broad banks of twinkling lights in the distance.
“Είναι ότι η New York?” they'd ask a deckhand or
whoever happened to be standing nearby. “Ya,” he'd reply. “That's Coney Island.”
“Coney Island,” the emigrants repeated in awe, leaning out over the churning ocean to get a better look at their new home. It was sparkling bright, shimmering, these ethereal, auroral sparks in the morning twilight, murmured invitations from the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel, to taste the delights of the Boardwalk, of Luna Park, Steeplechase, Dreamland, and rapture on off of the Parachute Drop. The lights preceded the long queues, the dirty work, the discrimination against these Orthodox Christians with their swinging censers and their woolly bearded priests. In the hard years to come, the emigrants always held that first vision of Coney Island in their memories, because it was their first, unsullied glimpse of the Americas, and it had seemed to confirm the promise of a better life here. That's why, days, or weeks, or years later, having saved up scraps from their factory jobs, or having snuck small fortunes overseas, sewn into their threadbare jackets, when they opened hot dog stands in the industrial cities of Southeast Michigan, they called them “Coney Islands.”
That's the story I was told growing up. Like so many of our New World origin stories, it's pretty much bullshit. The immigrants called their wieners “coney islands” because they bought them at Coney Island, and the local Chamber of Commerce banned the words “hot dog” because they figured the stupid immigrants might think their wieners were made from actual dogs.
But when the supposedly stupid immigrants arrived in Michigan and started selling their own coney islands in the nineteen teens, they decided to improve their product. Thus began a long process of prayer and experimentation, roots plucked from tiny backyard gardens, cattle slaughtered at the altar, with providential navigation toward the apotheosis of the hot dog.
The core of this creation was the wiener itself, and from 1914 these were produced under arcane secrecy by the Richard Goerlich Bavarian Encased Meats Company, later known simply as “Goerlich's.” Perhaps as a nod to the melting pot that threw the German Lutherans in with the Balkanites, a Goerlich was made out of many animals. A puree of pork and beef with secret spices all pressed together in a lambskin casing, tied off and smoked over a hardwood grill. The pork content meant that these Viennas could be grilled for longer than other wieners without burning and shrinking. The spices were sweet and sour: traces of mustard, sugar, vinegar, and salt. When you bit into a Goerlich, you felt the skin snap before your teeth sank into its soft inner flesh.
A Goerlich alone, however, was not enough to make the superior coney. To turn a Goerlich into a coney, you had to top it with coney sauce, mustard, and onions, on a fresh bun, on a hot plate with a hot cup of coffee on the side. To do it right, everything must be fresh. Even the mustard, the simplest ingredient, must taste as sharp as a paring knife and shine as bright as the sun. The Balkanites didn't just chop their onions into large, trapezoidal chunks. Onions were precision-cubed by calloused hands at half the speed of sound before being swept into oak barrels and sealed and chilled and called into use. Akawe Ashkenazi bakeries supplied the buns, which the Balkanites steamed before setting them onto waxed paper gracing elliptical china plates. The thick plates kept your food from burning your fingers. The thick cups kept your coffee from cooling off.
I haven't described the sauce. I've saved the best for last. Finely ground beef heart and beef kidney, mixed with beef suet and more ground up Goerlich's, browned minced onions, and sanguined spices. Which spices? Cumin and chili powder and something else. Something magical. Nobody knows what but the coney chefs, and if they told then they would not be gods.
The truth is, they may not have realized at first the specialness of what they had created. These Greeks, these Macedonians, these Albanians, these Rumanians had arrived in factory burgs to take up jobs in the factories and to serve the factory workers. The immigrants hemmed trousers, cobbled clogs, thatched nobs. They sold their coneys on the side, to earn a little extra, but soon they noticed that the coneys brought in more ducats than their other trades.
This was filling food; as heavy as it was delicious. The X Automobilians, whether sweating in the foundries, grinding through midnight shifts at the metal center, or straining over dies and tools in bright light for hours, could fill up in five minutes with a coney and coffee. The perfect food for an assembly line town, as demonstrated by the ordering shorthand that sprang into life like a new language: “One up” meant a coney with everything; a milestone of verbal economy and the inverse relationship of calories to syllables. So coney stands became Coney Island Restaurants. They bloomed fruitful and fecund, increased in number. Multiplied across the earth and increased upon it.
By the mid-twenties some three-dozen Coney Islands in Akawe served up tens of thousands of coneys a day built by hundreds of restaurant employees. Balkan assembly line workers bent over their stations for hours: one man grilled the Goerlich's, another steered it to its bun and plate, where the next station assembled the dressing, nothing written down, everything achieved with hands and voice, as demanding of speed and rigor as riveting.
I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that there were so many Coney Islands that they were served over the river; two restaurants opened on the midst of the East Street Bridge and stayed there for decades. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that the Coney Islands were open 24-7-365. Once, during a flood, a Coney had to hire a security guard to watch the door because the owners had lost the keys years earlier.
The Coney Islands thrived along the factory zones. They pulsed along the Akawe's main arteries. They anchored each neighborhood and kept their street corners noisy all night long, from the wail of the evening whistle to the chiming of the church bells.
When the factories started to wither, the Coney Islands did too.
They held out longer than the factory jobs but, one by one, the great restaurants closed their doors. Midnight Oil Coney Island, Akawe Old Fashioned Coney Island, Delicious Coneys, Joe's Original Coney Island, and most of the others dried up through the 80s. By 1993, there were less than a dozen left.
About the Author:
Connor Coyne is a writer living and working in Flint, Michigan.
His first novel, Hungry Rats, has been hailed by Heartland prize-winner Jeffery Renard Allen as “an emotional and aesthetic tour de force.”
His second novel, Shattering Glass, has been praised by Gordon Young, author of Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City as “a hypnotic tale that is at once universal and otherworldly.”
Connor’s novel Urbantasm, Book One: The Dying City is winner of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards 2019 Young New Adult Award. Hugo- and Nebula-nominee William Shunn has praised Urbantasm as “a novel of wonder and horror.”
Connor’s essay “Bathtime” was included in the Picador anthology Voices from the Rust Belt. His work has been published in Vox.com, Belt Magazine, Santa Clara Review, and elsewhere.
Connor is on the planning committee for the Flint Festival of Writers and in 2013 he represented Flint’s 7th Ward as its artist-in-residence for the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town grant. In 2007, he earned his Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the New School.
Connor lives in Flint’s College Cultural Neighborhood (aka the East Village), less than a mile from the house where he grew up.