After a long day of classes, dozens of University of Michigan students and community members raced to their computers at 5:30 pm Thursday night to watch an award-winning educator read a story from his upcoming novella of short stories, “Martha’s Daughter.” Author David Haynes, the first visitor in the Winter Zell Visiting Writers Series, offers something far beyond reading and Q&A: a vision of both the future of education and literature and of a world he creates through his writing.
Haynes is the writer of a dozen novels — both for adults and young readers — a former elementary educator, an English emeritus professor and a founder of Kimbilio, an organization dedicated to creative works empowering the African diaspora. His work in education and writing expands beyond a page and screen to grow his audience’s mind and view of the world.
In introducing Haynes’ reading, Rackham MFA student Dur e Aziz Amna quotes Haynes’ inspiration: “telling himself stories as a way of distracting and comforting.” Haynes lives and writes in a world he crafts, with his characters flying off of his pages.
Haynes opens the event from his colorful home office with a massive smile, announcing his excitement for Kimbililio’s first major grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. With his infectious pride, he introduced a story from “Martha’s Daughter” called “On the American Heritage Trail,” which was shared in the Zoom chat as a PDF. He explained how his short stories are inspired by his recent travels on America’s highways and with a voice of wonder and quiet wisdom, began to read aloud.
The narrative focused on the intricate and intertwined lives of long-term residents and staff at a Northern Virginia motel. Haynes joked, laughed, yelled and lowered his voice as if letting us in on a secret in his skillfully crafted world of the Mount Vernon Economy House Hotel.
The fast pace of his writing and fluctuating tone of his reading made the audience feel as though they were in the motel. Through his retelling, we got to know the complex lives of prostitutes, ex-convicts, adventurous construction workers and down-on-their-luck elderly women. In just a few days at the motel (and 20 minutes of reading), we meet dozens of unique characters through the eyes of the thoughtful observer and concierge Humphrey.
Haynes’ slow and emotional reading style allowed both him and the audience to get lost in the story, which he had to stop reading on page 11. He left us on an emotional cliffhanger (though no one told him we could read ahead in the document).
Haynes then returned to his personable and conversational speaking style, telling us how the story “built itself.” He explained that on a recent road trip, he checked in and immediately checked out of a motel much like the Express House. It felt as if he was trespassing on the lives of the residents, as the motel was “no longer what it had once been,” but a “permanent fixture.” He saw this pattern throughout the country, where the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 forced working-class individuals to find new, unfamiliar, homes. Through his authentic writing and voice, we too find ourselves trespassing into the complex lives of the (semi-fictional) motel residents, but with a sense of full immersion that makes us feel like a part of their world.
He then excitedly opened up to discussion with Zoom chat participants and co-hosts. It felt like a true discussion rather than a Q&A as he delved into questions on his creative process and was celebrated for his unique approach to characterization.
Unlike many writers, Haynes focuses on the workplace in his writing process. This happens almost unconsciously, though he has lectured on the topic in the past, he noted with a laugh. He finds that the workplace is often neglected in fiction, yet makes up a large portion of our real lives.
When discussing the role of race in his fiction writing, he emphasized that it arises naturally. Racial conflict is merely a part of his world, and he joked that there is always someone “saying some ratchet crap to you.” He never seeks to dramatize the problems which he writes about, as his inspiration is always rooted in reality.
Haynes, with his signature hint of self-deprecating irony, discussed how he writes about women, frequently from a feminine perspective. Again, he finds that this is not a conscious decision, but a mere look into the lives of “the other half of the population.” He seeks to investigate the point of view of each character, which is clear in his complex writing and reading style.
His seemingly effortless approach to complex issues and characterization all ties back to his writing process where he merely “follows whatever character walks into a book.”
David Haynes makes writing look effortless and reading feel effortless. Reading and listening to Haynes’ work is like entering the world that he created, rather than flipping through a PDF or watching a Zoom screen. With Haynes, a lecture and discussion feel like an escape from mundanity, rather than a reminder of it.
Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.