By Alan Madlane
Elisa Sinnett is a teacher with the Hamtramck Public Schools, who also happens to be a writer.
Her newest book is called “Detroit Fairy Tales,” and, true to its title, it is a compendium of relatively short pieces centered around those beloved environs.
We sent her some questions, and she generously sent ‘em back with great answers, and here’s how that all looks:
The Review: Your book “Detroit Fairy Tales” sounds very intriguing. There was a lot of info about the book already on your website, but perhaps we could kind of synthesize it down for a short article for our readers. To that end, here are a few questions:
How did the book evolve? Did you have a deliberate concept for it, or did it sort of fall together?
Elisa Sinnett: Evolution really is the right word, but it took a few years before I realized that I was writing to a pattern – unconscious(ly) at first.
There are a lot of stories written about Detroit from a really disparaging point of view, but Detroit Fairy Tales has been called a “love letter to Detroit” by some people. I think it is.
The Review: Were you following the style of any writer(s) you admire, or consciously trying to chart your own path? Who do you read, or look up to, as far as other writers?
Sinnett: Weirdly, I love a lot of male authors who cover some really rough topics, like Sherman Alexie, Junot Diaz, Frank McCourt, Jess Walter, Jonathan Kozol, Pat Conroy. There’s something really open and no-BS about these writers. Super direct.
I also like that about Dorothy Allison, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood and Jeannette Walls. They aren’t pulling any punches when they write stories about people experiencing poverty/murder/trauma.
But lately I’ve been trying to bring a little less violence in my life with writers like Ariel Gore, Jesmyn Ward, Thea Lim, Emily St. John Mandel, Lisa See. I think there’s so much explore about gender and the way people write.
The Review: Are the tales mostly autobiographical? If so, are they heightened at all, as in magic realism, or more straight-forward?
Would you say that the book is, more or less, a fiction book, then?
Sinnett: (To your first question,) all the characters are a mashup of many people I’ve known, or versions of family members. Really, like any fiction, since authors usually draw on their own experiences.
I use some techniques — for example there’s this one fictional piece — but then, it has historical police reports where one of my family members was a witness.
I write about Detroit, as an eye witness, but before I was born. There’s clearly emotional truth from my perspective throughout the book.
Above all, I was trying to create empathy for people going through trauma and poverty. I want to foster acceptance and empathy, because my family didn’t always get it from people.
Some of the families I’ve worked with through my 25 years as a teacher could use some of that same understanding and acceptance as well. Above all, I love a good story, and I want to get better at writing those.
The Review: How did you know your illustrator? I saw that she used to live in Detroit, and she now lives out west? Did you choose her mainly because you liked her style, or was there a personal relationship with her before that?
Sinnett: Debranne Dominguez and I were best friends in the second grade at Gesu school in Detroit, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. We’re super close. The story “The Writer” is dedicated to her.
She’s a fantastic painter. She did a whole painting for the book, and there’s a key to her art on my website (elisasinnett.com).
The Review: You teach in the Hamtramck school system, right? How long have you been there, and what approach(es) do you use in your teaching? Do your classes involve creative writing?
Sinnett: I teach Spanish at Hamtramck High School. I’ve been here for five years, and before that I worked for 20 years at Detroit Public Schools.
I mainly teach Spanish through storytelling, where the students listen and read — A LOT — in Spanish. When we were (doing) in-person (learning), the students also did a lot of storytelling, writing, illustrating, acting, singing, interviewing, even dancing.
My basic philosophy is that we all connect through stories, art, comics, laughter, games; and it makes learning effortless and fun. I have a blast with the students.
The Review: That’s wonderful!
Your book got some impressive blurbs from other writers and sources. Are there any stories behind those?
It must’ve felt great to have your book get so much attention? Has anyone suggested that anything else might come out of the book? Netflix come calling yet?
Sinnett: I would love to watch a movie based on my stories! Those are my favorite kinds of (movies). But not yet!
I know all the writers who reviewed my book except for Junot Diaz, but he just really likes helping people, and unfortunately, there’s a thread of trauma in the book that I’m sure he could relate to, and he just wanted to lift up another person with the same kinds of issues he had growing up.
I really thank you for this interview, because if this book can stay in the public eye a bit longer than the typical book (from a small, but awesome, independent press like Flexible Press: https://www.flexiblepub.com/), then maybe it will reach more eyes and ears.
Oh, and I forget to mention that I split my USA proceeds from the book with a nonprofit, AFSC (https://www.afsc.org/), that deals with human rights issues.
The Review: Any plans for a follow-up, and if so, will it be something along the same lines, or something entirely different, or have you even decided yet? Will you be able to get an advance on the next one?
Sinnett: I’m working on two projects right now: one is working with my Dad’s writings, and the other is doing a community story project.
But as to my own writing? I’m working on short stories, just in between teaching, and all those kinds of responsibilities. I’m pretty sure I want to go more deeply into fiction. I like reading well-known writers’ first AND second books, because it seems like a lot of people’s first books are short story collections.
The Review: How have sales been so far? What are all the avenues that your book is available to be purchased, for interested parties?
Sinnett: Sales have been pretty steady!
Of course, the book is available at Amazon (everything is, isn’t it?). But I like to encourage people to check out independent sellers like Detroit Specials Used Books on John R, The Source Booksellers on Cass, and Book Beat in Oak Park, as well as Bookshop.org (https://bookshop.org/books/detroit-fairy-tales/9781733976381),which is an independent online bookstore.
The Review: Feel free to add anything else you’d like, and thanks for your time!
Sinnett: Sure. Cosmos today, Cosmos tomorrow, Cosmos forever! And a big shout out to the Hamtramck Public Schools Class of 2021 — YOU DID IT! See you on graduation day! (Also, that’s my birthday, so your successes are a wonderful birthday gift!)
Posted June4, 2021