Brad Felver explores the intersection of grief & violence in awarding-winning ‘Dog of Detroit’

Brad Felver

By DAVID DUPONT 

BG Independent News

Death and grief dog the characters in Brad Felver’s collection of short stories. The finely crafted stories are populated with bruises, blood, broken bones, and broken hearts

The book itself, “The Dogs of Detroit,” has found success the author wouldn’t have dreamed of, including winning the Drue Heinz award, a prestigious honor judged anonymously by a panel of literary luminaries.

The prize, Felver said, is not one he’d ever dreamed of winning. The book was named one of the best of 2018 by Library Journal, and individual stories have picked up O. Henry and Pushcart prizes.

Felver is an instructor in Bowling Green State University’s Creative Writing program. He came to BGSU in 2009 as a student in the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program. 

He wanted to study with Wendell Mayo, whose own short story collection “In Lithuanian Wood” impressed him. After earning his degree in 2011 he joined the faculty. 

“Queen Elizabeth,” the opening story of the collection, which is published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, is rooted in familiar territory. Part is set in rural southwestern Ohio, where as a youngster he spent time on his grandparents’ farm. The tree that lends its name to the story is based on an ancient oak he remembers from that time.

The story also takes the characters to Boston where Felver lived before moving back to Ohio.

He believes in firmly rooting his stories in place, often places he misses, though he may not have realized it until he moved away. “Boston,” he said, “still feels like home.”

“Queen Elizabeth” takes what at first seems like an ideal romance and watches it devolve under the pressures of life and death.

Felver sometimes thinks about revisiting those characters, and seeing where they may have ended up. Or maybe they are just lost to him as so often happens in life.

Felver, 37, grew up in the Dayton area loving books. He credits a mother who read to him.

He got his bachelor’s degree in English Education from Miami University. After that he taught high school English for six years. As much as he loved the students, he said, he realized public education wasn’t where he wanted to spend his career.

Being his 20s, unmarried with no children, he wanted to get out his comfort zone. So he headed out to Colorado. From there he headed east to Boston where he taught and studied writing in Harvard’s community education program.

For such a peripatetic guy, his own characters often feel trapped, and unable to escape. Rooted not by the rough-shod places they live, but by circumstances beyond their control.  

The stories in the collection date back to 2010.

When he placed “Queen Elizabeth” in “One Story” journal, “my white whale,” he sensed he was onto something.

As he kept writing he felt the stories  had some coherence, and could fit together. He kneaded them together, realizing some needed to go until he had a collection of 14 individual stories that were nevertheless unified.

Many of his protagonists are young, and vulnerable, and react violently.

“We were mean kids. We knew it and we celebrated it.” That’s the opening of “Throwing Leather.”

Yet the narrator of the story is not as mean as Charley, who is wild as the Montana setting, or as the bears that share the terrain. Both the boys have lost parents, and now their surviving parents live together in an arrangement of convenience. 

That sort of pairing of lost people provides a sexual undercurrent to the book. 

But the characters often come together violently. Boys punching each other because they have no other way to express their grief. Or in the title story, a father and son fight until they are exhausted. It’s a way of taking their grief over the wife and mother who has disappeared. The father assumes she’s gone for good, but she still haunts the edges of the son’s world. Polk, the son, believes she’s out in the urban wilderness of contemporary Detroit where he hunts stray dogs until he becomes the hunted.

Asked about the prevalence of violence, Felver said, he’s not sure where it comes from. Looking back on his childhood, he wonders: “Why were we always fighting. What was that instinct?”

As for himself, he said,  “I don’t have a violent bone in my body.”

He’s also written non-fiction including an essay inspired by that old oak on his grandparents’ farm, and a piece about the 1919 Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard championship box match, considered the most brutal in history.

He loves digging into the material and doing research. “I’m looking for my next obsession,” Felver said of any plans for future non-fiction projects. 

He does have a novel, now in its third draft, in process.

For now, he’s firmly rooted in Northwest Ohio.

He’s married with two pre-school age sons. He and his wife, Susie Felver, knew each other at Miami University as friends. They reconnected when he was living in Boston, and she was teaching in Sandusky. Coming to Bowling Green had the added attraction of bringing them closer, he said.

They live in Sylvania, where she teaches.

“I have no reason to leave,” he said.

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