California’s Antelope Valley, the desert landscape of Chris McCormick’s childhood, a locale he longed to escape as a boy growing into a man, is nearly a continent away from the leafy, tidy streets of Ann Arbor.
Here in Michigan, McCormick has settled into a quiet life, a writer’s life, reading novels and poetry in the morning and tinkering with his words on a laptop amid a cacophony of conversation in an Ann Arbor bookstore café in the afternoon.
Still, Antelope Valley looms large.
McCormick, the young man, left the desert community long ago, first for college and then a content writing job in Oakland, California. McCormick, the writer, did not.
Antelope Valley, at the western edge of the Mojave Desert over the mountains from Los Angeles, is the setting of McCormick’s debut novel, “Desert Boys” (Picador, 2016). The book is a series of linked stories that chronicle Daley Kushner’s coming of age in the desert and his interaction with boyhood friends, his family and his hometown, a place undergoing transformation from map dot to suburban sprawl.
“What I am trying to figure out is the myth of the Old West. It’s a story of open land colliding against suburban and corporate mini-mall culture, and what is lost, what is authentic and what is not,” says McCormick, between sips of Bell’s Amber Ale at the Old Town Tavern, a watering hole favored by locals and a sometimes hangout for this writer “who likes to have regular spots. I’m not a person who needs adventure every week. I feel at home here.”
McCormick, 29, who launched his novel last month at Literati Bookstore, will be among the writers to share their craft during the Writer’s Workshop at the Ann Arbor Book Festival, which begins Thursday and runs through Saturday. Michigan authors and poets will read from their works at restaurants, bars and bookstores in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. A street fair will be held in Ann Arbor on Saturday.
Since its publication, “Desert Boys” has been widely praised by critics. Kirkus Reviews described the novel as “tender, heartfelt, fully realized stories about family, friendship, and love.” The publication also praised McCormick’s “simple, clean, and polished style.” Publishers Weekly called “Desert Boys” a “lovely, quiet book by a promising new voice.”
McCormick, who earned his master of fine arts degree at the University of Michigan and finished the novel in 2015, is humbled by the response from critics and readers, who have found something real in the characters and their quest to find a home. Adding tension is the protagonist’s struggles with his homosexuality and his sense of being an outsider in his own hometown — he’s also half white, half Armenian.
For McCormick, sharing his work after five years of writing and revising — and years of struggle — was somewhat nerve-wracking.
“Writing is a very deeply private thing. You spend so much time in your head that you forget that your parents and strangers are going to read your work. There’s a rush of terror, a fear or being exposed,” he confesses.
“Desert Boys” began as a short story, the very first in the novel’s collection.
“I always knew I was going to write a story about the place. It hadn’t been written about. It was sort of a gift to explain the place,” McCormick recalls. “The hard part was trying to figure out what I didn’t know about the place. I realized I needed to ask questions if I was going to understand the place. When you have questions instead of answers, people care more about your story.”
As he began asking questions, he realized there was a recurring voice: Daley Kushner, something his agent, Jenni Ferrari-Adler, also noticed. “She saw it as I started to see it. It was a common thread emerging besides the place,” he says.
Kushner, McCormick says, is only partially autobiographical. While they both grew up in Antelope Valley and have an Armenian mother, McCormick is not gay.
“That’s the fundamental difference between us. I tried to make Daley as real as possible. A lot of our experiences are the same, not specific details but the experience,” he explains. “Certain moments are loosely based on high school, and I always had this dynamic as the little brother with all my friends.”
In telling the story, McCormick pushed the limits of the conventional novel form. The point of view shifts between the first, second and third persons, “but it’s always the narrator moving in and through and around the story,” McCormick says. He also employs what he calls a “list section,” a technique borrowed from another writer, to detail the reasons Kushner “needs -- not just wants, he feels, but needs -- to escape home.” That approach, he says, seemed the best way to tell the story.
“It made sense to try a different strategy. I knew it was risky,” he says. “I had those fears about it, but I think it came together as the best way to frame the story.”
The novel closes with an unexpected ending — it’s not as simple as the protagonist returning home or leaving the desert for good — the obvious choices (no chance of spoiling the ending here).
For McCormick, the question was how to come up with a fresh, third option for an ending, heeding the advice of Canadian author Clark Blaise, who says the writer’s job is to create an ending that’s inevitable, within the rules, but also feels fresh.
“Instead of settling in or leaving the place, what does he do?” McCormick says. “I remember writing the ending at a fast pace. He’s in middle school, and then he’s in Paris with his sister and then he comes back. It’s like a sped-up version of the whole story. It’s a microcosm of the whole book.”
McCormick wrote the ending while home visiting his parents in Antelope Valley. His father, by the way, grew up in Detroit and moved to Los Angeles as a young man.
“It’s no coincidence I sent (Daley) away,” he says. “I’m very proud of the book. It’s the ending what I’m most proud of.”
In some ways, “Desert Boys” has brought him full circle with Antelope Valley.
A West Coast book tour included a stop at the Barnes and Noble in Palmdale, McCormick’s hometown. It is the same bookstore that he and his friends used to hang out in in the evenings during their high school years.
“It was the only place open after 9 p.m. to hang out. We weren’t serious readers,” he admits.
That homecoming was “surreal” for McCormick. He read from “Desert Boys” to an audience that included his parents, friends and teachers, people obviously familiar with Antelope Valley, cognizant of how he had borrowed from that landscape and its culture.
“It was strange, very dreamlike, to see so many who had in one way or another set me along this trajectory to become a writer,” he says. “It couldn’t have been a more positive experience. The people were all so sweet. The bookstore knew what that night meant to me.”
Ann Arbor Book Festival
Various times Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Ypsilanti, downtown Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor’s Northside
1-4 p.m. Saturday
310 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor
Chris McCormick will speak at 2 p.m.
Washington Street, between Fourth Avenue and Fifth Avenue
Noon-5 p.m. Saturday