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Why do writers write? As many will tell you, particularly those who tackle fiction, it's mostly a thankless vocation -- more frustration than glory, less exhilaration than slow, grinding labor. 

In this respect, Gary James Erwin - who just published his first collection of Michigan-based short stories, "Trail Crossing Sixteen Counties" (Adelaide Books) -- echoes what many writers say: He mostly can't help himself. 

"I guess it comes from instinctive need," said Erwin, associate vice president for marketing and communications at the University of Detroit Mercy. "But," he added sensibly, "I don't want to question it." 

Perhaps the need and talent are encoded in his DNA. Erwin, 53, says he was dimly aware that his grandmother had done some writing, mostly romantic short stories, but the magnitude of that undertaking only became apparent after her death. 

"She had an agent for 20 years," he said. "We had no idea."

Complexities of family figure large in most of the 10 stories in "Trail Crossing Sixteen Counties," which came out last month, and while Erwin emphasizes that these are not autobiographical tales, some elements of his own childhood poke through here and there. 

"My mother died when I was young," he said, "and the family kind of exploded. I was an athlete, but dipped into the dark side and got in trouble. Some hard stuff." He shakes his head. "I won't get into a lot of detail."

But hard stuff, ugly though it may be to say, is a useful, often vital element in the writer's tool box.

For a demonstration, just open the book to "Exchange of Words," in which the boy-narrator wrestles with his mother's illness, and how almost overnight her heart "seized up like a car engine that lacked enough oil."

When the mother returns from the hospital, she's irremediably changed. Her speech garbles; words take on new shapes. Gone forever, apparently, is the difficult, sharp-tongued parent the little boy had always known -- and, after a fashion, admired. 

"Before her illness," Erwin wrote, "she'd attained a level of artistry in the use of swear words unparalleled by other mothers in our neighborhood, even those with large and untenable families who lived at the end of our street."

Reconciling yourself to the limitations of those you love is a recurring concern for Erwin. 

"A lot of my characters struggle with their love for family," he said, "and uncertainty as to who the people are who really love them. They're often hurt, saddened and angry."

But as with the story "Accomplices," sometimes redemption lies at the end of that hurt and struggle.

The story's main character with the intriguingly plural name, Alberts, "has a real hard time after his dad's passing," Erwin explained, "understanding who his father was. He feels a sense of sadness over that, but pride as well. Still, that un-knowingness has left him a little unmoored in life."

One of the ways the author's characters find solace is by escaping up north. They may work in or around Detroit, but their spirits yearn for the isolation of the forests, fields and water. 

"Up north represents relief for them," Erwin said. "Not that the city or suburbs are necessarily oppressive, but spiritually they find that life slows down in the wilderness and lakes. Some think, 'I could live off the land if I had to, and be happy.'"

Indeed, Michigan itself looms over all of these stories, which the Detroit poet M.L. Liebler called "worthy of reading again and again." 

Erwin, who grew up in Northville, acknowledges the extent to which the state has shaped him.

"For me," he said, "the Michigan setting has always been most important. We're a unique state -- hardscrabble and gritty, the sort of place where you put your head down, keep quiet and work hard."

Just like his characters. 

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 

'Trail Crossing Sixteen Counties'

Adelaide Books - $19.60 

Reading by Gary James Erwin: 

Oct. 19

3 p.m.-5 p.m. 

The Commons, 7900 Mack, Detroit 

(313) 447-5060

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