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May 14, 2013

‘Living Together,’ a new collection of stories, explores relationships

By K. Michelle Moran
C & G Staff Writer

Whelan

DETROIT — Her books for children and adolescents often feature far-flung and historic settings, from 17th century Japan to post-World War II Germany, but for Gloria Whelan’s new collection of short stories, the drama is of a more internal variety.

“Living Together,” a novella and series of short stories published this spring by Wayne State University Press, addresses conflict and relationships among a diverse group of characters. This is Whelan’s first book for adults since 1988’s “Playing With Shadows.” A 2000 National Book Award winner for her novel, “Homeless Bird,” Whelan has written more than 40 books, including poetry, short stories and novels. Most of her books have been aimed at young readers, but she’s been writing for grown-ups, as well as kids, consistently throughout her career. In fact, one of her stories, “Giving Orders to the Morning,” is in the winter/spring edition of the Notre Dame Review.

“I’ve been writing short stories right along, and they’ve been (published) in literary quarterlies,” Whelan said, from her home in Grosse Pointe Woods. “I really love short stories. That’s what I like to do best.”

Whelan and other Wayne State University Press authors who are a part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series — Chris Dombrowski, Jack Ridl and Ron Riekki — will be reading from and signing copies of their books during the Books & Beer Backyard Bash from 5:30-8 p.m. May 17 at The Old Miami in Detroit. Poet M.L. Liebler & The Coyote Monk Band will also perform.

A Grosse Pointe native, Whelan and her late husband, a physician, raised two children in the Pointes — Joe Whelan, who works in the technology field, and Jenny Nolan, a real estate professional and former librarian. After their children finished college, the couple moved to Northern Michigan, where they lived for more than 30 years before returning to the Pointes about nine years ago.

A former social worker who earned her master’s degree in that field from the University of Michigan, Whelan became a stay-at-home mom when she had her children. Although she didn’t pick up writing until her kids were grown, she and her husband shared a passion for books with their children.

The tales in “Living Together” are set in the Grosse Pointes, Detroit, Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, the author said.

“The stories all happen in places where I have been,” Whelan said. “Several are about the relationships between the city and the suburb, and how our suburb lives with our city and how our city lives with our suburb, and how it’s getting harder and harder for people to communicate.”

The title novella was inspired by a canoeing expedition Whelan took a few years ago with pal and fellow writer Mary Sanders Smith, of Grosse Pointe City, who has a cabin in northern Wisconsin. An abandoned cabin Whelan spotted from the water inspired a story about a family with a cabin in Northern Michigan that’s “the place where all of their memories are, where all of their relationships are,” she explained.

Longtime friend and fellow writer Joyce Carol Oates had high praise for Whelan and her latest work.

“Gloria Whelan is a writer of precision, grace, intelligence, and wit,” Oates said in a blurb for the book. “Her stories, many set in Michigan, are a pleasure to read, in particular the elegantly composed novella ‘Living Together,’ with its examination of loss and unexpected happiness.”

Whelan is an avid reader as well as a writer, and she especially loves short stories. Favorite authors include Oates, William Trevor and Alice Munro.

“They are writers who write about ordinary events in people’s lives that in some way become extraordinary,” Whelan said. “Something happens — and often it’s just a small thing — that seems to define them and define their lives.”

University of Michigan Professor Theresa Tinkle said Whelan writes in “restrained, often lyrical prose.”

“This volume showcases Whelan’s considerable insight into human nature and her ability to bring the human condition to vivid life,” Tinkle said of “Living Together” in a prepared statement. “She presents powerful stories about the comforts and discomforts of living together. Her complex, endearingly flawed characters discover their own depths through intimacy with those who are culturally different, or who seem so at first glance.”

Whelan’s many literary honors include an O’Henry Award, Pushcart Prize nominations, Michigan Author of the Year Award and American Library Association awards for Notable Children’s Book and Best Book for Young Adults.

“I never lack for something to write about,” said Whelan, who routinely finds inspiration during her daily walks. “I don’t set out with any purpose. I just want to tell a story, and I think the story will mean different things to different people based on their own life experiences.”

Whelan has two other new books, both for young readers — “In Andel’s House” (Sleeping Bear Press) and “All My Noble Dreams and Then What Happens” (Simon & Schuster), a sequel to “Small Acts of Amazing Courage” — that came out in April. She writes six days a week for three to four hours per day, and the prolific 89-year-old has no plans to slow down anytime soon.

“I love it — no complaints,” Whelan said with a gentle smile.

At press time, she was in the process of completing another collection of short stories for adults, but she didn’t have a publisher for it yet.

There is no set admission fee for the Books & Beer Backyard Bash, but a $10 donation at the door is suggested. The Old Miami is located at 3930 Cass in Detroit’s Cultural Center. To RSVP for this event, visit http://booksandbeer.eventbrite.com. For more about Whelan, visit http://gloriawhelan.com.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer K. Michelle Moran at kmoran@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1047.