By Jan Worth-Nelson
Twelve years ago, Kelsey Ronan found her longtime partner Bryan dead of a heroin overdose in their Flint apartment. Out of what she describes as an onslaught of grief, anger, loss, and finally, a hard-won, unsentimental hope, the novel Chevy in the Hole was born.
For Ronan, the book emerged from one poignant question: “What would have happened if Bryan had opened his eyes” instead of dying. She has imagined what could have been, out of trauma and her writer’s deeply implicated witness.
The book begins with a scene in which her stand-in for Bryan, Gus Molloy, is brought back to life after OD’ing in a bathroom stall in a Detroit dive. In the shock of not dying, he somehow gathers himself together and comes back to Flint, where he arduously begins to salvage a life.
He finds his way to his mother and sister, to Narcotics Anonymous, and through that to a community garden project. where he meets Monae Livingston, a Black young woman who straightforwardly brings him into an urban farm project. They slowly and warily begin to connect. On the day they meet, in a scene remarkable in its matter-of-fact and unromantic detail, she is wrenching a chicken from the jaws of a stray dog — by pommeling it with a shovel — and then she teaches him how to butcher and cook the fowl. It’s a bloody, practical sequence she executes with startling no-nonsense skill. Our first close look at her, she is a character not without vulnerabilities, but clearly independent — and she knows how to do things.
As Ronan tries to “tease out” the many dimensions of Gus and Monae’s relationship, as she describes it, she braids in four generations of two families — one white and one Black, as Gus and Monae fall for each other. Their love, and their lives, somehow survive: it is a narrative, she says, of “damage and reclamation.” She has written the life she wishes had happened.
In the process, Ronan shaped what she says is a love letter of sorts to Flint in which her natal city is not just backdrop but a potent, persistent character: bitterly implicated in her characters’ hurts and struggles, a city that’s racially divided, poor, infuriating, haunting, complex, ugly, beautiful — and addicting.
The city is also, she brazenly contends, “a place to be happy, a place of healing, and a place of fulfillment for some people.”
In a two-hour interview at Totem Books in late January, Ronan, 36, a Flint native who now lives in Detroit, says that she plunged into a personal “wilderness” following Bryan’s death. She had graduated from UM – Flint with top grades, a prestigious writing honor and an English degree; after his death, she put out about 100 job applications, with no success. She volunteered at a women’s shelter and lived on leftover scholarship money.
She wrote as a volunteer for about a year for the late Gary Custer here at East Village Magazine, covering neighborhood associations and the historical commission. Finally she decided, “I’m never going to live in Michigan again, fuck this place.” She fled to Purdue for an MFA in fiction writing. Two years after that — during the Flint water crisis — she worked for a St. Louis nonprofit. That’s where she met her fiance Dylan Doherty, a philosophy PhD grad student.
They came back to Michigan together: to Detroit, to face more trauma. Ronan’s younger sister got diagnosed with a brain tumor and that took priority as Ronan stayed at her side through years of treatment and fear — and they lived together during the pandemic. Her sister’s tumor was removed, she is alive and in remission after radiation and chemotherapy.
Ronan says that phase in her life also was when, with the help of a therapist, she began to unbury Bryan and her grief. For years she had excised almost everything about him and about her family, and hadn’t had time to process what had happened. She started to write about it.
“It was just like thinking on the page and felt like a spiritually healing thing — reckoning with my family and with grief,” she says.
Ronan steadily published short stories and essays in increasingly top-ranked magazines — Michigan Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, McSweeneys, Belt, Midwestern Gothic. A collection of those stories got her an agent, and then, after many rejections and when the collection morphed into a novel, she won a five-figure advance in a book deal with Henry Holt and Company, The book comes out officially March 15.
She says she called the novel Chevy in the Hole because that historically-fraught 60 acres along the Flint River in downtown Flint was near where she grew up, and has been the site of many of Flint’s — and her characters’ — transformations. She remembers biking through it as a child with her father, when the old Chevy plant was still there, in ruins. She found it scary and the hill up to Kettering University hard to ride. Like many Flintoids, she groans and rolls her eyes at the change in its name to “Chevy Commons” in recent years — as if fancying it up shortchanges its native, industrial and post-industrial legacy.
As Ronan recounts this chain of events and memories, we sit comfortably six feet apart in the almost deserted bookstore: our masks in place except when I pull up my phone to take her photo. It is her first “formal” interview for the book, and I give her my Flint knitted cap as a souvenir; she immediately puts it on.
Full disclosure is needed here: We are old friends. As my student at the UM – Flint, she was quiet but a startlingly gifted “mature beyond her years” writer as they say…a Flint Public librarian called her a “prodigy” — the kind of kid who makes teachers’ lives in literary backwaters suddenly worthwhile. She touched my heart, a miraculous talent emerging from Flint’s tedious mediocrity and bad luck. She intersected with my own exasperation and impatience with a city I was not born in — unlike many Flint natives, I don’t have primal loyalty to it. I got to know Ronan just as I was recreating my own life following a divorce from a Flint poet whose working class roots were rife with alcoholism, discord and what I had come to recognize as an intense blue-collar yearning for grace. That old story.
On her request, I read her eulogy for Bryan at his funeral, and in the dark days following, she took refuge at my house while my second husband and I were in what was then our other home in LA. She had a peach-faced love bird in a cage named Daassa whom she let out once in a while. He ate one of the buttons off our TV remote; he also left little plops of bird poop around the house, only to be discovered later, like little shards of disorder and depression. Of course I forgave her; her torments were real and searing. There was a door at the top of the stairs onto a flat roof; Ronan says she’d go out there with Bryan’s brother to sit and mourn and drink and Bryan’s brother, a violist, would play.
[All this is why East Village Magazine asked Bob Campbell to review Chevy in the Hole — I am capable of asking many questions of my former student, but not of writing objectively about it.]
She asserts with undramatic ambivalence: Flint betrayed her. Yet she says she also aches for the city and the family histories she brings to her work.
Her father was a roofer and her mother drove a school bus for the Grand Blanc school district. She was born at McLaren Hospital, walked from her westside home to Eisenhower Elementary and graduated from Flint Southwestern. Her father abandoned the family when she was a teenager. Born Kelsey McLees, in her 20s she changed her name to Ronan — in repudiation of her father and in honor of a beloved grandfather.
Her father, who still had “existed but didn’t exist” in Flint, died last July. She and her sister only found out about it two months later when her mother tracked down evidence he had not paid his water bill.
‘I don’t want to dismiss the reality of crushing poverty and systemic injustices and being chronically under-resourced, about having limited options in your life — it’s very real,” Ronan says. “This town wasn’t good to me, and I don’t want to be the white lady that glosses over the reality. But I think there is a lot of normalcy here.
“I didn’t want to write the naive, rah-rah story,” Ronan says, “This is a flawed place: Gus is a damaged, fractured person. But there’s still recovery of the land, the person.”
“If you’re ingenious, if you’re someone who knows how to work the land,” [here she mentions urban farmer and Local Grocer co-owner, with Franklin Pleasant, Erin Caudell], people need to be fed, if you know how to do this.
“That persistent idea of ‘ruin porn’ — that’s tricky. It’s not a lie…there are these giant, crumbling factories…yeah, you have the rotting house, but if you widen the lens you have the regular house next door, people living in it like my mom feeding the birds and returning books to the library.”
Like Ronan, both Gus and Monae have family problems, missing fathers, ancestral histories that intersect with Flint’s epic events: the Sit Down Strike, the Fair Housing campaign, Sixties civil rights demonstrations, the plant shutdowns of the 80s, and of course, the water crisis.
“My therapist (who I’ve seen for years and who I owe a great deal to) sometimes speaks of intergenerational ‘curses’ and of breaking cycles/ family burdens that aren’t yours to carry,” Ronan wrote in an email followup to our interview.
“My interrogation of that very much runs through the book, though I’m not sure I’ve come to any revelations about it or feel profoundly healed. For instance, addiction runs through both lines of my family. Though I don’t want to diminish Bryan as simply an addict, he was, and I always knew that, and I loved him very much.
“There’s a lot of grief and homesickness in my family, too. Like a lot of Flint folks, my great-grandparents came up from Missouri and Tennessee, and those stories of ‘back home’ were present when I was little. Maybe it sounds ridiculous, given that I’ve only moved an hour down 75, but that homesickness, that ache, follows me.
“I don’t mean to sound all toxic positivity here (‘choose joy!!’) but I do think about the choices I can make, what I can do with what I’ve been given. In the book, Gus is aware that he comes from a family line troubled with addiction and miserable relationships and secrecy, but through the arc of the book he learns how to recognize it and what he can do to stop perpetuating it.”
Ronan’s life has moved on. For years now she has lived with her fiance Dylan Doherty, a middle school teacher. She is a visiting writer at Gardner Elementary School via the InsideOut literary arts project — a job she says is “absurdly fun.” She’s a part-time InsideOut publications coordinator and operations director of Room Project, a Detroit collective of women and nonbinary writers and artists. As “childless millennials” she and Doherty have three cats and are planning a move from Hamtramck to Grosse Pointe Park — she says they are ready for a bit more comfort.
What is it about Flint, anyway? Kelsey Ronan is not alone in the pantheon of Flint writers who have sought to redeem themselves or us with their writing from and about this city: I think of Theodore Weesner’s 1950s The Car Thief, Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud Not Buddy and many others; Danny Rendleman’s The Middle West, Asylum, and gorgeous and almost forgotten Skilled Trades; Ben Hamper’s Rivethead; Gordon Young’s Teardown; Gary Gildner’s essays and poems.
Most recently, Ronan is in the company of poet Sarah Carson, whose Buick City remains a significant commentary on working class life, and whose remarkable new collection, How to Baptize a Child in Flint Michigan is coming out from Persea Books this year. Bob Campbell’s essays have appeared in numerous magazines, and his novel Motown Man came out in 2020. There’s also Jonah Mixon-Webster’s debut collection Stereo[TYPE] and Connor Coyne’s massive Urbantasm project, a four-book depiction of life in a Flint-like world of the 1990s. Finally, of course, there is Flint’s poet laureate Semaj Brown, who recently received $50,000 for poetry projects from the American Academy of Poets.
EVM Consulting Editor Jan Worth-Nelson retired from teaching creative writing at UM – Flint in 2014. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Banner: Chevy in the Hole, September, 2018. Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson.