With “The Narcissism of Small Differences,” native Detroiter Michael Zadoorian takes inspiration from his hometown (and own life) to build worlds that pay homage to the Motor City
By Patrick Dunn
Photography by Doug Coombe
Author Michael Zadoorian makes no bones about the fact that his novels are a way for him to “investigate” his own life experiences. In his new book, “The Narcissism of Small Differences,” protagonists Joe and Ana respectively work in journalism and advertising (Zadoorian once worked in both industries). Joe is staring down the challenge of reconciling creative expression with making a living at 40, as Zadoorian once was. Joe’s friends are based on Zadoorian’s actual friends, with conversations sometimes pulled directly from notes he takes at the bar. And he says there’s a “good deal” of his wife in Ana — although he clarifies that he drew from his real-life marriage for the good parts of Ana and Joe’s relationship, not the explosive fights that punctuate the book.
But perhaps most importantly, the characters live in Ferndale, where Zadoorian has lived for 24 years, and the book is rich with Detroit-area details. Set in 2009, the novel’s plot takes place against the backdrop of the looming auto crisis. Detroit-area references abound, from the Dirtbombs to Richie Hawtin (who grew up in Windsor) to Satori Circus. And readers just may recognize the characters’ favorite hangout, a bar called the Midlands, as a thinly veiled representation of Ferndale bar the Emory.
Metro Detroit has been the setting of all four of Zadoorian’s novels so far, and “Narcissism” — which came out in May — continues a career-long exploration of a place the Detroit native says has only become more “wondrous” to him with age. “I started to feel like, ‘This is probably dumb, writing another Detroit novel.’ And after a while I realized that no, this is not dumb,” he says. “I’m tired of ‘Oh, here’s another novel about New Yorkers or Los Angelenos or whatever.’ F— that.”
Zadoorian, 63, grew up in Northwest Detroit with a family who had no particular pride in the city. When he was 20, his parents left for the suburbs. Zadoorian’s father, an industrial photographer for DTE, encouraged his son to pursue a creative career – as long as he could make a living doing it. Zadoorian studied communications at Wayne State University, where he first discovered a love of writing fiction. “No great origin story, I’m afraid,” he says. “I just realized that I really loved doing it and that I seemed to be pretty good at it.”
A fan of legendary short story writer Raymond Carver, Zadoorian says he initially cranked out a number of “Carver-esque” stories before “something kind of clicked and I realized I needed to write about where I was from.” Thus began a lengthy period during which Zadoorian subsidized his passion for fiction writing through more economically viable uses of his talents.
He worked as a journalist for publications including the Detroit Free Press, and in 1985 landed upon a career that would carry him through three decades: advertising. He worked as a copywriter at the Doner advertising agency in Southfield until 1994, occasionally taking time off to write and pursue his master’s degree in creative writing at WSU. He then found a plum gig at Campbell Ewald, where he negotiated a part-time staff position, leaving half his work week open to write fiction. “I kept waiting for them to catch on, and bless their hearts, they never did,” Zadoorian laughs.
He spent 24 years at Campbell Ewald, and in the process got his first two novels published: “Second Hand” in 2000 and “The Leisure Seeker” in 2009. He notes that the latter didn’t actually take nine years to write, but got sidetracked by a series of disheartening events — an editor pulled the plug on another book project and his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and then passed away. “There was a point that I came very close to just quitting writing because of all of the rejection,” he says. “But I couldn’t bring myself to stop.”
Rejection struck again when he first attempted to sell “The Narcissism of Small Differences” in 2011. Editors offered positive feedback on the manuscript but none were interested in buying it, which Zadoorian attributes to a lack of interest at the time in Detroit-related stories. He shelved the project and moved on.
But in 2015, as Zadoorian puts it, “something weird happened”: Sony Pictures Classics acquired the rights to “The Leisure Seeker.” In 2017 it became Italian director Paolo Virzi’s first English-language film, starring Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren. Zadoorian says he was “almost completely uninvolved” with the movie, which relocated the protagonists from Detroit to Wellesley, Massachusetts. “Probably my biggest beef with it is God forbid, they couldn’t be from Detroit,” Zadoorian says. “But what are you gonna do? It was a fabulous thing to have happen. It certainly helped me.”
The movie made it possible for Zadoorian to leave Campbell Ewald to write fiction full-time. In 2018 he published his third novel, “Beautiful Music,” whose main character and setting are based on his teenage experiences growing up in Detroit. While doing a Q&A for a literary blog, he happened to mention “Narcissism,” a project he’d never forgotten.
His summary of the book’s plot piqued the interest of Ibrahim Ahmad, his editor at Akashic Books in New York, who asked to see the manuscript — and says he found it “really curious” that Zadoorian had such trouble selling it. “I think that is testament more to the whims of the marketplace and the publishing industry in particular than it is to Michael’s remarkable talents as a writer,” he says.
Still, Ahmad admits that he might not have responded so strongly to the struggles of the novel’s 40-something characters had he read it back in 2011. “Thematically, a lot of the broad ideas that Michael was exploring are ones that I see manifesting in my daily life,” he says. “It spoke to me on that level in a way that perhaps, when I was younger … might not have been so urgent-feeling.”
A decade after Zadoorian wrote it, and with few revisions (“I’m a ruthless self-editor,” Zadoorian says), Akashic ended up accepting the book for publication. “I hadn’t planned that, but I was really glad it happened,” Zadoorian says, adding that the book “makes more sense as a period piece.”
“Sometimes the world kind of catches up with a book in a way,” he continues. “And that’s not to say I’m ahead of my time or whatever. But sometimes a few more years need to have happened in order to make that setting a little more interesting.”
Zadoorian’s book tour for “Narcissism” was nixed due to COVID-19, but he’s hosted a couple of reading events on Facebook Live, the first of which attracted hundreds of viewers. In the meantime, he’s working on his next book, which will follow the protagonist of “Beautiful Music” after he’s grown up and become a “washed-up classic rock disc jockey” — inspired in part by Zadoorian’s own experience hosting a show on 100.7 FM, Ferndale’s community radio station.
Zadoorian holds up “Narcissism” as proof that Detroit as subject matter and setting has become more “viable” since the city’s comeback narrative has given it an added shot of international cool factor. But it seems clear that he’d continue writing about his favorite locale no matter how many — or few — books it sold.
“I certainly would write about something that took place somewhere else,” he says. “[Detroit] just always seems to compel me. I don’t know why. It just does. It gets under one’s skin.”