25th Trillium Award

Riverside Drive: Windsor-born Michael Januska's Border City Blues

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Michael Januska

By Megan Philipp

Riverside Drive (Dundurn Press) rumbles through the Border Cities during the difficult years following the Great War," says Windsor-born author Michael Januska of his debut novel and the first in his Border City Blues crime series. Scheduled to be released on May 25, 2023, the novel is set during the Prohibition era in six Ontario communities located along the Detroit River; they included the rural community of Ojibway, the town of Sandwich, the commercial centre of Windsor, the factory town of Walkerville, Ford City (the birthplace of Canada?s automobile industry) and the residential community of Riverside. Today, the Border Cities still exist as neighbourhoods within the city of Windsor. Januska is knowledgeable about the time period, explaining that before the 1920s, veterans returned home in search of opportunities in a time when there weren?t many — there had been a recession, an influenza epidemic, and food and energy shortages. This is where Riverside Drive begins, as Januska?s lead character Jack McCloskey returns home from the war, working jobs in factories and dockyards before turning to bareknuckle boxing for money and therapy. From there, a gang leader working a second job as a boxing promoter scouts out McCloskey for professional boxing matches, and later recruits him as his heavy, which Januska describes as ?the kind of guy an ambitious bootlegger? would have needed ?to get things done.? The early days of Prohibition, Januska explains, was a time when people were all about claiming territory, and veterans like McCloskey would have ?found themselves back in the trenches, so to speak.? In contrast with Jack McCloskey is Vera Maude Maguire, a young librarian who wants to escape the industrialized Border Cities but lacks the will to do so; she instead plays the role of detective, suspecting a neighbour of being a bootlegger. ?It was a time of great social unrest,? Januska enlightens, ?and there were those who sought to exploit situations for their own material gain and political power. Towards the end of the story a new breed of criminal descends on the Border Cities posing new challenges not only for local law enforcement but also for the underworld?s establishment.?

Naturally, Riverside Drive is a novel that delves deeply into the history of the Border Cities during the Prohibition era, and it?s because of this that Januska needed to put a lot of work into the novel so that it would feel as authentic to the historical time period as possible. With the goal of writing a good story, he also wanted to introduce readers to the new things he?s learned about the city of Windsor, as well as provide good character development and fitting language — no doubt a difficult task. Speaking about his new book, Januska reveals the complicated writing process, from a difficult start to a completed novel — a journey that unsurprisingly began in Windsor.

Despite growing up in Windsor, it wasn?t until he moved to Toronto that Januska realized he wanted to write about his hometown. As a child, he would hear Prohibition stories from his older relatives, and eventually his family?s move from the suburbs of Windsor to the downtown area helped him connect with those stories. He says, ?The urban landscape, the architecture, the close proximity of Detroit, and of course the river, brought it to life for me. Not long after that I was given a copy of Marty Gervais? Rumrunners. That book really brought it all together for me. Later in university I read the likes of Joyce, Pound, Hemingway, Woolf, and studied the same period in art history, and that added dimension to an era that I already found fascinating.?

This love of and familiarity with the time period led Januska to write his novel, although at first it wasn?t an easy start. He reveals that in the beginning his ideas were ?all over the map? and that now he realizes that he was actually trying to create a ?mythology for Windsor,? even though he didn?t recognize this at first. Things became easier when he discovered authors Dashiell Hammett, Graham Greene, Elmore Leonard and others, who inspired Riverside Drive in their own way.

One of the greatest challenges for Januska when writing his book was maintaining historical accuracy. Where culture, society and technology were concerned, Januska admits that he had certain assumptions about the time period that were inaccurate, but this was resolved through educating himself further with research. Research for Riverside Drive consisted of reading digital copies of the Border Cities Star newspaper online, and referring to city directories, fire insurance maps and collections of vintage postcards. Despite making a conscious effort for historical accuracy, however, he admits that he did take a few liberties, which he will wait to see if anyone catches.

A good story for him is defined as ?one that is lean, character-driven and with sharp dialogue,? and it should leave readers wanting to learn more about the characters. These are factors of a story that Januska paid attention to, but struggled with as well. Creating characters meant fully fleshing them out by giving the characters names and deciding where they lived, right down to details such as the appearance of the building where they grew up or worked. Admitting he can get a little bit crazy about fleshing out characters, Januska divulges, ?I have to know as much as possible about them before I let them loose.? When it came to language, the challenge was to avoid ?the temptation to echo voices from the past or adopt a mannered style.? He also was careful not to litter ?the story with cartoonish slang or jargon.? If he did choose to use language like this, he tried to make it ?relevant, again, historically accurate, and local.? If he felt certain language would have been picked up by the media of the time, he sometimes accepted it, even if it wasn?t completely accurate.

Knowing that this novel was going to be a part of a series had its own set of difficulties as well. Januska reveals, ?Sometimes while writing Riverside Drive it was like travelling down the actual road at full speed, passing the houses, businesses, pedestrians, side streets?there really are so many stories to tell.? He knew that he needed to leave parts of the narrative for the rest of the series, so he intentionally left ?a few characters and themes dangling.?

This didn?t stop him from writing multiple Border Cities short stories, however, as ?certain characters were busting to have more of their stories told — McCloskey and Vera Maude in particular.? Januska feels that writing these short stories has value because they fill in a lot of gaps, teach him more about the characters and also offer him ?instant gratification? if he can?t wait to see how a novel is going to end.

Readers can look forward to the follow-up novel to Riverside Drive, Maiden Lane, next. Including the typical bootlegging and crime that one expects, Januska will also take on the topics of race, religion and intolerance, and the occult, something that he says wouldn?t have been uncommon in literature from the time. He explains the plot, saying: ?I can safely mention that the Detective Campbell and Dr. Laforet narratives from my short stories will be merging with Border City Blues at this juncture. I?m particularly excited about that.?

Januska will be launching Riverside Drive in Windsor on June 6th, 2013. Please view the details here. For further information about the Border Cities and to read Michael Januska?s short stories set there, please visit his Border City Stories website.

Michael Januska was born in Windsor, Ontario, and has worked with books his whole life, both as a bookseller and for several book publishers. He is also an award-winning crime fiction writer. His first book with Dundurn was Grey Cup Century. Januska lives in Toronto.

For more information about Riverside Drive please visit the Dundurn Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Megan Philipp is an Editorial Intern at Open Book: Ontario. Having completed the Publishing Certificate Program at Ryerson University, she is pursuing a career in publishing. She also writes and edits for The Mindful Word, an online magazine focused on mindfulness and engaged living.

1 comment

Love it! Can't wait for the drop.

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