'Awaiting Identification' - Author chronicles intersecting stories of dead bodies in Detroit

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R.J. Fox teaches English and film/media at Ann Arbor Huron High School.


By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News

In R.J. Fox’s crime novel “Awaiting Identification” – set in Detroit on October 31, 1999 – the city of Detroit is more than just a setting; it is more of a character unto itself.

“Detroit is a city marked by tragedy, but – even more importantly – resilience. Detroit is constantly finding its way out of the ashes, so to speak, whether through fire, rebellion, social or economic hardship. It always finds a way to fight and survive, mostly from sheer necessity,” said Fox, a Washtenaw County resident.

Fox – an alumnus of the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Wayne State University, who teaches English and film/media at Ann Arbor Huron High School – came up with the idea for “Awaiting Identification” from a November 18, 1999 Detroit Free Press article that chronicled the vast, alarming number of unidentified bodies that end up in the Wayne County Morgue each year. The article mentioned that approximately 400 unidentified bodies come into the morgue every year. Morgue personnel give the bodies a case number and a moniker based on characteristics pertaining to their case. 
Fox loosely based the five unidentified bodies in “Awaiting Identification” on this article. Although each character was on a separate journey, fate led each of the five victims to cross paths on the streets of Detroit en route to their tragic demise. The characters are:

• NYC Girl: A former dancer who arrives in Detroit – her hometown – from New York City to make amends with her mother and rebuild her life.

• Leaf Man: A musician and DJ on the cusp of his big break with one final, unexpected drug deal to complete before he can go totally straight.

• R.I.P.: A career criminal who must come up with a large sum of money to pay for his father’s medical expenses, despite his desire to walk away from that life.

• Zealot: A religious fanatic on a mission form God to rid Detroit of filth.

• Cat Man: A kind, trusting homeless man wandering the city looking for new friends.

“I became obsessed with wanting to figure out who these people were and the circumstances that led them to end up being unidentified and unclaimed. These were human beings that were born into this world with feelings, desires, and dreams. I realized in my own small way, through the lens of fiction, I could attempt to bring some of these lost souls back to life,” explained Fox. “My favorite character, hands down, is the Cat Man. I even saved him for last intentionally because his is the most upbeat, comical, feel-good story – even though we know he’s dead. In fact, that makes his death even more tragic.”

Originally, Fox wrote “Awaiting Identification” as a screenplay. In fact, it was optioned but never got produced, so he decided to convert the script into a book.

“The biggest challenge writing this book was changing the structure,” he explained. “Although the storylines remained intact, the original script cut back and forth between the characters more often. I decided to focus on one character at a time – other than the overlapping sections – rather than the choppy style in the script. I always thought it would work well in the screenplay, but I ended up re-writing the script in the same structure as the book. Each character is like a novella or short film onto themselves. But then they all represent a piece of a much larger puzzle when all put together.”

Fox continued: “Another challenge, but also liberating aspect, of writing the novel was that I was able to expand upon scenes and characterization in a way that screenwriting doesn’t let you do in such a more limited, concise form. This included some flashbacks within the overall flashback, as well. Beginning with a screenplay is the best possible blueprint. It is essentially an outline, but even more developed.”

Growing up in Dearborn, Fox travelled to Detroit for Detroit Tigers games and concerts.

“I also spent a lot of time just driving around the city, listening to techno and sort of soaking it all in like a sponge. To me, that was the best research.

Once we decided to set the time period from the modern day to 1999, I was able to rely even more on the Detroit I knew then versus the drastic changes downtown has gone through since then,” said Fox. “There were a few things that required research, including some background stuff on the People Mover, jazz clubs that would have been around prior to 1999, and – I probably shouldn’t have used my work computer for this – the drug trade and specific forms of date rape drugs, Molotov cocktails, and the sex trade.” He added with a laugh: “The territory writers sometimes have to venture into!”

Fox’s first two books were humorous memoirs. This book is his first published work of fiction. Even though the tone and the genre of “Awaiting Identification” were completely different, he stated the writing process remained very similar.

“Despite the gritty nature of ‘Awaiting Identification,’ I hope what people take away from my book is a sense of humanity and light shining through the darkness,” he said.

“The key theme, I think, is redemption, particularly in terms of my five main characters. Despite the fact that we find out they are deceased on the first page, I like to think that each of the characters find themselves better off spiritually at the end than in the beginning.”

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