Authors Amy Goldstein, Alice Walker, Tayari Jones in TC
National Writers Series hosts triple bill in October
By Clark Miller | Oct. 6, 2018
The Christmas 2008 closing of General Motors’ Janesville, Wisconsin, plant — the company’s oldest facility — could have been just another splashy, one-day story. An assembly line shuts down, dejected-looking workers leave for the last time, and doors are locked.
With her new book, “Janesville: An American Story,” Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post writer Amy Goldstein makes sure that doesn’t happen to this south-central Wisconsin town where Chevys were produced since 1923.
Through extensive research and numerous visits to Janesville, Goldstein shows what happens to residents of a company town after jobs dry up, third-generation GMers can no longer afford house payments, and a once-proud community struggles to survive.
Goldstein comes to the National Writers Series on Saturday, Oct. 20, for the first of three consecutive National Writers Series events. Novelist Tayari Jones appears on Sunday, Oct. 21, and bestselling author Alice Walker is featured on Monday, Oct. 22. Northern Express interviewed Goldstein about Janesville, her research there, and how the town and is doing these days.
Express: You decided to stick with the story. Why?
Goldstein: I was struck during the Great Recession. After that, there was a lot of good reporting about the stimulus plan, for example, but there wasn’t a lot of good writing about what it does to a community when the best jobs vanish.
Express: So why did you choose Janesville in particular?
Goldstein: This is a story that could have been told in many places, [but] I wanted a community that could serve as a microcosm. I chose Janesville because it lost a lot of jobs, and it seemed important to pick a place that hadn’t been part of the Rust Belt before.
Express: You tell some very personal stories — strained marriages, homeless teens, even suicide.
Goldstein: I wanted [readers] to feel in a visceral way what it was like to lose a job and have to figure out what to do next. I thought telling people’s stories close up would create that emotional experience. I wanted to portray choices when there are no good choices left.
Express: How did you get people to open up so much? Many of their stories must have been painful.
Goldstein: You don’t start out with the most sensitive questions. It’s a gradual process. You form relationships, get them used to me appearing in their lives and asking a little more.
Express: The book makes the reader feel like they are there, on the scene. Is there a name for this style?
Goldstein: I did a lot of reading and double checking. I’d call this narrative non-fiction. It’s journalism. Everything is reported, but the style of writing aspires to be novelistic.
Express: A lot of money and effort went into retraining programs. You seem to put little faith in them.
Goldstein: The data show it wasn’t very helpful. There still weren’t a lot of jobs.
Express: You describe Janesville as a tight-knit, resilient community.
Goldstein: It’s a community where people handed down these [GM] jobs for generations. People have a strong sense of attachment.
Express: Any thoughts about how communities, especially those dependent on one major employer, can better prepare for these types of crises?
Goldstein: Years before the closing, city government commissioned a consultant to look at the future of Janesville. That person said the town should diversify. This was decades before the plant closed. [A permanent closing] seemed far-fetched to a lot people.
Express: Why did that seem far-fetched?
Goldstein: I think it’s hard for leaders to imagine a future different from what they’ve always known.
Express: Do you think GMers in Janesville were lulled into a false sense of security and thought the plant would never go away?
Goldstein: I think it was a complicated relationship between the plant and its workers. It was the oldest operating plant in the entire company. Because of that, people working there had a lot of pride in their work.
Express: On some level, though, Janesville employees must have known it was a possibility. Other plants were being closed.
Goldstein: There were lots of rumors. So it’s not like they didn’t have their eyes open. But the longer their plant stayed open, the more it seemed like that wouldn’t happen.
Express: Shuttering the plant must have hurt the entire community, not just GM workers.
Goldstein: The assembly plant was by far the biggest employer in Janesville and in the area. When it closed, all sorts of other companies were affected too — auto suppliers like [seat maker] Lear, transportation companies, metal vendors. They left or downsized. It was a cascade of lost jobs.
Express: What’s the situation in Janesville these days?
Goldstein: Unemployment has shrunk dramatically since the closing. But the [new jobs] don’t pay nearly as well in many cases, so families are still suffering. Good wages at GM — $28 per hour — haven’t come back. So families are working, but they have a lower standard of living.
Express: How has the book been received in Janesville?
Goldstein: I’ve been back twice since the book came out. I gave a talk and attended other community forums. [The reaction there] has been very affirming. I didn’t know what people would think. It’s kind of an act of audacity to come to a community that’s not your own and try to portray it for people who’ve never been there.
Tayari Jones: “An American Marriage”
Author Tayari Jones’ New York Timesbestseller (and an Oprah’s Book Club selection), “An American Marriage,” asks how a strong marriage might survive if the husband is found guilty of rape.
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy move to Atlanta to begin married life. Their careers and plans for starting a family are on track until Roy is found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Importantly, it is a crime both he and his wife know he did not commit.
The common thread often running through Jones’ works is the way wisdom can emerge from human struggles large and small. She has written four previous novels, including ”The Silver Sparrow,” which was an American Booksellers Association No. 1 Indie Next pick. Her first novel, “Leaving Atlanta,” is a coming-of-age story based on the 1979–1981 Atlanta Child Murders. It won the 2003 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction and has been optioned for film rights.
Alice Walker: “An Arrow Out of the Heart”
Alice Walker, the daughter of Georgia sharecroppers and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple,” will discuss her newly-published collection of poems, “Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart.”
With a dozen novels and 13 nonfiction works to her name, Walker is one of the America’s most prolific and best-known writers. “Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart” is her 10th collection of poems.
Walker is known for the power and lushness of her writing style as well as her political activism as a champion of women of color, a critic of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians, and a veteran of the Civil Rights movement. She received the Pulitzer Prize for “The Color Purple,” making her the first African-American woman to be awarded the honor. “The Color Purple” was adapted in 1985 into an Academy Award-winning film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover. The book was the basis for a successful Broadway musical.
National Writers Series presentations take place at 7 p.m. at City Opera House in Traverse City. Doors open at 6 p.m. For tickets, go to cityoperahouse.org; call (231) 941-8082, ext. 201, Monday-Friday; or visit the City Opera House box office at 106 E. Front Street.