Saturday, July 30, 2016

Q&A with Michael P. Balzano

Michael P. Balzano is the author of the new book Building a New Majority, which focuses on the role of working-class voters. Balzano worked in the Nixon White House and served as a strategist to the Reagan and George W. Bush campaigns. He dropped out of high school and worked as a garbageman and apprentice lens grinder before eventually earning a Ph.D. He is based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: You write, “My simple conclusion was that, from Nixon through Romney, those [Republican] candidates who reached out to the working classes won elections, while those who did not lost.” Which recent Republican president would you say was the most in tune with concerns of working-class voters?

A: From my experience both working with and for Richard Nixon, and my discussion with labor people over the last 40 years, clearly Nixon was the one seen as very, very close to the working class.

Some of the reasons: First, working-class people in America are very socially conservative. They attend church, they pray before meals, they’re genuine. The working classes I’ve spoken to believed Nixon shared their social values, and he clearly did.

Second, they believed Nixon shared their views on the work ethic: If I work hard, I’m going to succeed.

The third reason is that Nixon shared their views on patriotism, the belief in a strong national defense. They supported him in his exit from the [Vietnam] War. The college kids don’t go to war, tradespeople do.

Nixon respected workers, regardless of the views they held. He held garbage workers in high regard and they felt that.

The working-class ethnics of World War II—Poles, Slavs, Greeks—with relatives behind the Iron Curtain, believed Nixon cared about their relatives, and wanted to free them, [especially] the Poles.

Nixon also was regarded as one of humble origins. He wasn’t poor, but he wasn’t Rockefeller. They saw him as one of their own who made it.

When I talk to labor people in the last three years, I ask which of the presidents would you like to get back. They don’t mention Reagan. They mention Nixon and Kennedy...Both were good to unions.

Another element in this is that when they looked at Nixon, Reagan, Kennedy, they viewed them as people who had balls. In Reagan’s case, he exhibited what they saw as a John Wayne cowboy, nobody’s going to push me around [attitude]. They admired that. I’ve been in union meetings where people were punched out.

Nixon and Reagan were trusted by the working class. They didn’t feel, This guy is looking down on me. Rockefeller gave the same impression to them, even though he was rich. We don’t have that any more.

Q: You write in the book of the “tendency for Republican presidents not to maintain relationships with those workforce representatives to whom they appealed and whose votes they won.” What are some examples you experienced of this phenomenon?

A: This book is extremely critical of the Republicans on a number of scores. One is, you don’t know how to communicate with people. Another, you don’t keep your promises. In Reagan’s case, he put it in writing.

Republicans are not political. How is it you can appeal to working class union people to vote for you, and they cross the line [and do so], and what do you do?

The answer really requires someone to understand the business orientation of the Republicans vs. the social orientation of the Democrats.

The Republicans are being business-oriented when it comes to the government bringing businesspeople in—their goal is to reduce the cost of government when they are in power. Hence the business-oriented Republicans oppose government policies and laws that require government to pay what they believe are excessive costs for products and services in government.

The example: First, during the Depression, two Republicans, Davis and Bacon, passed a law that would say, if the government is going to build something, we don’t want you to cut the wages of the people in my state.

Davis-Bacon required the government to pay the prevailing wage for the building of any government product…What happened with Davis-Bacon is that people would go into a state five states away, set up a tent city, bring in workers, with lower pay, they wouldn’t pay the wage.

The government passed a law that said to [abide by the Davis-Bacon law]. What happens is that the prevailing wage generally works out to the union wage. It’s not a payoff to the unions but a recognition that skills require a wage [commensurate] with the skills.

Every Republican thinks, Repeal the Davis-Bacon Act. If I’m a Democrat, and I vote for Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan gives me a promise that he is not going to touch Davis-Bacon, but the secretary of labor decides to get rid of it. Why would he do that? A whole bunch of people joined your party.

Here’s another example. If Trump wins the election, people including the speaker of the House, will say, Repeal Davis-Bacon…

They want to repeal the Jones Act. The Jones Act requires the use of American-built, American-crewed merchant ships who move American cargo from any American port to another American port, it requires that they be American-made, repaired in American yards, have American seamen.

The Republicans can’t wait to kill it. Without the Jones Act, we would have no merchant fleet.

Another one is the Export-Import Bank. The Export-Import Bank exists because for a country to buy an American airplane built by Boeing, they can’t get a loan in their country, and the Export-Import Bank goes there and looks at their plans.

The Export-Import Bank doesn’t give them money, it guarantees loans. It’s interpreted by Republicans as corporate welfare, but we’re not paying for it, we’re guaranteeing the loans…

For Republicans to get in, they’re going to have to appeal to working-class people who don’t believe they’re going to vote to kill my job.

Another part of that: The most important issue right now in this country for Democrats is a great dilemma--the Democratic Party historically does not support defense spending. They fall to the social side of the ledger. We have cut the defense budget so bad in the last eight years…

Within the AFL-CIO, the industrial-base unions know if they vote Democrat, they’re going to lose their jobs. However, if they vote Republican, the Republicans are going to try to repeal laws that protect wages. I’ve spent my life trying to explain these simple differences in how do you build a party?

Look at the section [in the book] where Ronald Reagan went to the National Maritime Union convention, of seamen who had just endorsed Jimmy Carter. He didn’t keep his promises, but [they] said, Let’s support him. Reagan went to the convention and promised he would never cancel the Jones Act and would build the American fleet again. They reversed their endorsement of Carter and endorsed Reagan…

Q: In the book, you write about the air traffic controllers’ strike during the Reagan administration. What was your role during that period, and what do you see as the legacy of that strike?

A: Ronald Reagan was right in firing the air traffic controllers because they broke the law. They were public employees and public employees don’t have the right to strike.

At the same time, the unions had every right to strike because they had written promises by Reagan that they would have their day in court to talk to the administration.

I and Admiral [Robert] Garrick helped the union structure their letter to the candidate on what their expectations were with this endorsement. The two of us carried the letter to [campaign manager] Bill Casey….

At that time, air traffic controllers were working 60 hours a week. Worldwide, it was 35 hours. We had equipment that died on us, screens that went black, but we couldn’t get into the White House…Reagan promised he would put somebody at FAA who would understand, but they brought in an anti-union guy…

The legacy? Public employee unions never vote Republican, they’re part of the Democratic Party…The air traffic controllers was the first union to vote Republican…You won’t see a public employee union go near the Republicans; look what happened to the last one.

Q: Who is likely to win the support of most working-class voters in this year’s presidential election?

A: What I’ve been telling people is that I believe Trump has become the spokesman for issues that are affecting working-class people. I talk with unions all over the country, and in my conversations with working-class groups, I glean that they feel they are victims of the political correctness of the Democratic Party.

However, they believe they would do no better with the Republicans. They don’t trust either party. They are convinced government can’t fix anything.

They believe their jobs have been sold out--if I were 50 years old, I would build a whole company on this—by trade policies that do not favor America. They also believe they were sold out by regulations that shut their industries down.

Republicans don’t know how to take advantage of that, and how to educate the workforce. [Working-class people] believe political parties have failed them professionally and destroyed their hope for the future. They want their country back, and believe they have lost the whole thing. Trump’s collision with the Republican Party—they love it…

Today, the working class is hurting and they don’t mince words. Neither does Trump. This is the reason for his popularity with the working class. Unions have checked him out and he uses Davis-Bacon labor. They believe he’s one of them.

That’s my view of it…It goes deeper than Republicans and Democrats, it’s the soul of the people.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Three of the most powerful CEOs in the country have read the book, and all are stewards of society who have dedicated their lives to helping the poor.

They said, Michael, you must write a book on the first chapter [about my experiences as a young man]. You need to tell high-school dropouts, You’re going down the wrong road, and let me tell you how to avoid it. If you, at 21, read at a first-grade level and got a Ph.D. in classics, anybody can do it.

I’ve got two chapters pretty much done, and I see the book as five chapters at most, very short.

The last thing is I’m speaking before state Republican organizations seeking an understanding of what we’re doing wrong.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 30

July 30, 1818: Emily Brontë born.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Q&A with Sasha Martin

Sasha Martin is the author of the book Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness. Her blog, Global Table Adventure, focuses on cooking recipes from around the world. Her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Food and Wine and Whole Living. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Q: You begin your memoir by writing, "This was not the book I meant to write." What book did you mean to write, and how did it end up taking the form it did?

A: Within the first few weeks of signing my book deal with National Geographic, the project shifted from a happy-go-lucky book about cooking a meal from every country in the world (a nearly four-year culinary adventure I chronicled on my blog, Global Table Adventure) to a deep exploration of the WHY behind the blog. I like to blame my editor, Hilary Black, but in reality I thank her for pushing me to go deeper.

It all started because she asked for a little background about my life. There was no way to narrow down my story to the one chapter she’d asked for; I submitted 50 or so pages for her review and when she read them she agreed - my rough-and-tumble childhood and the loss and heartbreak that came with it was the REAL story underpinning my obsessive quest.  

From the tiny, makeshift kitchen of my eccentric, creative mother, to a string of foster homes, to the house from which I launched my own cooking adventure – the story is about the power of cooking to bond, to empower, and to heal – and celebrates the simple truth the happiness is created from within.

Q: You write about some very difficult times in your life. How hard was it to relive those periods as you were writing the book?


Writing about the loss of my brother was the most challenging thing I’ve done as a writer. As I worked to make the experience real for the reader, I found myself reliving the trauma, playing the loss over in my head day and night.

I didn’t think it was going to be so hard. I went into those chapters with a fairly cavalier attitude, even beginning the process while my husband was away on a work trip. I figured I’d done the healing at those years ago. 

Turns out I’d locked down my pain pretty well as a kid – pulling it out into the daylight was it was like walking out of a cave into the blinding sunlight; I regressed emotionally to the point that I had to have help caring for my daughter for a few key days.

Writers don’t often talk about this part of the process; it’s ugly and uncomfortable. But it’s also reality. I urge all writers, especially memoirists, to have a solid support system as they work.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: Choosing the title was quite the process. I settled on Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness because it really gives a sense of the story within – the lifelong search for a sense of belonging coupled with a make-it-work attitude.

“Life from Scratch” is about using what you have on hand to make something delicious and nourishing, just as I had to work with the circumstances I was given to build a life of love and worth, both for myself and my family – especially my daughter.

Q: How did you decide on the recipes to include in the book?

A: I chose recipes that honored my heritage as well as recipes from the time I spent cooking the world.

Recipes from my heritage were important because much of the book is about figuring out my identity after a childhood in and out of foster homes. It also helped convey the evolution of my relationship to my mother… often we cooked together to understand each other.

Recipes from cooking the world were harder to decide on. I tried more than 650 from 195 countries. Since they are all on the blog, I knew readers could go there for the comprehensive list. In the end, I only selected the recipes for the book that directly connected to the narrative about family and me finding my place in the world.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m loving going out and meeting readers. I’m honored that the book has been a source of healing for so many. When I’m not visiting book clubs or speaking to groups, I’m writing and cooking.

Lately, I’ve been having fun pairing recipes with fairy tales from around the world (you can find these on Global Table Adventure). I’m also working on a novel but it’s too early to say much about that…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 29

July 29, 1805: Alexis de Tocqueville born.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Q&A with Ethan Michaeli

Ethan Michaeli is the author of the new book The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America. He worked at The Defender from 1991-1996, and his work has also appeared in a variety of publications, including The Nation and The Forward. He founded We the People Media, a nonprofit organization, and its affiliated publication, Residents' Journal. He is based in Chicago.

Q: You worked at The Defender in the 1990s. What did you learn from working there, and why did you decide to write a book about the paper’s history?

A: I didn’t know anything about race in America, African American history, Chicago history, and the history of African Americans in Chicago when I got to The Defender. It all was a blind spot in my education….

The time I spent at The Defender was transformative…I learned about The Defender’s pivotal role in American history. I always felt it deserved a book. I started to get the ambition to write nonfiction, and no one else had told the story and it deserved to be told.

It came to me slowly. At times I thought it would be better to do a memoir about my time at The Defender, but at the end I thought the best way would be to walk the reader through the history of the paper.

Q: You begin the book with a preface set in 2004 featuring Barack Obama, then a senatorial candidate. Why did you choose that episode as the book’s opening section?

A: President Obama really is the end product of more than a century of organizing and planning and building on the part of the African American community in Chicago. From the earliest moments of African Americans coming to the city, they saw politics as a nonviolent way to win back some of the rights won in the Civil War and then taken away…

The project began in the early 20th century with Ed Wright, Chicago’s first African American committeeman. It is a party position, and actually was an official rank that you [needed] to get  into the smoke-filled rooms where they divided up jobs…

Oscar De Priest was the first African American congressman [in the 20th century], and the only African American legislator on the federal level for quite some time…Harold Washington was the first African American mayor [of Chicago].

These were all signposts to launching Barack Obama as the ultimate expression of this political project. It’s good to start at the end and work your way back.

I would have written the book no matter what, but it’s true that President Obama’s election put the Chicago African American community on the radar screen of pundits and publishers.

Q: How would you describe the paper’s role in the Great Migration? What about the civil rights movement of the 1960s?

A: In the Great Migration, The Defender was an essential part of making Chicago a destination for the Great Migration.

[Defender founder] Robert Abbott was born in rural Georgia and had a European-educated stepfather who gave him a great foundation in education. He went to the Hampton Institute and had a law degree.

He was exceptionally well qualified, though because he was African American, was from the South, and had a dark complexion, that prevented him from getting work…

He knew the labor unions in Chicago were discriminating against African Americans. He didn’t see much point in masses of African Americans coming from the South to the North, because there wasn’t much opportunity for them. Many worked on the trains or in service or in the red light district. These were not big employers.

Then World War I changed things. The number of European immigrants stopped, and the demand for American products surged, especially foodstuffs and factory goods.

They needed workers, and an easily available labor force was African Americans in the South. Abbott still didn’t support it because there [also] was a need in the cities in the South.

What changed is that Abbott saw that the departure of skilled workers from the South hurt the South. He saw a report about stevedores from Jacksonville, Florida, who left to work at a port in New Jersey. The white managers could not replace them, and couldn’t train workers fast enough.

When Robert Abbott saw that, that it was going to hurt the South, that’s when he began to write editorials, and said, come to the North, Chicago in particular, [using this] as a weapon against Jim Crow…

In the Civil Rights movement, there was a similar approach. The Defender was very enthusiastic about the civil rights movement when it saw the civil rights movement could be an effective weapon against Jim Crow segregation.

It became enthusiastic about Martin Luther King [during] the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It saw him as a perfect spokesman…The Defender was defending him before other media; it kept him alive [during the early] movement.

The Defender became a daily at that time, to keep up with the demands of its readership, and to keep up with the white-owned press in coverage of the civil rights movement.

It kept them honest and on point. Defender reporters were there side by side with white reporters from The New York Times and The Boston Globe. They helped to define the coverage.

They were there to chart the signposts of the movement. When Black Power became a significant force, The Defender noted its arrival. On the editorial page, they said…Let’s give them support. A few months later, they said, OK, start to refine your message, keep the momentum going.

The Defender played a nuanced role in the civil rights movement. The movement was a set of organizations operating in a new space, between the standard political world and the world of civic organizations.

Q: How is the paper doing today, and what would you say is its legacy?

A: The paper today has a very small circulation. It’s back to a weekly—about 5,000 circulation. It still punches above its weight class. At moments when people are hungry for the perspective of the African American community, the paper gets a surge of interest and its editors are brought into other media as spokespeople.

It’s challenged because it doesn’t have the resources it needs, and its staff is stretched, but that’s always been true.

The African American community in Chicago remains as politically astute and organized as it has been. In the last election, African American voters threw out a prosecutor who had done a lousy job prosecuting police accused of abuse. The Defender knew that was coming and was part of that editorially.

They knew the Bernie Sanders campaign had not made sufficient inroads into the African American community, and knew he wouldn’t do well in Illinois. Illinois was a bellwether, and showed there was no way any candidate could win without getting the African American vote, which is decisive in a Democratic campaign.

The current editor and publisher are working very hard to keep the legacy of the paper and its reputation intact.

The legacy also includes the Bud Billiken Parade, the premier social/political event for the African American community in Chicago and beyond. Every politician who hopes to get the African American vote has to show up…

The legacy is broader. It includes individuals and family members who have graduated from The Defender and benefited from being a part of it.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m just about finished with a proposal…It will be different, on a broader, more international level, but still focusing on what happens to people when they’re oppressed and flee somewhere and make a place a bastion of resistance.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m super-grateful to everyone—the book’s had a nice response, and I’m especially grateful to former staffers at The Defender who have come out to support the book and come to events and contacted me. I’m so moved by that.

My biggest hope for the book is that I would get it right for them. It was a special, amazing place to work. According to the ones I’ve spoken to, I did, and I’m very appreciative!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 28

July 28, 1844: Gerard Manley Hopkins born.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Q&A with Anna Solomon

Anna Solomon, photo by Beowulf Sheehan
Anna Solomon is the author of the new novel Leaving Lucy Pear. She also has written the novel The Little Bride and coedited the anthology Labor Day. She has worked for National Public Radio, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and One Story. She grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and lives in Brooklyn.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Leaving Lucy Pear?

A: It was a combination of two things coming together. When I was growing up, we had pear trees below the house, and when they were ripe, they would all disappear in the night. We never knew how. My father liked to say it was giraffes, special birds, or somebody who really needs the pears. That really stuck with me. He liked that idea. It belonged with the idea of the Book of Ruth—the gleaning.

And then I came across a book called The Saga of Cape Ann, which is where I’m from [in Massachusetts]. There was an anecdote about a woman, a wealthy Bostonian who summered in Gloucester and was suffering from a nervous disorder. [The sound of a nearby] whistle buoy was agitating her, and she had contacts with the Navy and was able to have it taken out. There was an afterword saying she got married, felt better, and the whistle buoy could be put back.

As a novelist, I was thinking, What would happen if when the buoy was taken out, there was a consequence? I can’t tell how it came together with the pear trees, but they coalesced. That was in the late 19th century—I transposed it [to the 1920s].

Q: So what kind of research did you do to recreate Cape Ann in the 1920s?

A: I did a lot of research, a lot with the Gloucester Daily Times archives. It’s exhausting to look at, but fun! And history books.

[But] I find that the most illuminating research I tend to do is talking with real people. I spoke with a bootlegger’s grandson and with a woman who was a writer/reporter and wrote about quarries. She told me incredible stories, sensory details you don’t get from the history books. A fishing historian was very helpful to me with a plot problem—I needed a guy to be out on a longer fishing trip than boats would have been out, and he helped me find a loophole in the facts!

Q: In the book, you switch from one character’s perspective to another. Did you plan all along to do that, or did it develop as you went along?

A: I wanted to from the beginning.  At first, it was a challenge on an artistic level. My first book was from a close third person point of view, and it was claustrophobic, intentionally.

I really wanted to give the reader the feeling of when you see the character from afar and then get their perspective. There was a long time when it wasn’t clear that it would stay that way. A lot of cuts were made to keep it more focused.

What I found was that I think the book is about how Lucy Pear influences and affects all the characters in her community. She played a role in different lives to different degrees, but it’s not just her story. The story becomes more and more hers on a point of view level as it goes.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: I credit Christopher Castellani for coming up with the title. Chris is a fantastic writer (I highly recommend his last book, All This Talk of Love), and also a very generous soul, and after reading and blurbing the book he was somehow willing to brainstorm titles with me.

Between my editor, agent, the marketing team, the sales team and I, we were pretty mixed up about titles at that point, but then Leaving Lucy Pear came into the conversation and people were like, Ah... That's good.

I like it. I think it captures something both literal and symbolic about the book. And the cover Viking wound up creating is such a beautiful accompaniment to it, I think.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: I’m in the very beginning stages; I’m reluctant to talk about it. It involves the Book of Esther and a character who’s writing that book, and characters in the 1970s and in 2015. It jumps across time, but all the characters are relating to and repeating the original story from ancient Persia.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For me, it really was amazing writing about places I know so intimately in a different time. It’s a different kind of traveling. Parts of the book are a love letter to my home town. Place factors large in all my work, and it’s exciting to see [the book] go into the world and bring that place to my readers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Anna Solomon, please click here.