Saturday, October 25, 2014

Q&A with Professor Bartow J. Elmore

Bartow J. Elmore is the author of the new book Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism. He teaches environmental history at the University of Alabama.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on Coke in your new book?

A: Full disclosure: I’m from Atlanta, Coke country—I grew up surrounded by this icon. Why is it that this thing that started in my home town ended up everywhere?

When I went to graduate school, I was a Southern historian. I only found the field of environmental history in my second year. I was working with a very good Southern historian, Ed Ayers. We said, why don’t we take a Southern product with a global environmental footprint [to write about]. We looked at cotton, tobacco, and then we saw a Coke can, and said, There’s a product that ended up in 200 countries worldwide!

Q: What is Coca-Cola capitalism?

A: The story of tracing ingredients around the world led me to develop the model “Coca-Cola capitalism,” which involves offloading the expenses of producing a product onto others--government or independent businesses.

It’s a model for growth, and most 21st century businesses now follow it. You don’t own your own supplies or distribution; you let others invest in the expensive stuff. Coke makes its money as a middleman, a commodity broker. It transfers sugar in a concentrated syrup to independent bottlers around the world. That’s what’s really interesting about Coca-Cola capitalism--it’s a way of making money off transactions of stuff produced by others.

Q: Has Coke’s way of doing business changed over the years?

A: That’s the thing I’m trying to get people to see—this wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision from the beginning. Putting it in context, it was pragmatic, coming out of the Reconstruction-era South. John Pemberton was a morphine addict, he was cash-strapped. How do you make money without owning stuff? Tap into other people’s infrastructures. He didn’t have the money [otherwise]. John Pemberton was the founder of the brand. Then he died, and Asa Candler took over. He was a cash-strapped guy from Atlanta….

I started seeing it in letters from the ‘40s and ‘50s: We don’t own our stuff, it’s part of our policy. Looking at precedent, it is a smart model. Other companies, from their own experiences, saw that a way to make money was not necessarily making stuff, but being a broker. That’s the reason Wall Street is so successful; it’s Coca-Cola capitalism in the extreme.

Q: How long did it take for the company to become so influential?

A: Really pretty quickly, that’s what was most startling. By 1910…by that period, it had conquered the U.S. The franchise system for bottlers made it spread so quick. They begin bottling by 1899. By 1900, Asa Candler said we’re in every state in the union. The tremendous expansion of railroads allowed them to shift concentrated syrup; that’s all that Coca-Cola corporate does.

By 1900-1910, they were a nationally recognized brand. They were starting to go overseas in the ‘20s and ‘30s, but that was a fairly soft international expansion.

In World War II, you see the company going global in a rapid fashion. That’s the great thing about Coca-Cola capitalism—they were using government infrastructure to build their empire. Bottling plants [were built] wherever the G.I.s would go. Don’t do it yourself, find partners who are willing, and in this case, it was the U.S. government.

That’s how Coke gets a leg up. They get great government contracts, and Pepsi doesn’t. There are [documents showing] Pepsi saying, Wait a minute, government, you’re really choosing [the] winner!

Q: In the book, you discuss Coke’s impact on public health and on the environment. Could you explain that impact, and do you feel it’s likely to continue?

A: The second half of the book deals with the three biggest issues. Obesity—the human body is part of the environment. Recycling and litter issues, and the third is global water issues.

I went to India on a shoestring budget. There’s an issue in India where bottling plants are extracting too much water from aquifers in arid areas of the country. [A friend and I] tried to sneak into Coke bottling plans to see the realities of what was going on.

There’s a real question of the corporate capture of such an important public resource, as [the company] tries to expand into arid areas of the world.

The obesity issue will be the most damning to [the corporation]. It’s one thing to try to tweak issues here and there, but it’s another to revamp a product they sell at the moment when people are linking sugar with the obesity rate.

I found a way into the basement of the lobby of the American Beverage Association, on K Street in Washington, D.C. I was a young grad student, and I wanted to see if I could sneak in. I said I’m a historian—what possible harm can a historian do? I got to spend several weeks in their basement looking at lobbying materials. You could see they saw the writing on the wall and had to address how to deal with it.

Q: So they’re still trying to figure it out?

A: Yes, [they’re looking at] soft drinks sweetened with a leaf indigenous to Brazil called Stevia. It’s non-caloric. The key for them, in an ecological era, is that it’s natural. It has a little bit of a bitter aftertaste, and they’re trying to solve it.

Q: Is this just Coke that’s working on it, or the industry across the board?

A: Across the board. Coke and Pepsi. I talk about the soft drink industry working together; a lot of them have the same issue. They’re in the forefront because their product is so sugar-rich, and you see it everywhere. There are branded versions called Truvia that you can get.

What does history tell us about whether this will work? Coke needs so much of that stuff. How do you do this sustainably? Have Stevia plants growing everywhere? It’s a tropical plant…

The litter story is interesting. Recycling seems to be the conceit of environmentalists, but I came to see that it’s what the industry wanted, what they were looking for. And why not? It was brilliant, another Coca-Cola capitalism model. The bill [for cleanup] is offloaded once again.

Recycling doesn’t work in the ways we want it to. The bottles we drink out of, we only recycle 21 percent. Most is going to landfills. Part of the reason is that there’s no incentive for corporations to waste less. We reduce the cost for them because we’re building an infrastructure that feeds recycled plastics back. But you still need virgin materials. We’ve actually increased plastic bottle production and waste, even in an era of recycling. It’s because there isn’t a pollution tax and an [incentive] to redesign containers.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I am. I decided to take on another big monopoly, so I chose a little company called Monsanto [and] its environmental footprint over the last 100 years…

With Coke, they’re everywhere and we see them. With Monsanto, it’s amazing just how ubiquitous it is—the soles of shoes, polyester linings--[but] you don’t see it. It’s a great foil for the Coke story. It’s hidden in plain sight.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The model I call Coca-Cola capitalism is not just about Coke. I think this is a model of late 20th century and early 21st century capitalism that is deeply problematic. A business likes to present itself as a doer, an engineer, a job creator. What we see is that some of the most profitable businesses of our times are actually consumers of [products] built by others. It’s scavenger capitalism.

That raises some red flags about our economy. Are we rewarding the doers, or those clever scavengers? Is this book about Coke? No, it’s really a book about our economy, and why this [model] is problematic.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 25

Oct. 25, 1941: Writer Anne Tyler born.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Q&A with author Martin Goldsmith

Martin Goldsmith is the author of the new book Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance, which tells the story of his grandfather and uncle, who were passengers on the S.S. St. Louis in 1939; the ship's passengers, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, were refused entry in Cuba and the United States and were forced to return to Europe. Goldsmith is the host of Symphony Hall on Sirius XM Satellite Radio, and the author of a previous book, The Inextinguishable Symphony. He lives in Maryland.

Q: You write, "I've come to feel a great need to connect with that vanished generation, with those members of my family who were murdered a decade before I was born." What caused you to feel that need to learn more about your family members, particularly your grandfather and your uncle?

A: In general I think it’s probably no more complicated than a desire to have a larger family than the one I grew up with. When I was 7 or 8 years old, I knew the kids next door had grandparents, aunts and uncles, and I didn’t. I felt that absence for a long time.

About Alex and Helmut specifically, I think it’s probably because my father felt so guilty about not having saved his father and brother. In some mysterious way, I inherited some of that guilt.

I became aware of my father’s guilt and had the insane desire to save them. My father had failed to save them, and I felt like I was the catcher running up the first base line [to catch the ball]—I was the backstop. It somehow fell to me. That’s one reason I undertook the journey.

Q: Your parents spoke very little about the Holocaust as you were growing up, and your father chose not to identify with Judaism. At what point did you learn more about your family's history?

A: It was a subject that never really came up. My brother and I were not discouraged from taking about it, but we knew that it was not a topic that was the subject of conversation. These were subjects that didn’t exist.

As I grew older, I began to ask more questions. After my mother died in 1984, it became more important. … When I met my wife, she began asking questions. In my early 40s, I began doing research.

Q: What do you see as President Roosevelt's role in the S.S. St. Louis tragedy, during which a group of Jewish refugees, including your grandfather and uncle, were refused admission into the United States (and Cuba) and were sent back to Europe?

A: On one hand, a president can only get so much done without an agreeable Congress. There was the 1924 immigration act that held quotas for immigration. To a certain extent, that had to be followed.

But there were roughly 25,000 German citizens allowed to emigrate to the United States [each year], and for the most part, those numbers were never really approached, so more could have been done to speed up immigration from Germany. Roosevelt and the State Department could have done more.

It’s also true that the country as a whole was fairly anti-Semitic at the time, so it’s perhaps understandable that President Roosevelt, with his third attempt [to run for the presidency underway], didn’t want to get too far ahead of the country where Jewish immigration was concerned.

He could have issued an executive order. [But] he didn’t know for certain what was over the horizon. As terrible as the situation was in 1938-1939, and Kristallnacht was front-page news in the United States, nevertheless the depth of the horror of the Holocaust was unimaginable in 1939. It’s understandable that Roosevelt didn’t feel the urgency we feel in retrospect.

He was amenable to the deal the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee worked out. I would imagine that 75 years ago, on June 9, 1939, as the ship was sailing back to Europe, Roosevelt, to the extent that he concerned himself with this, would have thought at least they’re not going back to Germany. I wish he had done more. I understand why he didn’t.

Q: As you retraced the steps of your grandfather and uncle, what did you learn that particularly surprised you, and how difficult was it for you personally to write about their lives and deaths?

A: I learned all manner of things, both that you can quantify—specific days and dates when they were in particular camps in France, [the date they were sent] to Auschwitz—and I also learned a huge amount of “atmospherics”—standing in the now-forlorn, overgrown ruins [where they had been kept prisoner in France] it was more possible for me to imagine what their lives were like.

The journey itself was a sort of schizophrenic journey. Simultaneously, my wife and I were able to enjoy the pleasures of traveling in France—some parts were in Germany and Poland, but largely in France—it was beautiful weather, we were in nice accommodations, we ate wonderful French food.

On the one hand, it was a marvelous European excursion. But every day we experienced, at a huge remove, their experiences in these places, where they were held against their will. It was equal measures exhilaration and pleasure, and sorrow.

The experience of gathering material contained a wide emotional range, and the writing reflected it. Discovering something new about Alex and Helmut was very exciting; I had never met them, and I met people who had been in the same room with them—it was thrilling…but very sad as well.

Q: What has the reaction been to your book? 

A: Among those who have read it, the reaction has been terrific. I do wish that there would be more reviews of it published … I’m particularly disappointed that The Washington Post has so far not given the book a review.  But there’s still time!

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: No, I’m doing my best to promote this one.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: No book will resonate with everybody, and for Alex’s Wake, certainly a niche audience would be interested, but it does speak to the history of those times, including something that is not well known in this country—the wide array of French camps. People know the names of [the German camps, but not the French ones]. I like to think that this book would correct that.

And the book would resonate with the second generation, the children of Holocaust survivors, who grew up as I did, in silent households where the word “Holocaust” was concerned. People who grew up with all this silence—the book speaks to that.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Martin Goldsmith will be participating in the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, which runs through Oct. 29, 2014, at the Washington DCJCC. For an earlier version of this Q&A, please click here.

Oct. 24

Oct. 24, 1923: Poet Denise Levertov born.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Q&A with author Eimear McBride

Eimear McBride is the author of the novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, winner of many awards including the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction and the Goldsmiths Prize. She lives in Norwich, England.

Q: Your work has frequently been compared to that of James Joyce. What do you think of that comparison? Is he an influence, and which other writers have influenced you? 

A: I can't imagine any writer wouldn't be flattered by the comparison. Joyce is a great hero of mine and I certainly felt he pointed to the linguistic direction I took with Girl but that's where any comparison ends. Joyce is omnipresent the giant at the heart of all of his work whereas my goal was to make the writer disappear from the reading experience.

The British playwright Sarah Kane was also a big influence on the writing of Girl. I found the brutality of her approach to subject matter and inability to lie very inspiring.  

Q: Your book, which has won numerous prizes, took nine years to find a publisher. What do you feel this says about the publishing industry? 

A: I think it says that the publishing industry has become frightened of the future and decided that money is more important than literature. It's pretty patronising to assume readers are only interested in genre fiction or work that doesn't require any effort of them, which is a shame and also untrue. 

Q: How did you come up with your main character? 

A: The Girl was really arrived at through a process of discovery. I didn't plan to write about her nor did I have any particular journey for her in mind. It was a matter of scratching away at the words and seeing what came out. 

Q: How was the book's title chosen? 

A: The title was actually a comment I made to my husband when we were talking about the book one night. He said 'Call it that' I said 'No' but then it stuck! 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: At this exact moment? A book tour. But I'm looking forward to getting back to work on my second novel in the new year. It's nearly there but it needs some uninterrupted time. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Considering how other languages achieve their ends is a useful tool for the would-be experimentalist.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Oct. 23

Oct. 23, 1942: Author Michael Crichton born.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Q&A with children's author Debbie Levy and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Debbie Levy is the author and Vanessa Brantley-Newton is the illustrator of the children's book We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song. Levy, who lives in Maryland, has written many children's books, including Dozer's Run and Imperfect Spiral. Brantley-Newton, who lives in North Carolina, has illustrated many children's books, including One Love and The Girl Who Heard Colors.

Q (for Debbie Levy): Your new book tells the story of the song "We Shall Overcome." How did you decide to write about the song, and what type of research did you do?

DL: I began gathering string on the life of this song years ago, as “We Shall Overcome” and issues related to “We Shall Overcome” kept popping up during research on other books for young readers that I was writing. 

These included a book about bigotry, a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and a book about the lives of enslaved people on southern plantations. So I began filing my discoveries away.

What went into the files, especially early on, wasn’t specifically or only about the song “We Shall Overcome.” In working on my book about plantation slave life, for example, I was captivated by first-person narratives of formerly enslaved people describing their songs and music. 

And I was struck by this observation by Frederick Douglass, from his autobiography:

I have often been utterly astonished. . . to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by tears.

The precise words and tune of “We Shall Overcome” don’t date back to slavery days, but for me there is an undeniable connection between this song, which has so frequently been sung to embolden those fighting for justice and to comfort those who have suffered, and the songs of which Frederick Douglass spoke. 

I found, and the book chronicles, a history of voices upon voices singing songs that evolved into “We Shall Overcome,” with people making changes in lyrics and melodies to suit their circumstances. 

I wanted to create a book that could reach even the youngest readers, and put them in touch with the humanity and history of an activity they all know something about: the activity of singing.

My research for this 32-page picture book was as far-ranging as any research I’ve done, and I’ve done a lot of research as a lawyer, editor, and writer. 

The sources range from songbooks to academic studies; from decades of newspaper articles (here’s a favorite headline from a 1967 New York Times article:  “Popularity of U.S. Rights Hymn Irks German Reds”) to liner notes from LP records; from books about the civil rights movement to articles about African American song traditions to interview transcripts.

Q (for Debbie Levy): Was there anything else that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

DL: Before I started my research, I had no idea that “We Shall Overcome” has been sung by schoolchildren in India for years. I believe that you are more likely to find kids in a school in Mumbai who know this song, and who have sung it at school assemblies, than if you go into a school in this country.

Q (for Debbie Levy): For your picture books, do you work with the illustrator in the course of creating the books, or do you each work independently?

DL: We work independently, although there is some consultation and fine-tuning by both author and artist as the final book comes together. 

I do not choose the illustrator—my publisher does. I wrote the manuscript for this book first, it was accepted for publication (by Disney/Jump At The Sun—back in 2008!), and then the publisher sought out just the right illustrator. 

I’m thrilled with my publisher’s choice of Vanessa Brantley-Newton for this book. Her illustrations are vivid, lively, and interesting, hitting what I think is just the right note for a book seeking to engage young people. 

Plus, I love her use of collage elements in many of the illustrations, because the layering of collage underscores the theme that this song’s story is the product of many people and many voices coming together over the course of many years.

Q (for Debbie Levy): You've written for different age groups, both fiction and nonfiction as well as poetry. Do you have a preference?

DL: I love it all. Really. Here’s my preference:  writing things that get published.

Q (for Vanessa Brantley Newton): How did you end up illustrating We Shall Overcome, and what were the images that first came to mind when you started on the project?

A: I have known Joann Hill for years. She is just one of the editors over at Jump At The Sun (Disney Hyperion). Every opportunity we got to work together either she was moving from one publishing house to the next or we just kept missing each other.

One day my agent, Lori Nowicki, called and said there is this wonderful book that I think you will be perfect for. It's by Debbie Levy and you would be working with Joann Hill.

I didn't know about Debbie, but I knew Joann and this was finally my chance to work with her. I was excited out of my mind! I didn't know that she had moved to Disney, but was still just over the top happy to finally get to work under her.

I drove up to NYC to meet with Joann and her wonderful staff. We talked about this beautiful story. Debbie is an excellent writer and paints word pictures. The words to the story almost read like a song. Debbie's words help bring forth the images that you see in the book.

I am a child of the ‘70s, but I remember what my parents dressed like and how they dressed us. I remember the cars and houses and furniture. Being able to recall all of this helped me a great deal in creating the illustrations for We Shall Overcome.

I never want to create images that incite anger or rage, but images that show a situation and cause the person looking at it to feel empathy for the people or person that they are reading about. To give a visual of their world at a certain time and place.

Some of the things that came to mind were when my family and I moved into an all white and German neighborhood back in the early ‘70s. My parents went to work and school to give us a better life. We moved to the town of Irvington, N.J. We were the second black family on the street.

We were not well received. My dad drove a beautiful black ‘67 Caddy and for almost a year the cops would often stop him and ask him what he was doing in the neighborhood. The cops seemed so huge and scary. We saw racism in action.

Those things are indelibly printed on my brain in pictures. The look on my father’s face and the look on theirs. It was painful to remember, but when I began to read the words of the story, I felt such hope and inspiration. Debbie is brilliant!

Q (for both): What are you working on now?

DL: I’m working on revisions for a book set during the Civil War due to be published in fall 2016 by Disney-Hyperion (the same publisher as We Shall Overcome). It’s called Soldier Song, and it tells the true story of Union and Confederate troops who were camped on opposite sides of the river after the Battle of Fredericksburg, each side making music, sometimes in a battle of the bands, until one song, “Home Sweet Home,” joined them together. Gilbert Ford will be illustrating.

And I’m enjoying doing events—festivals, schools visits, conferences—for We Shall Overcome and for a picture book that came out this past summer.

That book is Dozer’s Run, published by Sleeping Bear Press. It’s the true story of a Goldendoodle who broke through his fence to join a half-marathon being run to benefit cancer research—and ended up inspiring the human runners, crossing the finish line, getting lost and then found, and raising more money for the cause than any other runner that day.

I love this story and I love doing events with Dozer and his owner. Dozer has now been certified as a therapy dog, and we can take him to any size group, from the youngest kids to oldsters, and know that he will be a gentleman.

VBN: I am working on a few new books. One with Scholastic Inc. called A Birthday Cake For George Washington, as well as a reader series called Katie Fry Private Eye and a few other books as well. My desk stays full and I am excited about that!

Q (for both): Anything else we should know?

DL: Surely I’ve said enough! Thanks, Deborah, for asking me to participate in your blog.

VBN:  That I look forward to the future and the chance to do it all again with the magnificent Debbie Levy. I get Debbie and I believe that Debbie gets me. It was a joy to work with Joann Hill and I look forward to the chance to do it again and again.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Debbie Levy and Vanessa Brantley-Newton will be participating in the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington, D.C., which runs from November 6-16, 2014. For an earlier Q&A with Debbie Levy, please click here.