Friday, August 4, 2023

Q&A with Gretchen Cherington



Gretchen Cherington is the author of the new book The Butcher, the Embezzler, and the Fall Guy: A Family Memoir of Scandal and Greed in the Meat Industry. It focuses on the life of her grandfather. She also has written the memoir Poetic License. She lives in Maine.


Q: You begin your new books Authors Note by saying, “This is a work of memory, research, and my imagination.” Can you say more about that, and about the balance among the three?


A: The public sometimes questions memoirists about our memory and how much is imagined, so I wanted to acknowledge the use of both memory and imagination along with deep research, upfront in that note to my book. Each element plays off each other but it’s the three together from which I find my story.


When I begin to write a new memoir, I’m relying first on memory—mine and those memories shared with me by others, in this case, especially cousins. What did s/he say? How did I/you feel? When and where did this happen? Then, are my memories like theirs or quite different?


Research comes next. For this book I relied heavily on family photograph albums; journals, letters, and business documents of my grandfather; George Hormel’s unpublished autobiography; the media-published autobiography of the embezzler serialized while he wrote it from prison; online searches about US history, its banking system, and politics during the period, the Geo. A. Hormel & Company and its competitors; southern Minnesota weather, dress, housing, etc. of the time, and serendipitous finds along the way, such as the handwritten journal by my grandfather of his teenage years working on cattle ranches in western Colorado that one of my cousins sent me to get a voice of my grandfather when he was young.


I was also greatly aided by the archivists at Mower County Historical Society who sent me news clippings, photographs, and media reports of the period.


A second part of my research for this book came from live interviews which, for me, are each gems! I sought out people in and around Austin, Minnesota, where the story takes place, who would talk to me about what they knew of the three men I was profiling and their opinions of why my grandfather was fired by the company, and what his role might have been in the embezzlement.


After all of this, I can begin to use my own imagination but it’s not really until I get to the final developmental draft that I really draw my own speculations and/or conclusions.


The live interviews are probably the most important to me, but they don’t really matter until I’ve searched my own memories and done my research. At that point, however, they might tip the balance between something I read from 100 years ago and this person I’m speaking to whose parents were there at the time. I do rely heavily on what real people tell me, even if they conflict with each other. It’s then my job to sort what I think is “true.”


Q: Can you say more about how you researched the book? And what did you learn that especially surprised you, especially about your own family history?


A: In addition to what I noted above, I also used several books for background. One was Ted Genoways’ heartbreaking book about the meatpacking industry today, called The Chain—Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food.


What was especially helpful about this book was that, while I wasn’t researching the current Hormel Foods, his investigative gem profiles the people who work in meatpacking companies, their motivations and struggles, the toughness of the work conditions, and the care they try to take in producing our food.


I could then extrapolate back to 1900 when I was reading other sources about meatpackers back then. It helped me think more deeply about the company 100 years ago and the man who founded it.

A second key reference for me was Eugene Soltes’ Why They Do It—Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal. Not only does Soltes (Harvard Business School) dispel many myths about white-collar criminals, but he also helped me look specifically at my own story and gave me helpful questions to consider and useful insights into the three men I was writing about.


In addition, I read several white collar/fraud crime books like Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup and Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City for other authors’ interpretations of stories involving business, history, dynamic personalities, and crime. 


Surprises were several – I did not know my paternal great grandfather was a Confederate, nor why he chose to be. This was both horrifying and enlightening. I won’t spoil the story.


I was surprised to be introduced to a man in LeRoy, Minnesota, with whom I spent an afternoon, who had known the embezzler in my story when he was a teenager. He was so generous with his memories and insights, I was truly blessed to have found him.


Truthfully, I was also surprised by the preponderance of those I met who believed my grandfather was wronged by his boss, as my family stories also relayed. They all warmly welcomed me with my tough questions, pushing back, and trying hard to understand. Very sadly, several of these have passed since I met with them, and I’m sorry they can’t see the results of their contributions.


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


A: Well, I had some other choices first! Too Big to Fail was one. Also Big Men; Big Land was another. These kinds of possible titles come to me while writing and one usually sticks long enough for me to consider a working title.


But the publisher gets to influence, or select, a book’s title and mine really wanted to promote the three key characters in the story. They came up with The Butcher, the Embezzler, and the ?? but weren’t sure how to characterize my grandfather. Here’s when my writing group stepped up and together we brainstormed many options but landed on fall guy which, in part, my grandfather certainly was.


Then we needed a subtitle and A Family Memoir of Scandal and Greed in the Meat Industry is long, but we wanted memoir in there so potential readers knew this was a personal story and we needed to locate the industry. As soon as we landed on the whole title, I loved it! And so did every person who heard it thereafter, including editors, beta readers, and my marketing/publicity teams.


Along with the cover photo (generously provided by the Hormel company) it signifies what the book is about – these three powerful men who seriously impacted their industry, their region of the country, and their families, and it implies that when power, scandal, and greed are at stake, there will be winners and losers.


Q: The writer Ashley E. Sweeney said of the book, “Cherington's powerful prose prompts us to look at our own family stories in new ways.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I love this endorsement! I hope readers take away a few things—I loved that she used “powerful prose” because that’s what I was trying to do in writing about powerful people, to match the right language to my characters.


Additionally, I hope readers will come away more willing to look at how much we all deny what we don’t want to see. This greatly impacts us and our own families. Every family has secrets and myths. These are worth bringing out in the light of day.


Finally, this book would not have come about without my predecessors having preserved old family documents. Sometimes, even if you’d like to throw them all away, they contain incredible documentation of what came before us. I’m grateful for those who preserved these boxes of old letters of my grandfather’s, at the same time railing against having been left with so many!


I can only wonder, though, what will remain after us---our Twitter file, but no real letters. I wonder what impact that will have on future personal or literary explorations.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m turning to fiction. However, some themes will continue. I’m taking two real life incidents—one that occurred in the US in 1970 and one that occurred in Chiapas, Mexico in the 1990s. The story involves two descendants of people involved in these incidents who fall in love and then are faced with reconciling their complicated pasts. No secrets or scandals (that I know of yet), but plenty of family dynamics!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thanks to each of you reading this and I hope some of your readers will pick up my book, or both memoirs! And let me know what you think by connecting with me on my website This, too, has been a source of inspiration as well as new information about what I’m writing about. I do answer every message. Thanks to all of you!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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