Connie Schultz On Her Debut Novel And The Story Of American Women
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Connie Schultz's new novel, "The Daughters of Erietown," is about a group of people who often seem to struggle to be their best within lives that can narrow their choices. It's a story of women in northeast Ohio who put dreams on hold, search for love and meaning and find each other in the clasp of family. "The Daughters of Erietown" is the debut novel - and I'm sure she's going to write more - of Connie Schultz, who won a Pulitzer Prize writing columns for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. She joins us from Cleveland. Connie, thanks so much for being with us.
CONNIE SCHULTZ: Thank you for this, Scott. It's good to hear your voice.
SIMON: Well, it's good to hear yours. Tell us about the two characters who begin as youngsters. Kind of - they're the spine of the story, Ellie and Brick.
SCHULTZ: Yes. Ellie and Brick McGinty have - as you said, they're young initially. They're in the 1950s. And because of the time and place in a very small town, Clayton Valley, Ohio, when Ellie gets pregnant while they're still in high school, the trajectory of their lives changes dramatically. Within months, Brick is working for Erietown Electric. Down the road, Ellie becomes a nurse's aide. And I picked those professions because those were the professions of my parents. And so those were the professions I knew best.
SIMON: It's often been my impression that when working-class characters are written about at all, it's often with a kind of stereotype. Was there something that you set out to change?
SCHULTZ: Working-class people are just like more affluent and luckier people. The difference is when the big problems come and there's no money to fix it. And that's when dreams derail. And the other point - which has driven my journalism as much as it did my fiction and because I come from the working class - our roots are our beginnings, but they are not our excuses. And if you grow up and you have racism in your family - and certainly that's an element in this book - that doesn't mean that you are now authorized to be a racist, as well. And while that's not a primary theme in this book, I wanted to be sure to include it because I've grown so weary of these arguments that you can dismiss everyone of our background as just not having enough sense to be anything other than what we were taught in the beginning.
SIMON: Connie, do you have your fine book there with you?
SCHULTZ: I do have my book here. Yes.
SIMON: Could I ask you to read a section? It's a charming scene when Brick is telling young Ellie and her brother what he does for a living.
SCHULTZ: (Reading) Brick tapped his pen again on the napkin. Well, those are called cooling towers, and there's a generator, too. It's connected to that turbine, to that windmill by something called an axle. The generator spins around the blades of the windmill. And the energy from that - it's called kinetic energy, makes the electricity. Sam leaned into him. Daddy, you are so smart. Not smart, Sam. Just doing the same job over and over for the rest of my life.
SIMON: Later in the novel, a character says nobody gets the life they planned. We get what God plans. And we spend the rest of our lives trying not to hold it against him (laughter). It sounds like the kind of thing you might have heard from someone at one point.
SCHULTZ: (Laughter) I think what it was is growing up in a town I loved, Ashtabula, Ohio, that was so full of broken dreams for a lot of people and never, though, ran out of hope for the rest of us. And, you know, this is not unusual. I'm sure you were the same as a child. So many people I know who are writers and journalists - we were full of questions at a very young age. And I was the oldest in my family, very accustomed to talking to adults. And so I spent a lot of my childhood talking to the grown-ups and learned a lot about their lives. And I never thought at that time I would become a writer. But I see now how much of it fueled the writer I am now today.
SIMON: Connie, while we have you, how do you feel about what's happened at The Cleveland Plain Dealer?
SCHULTZ: Well, I'm heartbroken. This newspaper launched my career. When I started there, there were more than 400 people in the Newspaper Guild. And as of the last month, they got rid of the entire guild. And we still subscribe because I care about a lot of the people who are still working there. But if we ever needed an active, vigorous place full of veteran journalists right now, it is in this time of not just the coronavirus but of the continued and deserved racial unrest that we have.
You know, when I grew up in Ashtabula - I should backtrack - half of my class all the way through elementary school was black. I didn't even understand, of course, the significance of that until I got older - that when your friends are people who don't have to look like you but you are certain that they are like you, it really informs who you are, right? It certainly has informed my work. What has concerned me in the conversations about it - even now as we're looking at what's happening around the country - is so many white people talk about what's happening in the black community. And as long as we call it the black community instead of our community, we're able to distance ourselves from what is actually happening.
I'll go back to Tamir Rice when he died - whom I wrote about this week in my column. And I was troubled by how few white people showed up for that funeral. And it made me understand that even though they may have felt sad to hear the news, it wasn't their child they had lost. It wasn't their community as they saw it, which brings me back to Plain Dealer coverage. It has all but abandoned local coverage in the way it used to for the Guild. They were told if they stayed in the Guild, they weren't going to be able to cover Cleveland anymore. And so the last of the veteran journalists who've been reporting on this community and in this city for so many years are gone. And I don't need to tell you what the lack of institutional memory in your journalists can do to your coverage.
SIMON: Connie Schultz - her debut novel "The Daughters of Erietown". Thank you so much.
SCHULTZ: Scott, you know how grateful I am, I hope. I really am, especially in this time. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.