Step 1 of doing a nonfiction book – research – I love. I also love Step 2, writing. It is commonplace for writers to complain about Step 3, the sales part, the tour, and there are certainly plenty of reasons to gripe: waking in the predawn darkness to catch another flight to another city; staying in so many hotels that you forget your floor, let alone room number; the looming prospect of humiliation that comes with walking anxiously into an event where the audience consists of a few stray relatives and stragglers - all part of the deal.
But I am lucky to be a writer and have my books published. There is nothing else I would rather do. I can't complain.
And there is one part of the tour that I love – the unexpected connections, the way people I had never met before intersect with me or the story or both.
For my latest book, Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, the connections came one after another.
The book is about Detroit when it shone as an incandescent star, in the early 1960s, when the city was giving so much to America in terms not just of automobiles (the Mustang) but also music (Motown), labor (Walter Reuther and his United Auto Workers union), and civil rights (Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit two months before he repeated it in Washington.) In the epilogue to the book, I write briefly about being born at Women’s Hospital in Detroit and spending my early years on the west side, at a flat on Dexter and then a house on Cortland, and learning to read at Winterhalter elementary school. And in an author’s note, I evoke some of my earliest Detroit memories – Vernor’s ginger ale, the Boblo boat, Hudson’s department store, the Ford Rotunda.
During my four visits to Detroit during the book tour, a stream of strangers came up to me and made connections. Two men said they were born at Women’s Hospital within a month of when I was born there in August 1949. Seven other audience members waited in line afterwards to tell me they had attended Winterhalter elementary, and three of those said they were my age and in my class. One woman was in tears when we talked. Another man said he had been the principal of Winterhalter for a decade and a half after I left.
But the connections were not just in Detroit. There seem to be Detroit ex-pats everywhere. At an event in Lansing, a woman came up to me and said that as a teenager she sold hot dogs on the Boblo boat. In Chicago, a man said his mother had always told him about the glorious Flame Show Bar, where Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughan sang, and where two of Motown founder Barry Gordy’s sisters ran the cigarette and photos concession. Another man told me how as a fourth grader he went with this choir to sing at the Ford Rotunda. And in Washington, a woman told me that she grew up in the house where Walter Reuther had lived during the 1940s, and that decades after Reuther left there were still bullet marks near the window in the kitchen where he had been standing one night when a would-be assassin wounded him with a shotgun blast from the backyard darkness.
There was an emotional weight to each of these encounters that is hard to describe. Early memories are like that, almost dreamlike, sometimes sweet, sometimes melancholy, always deep and meaningful in ways that transcend the details.
They are at once a byproduct of the books I write but also, I have come to think, one of the reasons I write them.
David Maraniss is an associate editor at The Washington Post and author of several best-selling books including Barack Obama: The Story; When Pride Still Mattered, and the definitive biography of Bill Clinton, First in his Class. His latest book is Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. Ok, he's also my dad.
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