In Not Working, a new book of interviews with the un-, under- and differently employed in a post-crash U.S., author and interviewer DW Gibson argues — both explicitly and by example — that a lot has changed since Studs Terkel's Working, an oral history of the American workforce, was published in 1974.
Back then, the word “layoff” referred to a long vacation, unions still had some of the power they had fought during the first part of the century — and it made sense to explore how identity is intertwined with occupation, with little attention paid to those out of a job, for whatever reason (one person in Working is identified as having the occupation of “idleness,” but by choice and not external circumstances).
Gibson borrows Terkel's style of interpolating his authorial voice via what look like italicized stage directions (profiling each subject and describing the scene when the transcript isn't enough), as well as his approach of grouping interviews by theme: Community, Public Domain and Family to Terkel's Footwork, Brokers and Second Chance.
I talked with Gibson Monday as he and his wife drove through Pennsylvania while on a book tour that's following, more or less, the trajectory of his road trip last summer, when he did the interviews that make up Not Working. This week is the “KC-St. Louis-Indy” leg of the tour, which will end at Bookmamas Saturday. He plans to screen a segment from a documentary chronicling his interviews, which he hopes will air in feature form before the election (and excerpts from which are currently available at notworkingproject.com).
NUVO: How did you end up talking with who you did in Indy?
DW Gibson: I believe the starting point in Indy was talking with a few reporters at The Star, who had done some coverage on businesses in the area that had had layoffs. One of the reporters there brought my attention to the fact that they had had layoffs in their own office. We had not yet connected with any journalists that had been laid off, and that was a slot we were looking for, so that person kindly put us in touch with a few people that had been at The Star and had been let go. We interviewed them, and they led to other people, through personal contacts and incidental meetings. For instance, we interviewed two women from The Star in an art studio downtown, and the gentleman, Wug Laku, who was kind enough to give us use of the space, sat on the interview and, afterwards, said, “I have someone you might want to meet.” And it was Nancy Lee, who was spectacular and ended up being the last chapter of the book.
NUVO: The former Star employees that ended up in the book are Jenny Elig and Judy Wolf?
Gibson: The thing I remember about Jenny and Judy was that that was one of the few chances during the trip when we got to interview more than one person at a time, which creates an entirely different dynamic. A lot of people who have seen footage of that interview or read that chapter say that Jenny speaks so well to that sense of loss of routine, of what you do with yourself when you wake up in the morning. She speaks about it with great humor, talking about not having anything to do, not having any money to spend, so it's all about, I'm going to Target to look at things today. She sort of balanced out the other conversations that we had that were, in all frankness, really difficult, because they had more mitigating circumstances, in terms of finances or higher stakes. Jenny was able to find some solvency in her life and measure her spending, so there wasn't any immediate financial crisis in her life, and I think that's what allowed for the levity. But I think that it was very human the way she talked about feeling lost every day. And then there were the contradictions: Jenny talked about how she finds herself sleeping too much, and Judy immediately chimed in to say how she can't go to sleep.
NUVO: Why did Nancy Lee end up closing the book?
Gibson: The optimist says that people can always find ways to reinvent themselves in a crisis like unemployment — and in fact that does happen, but it's really rare. Nancy is one of those cases where it does happen, and she's inspiring for three key reasons. One: She redefined her life once she lost her job by not trying to get right back to where she was, pay-wise. Instead of doing that, she said, what's the fat that I can trim out of my life and how much can I survive on? The second thing is that she reinvented herself professionally. She had always loved jewelry-making and had become quite skilled at metalsmithing. She became quite serious about it, selling fine pieces to people that might want them, and she's graduated to having her own retail space now. The updates I've gotten from her is that it's continued to be a challenge, month to month, but she's doing it, and I think that's quite inspiring. The third, and most important point — and this is really why she closed the book — is she spoke about having gone through a divorce while she was getting laid off and how that sort of distanced her from her sons. And then her son, recently, had gone through his own layoff. Knowing what he was going through really inspired her to re-connect — she showed at his door unannounced and really forced the resuscitation of that relationship. And she was successful at reconnecting: She talked about how, the night before we spoke they had just gone out nightswimming together. That action on her part to reconnect to her son to me demonstrates what I found was at the core of all of these experiences and conversations, which is that relationships and, really, communities get torn apart through substantial layoffs. And Nancy exemplifies that on a personal level, the best thing that anyone can do under such adverse circumstances is reach out and connect with someone.
NUVO: And the other local you talked to was Kelly Graham-MacDonald.
Gibson: Yeah, and funnily enough, as a side note, she is now a full-time administrative employee of The Star, and she got that job through Judy, who had been laid off there. So it just goes to show that there's a disconnect between corporate choices and interpersonal relationships; obviously, Judy still has a fabulous reputation at the paper. Kelly was working for a private company that had state money to provide group homes for adults with physical and mental disabilities. She was going into group homes where they were trying to help individuals achieve independence by getting out of the homes and into their own apartment. She was someone absolutely made for that job; she referred to all of her clients as my people. She cared deeply for them, and it really devastated her to lose that job. She had a very unique situation where, while a lot of people refer to being pushed out of their job and getting passive-aggressive hints that they might be losing their job (a lot of people used the phrase “managed out”), she came into the office one day and her office was just gone. They had just moved all of her stuff into a conference room, and that was the first hint, if you want to call it that, that she was going to lose her job.
NUVO: What did you take from Terkel's style and approach?
Gibson: Look, if I can have a conversation as well as Studs Terkel did on the day I die, I'll have arrived. He did a two-part job. One is getting people to feel comfortable, open up and express the full measure of their story. And two is that editorial process that happens after the fact where, indeed, there's the task of getting a 40-page-or-so transcript down to a seven-page chapter, and to make sure that you understand the essence of what they're saying. And I have to say that — so far, so good — I've received nothing but positive feedback from folks who feel I've represented them fairly.