Meeting Author David Maraniss

30 May

My community chose David Maraniss’s book Once in a Great City for our Everyone’s Reading book this year. I’ve already posted my book review and my book club reflection on the book and last week, I heard the author himself speak.

Maraniss was born in Detroit but spent much of his childhood in Wisconsin. He spoke about watching the Superbowl in 2011 and when this ad came on, he felt a pull to the city.

I really connected with this. I was living in Southern Indiana in 2011 and was watching the Superbowl with a bunch of other friends from the business school. As nerdy business students, we were more focused on the half-time commercials than on the game. It went completely silent in the room while that 2-minute ad went on and then when it was over, the whole room looked at me like I was the ambassador for the whole city. I just said, “Heck yes!” and grabbed more guac. It seems I wasn’t the only one with an experience like this, but Maraniss wrote a book because of it.

Once in a Great City is Maraniss’s 12th book. He uses the same research system for each book which he likens to digging an oil rig and getting as deep as he can to get all the information. The first step is to go to the place. When writing about Bill Clinton, he went to Hope, Arkansas. When writing about Vince Lombardi, he went to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Doing so has given him access to first-hand accounts and stories he wouldn’t have found otherwise. The second step is always to get the documents. For this book, it was letters from Mayor Cavanagh and Police Commissioner Edwards that were at the Wayne State University Reuther Library. He visited 11-12 other libraries and archives including an Olympic archive in Los Angeles and Duke University’s advertising archive for the documents about the Mustang. He found during his research that the Mustang tagline was originally Imported from Detroit. Well, at least it was finally used.

Maraniss’s third step is to talk to people. Being in the target area helps with this. Many of the major figures for the Detroit novel had passed but he was able to talk to a few including Berry Gordie Jr. and Martha Reeve. His final step is to look for what’s not there. For Maraniss, he saw the influence of the rest of the Gordie family, not just Berry. He saw the access to musical instruments, specifically pianos as a reason for the musical movement in the city at that time. He also saw the influence of public school music teachers and how that pushed many musicians to follow a musical career.

Maraniss expressed that the bittersweet tone of his book wasn’t intentional but grew as he wrote and edited the novel. He feels Detroit is still a great city but that the neighborhoods and schools need support to match earlier splendor. Due to length, there were other topics Maraniss chose to not cover including architects and other auto companies.  This book has been optioned into a 4-part documentary series on CNN with Anthony Bourdain that will likely release in early 2018. The makers are currently looking for home movies of that era to add to the series.

In answering questions from the audience, Maraniss revealed that on a recent trip, he went to see his childhood home and it had been knocked down the day before! He’d seen it other times on trips to the city for research but was really struck by the timing. He revealed that his next book will deal with the McCarthy era. Maraniss also said that there’s not really a set time it takes him to write a book and that the process is ongoing for him. He did say he often signs 2-book contracts and that it’s usually 8-12 months between book delivery to his editor and publication.

I decided not to buy a copy of this book because as much as I liked it, it’s not one I’ll read again and I’m trying to limit the books I own, even the signed ones, to ones I would want to lend out or read again. No pictures this time.

Until next time, write on!

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