It’s difficult to trace back to when I first became aware of Connie Schultz. I was an overly opinionated bookish girl growing up in northeast Ohio, writing for the teen page of our local newspaper. I dreamed of college and escape from a landscape dotted by silenced steel mills and poverty generations of hard work couldn’t seem to undo. Schultz—a fierce reporter who turned her writing toward the working class—was everything I aspired to be in the world. Honest. Bold. Maybe I really fell for Schultz after I left, after I started to see how the struggles of where I came from kept informing who I became no matter where I went. I certainly knew Schultz’s writing by the time she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, for work in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about the “underdog” and the “underprivileged,” code for the people who made each of us.
By then I was in awe of her.
For years now, in addition to serving as faculty at Kent State University and being a nationally syndicated columnist, Schultz has been a steadying force, demanding decency and justice. In hundreds of thousands of people’s social media feeds she daily manages a rarity—civil discourse online—even as our nation weathers political chaos. She is ever fair-minded, generous with dog photos when levity is needed, and firm in her hard-earned convictions.
Since June, Connie Schultz has also become something else: a novelist. Her latest book and first novel, The Daughters of Erietown, fell into my hands like something written in a familiar love language. It’s a multigenerational yarn about a family rooted in the working class. It’s a book about how place and circumstance shape people, even as we try to defy life’s inevitable constraints.
Schultz recently sat down with me, via Zoom, to discuss her book. (This marked the fulfillment of one of my life’s dreams, speaking to her about her writing.) The Q&A below has been edited for length and clarity, and contains spoilers.
Sarah Stankorb: There is a line you include in the book—“That’s where you come from, don’t you ever forget it”—which seems to inform a lot of who you are as a writer. And the book definitely makes clear how a person can be from somewhere and become something else and remain both those things, and yet straddle both worlds and never fit, really, in either one.
Connie Schultz: That is the perfect way to describe it, straddle it and never fit in, in my view, in either world.
I had a friend who grew up in a very affluent part of the country. And he said, “You know, you are a reverse snob. You are a working-class snob. You think your people are superior to all of us who didn’t have to work so hard.” And I said, “There’s probably some truth to that, but you all seem to be doing fine without our approval.”
Until I started hearing Bruce Springsteen’s music, his songs, I didn’t realize that our people lead lives of poetry too, and that we can actually put them to music. And it was such an affirming experience to hear his songs, to know that he understood the lives of the people I came from and that he understood something about the life I was living. And then to see so many people who don’t come from that background revere him has been so interesting to watch.
It’s really hard to come from the working class, but I do think it gave me my chops as a writer, certainly as a journalist, because I was so used to working hard at a young age. I was so used to understanding, you know, [as in the book] when Brick doesn’t let [his daughter] Sam go to Smith College because it would be a free ride, and he doesn’t believe anything is really for free. That is so much what I was raised to believe. And so it never occurred to me that I should get an easy way out of anything or into anything. And I suppose that really helped to inform my work and helped make me the journalist I became, good and bad.
Did you ever fear forgetting or feel like you had to fight forgetting where you came from?
No, never, no. I mean, part of it is because of what I gravitated in coverage. I’ve written so much about working-class people and of all races. Of course, it’s so important to emphasize that as I grew up, in my elementary school, half of my classmates were Black in every grade. When you grow up knowing your friends don’t have to look like you to be like you, it really informs your work and it informs your life.
Your depiction of racial inequity and all these divisions were so familiar. I was so relieved to see their honest portrayal in this book. I thought Sam was really interesting, especially with all the discussions happening now about white fragility, and how to be antiracist, where you could feel she loved her father and still rejected his racism.
Well, I wrote for the Atlantic a few years ago about my dad’s racism. Because as I have said for so many years, it’s easy to hate the racist you don’t know. It’s different when it’s also the person who made sure that you were the first to go to college in your family, who did believe in you in ways. And I wrote it back then because I was tired of hearing the commentary that implied that if you grew up in the white working class, you’re bound to be racist. I hope one of the themes that comes through in the book is that our roots are our beginnings, but they’re not our excuses. And that’s where my initial feelings about [that idea came from], that’s where the seed was for that.
That’s probably one of the most true stories in the novel for me personally—the tension between Sam and her father. My father hated my Motown music. He broke my records at times, but what I came to understand better in writing the novel is he was that father who used to buy records with me. We would sit down on the floor and listen to them. So it wasn’t just that I liked Black music like Sam. He could see that he was losing me, that we didn’t have as much in common and music was one of those few things we could do together. I really didn’t see that until I wrote about Sam and Brick.
I thought I could not have a novel in small-town Ohio in the sixties or small town, period, in the country and not address the issue of racism. Racism is always an issue. It’s our legacy. It’s our heritage. And I wanted to show how often it can play out differently in white working-class families.
When people think of an area and especially what they call the Rust Belt—
A term I hate—
Yes—[but a place like this gets described] in terms of buildings or the shell of buildings. But I feel a book like this shows how often a place is linked to dreams. And whether that’s dreams that are nearly fulfilled or those that die, or those that kind of live around you and haunt you and make you want other dreams for your child. I wonder how much you see our part of the world, where we came from populated by these dreams.
I grew up with them. I was surrounded by them. I live the dreams of my parents. These empty buildings don’t tell the stories of the hearts and souls and the people who still remain. That’s why I hate “Rust Belt.” I see so many efforts in small towns and rural areas where they’re still trying, because you never run out of hopes and dreams. Even if you run out of them for yourself, if you’re of sound mind, you invest in them or perhaps inflict them upon the children in your lives. You’re determined that the next generation will know a different life. That was certainly the story of my parents. And it is definitely the story of Ellie and Brick McGinty with their kids and what they hope.
And of course, nothing pulls on Brick more than when he sees the lunch pail in the truck of his son’s car, because he had vowed his kids would never carry lunch pails, which was certainly my father’s promise. But we must allow our children their own dreams.
Some want to do something other than college and college should not be the hallmark of a successful life for every person. It’s just not how lives are lived. And we are very dependent—I hope we’re seeing that a little bit more right now—particularly on the women who never went to college, but who are making sure our food is prepared and delivered, who are ringing up the sales, who are taking our orders or taking care of patients, including people we love, who are holding up for FaceTime, the last few images of a dying loved one because you can’t be with them during COVID-19. These women are so heroic.
I hope The Daughters of Erietown is prompting more of those conversations in families and within the hearts of women who are reading them. I hope they see themselves in the book in this way.
The deaths that happened in the book, in a lot of ways they were familiar in ways that deaths in books often aren’t. The people I grew up with, the deaths are often sudden. You know, it’s a car accident. Your body has been worked and then it’s done. And that’s it. Was this something you did consciously in terms of how to shape what death feels like, or was that just by nature?
Well, my mother was a hospice home care worker in the last few months of her life. So we had so many conversations about her work. And I also did a lot of stories, including a narrative series called Losing Lisa, which chronicled the last four months of a young mother who died and then a year in her family’s life. I wrote a lot about death and dying. So I have been very aware, for good or bad, of the ways that people can die.
It was interesting because there is a suicide, as you know, in the book, or at least a perceived suicide, and an editor had some concern at one point: “I’m not sure we can believe it yet, that this person doesn’t want to live.” And this was within weeks of my brother’s suicide last July. And if I’ve learned anything in the last year is that you really can’t predict it. And just because I can’t see the reasons why doesn’t mean somebody else, who’s feeling that sense of desperation and hopelessness, doesn’t feel it.
People want to imagine one of two deaths for themselves: Either they just don’t wake up from sleeping or they have a chance to say goodbye to everyone in this wonderful scene around the bed. Most of us are somewhere in between those two. I wanted the book—and I mean, it’s not full of death by any stretch—but I did want it understood that in a heartbeat, everything can change and we can be left with a lot of questions and regrets if we haven’t done and said what we needed to do.
One last question. You had a line in the book that I wrote down and I keep writing down: “Even when you don’t notice it, life is rearranging you.” And I wonder how writing this book has rearranged you.
I started this novel years ago, and I finally got a lot more serious about it in the last five years. I think part of it was I had to live my own advice to my kids and to so many of my students now at Kent State in the journalism school there—that if you’re never scared, you’ve stopped growing.
Growth requires that we get nervous and anxious because we’re trying something new.
This is not a career pivot. This is a leap for me. What mattered most is that I didn’t regret that I didn’t write it. That would be the worst regret. There would be no fixing that. And so that’s how I’m rearranged, I would say, because here I am already working on the second novel.
The thing I didn’t expect—that I’m so accustomed as a columnist—is that I’m used to readers sharing their experiences based on the fact that they’ve read a column and they want to share a story from their lives with me. What I didn’t anticipate was that people could read my novel and want to share their stories with me. That line you quoted—life rearranging you—for some reason that keeps getting quoted back to me a lot. And they start talking about things that rearranged them, that they’d never thought about.
I don’t think I completely know how writing this has changed me. I think that takes time, right? The whole part of all of this is a process. I’ll know more later.
Sarah Stankorb is an award-winning writer in Ohio. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O Magazine, and the Atlantic, among others
Originally Appeared on Glamour