“Truevine,” a book Macy spent over two decades researching and writing, is the story of two African American brothers who were kidnapped and displayed as circus freaks and their 28-year long battle to get them back. Her book “Factory man” tells the story of John Bassett, a feisty small factory owner who launched an anti-dumping petition against Chinese manufacturers—and won.
Source Weekly: “Factory Man,” at its roots, is a compelling story. After first hearing about
John Bassett, did you immediately reach out to him?
Beth Macy: I asked a friend of mine who knew him. I was like, well, is he a good storyteller, is he a good talker? And he said, “Are you kidding?” He says things like, “the fucking Chi-
comms aren’t going to tell me how to make furniture!” And I was just, oh my God, not only did he file this case, he won it and he used the money to keep the factory going—but on top of that he’s like something out of a Faulkner novel. He’s really totally unique and kind of badass. So then I prepared to go meet with him. If it’s somebody that I feel is pretty important, I usually try to find a go between. I was able to find a friend of mine who has an aunt that worked for him in the factory. And he sort of put in a good word.”
SW: Before writing this book, you didn’t have a background in business or
economic journalism—was it difficult gaining his trust that you were the person
to tell his story?
BM: When I got there, I felt John was really surprised about just how prepared I was. I knew everything about the family, I had spent a week researching the company that he was born to inherit and the little factory town that he came from. Not only that, I knew about why he was no longer at that company and why there had been a big family feud. It was just funny. I was just writing a piece for the newspaper at the time and then when the piece came out, the day the story came out, he called me and was all choked up. He had been, sort of, made fun of for years about this because everybody was like, “it was a globalized world!” You know, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills—this guy, why would he think he could succeed if nobody else has been able to? When he called me to say that he liked the article or whatever I told him I was thinking of writing a book proposal and he said well sure. I don’t think he ever thought he’d see me again.
SW: Did you contact him after he had already won, or was this after during the
BM: So he had already won once, and then the case has to be reconsidered every 5 years and he has just won a second time. The more that I figured about how truly complex and complicated it was, the more I realized after I sold the book that I didn’t know much at all, that I really had only done 10 percent of the research. So I spent the next year reporting and writing—about a year and a half. It’s like anything, as it gets more complicated it’s kind of challenging and you get nervous at first, it’s like oh god I have to up my game. But it’s always ultimately more interesting when you can not only entertain the reader with a great yarn but you can teach them something about why these little communities, like I’m driving through right now, look the way they do, why all the jobs are gone.
SW: How did it take you from writing the initial article to sending the book in to be
BM: The article came out in Feb. 2012. I sold the book in June of that year and then I had a year after that to write it and then I won a prize and that gave me a little more time. I actually did some research in Asia for the book. So I guess about 18 months, which is very quick.
SW: What kind of research did you do in Asia?
BM: So there is a moment early on in the book where this displaced factory worker, this woman who had worked for this one company for 37 years, lost her job. It was the only place she had ever worked, straight from high school to the furniture factory...I sure would like to know what it’s like on the other side of the world—about the people that replaced me, what their lives are like.” That just gave me the thought, well gosh we have to try to answer that question. She also wanted to know what her bosses lives were like because they were traveling back and forth from Asia all the time.
It took me just about eight months just to convince a company to let me go to where
their furniture was made in Asia. They let me go, but they were very nervous about it.
“Well, we’ll let you go, but two things: we don’t’ want you to write about the worker
conditions and we don’t want you to write about our executive’s lifestyles in Indonesia. I’m thinking, you have people in your PR department that gave you that advice? Of course I’m looking into worker conditions and the lavish lifestyles of Indonesia! You’ve got to give them credit, they let me go see it. They kept me on a tight rope. It was really interesting.
I asked one of the middle designers, a mid-level worker, what Wanda had asked me,
“Do you ever think about the people that you replace?” They looked at each other and kind of laughed, like what a dumb question lady. Then they looked at me like, sorry for being rude, then they said, “No, but we do worry about the people that are going to replace us.”
They were very aware that as their wages went up, there was a chance that somewhere in Africa or somewhere else in Asia with a cheaper labor pool could very easily take their jobs. So that was interesting. It was kind of an unexpected moment.”
SW: “Truevine” took decades to research and write. How’d you hear about the
story and what drove you to tell it?
BM: It was like 1991, a photographer had told me the story. This made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. He told me there was this story of these two brothers that had been kidnapped and sold to the circus because they were albino and there was talk that their mother had gotten them back. But he didn’t know really anything about it, he had grown up hearing this story. He told me that the caregiver (for Willie, the surviving brother) ran this soul food restaurant. “It’s the best story in town, but she won’t let anybody get it.” And I said, "Well, I’m going to charm my way into her life."
Well, it wasn’t that easy. It took a lot of convincing.
BM: With that story, I had a lot of archival research, because they were quite famous. In their heyday, they were written about thousands of times across the country in Canada, other countries. So there was a lot to find out about attempt. But the showman often changed their names. So I would find little wrinkles in their stories by looking at these clippings from 19-teens, 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, they didn’t retire until the early 60’s. Much the way in the way I did “Factory Man,” I’m trying to tell this history—in this case racial history, Jim Crow history—and trying to do it through one family.
SW: What is different about writing books versus writing a newspaper article? Do
you feel you are reaching a different audience with a book?
BM: I feel like it is just deeper reporting. You know the writer, Robert Caro, he says, “time equals truth.” So there are things that I can learn about the brothers or about John Bassett because I have a whole year, 18 months or almost two years, or in the case of George and Willy (“Truevine”) almost 25 years to be thinking about. Then to be learning new things and bouncing those things off of a subject that is still alive. Your tapestry that you’re trying to paint is just so much richer because you have all this time.
To me that’s the real value of a book. You can read about someone taking a knee or riot in some city or police brutality and a community being really upset about that. But to understand it when you know the little stories that come before it of the ancestors of African Americans today—who are still fighting for some of the same things—why they feel it so much differently than white people feel it. I just feel it is our job as the white community to know this history too. As a journalist it is my job to sort of explain this and I hope to imbue people with empathy.
Macy’s new book “Truevine,” will be available on paperback on Oct. 17.