Rust Wire is excited to share our recent interview with author John Hoerr.
Hoerr spent decades working as a labor journalist, covering labor in the era when unions were much larger and organized labor often made big news. His most well-known work is And the Wolf Finally Came, which is an in-depth, yet easy to read chronicle of the decline of the American steel industry in the 1980s, focusing on the Monongahela Valley. (For all you non-Pittsburgh readers, the Mon Valley is where the Monongahela River flows, through Pittsburgh, and a number of smaller towns, such as Rankin, Braddock, Duquesne, Hoerr’s hometown of McKeesport, West Mifflin, Clairton, Donora, and Monessen. Each of these towns had a steel mill, most of them have long since closed.)
And the Wolf Finally Came is a must-read for anyone interested in deindustrialization and the decline of our country’s manufacturing sector, particularly steel. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called Hoerr “a leading chronicler of the demise of industrial America.” A mighty tough job, if I do say so myself.
Here’s a brief synopsis of his upcoming book, Monongahela Dusk, courtesy of the publisher. Unlike his first three books, it will be a work of fiction.
“Monongahela Dusk is a historical novel of the1930s and 1940s set in McKeesport, one of the largest of the legendary steel-producing towns of the Monongahela Valley. In 1937, as labor turmoil sweeps across western Pennsylvania, traveling beer salesman Pete Bonner picks up hitchhiker Joe Miravich, a blacklisted coal miner running from the law. The two overhear a plot to kill a national union leader in Pittsburgh and warn the intended victim only to become targets of the man who ordered the assassination, a mysterious industrialist who conspires with racketeers to control mill-town politics.
Over the next dozen years Bonner becomes a prosperous businessman. Miravich rises to union president in the local steel mill, where management and labor struggle over divisive issues. The two men form an unlikely alliance to defend themselves against sporadic attacks by political enemies. As the town moves from Depression to postwar prosperity, their lives are depicted in work and family scenes of middle-and-working-class life, exposing deep racial and class divisions. A violent showdown in McKeesport reveals the exploitative nature of the economic and political powers that would, forty years later, turn the mill towns of the Monongahela Valley into blighted relics of the industrial era.”
I can’t wait to read it.
Rust Wire: Why did you decide to write a novel about the Mon Valley in the 1930s and 1940s?
John Hoerr: “I really didn’t start out to be a journalist, I wanted to be a fiction writer from the beginning. For most of my career I wrote stories, almost none of which were published after my college years…
The second thing is that after I finished Wolf [And The Wolf Finally Came] I felt a sense of incompleteness. I had set down technically all the facts I knew – and it is 626 pages of facts, I just went back and looked at the pages – and I still felt I really hadn’t explained what had happened to the mills and the towns in the Mon Valley or anywhere.
I couldn’t point to one person or one organization, or one corporation, or one union, one union leader, one corporate figure like Henry Frick or Andrew Carnegie, I couldn’t point to one villain who was responsible for the social, economic, and political catastrophe.
So when I finished Wolf, I had this sense of incompleteness. I also had a sense of wanting desperately to write a description about my upbringing, not my life as such, but things I saw as a kid and as a young man, throughout the Mon Valley. When I was a kid, I traveled up and down the Valley, worked briefly in a U.S. Steel mill, -the National Tube plant in McKeesport – had other kinds of jobs in McKeesport, and knew the town pretty well. I never had a chance to write published descriptions [of that.] …
So, I put those two things together, that is, creating a story about people in the Mon Valley that in the end would, metaphorically anyway, try to give my explanation of what happened in the Valley. Not in its actual terms, but I think, metaphorically. The novel is not a coming of age novel. It is not about me. It is about the generation previous to mine, my father’s generation.
I put people together in situations that for me, tells a story about what might have happened, leading up to what, in fact, did happen 40 years later. Now, the story is confined to the 1930s and 1940s and it ends about 1950. It comes nowhere near in time to the 1980s shut down of the mills, but it sort of indicates what might happen in the future because of what has happened in the 30s and 40s.”
RW: How much of this book was influenced by your work as a reporter and by what you learned and saw as a reporter?
JH: “I would say it is greatly influenced by that. As I said, I knew the valley before I ever became a reporter, but nowhere near on such intimate terms as after I became a reporter, because for many years, I covered the Mon Valley as a reporter. Even when I was working out of New York, I returned to the Mon Valley and talked to people, especially, local union people I knew up and down the valley in the all of the mills. Without being a reporter, I never would have had that experience….
That’s what my life experience is and I used that as much as I could, because I talked to real people.”
RW: How does your new book relate generally to the decline of manufacturing in this country?
JH: “The book doesn’t attempt to be in any way, a text book, it is a novel, a fictional story. But most fictional stories, if they have anything to do with real people, and real situations – especially economic situations, political situations – most stories have something to say about the time in which they were written, the culture, the politics…
I show what happens in a fictional situation in a particular fictional steel mill in a community in the 30s and 40s. Those who wish, could project that forward to other towns and other industries, other plants, and get a sense of what might have happened.
By the way, my novel is in a town named McKeepsport, my hometown, but there are many fictional organizations of people in it, which I describe in a forward statement. I don’t use the name National Tube to refer to the mill, I have a fictional name because the stories that are set inside the mill are all fictional, and I wouldn’t want it thought that I was trying to describe any factual current that I knew about. The same with the town…to the degree that I used political figures I used fictional political figures, and so forth.”
RW: Does your book address at all what could have been done in the 1930s and 40s, or even in the 1980s both by steel companies and unions in the US to have a better outcome and avoided the widespread mill shutdowns?
JH: “Only in an indirect way, and probably not for a lot of fiction readers. To some in industry and the labor movement, it might indicate what corporations and unions might have done, although I don’t set out to say so specifically. But the nature of the story I tell might indicate how they could have reacted. …“
RW: I had been planning on asking you if any parts of this story were autobiographical, that is, based on your own life and experiences, but you already said that isn’t the case.
JH: “In 1937, when it starts, I was a little kid. I appear in two scenes, one as an 8 –year-old, one as a 14-year-old, and I’m hardly shown as someone who made things happen. I’m hardly in this book at all, except to make fun of myself.”
RW: Let’s talk a little bit more about the differences between writing non-fiction and fiction.
JH: “…Journalism might have [impacted] the fiction writing too much, in that I put too many facts in. In journalism of course, that’s all you want to do is put the facts in…But friends commented on that, that my manuscript was saturated with facts. …I had to work assiduously to rid the fiction of facts. It sounds like a crazy comment, but it’s true, I did.”
RW: Do you have any other future projects or fiction you are working on now that you can share with us?
JH: “I wish I did, but not at the moment, my wife and I are contemplating getting ready to move. We recently sold our home here in New Jersey and we are going to move to Massachusetts where we have two sons, to be with family. We want to be up in that area.”
Monongahela Dusk will be published Aug. 15, but before that people can get a 25 percent discount by writing to the publisher, Autumn House Press, 87 1/2 Westwood Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15211. You must apply before Aug. 1 for the discount.
Hoerr is scheduled to read selections from the book Aug. 29 at the Pump House, 880 East Waterfront Drive, Munhall, PA, which is run by the Battle of Homestead Foundation.
And for all you other McKeesport natives out there, Hoerr recomends the blog/ news site Tube City Almanac. Check it out!