If glowing reviews are any indication, Virginia author Beth Macy’s debut book Factory Man may be one of the most talked-about nonfiction books of the season. “This is Ms. Macy’s first book, but it’s in a class with other runaway debuts like Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times. “These nonfiction narratives are more stirring and dramatic than most novels.” Combining brilliant reporting and masterful storytelling, Macy shows the struggle of blue-collar Americans trying to compete with cheap Chinese labor. In an age when countless American jobs have been lost to outsourcing, the title character, John Bassett III, refused to let his family-owned furniture plant—as well as its workers and the small town they call home—become the next victims of globalization.
Macy, formerly a longtime reporter for the Roanoke Times, spoke about her book with friend and fellow Virginia writer Lee Smith (whose latest novel, Guests on Earth, we featured here last November) about finding stories, colorful characters, and growing up in a blue-collar town.
LEE: Beth, we’ll get to Factory Man in a minute, but the very first thing I’ve got to say to you is how proud I am of you! Having known you for all these years and watched your steady rise to become the writer who could write this amazing book, which is very personal to me too—not only because we both come from southwest Virginia, but also because I’m a merchant’s daughter myself. You came over to Grundy in 1992 to do a story on my daddy, Ernest Smith, closing his dime store after running it for 50 years. It was a sad time. But now you’ve got a happy story, which is the opposite of that—and of just about every other story which has recently come out of our Appalachian region, in fact.
So, tell us, how did you find this story Or how did it find you?
BETH: In 2011, I ran into a photographer friend Jared Soares, who for about a year had been driving down to Martinsville and Henry County and documenting the aftereffects of globalization on that area. He had amazing, moving pictures of what it looked like to be displaced from your job, including a food pantry that distributed food via an old textile conveyor belt. It was a place where the director could tell what people used to do by their ailments: the furniture workers were missing fingers, and the ladies who’d sewed sweatshirts had humpbacks. He proposed that we do a series together, and my newspaper editor saw it as a win-win.
LEE: So how did you find John Bassett III?
BETH: I started with the notion of writing stories to go with Jared’s work, and in the process of doing pre-interviews, I took a friend who owns a furniture store out to breakfast just to pick his brain. He said, “You know there’s somebody still making furniture [at Vaughan-Bassett Furniture]. His name’s John Bassett, and he took on China in a court of international trade.”
I saw it initially as a profile, my favorite kind of story to write. And I saw that it had worldwide fingers. Real heft. You could chase it to China and Indonesia, and tell this big story through this one family and the two very different choices it made with regard to offshoring. Then, once I met John Bassett, he’s just a character. There’s nobody like him. We’ve been through all the emotions. We’ve hated each other. We’ve admired each other. We’ve probably spoken 500 times.
LEE: That’s what you do. You get people to tell you things they don’t even know they’re gonna say. But I think of you as a people writer, not a business writer. How’d you overcome that?
BETH: He taught me a lot. Also, I didn’t read anything fun for a year. Oh my God, I read The Economist! I read Thomas Friedman books, everything I could get my hands on about globalization and China. I both read and listened to a wonderful book called Factory Girls, the story from the other side of the globe. I had no idea it was the largest human migration in history, when people went in from the countryside to work in those urban factories. … That gave me the idea [to go to Indonesia], along with that displaced worker asking me to go interview her replacements. … But like anything, one person tells you a story, then you read about it, and the next time you hear it you have more context to ask a better question. I’d never had a whole year to work on something and you just keep piecing at it.
LEE: You couldn’t have done this book without that time. And you had to deal with people who were reticent, various CEOs who were closing factories down. How’d you overcome that?
BETH: They thought I was coming to it with an agenda to make ‘em look bad. And I get that. It’s hard to drive through Bassett and not see it as a ghost town and wonder, could things have gone differently? I was nearing my deadline, and I’d come to the point where I’d accepted that Bassett Furniture [CEO Rob Spilman] wasn’t ever gonna talk to me for this book. I just kept asking. I’d call or email. And then a relative intervened on my behalf and said, “She’s gonna write this book anyway, and it would be great if it didn’t come out minus your point of view.” The CEO said he’d give me an hour and he ended up giving me three. He didn’t enjoy it.
LEE: He needed to talk, too. I mean, he had a point of view he also wanted to get across!
BETH: Rob pointed out that the company probably wouldn’t be in existence today [without the closures]. The shareholders were raising hell. John would say, “I don’t think we had to close ‘em all,” and that’s what the people in Bassett say too. There’s a scene in the book where Rob makes his kids watch this TV show on the day they closed one of the factories. And the kids are mad and crying, and I thought, that’s really interesting—that he wants them to hear what they’re saying about his dad so they can understand what’s going on in the community at school and know why people are hurting. That gave me appreciation for the tight spot he must have been in too. And I think that made the book a lot better.
LEE: This story is such a big story, and what you have managed to do is get all of these people’s points of view, the tight spots everybody was in. I think that’s what makes it such a remarkable book. I think what I’m hearing you say is that the book you came up with was not necessarily the book you thought you were writing at the beginning. What surprised you the most?
BETH: The material itself was so colorful. I mean, the sales manager and his affairs. The pilot landing without the landing gear! You couldn’t make it up! I thought I was setting out to tell what was clearly a hero story, which it is in many ways. And I imagined it would end with that triumphant moment where JBIII is announcing the reopening of the vacant factory next door. And then on one of my last couple visits of Bassett, I was driving back, and I got super emotional, literally crying in my car thinking about all those peoples’ stories. The way they kept those keepsake bricks from the buildings as keepsakes. And then at the end, when the guy chunks off mortar from a brick and hands it to me so gently, like he’s passing a baby.
LEE: That was so amazing. But people did that when my father’s dime store was blown up, too. There are levels where this book touches me everywhere.
BETH: I thought I was writing a book mostly about Galax, but really it was mostly a book about Bassett because those are the people I fell in love with, and their desperate need to have their story told for all those people in Washington and New York who’d never bothered to see what globalization had fully wrought.
LEE: Yet the book ranges all the way to Indonesia—what was it like to go there?
BETH: That was where that particular worker’s furniture was now being made. It took me six to eight months to talk Stanley Furniture into letting me see the furniture factories they use there. They let us go into three. And it was all very managed. But they let me see a good variety, from what I would consider semi-rough working conditions—people not wearing shoes and walking on splintery lumber culls—to a factory so clean you could have eaten off the floor. What struck me the most, in the rougher ones, you could really picture that this was what Bassett, Virginia, was probably like in 1910, with sharecroppers joining the cash economy and walking in with lanterns in the predawn to go to work at Bassett Furniture. … It was not unlike what I saw there, where just a few years earlier people were growing their own food and working in rice paddies. I saw the parallels, and you could see how it had improved their lives, having that work. Because the pace is so much faster and things moving more quickly to find the cheaper wages, it’s gonna happen to them. Just like they took the work away from the Americans, someone is probably gonna take it away from them. They’re very aware of that.
LEE: To make that connection, again, is an example of how this book always goes the extra mile. I want to get a little bit personal for a minute. Where were you born? What kind of a child you were? When did you first know you were gonna be writer?
BETH: I’m from a little town in Ohio called Urbana. It was a factory town dominated by one industry that made airplane lights. My mom worked in the factory when the economy was good. And my dad painted houses when he wasn’t too hungover, and my mom ran the family, and my grandmother lived next door and spoiled me and taught me how to read when I was four and really made me want to be a good student. You said before, people will talk to me. I can remember hearing my mom talk around the table, was the gas company gonna come and shut off our heat? And because I grew up like that, I’m really interested in those kinds of stories. It’s something you can’t fake. People sense I’m empathetic with them. One of the displaced workers at Stanley Furniture, when I asked for her phone number, she gave me her mom’s number because she knew hers was about to get cut off. Not that I’m in that same situation as she is now, but there’s something in me that makes me wanna tell her story. It’s just as important as everybody else’s story, but these stories never get told.
LEE: I’m just so glad that you’re telling them, Beth, in Factory Man. People want to know about lives other than their own. They care about other people. It’s just we’ve got to give them a chance to, and that’s exactly what you’ve done.