Beth Macy's Factory Man is the inspiring story of brash and feistyJohn Bassett III, who strives to save his family’s embattled furniture company by fighting back against the cheap Chinese imports that had contributed to the loss of tens of thousands of factory and mill jobs in Southwest Virginia.
Macy is an award-winning reporter who writes about outsiders and underdogs. (She and I worked together at the Roanoke Times for a spell.) She’s also the daughter of a displaced factory worker, and her passion for this story shines through on every page. Factory Man has received rave reviews--Bryan Burrough in the New York Times called it “a great American story”--but Macy is most proud of the support from factory workers who thanked her for telling their story.
“No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America,” she said. “The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light.”
In advance of Labor Day weekend, I spoke with Macy via email about the writing of Factory Man. I also asked her to recommend some books that inspired her.
What sparked your initial interest in the story of Bassett Furniture Company?
I set out initially in late 2011 to write a newspaper series on the aftermath of globalization in Henry County/Martinsville, Va., which had had the highest unemployment rate in the state for a decade. I was inspired by the work of freelance photographer Jared Soares, who’d been documenting what he saw there: textile plant conveyor belts-turned-food pantry delivery devices and the like. Early in my interviews, I heard there was a third-generation furniture maker named John Bassett III who’d singlehandedly bucked the trend and fought China to keep his factory in Galax, Va., going, saving jobs and his family legacy. When I heard he said things like, “The [expletive] Chi-Comms aren’t gonna tell me how to make furniture!” my story Spidey sense went on high alert. He’d done the counterintuitive thing, and he’d done it during a time of huge cultural/economic change. I knew right away his story was BIG, the kind of piece where you could thread together history, economic relevancy and even memoir (I’m the daughter of a displaced factory worker myself).
How did you convince John Bassett III to cooperate and give you access?
Polite persistence and baby steps. He was going to give me 15 minutes of his time the first time we met, but I won him over by being prepared: I knew all about the family feud with his brother-in-law, about his insanely twisted family tree. I knew but didn’t quite understand how he’d taken on China. And we all know how irresistible it is to be listened to by someone who’s genuinely curious. Something like 700 phone calls later and dozens of visits and not a few arguments — including one in which we very nearly came to blows — we’re still talkin’.
What was his reaction to the book? How have employees responded?
He calls it “Peyton Place” meets “Gone With the Wind.” He gives me no credit for all the business analysis and anti-dumping case sorting-through I had to do — all the economists and business professors I interviewed, including going to Indonesia to interview the replacement workers. He had trouble initially with some of his family secrets being unearthed, as well as some details about his wealth. But he’s come around. He enjoys the attention he’s getting, and he’s no dummy: He understands that the book could help him sell more furniture! He also wants this country “to kick ass and take names” again, and he thinks he’s the guy to tell ‘em how to do it.
I was at a signing at the Galax Fiddlers Convention last weekend, and the Vaughan-Bassett veneer department showed up and gave me a commemorative plaque they’d made, embossed with galax leaves and tiny strips of walnut and white pine veneer. I think they see “Factory Man” as job security; surely, he can’t close the factory now, right? They appreciate that someone bothered to tell this story from the ground up.
What can other smaller, family-owned businesses learn from Bassett?
Relentlessness, in a word. When the guy at the top cares enough to sleep (or not sleep) with a legal pad next to his bed so he can jot down (or better yet call an employee) an idea that has just occurred to him for the betterment of his company in the middle of the night, that work ethic trickles down. He’s in his factory every day, communicating constantly with employees, challenging them to change and improve over and over again. It’s a live-wire organization, and I think the investments he makes in that factory (mentally, fiscally, emotionally) make it a fun place to work.
How long did you work on the book, and what one thing surprised you the most about what you learned?
I had 11 solid months to turn in the first draft, then the back-and-forth editing continued for another six months or so (between my day job duties). Surprises? There were so many, mostly revolving around just how rich the material was — the maid who wore two girdles, the corporate pilot landing without landing gear, all the “Mad Men” in the mountains behavior. The overarching theme I was left with, though, was this palpable desire that people in the ghost town of Bassett, Va., still have to tell their story. No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America. The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light. You should see the “Factory Man” Facebook discussion group started by one reader — in the span of week, there were thousands of heartfelt comments on it: memories and grievances, hot political debates and loads of nostalgia (old pictures of factories and gathering spots, as well as the grassy fields where the factories once stood). Twenty-thousand jobs evaporated in that one county alone, and along with them dozens of gathering spots, from factories and restaurants to mom-and-pop shops. And here was this unlikely virtual watering hole helping reunite people again. “This book has literally set my soul on fire,” one reader posted.
Factory Man has been compared to the work of Laura Hillenbrand, Katherine Boo, Michael Lewis, and David Simon – congrats, and: who’d you write the book for?
Thanks, that’s truly humbling company. I wrote the book for those 20,000 people I mentioned above. I wrote it for my mom, who soldered airplane lights when the economy was good and babysat other people’s kids when it wasn’t. She didn’t whine, she didn’t take any crap, and she could stretch a dime farther than anyone I’ve ever known. She didn’t have the benefit of higher education, or the social capital that comes with it, that I’ve enjoyed. But she was my first editor, and every bit of grit and heart I have as a reporter — I got it from her.
1. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang — from the ground up, this journalist chronicles the largest migration in human history, documenting the heartaches and triumphs of young rural women migrating to China’s cities, trying to do right by their families and experiencing the growing pains associated with entering the working/middle classes.
2. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, by Henry Weincek — an astonishing social history of race in the Southern Piedmont, told through a single family (black, white and mulatto) grappling to understand the legacy of slavery and its contemporary relevance.
3. The Hard Way On Purpose, by David Giffels — the Akron-bred journalist writes hilarious, painstaking and moving essays about his decision not to flee the Rubber Belt when most of his contemporaries did just that. A beautiful portrait of a region on the mend.
4. The Unwinding,” by George Packer — The New Yorker writer’s illuminating take on America’s recent economic history, told through a series of portraits of hard-working Americans and corporate greed-heads, in the style of John Dos Passos.
5. Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder — the journalist’s profile of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti is a portrait of a fascinating (and fiery tempered) do-gooder, interspersed with telling exchanges between the interviewer and the interviewee and woven with spot-on narrative and surprisingly complex social/medical/business analyses.
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