Q&A: Author David Maraniss on Detroit, Motown Music, and How to Report

Lucian Perkins

Lucian Perkins

The National interviewed Washington Post editor David Maraniss after he visited the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to talk about his new book, Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, a history of the city in the early 1960s, its golden age. 

The questions were posed by Madeleine Blais, a professor in the UMass-Amherst Journalism Department, who worked with Maraniss in the mid-1970s at the Trenton (N.J.) Times.

Q: Please explain your reporting process. Many times in the book you have access to great quotes, say from a former cop or a young boy who was a truant on the day the Ford Rotunda burned down. How do you come across these people?

A: The research part of my work is based on what I call the four legs of a table. The first leg is go there, wherever there is.  For my book on Vince Lombardi, the great Green Bay Packers football coach (When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi), that meant turning to my wife and uttering the immortal loving phrase, “How would you like to move to Green Bay for the winter?”

In this case it meant making several extended trips to Detroit. It is only by being there that you can acquire the right sensibility of a place, and also run across people that you might not otherwise find.

The second leg is doing the archival research that helps you understand time, place, character, and action. In this case it meant spending time at twelve archives and libraries in Detroit and elsewhere, including a terrific archive on marketing and advertising at Duke University that had all of the papers of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, which ran the marketing campaign for the Ford Mustang, one of the threads of my book.

The third leg is talk to people. The cops I found through the Internet at first, because they had formed an active alumni association to try to protect their pensions during the city's bankruptcy. I kept calling them until I found enough who were active during the period of my book, 1962 to 1964, and the stories flowed from there. I also have a colleague in Washington whose late father was a Detroit cop during or just after that period, and he helped as well.

The fourth leg is look for what is not there, beyond the conventional wisdom. I'm always searching for new ways to tell stories, people that are forgotten or unseen. And that is how I found the man who as a kid played hooky and watched the Ford Rotunda burn down, a scene that begins my book.

Q: What is your favorite Motown song?

A: Motown, that great musical creation, lends the energy to this story. So many great artists, from Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye to Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes. I love it all, but my favorite? That question is an easy one for me. “My Girl,” written by Smokey Robinson and sung by the Temptations. I love all of my girls, my wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and three granddaughters.

Q: You dedicate your book to the people of Detroit. Tell us about a few to whom you are particularly grateful.

A: The archivists and librarians at the Walter P. Reuther library, where I did so much research, along with their colleagues at the Detroit Public Library, the Detroit News, the Detroit Historical Museum, and the Benson Ford Research Center. Allen Rawls and Robin Terry, who run the Motown Museum. Vaneda Fox Sanders, the principal of Hope Academy, the latest iteration of Winterhalter Elementary School, where I learned to read, who stayed in Detroit while all of her siblings bailed out. Tom Stanton, a professor at Detroit-Mercy, and Robert Ankony, a former cop, who served as my guide on various tours of the city. And all of the expat Detroiters in Washington, from Ron Fournier to Ginny Terzano, who encouraged me along the way.

Q: What went wrong? What brought Detroit from its prosperity to its current state?

A: The economic and social problems that led to Detroit's decline are not unlike those in many other cities, it's just that in Detroit they all came together to form a perfect terrible storm. The fact that it was a one-company town, that the automakers were looking to short term gains rather than the long term interests of the city and citizens who made their cars; the effects of urban renewal, which many black citizens called “Negro removal,” tearing apart established African-American neighborhoods; the white resistance to open housing, building frustrations among the black populace; the construction of a vast freeway system that made it easier for people to leave the city; and the development of a ring of shopping malls outside the city that left the downtown bereft - all of these factors were in play even 50 years ago.

The structural problems were evident then to sociologists at Wayne State University in 1963, who predicted the depopulation precisely and sadly the way it happened, with the city losing productive taxpayers at the rate of a half-million per decade. This was before the riots of 1967, before the big city pensions, before the more recent municipal corruption.

Q: What should people of Detroit be doing to turn around the city? And what should the nation be doing?

A: The city has more energy every time I return to it. The downtown is starting to boom, with major investors gambling on the comeback. Young people 22-35 are flooding into the Midtown area, making it a haven for foodies, artists, techies, musicians. They can get cheap housing and invent their lives there in creative ways.

But there are still vast swaths of Detroit, once populated by the working middle class, black and white, that are largely abandoned and desolate, the houses gone or in disrepair, the jobs long gone, and until that seemingly intractable problem is dealt with, Detroit can never have a true renaissance.

For the last few decades, Detroit has been seen as a symbol of ruin. It has been blamed for its own problems. But now, slowly, it is emerging as a symbol of hope. When John F. Kennedy began his 1960 presidential campaign, he launched it in Detroit, at Cadillac Square, and delivered an early version of his famous "Ask not what your country can do for you" riff. I think the time has come to use that on Detroit. Ask not what Detroit did to itself. Ask what we can all do for Detroit.

This is a city that gave America so much, which is the central theme of my book along with the shadows of its demise. Music, cars, labor, civil rights, the middle class, all were shaped or strengthened in Detroit, and all are central to the American idea.

Q: Everyone asks writers what is on their nightstand. What is on yours?

A: I don't have books on my nightstand, really. I have a radio. I fall asleep listening to a ballgame or the BBC. I have a hard time reading in bed for some reason, and because of my job I am lucky enough to read during the day. I try to carve out two hours or so to read every day.

The books I've read lately include All the Light We Cannot See, which I thought was absolutely beautiful, both is its style and in the creation of an unforgettable character, a blind girl in WWII France. Also Strong Inside, a deeply important book about the first African American athlete in the Southeast Conference, the Jackie Robinson of college sports, in a sense, that happened to be written by my son, Andrew Maraniss. I am happier about the reception to that book than about anything I have done myself. I'm also reading an as-yet unpublished mystery by my daughter, Sarah Vander Schaaff, and have great hopes for her as a writer, too.

Q: Is it true that you are absentminded?

A: I forget the question. Oh, to put it mildly, yes. Once I was driving up Wisconsin Avenue in D.C. and was turning left onto a side street but instead made the turn into a fire station. My wife gave me a loving but needed slap midway through and shouted, David, what chapter are you writing in your head!

I got my first newspaper job at the Trenton Times even after absentmindedly leaving my clips at Nathan's Famous hotdog stand in Coney Island. Even last week in Amherst I left my debit card at a restaurant and had to have it sent back to me in Washington. 

I am disorganized in many aspects of my life, but shockingly organized when it comes to the research material for my books. I am almost Prussian about that, you might say, and believe that every hour I spend organizing my material saves three hours of writing.

Q: What are the lessons in your early days as a young reporter that you carried with you into your current work?

Do the work. Don't take shortcuts. Figure out how to stay one step ahead of your editors. Do the stories you want to do so well that you won't have to do stories that others want you to do but that don't interest you. Stay clear of the pack. Be loyal and it will pay off.  Keep reading and writing. Be skeptical but not cynical.