Seven Questions with Connie Schultz

The longtime journalist makes her first foray into fiction with “The Daughters of Erietown.”

Brittany Moseley
Connie Schultz and the cover for "The Daughters of Erietown"

As a columnist, Connie Schultz has built quite the name for herself. She spent 18 years at The Plain Dealer and picked up a Pulitzer Prize while there. She’s now a nationally syndicated columnist for Creators Syndicate and a professional-in-residence at Kent State University, her alma mater. Along the way, she published two nonfiction books and created a fervent community on social media. With the release of her first novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” however, Schultz is entering new territory. The book follows the lives of Ellie and Brick, a young working-class couple who fall in love in high school and whose lives are forever changed by a decision they make as teenagers.

Next Tuesday, Schultz will discuss “The Daughters of Erietown” with WOSU’s Ann Fisher at a virtual event hosted by Gramercy Books. Columbus Monthly spoke with Schultz about moving from nonfiction to fiction writing, recent protests over the death of George Floyd and using her own life as inspiration for her novel. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.

I want to start with the recent protests over the death of George Floyd. How are you sitting with all of that?

As long as we keep talking about the black community as if it's separate from the rest of us, we're never going to have the unity we need to really bring about systemic change. I think it's so important that we stop categorizing this as a problem for the black community. These are my fellow Americans. This is my problem, too. I'm also looking at how closely so many people are paying attention to it in a different way. I suspect the pandemic has something to do with that. We're not as distracted. We can't just tell ourselves it's happening somewhere else. That's the other thing: It's happening everywhere right now. You couldn't ignore it even if you wanted to at this point. The pandemic is changing us in almost cellular ways. We are not going to return to who we were before. In some ways, I understand the loss of that, certainly, and I've lost two dear friends in this last month. But it also, I think, has helped us refocus somewhat. We'll see. I do not want to be falsely optimistic here. I've written about Tamir Rice a lot. I know what it's like to deal with police officers who think they have every right to single out black people and to be suspicious of black people and to mistreat black people. So I don't delude myself into thinking this is an easy problem to fix, and I certainly think this presidency has created such an opportunity for the racists to be so much bolder, including racists on the police forces. There's no question to me that that's happening. That's why so much rides on the election in the fall. We're watching all of it unfold in real time right now.

You said on Instagram that it took you nearly a decade to write The Daughters of Erietown. When did you get the idea for the novel?

My editor at Random House, Kate Medina, asked me to lunch right before my second book came out back in '07 and said to me, the working class is really underrepresented in modern literature. I wholeheartedly agreed with that, and having come from the working class, I certainly didn't see people like me [in literature]. I agreed with her, but what I didn't agree with initially was that I was somebody who could do something about that. Here I am at the age my mother was when she died, 62, coming out with my first novel. As I started writing it though, I finally was able to make that pivot and have faith in myself that I could write these stories that are about other people's lives. If there was a narrative arc to this, one of them certainly would be that working-class people are just like everyone else until the big problems come and we have no money to fix them. We have plenty of smart people in the working class who never get to go to college. We have so many working-class people who started out with such big dreams, especially for their children, and then the big problems come, and everything gets derailed, because money is so much at the heart of what can fix things, unfortunately. That doesn't make their dreams less worthy or their lives less meaningful.

There are a lot of nods to your own life throughout the book: Kent State, Higbee's department store in Cleveland. The jobs that Ellie and Brick have are the jobs your parents had. Even the lunch pail that Brick carries is similar to the one your own father carried. How did you balance sharing your experiences in a work of fiction?

The one thing I always feel that I should be very open about disclosing, because it matters to me a great deal is, do you remember when Ellie makes the list of nurse's aide duties? That was actually [based on] a list my mother made that we didn't find until after both of [my parents] were gone. It was several pages long, and she had enough copies for all of us in the family. I just anguished over this. Did my mother think we didn't appreciate what she did, that we didn't understand why she loved what she did? Why didn't she give [the lists] to us? None of us got the copies. When I was working on Ellie, I wanted to show this tension—because it's a common tension, particularly in the '70s and '80s—between working-class men and their wives who had to go to work. There was a time when working-class men, especially if they were in unions, made a living wage. They were proud that their wives never had to work. We certainly experienced that in my own family. My parents sat down and realized, if we're going to send Connie to college with three other kids still to raise, the only way this is going to happen is if my mom went to work. My dad considered it a personal failure. Those truths, yes, they're from my life, but they're also pretty universal. Certainly they're not uncommon among the people I come from. I wrote what I knew, but I made up so much. Ellie had a much more optimistic life than my mom. I think in some ways, Ellie is what my mom could have discovered in herself. I knew my mom had a lot of capabilities, but she never did. She never had that confidence. You get to imagine a better world sometimes. You get to give people complicated lives still, but sometimes they get to do the things other people didn't that you wish they had.

Did you have to put yourself in a different mindset to write fiction?

One of the things that helped me as a journalist is, I had done a number of narrative series. I had used the fiction writer's tools to tell a nonfiction story. That's all to do with Stuart Warner and his influence on me as an editor over the years. He insisted, we're going to do straight narrative, which means you're going to have to foreshadow things coming. You're going to have to never have them talking directly to you. If they had conversations you weren't a part of, you’ve got to reconstruct it, with all of them agreeing on what was said. That training over a period of years, gave me some confidence that I know how to tell a story. I didn't know if I could tell this story at first, but I do understand the elements of the narrative arc.

I had to cut [the novel] a lot. Why didn't it ever occur to me to look up what the average length of a novel is? I have no idea. I read novels all my life. I got it down to 122,000. It was hard. It was brutal at times, but I learned so much about it. Was I nervous at times? Sure. I'm nervous now about this. This is my first novel, but I always tell my students if you're never scared, you stop growing. So I'm happy to report that I'm terrified. That must mean I've really had a growth spurt.

You've written a lot about your children and your years as a single mom. What was it like sharing this book with your them?

All the kids read it, and my daughter's husband and my son's wife also read it. They really responded to it as literature, especially Emily and Elizabeth. Caitlin was a bit more of a—it was a deep dive from her mother. It's a little different. She said her husband at one point turned to her in the course of reading it and said, “I understand you so much better.” I said, “Did you tell him you really don't because this isn't true, that I just made it up?” I think he meant that he hadn't seen that part of me in some ways, and I was so touched by all of that. They've been incredibly supportive. My husband has read my book four times. He's about to read it a fifth time, now in hard copy. Nobody has believed in me more than Sherrod. If you had told me in my 20s, that I would ever be ever married to a man like that, I would say, “Good luck with that novel.” 

Have you considered the fact that some people who read your book will be unfamiliar with your journalism?

It's been interesting, because a few people have written to me and said, “I had no idea you were Sherrod Brown's wife, and I didn't know until I started reading your novel,” which delights me to no end of course. I mean, I love my husband dearly. I really do, but it's kind of fun. The ones who are familiar with my work, I'm asking them to take a huge leap with me, and I'm very aware of that. They've been wonderful, so many of them. If you look at my Facebook page, you can see why I love moderating that community and keeping it going, even though some days I just want to pull my hair out, because they have so many opinions, and I love it. They're one group of readers, but there's going to be this other group of readers, I hope, who had no idea I even existed, because they don't read political columns, or they never heard of me and they don't see my column in the papers. Then suddenly, this novel comes up, and they've been hearing about it, and they read it. I hadn't thought about it until you said this. They will be a different kind of reader for me, won't they? I don't know what to expect from them. I don't know yet. That'll be an adventure. It always is.

Besides writing the book, what's been the most rewarding part of having it out there now?

It's quite an internal journey. It's overcoming fear. At some point, I had to understand that the only regret I was going to have  was if I didn't finish this, if I didn't give it my all and see what I could do as a novelist.

In all my years of public speaking, the thing that most affects women is when I ask them, how often, or have you ever, shared your own story with people who think they know you well? Have you ever told them why you are who you are? What's your history? The thing that really strikes me about it is watching women nod, and many of them tearing up. When they tear up, that tells me no, they haven't. Women don't think they are entitled to share their stories. Most women think nobody will care. What I'm trying to encourage women to think is, you don't have to wait for the invitation. The people who think they know you, and certainly the people who claim to love you, should know more about you. That's part of what was a driving part of "Erietown." I really love exploring the stories of women's lives. I always have.