For those who don’t know poet Timothy (Tim) Russell, I want to introduce you to as solid a working-class poet as there is. Tim qualifies as a working-class poet not just because he wrote of that life (as did famed James Wright and Kenneth Patchen), but because he also lived it. He worked for 20 years as a boiler repairman in the Weirton Steel plant ‘til his lupus (MDS preleukemia disease) forced him to retire. He retired from the labor but not from the life and not from writing. For the next 30 years, he and his wife Jodi and kids lived along mile 61 of the Ohio River in small-town Toronto, Ohio.
I grew up about 20 minutes south of there in Mingo Junction, about 20 minutes north of Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, where Wright grew up. The Ohio River along the West Virginia panhandle is a ripe area for steel mills and poets. In 1991 David Shevin and I edited A Red Shadow of Steel Mills (a line from Wright) which included poetry chapbooks of Tim Russell, Richard Hague, David J. Adams, and Kip Knott. It was one of our first books in the Working Lives Series from Bottom Dog Press.
Last month, other poets and I gathered with his family and friends for his memorial, at which Jodi and grandkids spread Tim’s ashes in the river about a block away from their home. Here’s a bit of West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman’s eulogy quoting Tim’s poem, “Plano.”
Because hills are not on the maps,
it's easy to get lost here, distant
neighborhoods appear to be adjacent.
“Even though I lived a long time in the rural heart of Appalachia,” Harshman said, “those words obviously ring true for Tim’s urban mill town as well. And it is ‘easy to get lost here,’ but Tim’s poems seemed always to be pointing a way, providing an anchor, enabling us, his readers, and his friends to feel just a little bit less lost. That’s a gift, a gift worth remembrance at any time but certainly here, today, as we do our best to remember and to honor Tim and know this is one of many reasons we miss him.”
Tim’s poems seemed always to be pointing a way, providing an anchor, enabling us, his readers, and his friends to feel just a little bit less lost.
In the mill, Tim was nicknamed “Mad Dog”; among poets he was the “Steel Mill Poet,” though he is equally a fine nature poet. A sample of his work reveals how enmeshed he was with the mills and his place, its people, and their language:
In Adversa by Timothy Russell
March is the nuthatch
down the bare black walnut
or the bare silver maple.
April is forsythia
beneath hazy pastel willows
weeping over the bank
of the orange creek.
May is mock orange
scattered like mortar explosions,
the most delicate mist
rising all around.
June is the red squirrel
fleeing the blue joy
both of them caught in the morning
sun crackling in the sycamore.
August is sulfur
moths twirling above the crown
vetch, deer prints in silt
at the culvert.
September is crab
apples, so red
on the roadside
near the Tin Mill
October is a buck
swimming the river,
climbing the gray slag bank
toward red and yellow
trees on the island.
Tim authored many books, each winning prizes and literary recognition. He is the author of the chapbook The Possibility of Turning to Salt 1987, which received the Golden Webb Award, 1987; of In Dubio 1988, which received State Street Press, 1988; and of In Medias Res, 1991. His full-length book, Adversaria, in 1993 received the Terrence des Pres Prizeia Poetry (Tri Quarterly Books). Chapbooks What We Don’t Know Hurts, 1995, and Lacrimae, 1997, followed; his haiku writing received the 4th Shiki International Haiku award Shiki team, Ehime Prefecture, Japan, 1999.
In Integrum by Timothy Russell
I’ve put my white shirt on
to celebrate my neighbor’s glaring roof,
the brick chimney leaning against its
the next of black branches above it all
dissolving into brilliance.
I’ve put my white shirt on
to celebrate cookies on a plate downstairs
and the pears and oranges in a bowl
with one perfectly curved banana.
I am celebrating the Christmas cactus
blooming in March.
I am celebrating nothing.
I am celebrating today.
I’ve put a white shirt on.
How did Tim share his days? Besides parenting, his wife Jodi says, “Tim tended to his gardens along the Ohio riverbank and built a stone henge across from his house fondly called ‘Tim Henge.’ He also grew poppies, zinnias, and sunflowers in it throughout the years. Battling knotweed on the hillside, he turned it into a bird and wildlife sanctuary. He would ride along the banks of the river in his boat collecting garbage and debris trying to keep the river clean. He was mindful of sharing and taking care of the earth for everyone and everything.”
Tim had a great sense of humor and a fine sense of image and form. He uses the common language to touch us. A world-published poet, he wrote many haiku and won many prizes with them, including a trip to Japan. Here is the last haiku he wrote, a few days before he died:
The little dog knows
A fund has been established at the University of Pittsburgh, Tim’s alma mater. It will help support a freshman majoring in English Creative Writing. Donations may be made online at http://www.giveto.pitt.edu/russellmemorial or a check may be made payable to “University of Pittsburgh” with a memo “Timothy W. Russell Fund” and mailed to: University of Pittsburgh, P.O. Box 640093, Pittsburgh, PA 15264-0093.
Timothy W. Russell was born May 25, 1951, and raised in Follansbee, West Virginia. As a sergeant of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam Era he served as a handler of Military Police Sentry Dogs 1970-1972. He had graduated from Madonna High School (1969) in Weirton and following the war, went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from West Liberty College (1977) and master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh (1979). He passed away on September 16, 2021, at 70.
Larry Smith grew up in the industrial Ohio River Valley and graduated from Muskingum College and Kent State University with a doctorate in literature. He taught at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands College for over 35 years and is the author of 8 books of poetry, 5 books of fiction, a book of memoirs, 2 literary biographies, and more. He’s written film scripts for “James Wright’s Ohio” and “Kenneth Patchen: An Art of Engagement” and is director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing in Ohio. He reviews for New York Journal of Books. Bottom Dog Press hopes to publish the collected poems of Timothy Russell soon.
Header image of Ohio River is credited to Larry Smith
Rebecca here–many thanks to Larry Smith for this beautiful tribute to the the life and work of Tim Russell. Please visit Bottom Dog Press’ website for his Working Lives series…and much more.
Are you a Rust Belt poet or writer? Do you write book reviews–or conduct interviews of Rust Belt authors? If so, think of Rust Belt Girl for a guest post. And check out the handy categories for more writing from rusty places.
For fans of American Rustby Philipp Meyer and Ohio by Stephen Markley . . . comes Jason Kapcala’s Hungry Town (2022), a Rust Belt-set crime drama with serious literary chops. From the back cover summary:
"One October night in the depressed steel town of Lodi, Ohio, two police officers respond to a call about trespassers in the derelict Lodi Steel Machine shop. A chase through the crumbling cathedral of steel columns launches a chain of events that will test the officers' partnership and leave a boy to fend for himself in a decaying Rust Belt neighborhood choked by joblessness, boredom, and addition.
On the opposite end of town, a young woman steps out of a rust-bucket Grand Marquis into an all-night diner...She doesn't realize her ex-boyfriend has hired two brothers to track her down and bring her back, by any means necessary."
I was delighted to meet the author in person at AWP22 and even more delighted that he agreed to answer my questions about his novel—its literary (and culinary) influences, its Rust Belt influences, and more . . .
Jason, of course definitions of noir vary, but the crime genre’s traditional elements consist often of an outsider perspective, systemic failure, economic insecurity, and existential despair. To my mind, the Rust Belt feels like a perfect tableau on which to set a noir. I mean, take for example this description of setting, your novel’s fictionalized Ohio town of Lodi—just stunning:
“Outside, night curdled into matte blackness, still and quiet, except for the breathy whine of motors on the hill, low rumblings as the delivery trucks downshifted on the steep grade and made their early morning runs into town.”
How did you come up with the setting for this novel? Which came first, the setting or the story? Can you talk about influences—in literature, film, TV, or other artistic mediums—for this literary crime novel?
It’s funny but I don’t know that I ever set out to write a noir. Of course, I realized, at a point, that I was working in that tradition, but I don’t recall sitting back and thinking about what makes a noir a noir, or from a definitional perspective, what I could do to adapt the noir genre to the Rust Belt setting. I just had this town—I knew it was a hard place where rusty steel meets barren farmland—and I had these characters who spent their days bearing the crucible of that place, and I followed that thread.
To that point, most of the authors who influenced me aren’t overtly noir writers. My biggest influence was Kent Haurf, particularly his book Plainsong. I love the way he uses language and image, how he ends a scene by cinematically pulling back from the characters.
For sure, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust is another novel I admire which opens with similar circumstances—an accident in an abandoned mill—but Hungry Town winds up being more related in spirit than in plot or style.
Laurie Lynn Drummond’s Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You is a story collection about women police officers in New Orleans, and I admired how much time Drummond spent establishing the little evocative details of being a police officer, some of them quite mundane, some of them anything but.
Though it feels weird to say, I also remember thinking about William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when I was working with the character of Stanley Peach. Faulkner opens with the little boy Vardaman who has just caught a fish and who is processing the fact that his mother has recently died. Both the fish and his mother are dead, and Vardaman simply says, “My mother is a fish,” conflating the two. In Hungry Town, Stanley knows that his brother has died. He also knows that the last place he saw him alive was in the mill, and so he begins to believe, on some level, that his brother now resides in the mill.
Did you know when you began writing that the inciting action of the novel would happen in an old abandoned steel mill? And can you talk about how you how you went about researching what a mill is like in order to describe it? Did your hometown influence your selection of the mill as setting?
You have an abandoned mill, a broken window at the end of the line . . . there’s really only a few places it can go from there.
I would say the setting and the opening action came as a package deal.
I set all my writing in fictional locales—that freedom to manipulate setting provides a lot of freedom, but it still requires an internal coherence. Early on, in order to keep things straight, I drew a map of Lodi, the setting of Hungry Town, with the mill and all of the smaller boroughs located on it, street names, and so on. That helped ensure that I was remaining geographically consistent.
Even though the setting is imagined, I took inspiration from a few places I know well. I grew up not far from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and have family who live in that area. I’d go there with my dad and brother to get my hair cut as a kid at the old-fashioned barber shop and then we’d stop and get hot dogs at one of the local stands in the Lehigh Valley. So I’ve probably passed the Bethlehem Steel Works hundreds of times in my life, and that wound up being an important analog for the mill in my novel.
The Bethlehem Steel plant is not attractive in the way that a beautiful natural space is attractive—a forest or a mountain—but it has its own power of attraction, and I always found that frozen industry mysterious and intriguing, especially the Number 2 Machine Shop. It’s an immense building, a quarter-mile long and eight stories high, held up inside by a seemingly endless row of steel columns on each side. It’s practically a tunnel. I had a folder on my computer full of artistic photographs of the Bethlehem Steel Works that I looked at regularly while I was writing. You mention the big event that sets off the novel, and it sort of had to occur in that space. The mill was always going to be the key setting of the book just because of my fascination with it.
In Hungry Town, there is also a recurring image of an enormous shattered window at the very end of the machine shop. I borrowed that from the film The Crow, which opens with the main character being shot and falling through a large, round window. Not that I set out to lift it, but I know that’s where the image came from—to my knowledge, there’s no window like that in the actual machine shop. It’s just one of those images that stuck with me for whatever reason and wound up finding its way into the writing.
You have an abandoned mill, a broken window at the end of the line . . . there’s really only a few places it can go from there. I believe Ron Carlson calls that “building an inventory”—the idea that you gather up enough details, and images, and expressions, and you observe how they begin sticking together on their own to form Story. I always picture the story like it’s a hermit crab, scuttling along, adorning itself with whatever interesting detritus it comes across. That’s pretty close to how this novel started.
I was also inspired by Athens, Ohio, where I lived for two years during grad school. It’s a much smaller town, but it shared some attributes with Bethlehem—river running through it, train tracks, an industrial past (in Athens it was the brick company), and a hot dog stand where all the dogs are named after burlesque dancers. That inspired the dog shop that Harry Mulqueen opens in the book (though Harry’s hot dogs are more pedestrian).
Noir is often characterized by cynicism and fatalism—so much so in this novel that I think your setting rises to the level of full-blown villain. The reader gets a heavy dose of that here in one of the first few chapters:
“…for all his grim toughness, Harry had trouble resigning himself to a world where kids were out screwing in mills when they should have been at home sleeping. A world where kids died of senselessness, impaled on hundred-year-old pieces of scrap in the middle of the night.”
One of your main characters, Harry, an ex-cop, fights against the fatalistic sense of doom that pervades this town. Did you need him to leave the force to do this? Without spoiling the plot, do you think he succeeds?
A lot of people have commented on how dark Hungry Town is, and they’re right, of course, but for whatever reason I don’t think of the story as being that dark or cynical. The characters do treat the mill like antagonist—at one point, Mulqueen thinks of it as a place that consumes people—but there’s beauty in Lodi, just as there is beauty in the abandoned Bethlehem Steel buildings. It may be a town of limited opportunity, but the characters are resilient and they have moments of grace, I think. They may or may not escape their circumstances—I like to think the jury is still out.
Did Mulqueen need to quit the police force in order to retain his idealism or his sense of hope? Probably. That’s the sort of guy he is. That’s how he takes a stand. And his partner, Rieux—well, she had plenty of opportunities over the years to leave the force and plenty of reason, but she stayed and made her stand that way, because that’s how she’s built.
Your cast of characters is varied, but each is an outsider in his or her own way. Even the good cop, Rieux, is an outsider; for all her excellence over many years on the police force, she is often seen as a woman playing at a man’s game. Other characters are old and dying, are on the run, are criminals, are neglected children left to their own devices. One way I think you turn traditional noir on its head is by featuring two females in main character roles. Why was that important for you to do?
I knew, from the moment I started, that I wanted to take the tropes of cop dramas and turn them on their heads.
When I’m writing, I honestly don’t have many axes to grind. In fact, I try very hard not to make the story be “about” anything in a larger, moralistic sense. I have nothing to sell you. No lessons to impart. No greater Truths about life to reveal. Just curiosity about the characters and their circumstances, and a willingness to follow them wherever they go.
Now, I say all that, but there is one exception that comes to mind. I knew, from the moment I started, that I wanted to take the tropes of cop dramas and turn them on their heads. I grew up watching cop movies—Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon and so on—and they are great fun, but there are also a lot of problems with that mythos. The idea that a tough, anti-hero cop can take the law into his own hands, play by his own rules, sidestep bureaucracy, clean up a dirty town, and righteously mete out justice, all because his innate sense of right or wrong somehow remains intact on some higher moral plane—well, that’s starting to become less and less attractive as it ages. So I spent a lot of time thinking about tropes and how I could flip them or subvert them in interesting ways.
For instance, there’s usually a jaded veteran cop who gets paired with a rookie. That veteran will likely check off a number of boxes demographically. He’ll be an old-fashioned tough guy who lets his actions do the talking. His sidekick may be more emotionally intelligent but will probably also be portrayed as overeager and naïve. Often, that neophyte cop will be minoritized in some way—a woman, a person of color, an outsider of some sort.
In Hungry Town, Ivery intentionally chose to make the veteran cop a woman. Rieux is the gritty one, the one who’s just a bit jaded. She’s tough and instinctive. Mulqueen may be more physically imposing, but he’s the cerebral cop and the more sensitive of the two. They both take the work home with them, but Rieux drowns her bad feelings in alcohol whereas Mulqueen sits up all night feeling guilty and pondering whether or not Freud was right about there being no such thing as an accident. That inversion of stereotypes was a conscious choice and a part of the project itself.
I find titles terribly difficult. At what point in your writing of this novel did you light on Hungry Town. And what does that title mean for you?
I’m a huge fan of music, and I always put together playlist for every project I’m working on. I try to capture the feeling or atmosphere of the project in the music I select. One of the songs I chose for this project was “Hungry Town” by Chuck Prophet. It’s a great song with a killer line: “the devil eats for free in a hungry town.” I kept coming back to that. In the book, one of the characters, Bel, says something about there being a lot of hungry people in Lodi, most of them willing to do anything in exchange for a bite to eat. Her expression takes on a metaphorical double meaning that I like, and so I landed on Hungry Town as a title.
What are you writing, right now? What are you reading? What can you recommend?
Currently, I am reading The Other Ones by Dave Housley, about a group of office workers who win the lottery. It’s a terrific book, funny but not without considerable depth. Next on my list is Neema Avashia’s Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, Mike Ingram’s Notes from the Road, and Mark Powell’s Lioness.
I’m currently working on a novel that I’m calling “The Mourning Afters.” It’s set in the fictional ghost town of Stillwater, Pennsylvania, which I’m basing on Centralia, PA. There’s a mine fire that has been burning beneath the town for almost a decade, and the town is basically abandoned, most people having relocated to the neighboring town.
The protagonist is a rock singer named Kev Cassady. About nine years earlier, he was the front man of a band called The Mourning Afters. They were on the verge of a breakthrough, had finally gotten the attention of a record producer in California, when there was a falling out. Kev skipped town with their demo tapes, took the opportunity for himself, and wound up squandering it all.
Fast forward to the present, and Kev gets a late-night call from one of his former bandmates, Muzzie, who he hasn’t spoken to in years. He tells Kev that another member of the band has unexpectedly died. Kev decides to return to Pennsylvania for the funeral and winds up having to face all of the bandmates he left behind, including his drummer ex-girlfriend, Ramie Valentine. In the time since he left, she has raised an eight-year-old daughter, and Kev is trying to do the math on that to figure out if he’s the father.
It all sounds very dire in exposition, but it’s actually supposed to be a comedy and the characters find themselves in one ridiculous situation after another. It’s a departure from Hungry Town, in any case.
I understand you did a lot of research into the culinary masterpiece that is the hot dog in writing this book. What do you take on your dog, and where can we find a good one if we’re in your neck of the woods in northern West Virginia?
I appreciate you ending with the most important question, and I’ve really enjoyed having a chance to chat about Hungry Town.
As I mentioned, I grew up not far from the Lehigh Valley where there’s a unique food culture and many excellent hot dog stands, so I’d been eating hot dogs a long time before writing this book. There, the hot dogs typically come with mustard and chopped onion on the bottom and chili on top. (The order of that is important.) It’s usually a thinner chili than you find other places. That’s how I’ve always taken my dogs.
When it came to writing the novel, I didn’t necessarily need to do any research, but a good writing friend, Renée K. Nicholson, found out about the project early on and offered to take me to different hot dog stands all over West Virginia in the name of research, and I figured, well . . . who am I to argue?
We ate at a lot of hot dog joints.
I’m going to use the fact that I am a state employee and therefore forbidden to offer endorsements as a way to weasel out of having to declare a favorite, but I will say this: if you like hot dogs and you’ve never had a West Virginia slaw dog before, you need to remedy that as soon as possible. Until my “research” trips, I had never had one before, and I quickly became a fan. Mulqueen probably doesn’t sell them at his hot dog stand in northern Ohio—at least, I never recall seeing them when I lived in Ohio—but they would be a welcome addition, for sure.
Jason Kapcala is the author of the short story collection North to Lakeville. His writing has been nominated for numerous prizes, including the Pushcart Prize. He grew up on northeastern Pennsylvania, near the ruins of the Bethlehem Steel Works, and now lives in northern West Virginia.
Like this author interview? Comment below or on my FB page. And please share with your friends and social network. Want more author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and general Rust Belt goodness? Follow me here. Thanks! ~Rebecca
In Part I of this interview, Eliese told us a story of the steel mill that didn’t make it into her memoir and about how being a female steelworker helped her find her strength. She talked about hope and despair and holding on through tough times. And she talked about her current work, teaching writing to college students, and about how she shaped the narrative we’re all talking about. If you missed Part I, be sure to catch up, here.
Today, I’m happy to invite the author back. Eliese Colette Goldbach is the author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, published by Flatiron Books in 2020.
“…Eliese dreamed of escaping Cleveland and achieving greatness in the convent as a nun.” Instead, as a steelworker at ArcelorMittal Cleveland, she “discovers solace in the tumultuous world of steel, unearthing a love and a need for her hometown she didn’t know existed.” *
Eliese, your debut memoir was published to lots of praise and national attention. One reviewer compared Rust to Hillbilly Elegy. How did that sit with you? How do you come down on the Elegy issue?
There are definitely parallels between Rust and Hillbilly Elegy. They’re Midwestern memoirs—and Ohio memoirs, in particular—and both stories try to capture the spirit of a misunderstood place through the people who inhabit it. I think readers have a lot to learn from any account written by a native-born soul, especially when that soul is writing about “forgotten” places like the Rust Belt and Appalachia, so I don’t begrudge the comparison. I do, however, fear that some of the generalizations and moralizations made in Hillbilly Elegy aren’t as nuanced or productive as they claim to be.
In addition to memoir, you write essays. And I read a hysterically funny piece of dark humor you wrote published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: “An Open Letter to Everyone in the Event of My Likely Demise While Hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Can you tell us what inspired you to write the piece—and where you learned to write funny? Also, can you tell us a little about what you are writing, now?
I’ve always had a little bit of a funny bone buried deep inside. You wouldn’t know it when you meet me. I’m really shy and reserved at first. I smile a lot. I don’t say much. New friends always assume that I’m nice and uncomplicated, but then I’ll land a zinger out of nowhere. People always do a double-take. “Did Eliese really say that? She’s always so quiet!” Humor writing is the perfect way for this unabashed introvert to say something funny. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed clicking through the pages of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. It never fails to make me laugh. When you read enough of something, you kind of internalize the prevailing tone. From there, you can experiment with your writing and go wild.
In truth, though, I have to give my best friend credit for lighting the spark behind this particular piece. I was actually making plans to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail at the time, and my friend and I started joking around about all the things that could go wrong. I’m pretty sure we were mostly talking about bears. “This should be in McSweeney’s,” she said. The rest is history. I immediately set to work writing. I submitted the draft a few days before setting out for Springer Mountain, and I got the acceptance letter while crashing at a hostel in Georgia. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it very far on the trail. I fractured my heel bone, which made walking pretty painful, but at least I have a little humor to show for it!
As far as current projects go, I’m a little leery of jinxing myself. The process of hammering out my next book idea has involved a lot of dead-end drafts. A few months ago, I told people, “I’m writing a book about X!” Then X changed to Y, so I said, “I’m writing a book about Y!” Now Y has changed to Z and I’m all out of sorts. I’m hoping that Z will stick, but I don’t want to press my luck. We’ll just say that the next book will likely involve a lot of research, although it’ll still be grounded in my personal experience.
For us avid readers, could you give us some recommendations? A few recent favorites from authors in the Cleveland area or beyond? A memoir? Creative nonfiction? A novel or story collection? Poetry?
Admittedly, I’ve been diving deep into the research component of “Book Project Z” lately. Most of the reading material on my nightstand is pretty old-fashioned. St. Augustine. Emile Durkheim. David Hume. I’ve also been immersed in A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America, which is both riveting and gut-wrenching. I strongly recommend it. When it comes to all-time favorites, I always mention the work of David Giffels. Barnstorming Ohio was an absolute pleasure. Another must-read. And I have to give a shout out to poet Damien McClendon. We both read at an event a few months back, and I was just so taken with his words. Have you ever felt sapped as a writer? Maybe the inspiration has run dry.
Maybe the ideas aren’t flowing. Maybe the cursor on the computer screen fills you with dread. Then, all of a sudden, you hear another writer create something beautiful with language and you feel like you can keep going.
That’s what Damien McClendon’s poetry did for me. I was slogging through my writing at the time, and his words gave me a much-needed dose of inspiration.
Of course, this is a reading and writing blog, Eliese, but we need fuel to do both. Also, I’m always longing for food from home. So, what’s a hometown food you can’t live without?
Like this interview? Comment below or on my FB page. And please share with your friends and social network. Want more author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and general Rust Belt goodness? Follow me here. Thanks! ~Rebecca
“Eliese dreamed of escaping Cleveland and achieving greatness in the convent as a nun.” Instead, as a steelworker at ArcelorMittal Cleveland, she “discovers solace in the tumultuous world of steel, unearthing a love and a need for her hometown she didn’t know existed.” *
Rebecca here, so thrilled to share this author interview with you! A little backstory first: several years ago, when I was interviewing author David Giffels about his memoir, Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life, he told me about a writer to watch, a young woman who worked in Cleveland’s gargantuan steel mill. Actually he called her a “Cleveland steelworker-slash-amazing literary star.” Growing up in the Cleveland area, I knew of the steel mill, its flare stack’s tall orange flame a potent symbol of Cleveland industry–and grit. And I’d read steelworkers’ stories. But never one by a woman. My interest was piqued.
Reader, Eliese’s memoir exceeded my high expectations, balancing harrowing tales of hard times, hard work, and hard-won revelations with gorgeous, lyrical prose.
Meet Eliese: Eliese Colette Goldbach is the author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, published by Flatiron Books in 2020. Rust is the author’s debut memoir. The award-winning writer now works at John Carroll University in Cleveland, where she lives with her husband.
*Trigger warning: this interview contains a mention of sexual assault
Eliese, place is so central to the story you tell in this memoir. And you give your reader access to a place most of us will never know as an insider: Cleveland’s nearly 950-acre steel mill. As a steelworker there, your personal story got wrapped up with the story of the mill. Is there a story that didn’t make it into the book you could tell us?
There were so many stories that never made it to the pages of Rust. I worked in a wide variety of jobs during my tenure at the steel mill, and I probably could have written a book about each one. I learned to put rocks into giant receptacles in a dusty place called The Bin Floor. I spent some time as a “Rough Rider” in the Basic Oxygen Furnace, where the molten steel was made. Every day, I hopped into a tow motor and whizzed around the mill, replenishing the raw materials that were used in the process. I even did a brief stint as a crane operator in the Hot Mill, where glowing slabs of steel were pressed into sheets. It was one of the most interesting—and terrifying—jobs I had ever worked. You spend your hours in a tiny box that smells like body odor. There’s a wonky captain’s chair in the middle of the space, and the walls are covered in a yellowish substance that rubs off on your fingers when you touch it. I later learned that you shouldn’t touch the mystery substance. It’s the sticky accumulation of everyone else’s nicotine tar.
On one of my first nights flying solo behind the controls of the crane, I had a rather frightening experience. A mechanic asked me to move a three-hundred-ton contraption to the other side of the building. At first, I protested. My crane was only rated to lift one-hundred tons, but the man brushed off my concerns. He told me that the three-hundred-ton thing was rigged up to a bunch of pulleys and levers that would supposedly lighten the load, so I conjured up vague images from high school physics class and told myself that everything would be fine. Famous last words, right?
When I started working the gears and levers necessary to move this three-hundred-ton thing, it barely budged. My crane, on the other hand, started to struggle immediately. The gears were grinding. The motor was moaning. I could feel the whole crane begin to buckle in the middle, which wasn’t good. Keep in mind, this crane weighed as much as a blue whale—it was beyond huge—and the mechanic who had asked me to move the three-hundred-ton thing was on the ground, directly below the crane. He was right in harm’s way, and I was still pretty green as a crane operator. I knew that I needed to stop what I was doing, but I didn’t react fast enough. Right before I eased off of the controls, something snapped. Metal twisted and pinged. The hook of the crane went flying. All I could think about was the man on the ground below me.
When everything settled, I opened my window and called down to him. Thankfully, he was okay. The pulleys that were attached to the contraption had shattered—and huge shards of metal had shot off in all directions like gigantic bullets—but luckily the renegade pieces hadn’t hit him. Disaster was avoided, and I whispered a prayer of relief. But the experience shook me. The mill never stopped reminding you of its dangers.
You write, “This place [the steel mill] never failed to remind me that power is double-pronged. The very forces that could rip everything apart were the same ones that tempered something strong and resilient…” Would you say being a female steelworker helped you find your own power—in and out of the mill? How?
I definitely learned a lot about my own strength in the steel mill. It wasn’t always easy being a woman in the mill. There were many subtle (and not-so-subtle) displays of sexism, and I really think that the experience taught me to be more assertive when I saw something that went against my values. I also found a vibrant community of other women in the mill, which reminded me of what we can accomplish together, and the strange jobs I performed gave me a sense of self-assurance that extended into other areas of my life. If you can run a hulking crane for twelve hours a day, then you can manage just about anything. When I think back on my time at the mill, however, I know that one of the most important things it gave me was a respectable paycheck. They say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but I don’t necessarily agree. Making a good living can give you confidence and security and independence. It can provide you with opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have, and it felt especially good to know that I was working in a field where men and women were paid the same.
Your having grown up as a Catholic school kid, aspiring nun to steelworker was quite a change in career trajectory. Like many children, you aspired to greatness, to being known for making a difference. You write, “…the religious life seemed to be the only vocation worthy of its power.” Today, your chosen vocation is teaching. Can you tell us what you love to teach the most? What you like to impart to your students—about writing about place, itself, or writing about their place in the world?
I love teaching the nuts-and-bolts to beginning writers. It doesn’t matter if we’re working with academic essays or creative pieces. I like showing students the beauty of a well-crafted scene, a tight bit of dialogue, or a perfectly-wrought thesis statement. I also enjoy giving feedback to students at all levels. It’s so much fun to dive into a piece of writing in the hopes of offering encouragement and constructive criticism, and it’s even more fun to watch students implement those suggestions in revision. Overall, I think the biggest thing that I’d like my students to take away from class is a sense of self-efficacy and personal power. Writing gives us the ability to create meaning and empathy and wonder. It allows us to see our surroundings in a new light. It helps us understand the roles we play within those surroundings, and it gives us the opportunity to reach audiences that we may never meet in person. I want my students to understand just how influential the written word can be, and I also want them to feel capable of putting their unique stories down on the page.
Your own college experience was shattered when you were raped by a classmate, after which point you were diagnosed with mixed-state bipolar disorder. You talk in the book about the rape taking away your faith. Yet, your book is filled with the language of religion, images both harrowing and redemptive. How, as a writer, do you sit with such seemingly disparate aspects of life, including faith in humanity and utter distrust in the same? And what do you hope the story of your mental health journey does for readers?
The most interesting stories are always the ones that let contradictions breathe. Nothing in life is as simple as we’d like it to be, and the core of good writing lies in those moments of ambiguity when something raw and gritty and human is revealed. Lately I’ve been going over a lot of old books that I read back in college, and I happened to re-familiarize myself with the pages of Plato’s Phaedo the other day. I can’t help but be reminded of this great line: “What a strange thing that which men call pleasure seems to be, and how astonishing the relation it has with what is thought to be the opposite, namely pain! A man cannot have both at the same time. And yet if he pursues and catches the one, he is almost always bound to catch the other, like two creatures with one head.” I just love that image. Two creatures with one head. I think it relates to so much more than just pleasure and pain.
You can’t have faith in humanity if you don’t also doubt its goodness. You can’t have hope if you don’t also invite despair. And I’m talking about real hope here, not the cockeyed optimist kind that’s divorced from reality. Real hope has an axe to grind. Real hope has bloody knuckles. I like to think that’s a lesson I’ve learned from living with bipolar disorder. I’ve struggled through the bleakest kinds of despair, but those moments were never the ones that scared me. Despair is just hope earning its stripes. It can always come around the bend. The true enemy doesn’t seem to have a name. You might call it emptiness, or perhaps apathy, but it isn’t really either of those things. It’s this sensation you get when you’re content with a blackness that has not bottom. You feel like a shadow that can no longer be stitched to a body. There’s no despair, no emotion, no longing. It’s a frightening place to be, and I hope that my story can speak to anyone who’s grappling with that place now. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like.
Take it from a kindred soul: It’s possible to survive. Just hold onto something and don’t let go.
Eliese, as I read your memoir, I kept forgetting it wasn’t a novel, because all the tension and suspense I expect in a good novel were there, keeping me feverishly turning pages. In addition to your story as a steelworker reclaiming your home and yourself after much struggle, there is also a compelling and very real love story here. For us writers, can you talk about how you decided to structure your memoir—if you set out to structure it like a novel?
Structure is the thing I struggle with most as a writer. I’m still traumatized by my 5th grade English class, when the teacher called on me to answer a simple question: “What’s the climax of Where the Red Fern Grows?” I froze. My mind went blank. My palms got sweaty. The whole class was staring at me, but I just shrugged my shoulders. In my mind, there were a thousand tiny climactic moments throughout the novel. How could I possibly pick one? Even now, I’m always overwhelmed by the sheer possibilities of structure. You can use the same material to tell a million different stories, and sometimes I want to tell all of those stories at the same time. As such, I inevitably cycle through a lot of failed drafts to figure out the structure that fits the material best.
With Rust, I experimented with everything. I tried making it an essay. I tried making it a chapbook of prose poems. I played around with footnotes. I wrote a pretty long and miserable draft that incorporated tons of research about irony. There’s even a notebook in the back of my closet that contains a feeble attempt to imitate Anne Carson’s Nox. Those drafts took a lot of time and energy, but they gave me a little distance from the lived experience of the steel mill. As a nonfiction writer, it can be difficult to see the shape of a story when you’re still living parts of that story in your daily life. Most of Rust was written while I was still employed as a steelworker, which made it difficult to see where the book needed to end. I kept wanting to add more anecdotes. I kept wanting to change the climax. Luckily, I had an awesome editor and an amazing agent who helped to usher me in the right direction. And once I was able to take a step back and analyze everything I’d written, I realized that a novel-like arc already existed inside the material. From there, the structure settled into place. Sometimes it takes time and revision (and lots of feedback from trusted friends) to discover something’s shape.
*Quotes from the book jacket copy; all images used with permission of the author
Stay tuned for Part II of my interview with Eliese Colette Goldbach, coming soon…
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