Most recent entries at the top. Read from the bottom up.
Today, I sent out the first round of query letters to agents. After three years of holding this project close and finding small hours to transcribe or write the book proposal, now, a quiet push out into the world. No big announcement. No social media post. A small note here and some blackberry gin to celebrate. Whoop, whoop!
I heard a new story today from one of our interviewees. He couldn't remember exactly when it happened. Sometime in the 80s or 90s, a new mall came to Lead. They cut into the toe of a hillside to make room for the foundation of the strip of stores. But the foundation began to slide.
He put it like this: have you ever eaten a cup of pudding, and you take a bite so that one side of the cup is completely empty of pudding and the other side is full? Because the pudding is soft, the bottom of it begins to slip into the other side of the cup.
That's what happened with the hillside that year. It was the wettest year in decades. He estimates 300 feet of moisture between snow and rainfall. The hillside that had been cut into began to slip, and all of its homes with it. He described putting two pegs into the ground—one on the side that was sturdy and the other on the side that was slipping. He said that within an hour, he would come out to check the pegs and one had shifted a quarter of an inch.
The slide continued, despite the city's efforts to combat it. In the city of Deadwood, just 3 miles away and at considerably lower elevation, someone posted a sign that said, “Lead Mall, coming soon.”
The story reminded me of the stories of subsidence in the 30s. When the underground workings and the Open Cut caused the ground to shake and the town to relocate its center away from the Homestake Foundation. It reminded me of when the Homestake expanded the Open Cut in the 1980s, how the company bought and razed homes, swallowed the city park and redirected Main Street, reconfiguring the town around the ever-widening hole. To this day, Lead’s otherwise straight Main Street curves widely around the Open Cut’s southern edge.
It reminds me of the fact that Homestake was everything to Lead. Arts and entertainment: the Homestake Opera House and the Hearst Free Library were established by Phoebe Appleton Hearst, philanthropist and wife of George Hearst. Education: the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology became a pipeline to Homestake management jobs and “Digger” was the Lead-Deadwood high school mascot. Health: Homestake’s hospital and ambulance provided free health care to all employees and their families. Utilities: Homestake provided the city’s electricity and water services. Social clubs: Employees formed the Homestake Band, Homestake Baseball Team, and Homestake Veterans Association. Technology: Due to Homestake’s influence, Lead was among the first rural communities to acquire technological advancements like electricity, telegraph, and telephones. Transportation: Homestake created a bridge to the East when it paid for the Black Hills and Fort Pierre Railroad to lay tracks through Lead.
Homestake might have been anchor for the town and its citizens. But it is also the reason that the ground was always shifting beneath their feet.
I’m testing out a new transcription service (because manually creating word-for-word transcriptions of hours of informal conversations is only about half as fun as it sounds).
After creating the transcription (infinitely faster than this human could), this software pulls out summary words, or keywords from the conversation.
For this particular transcription, the words were:
started, boss, cut, walked, people, cigarette, partner, feet, dog, slid, hear, fire, bucket, mining, day, shoot, put, wife, blasted, and German shepherds.
These keywords were mentioned, passed over, repeated, and revisited during the three hours we sat around a stranger’s kitchen table.
I was interested in these words because of the story they, alone, told. “Boss,” “wife,” “partner,” and “dog” give us characters. “Cigarette,” “bucket,” and “mining” fill in the scene. And “cut,” “shoot,” “slid,” and “blasted” give us action.
Exactly 6 months after the last entry, we've been taking our own advice while watching covid transform our lives. I imagine our own list of words would run something like: “when” “covid” “election” “article” “family” “mask” “matter” “David” “Kaylee” “how” “read” “zoom” “edit” “drive” “photos” “meeting” “home” “think.”
Lately, the words “interview” and “film” have been edging back into the top.
After months on break, we had out first socially distanced interview in August. And with two more slotted for next week, we are hopeful that we can responsibly move this project forward once again.
A quote from Svetlana Alexievich’s epilogue in Voices from Chernobyl:
“They were ordinary people answering the most important questions.”
Nick struck up a conversation with one of our interviewees at work yesterday. Afterward, he called me to relay a magnificent Homestake story about a legendary three-day blizzard, how snowed-trapped miners made a tunneling expedition to King’s Grocer for pasties and how their wives revved up the snowmobiles and came to their rescue.
Did Nick record any of it?
Not. A. Word.
Visited two homes to have our interviewees sign photography and interview releases that I forgot to have them sign during the interviews. (Oops.)
I left one house with a cloud of second-hand cigarette smoke soaking into my lungs.
I left the other feeling heavy—heavy like a sopping-wet beach towel—from the pain of a story they shared that I didn’t record.
We don’t always get to choose the way this project cuts into our lives.
No, Nick and I are not dating. Read our bios. (Please.)
Are you familiar with the story of Moses? While he was an exile in the desert, he became a shepherd. One day, he went searching for a missing lamb and stumbled upon a burning bush. A voice from the heavens, cracking like static through the electrified air around him, spoke: “Take off your sandals, for the place you are standing is holy ground.”
I imagine Moses tore at his sandals then, ripping the straps. I imagine him tossing them, forgotten, into the sand.
There was a moment tonight that I felt like Moses.
Nick and I were interviewing two gentlemen. One, a miner with yellowing hair and a few chipped teeth. The other, a miner with white hair combed gently against his skull and a small mustache sitting playfully above his upper lip. They were best friends. They jumped over each other to tell their versions of every story. One would belly laugh before the other had even arrived at his punchline.
Nick had taken the first man outside for photos. I sat, listening to the second, captivated by his storytelling. Beneath his jet white hair, his blue eyes sparkled like a twelve-year-old’s.
He was telling me about a library. Along a dark drift, you could step behind sagging timbers and crawl up a hidden ladder into a small cavern lined with shelves and books. There, by the light of headlamps, immigrant miners—from Poland and Bulgaria and Slovenia and China—would learn to read and write in English. During stolen minutes of their shift, they sounded out words and scribbled their names and the alphabet. They practiced, bit by bit, until they could pass the test to become United States citizens. Of course, it was against the rules to read and write on company time. Even worse, to stow away flammable materials underground. But no one told.
A secret, underground library in a gold mine.
In that moment, I felt privy to the tenderest skin of humanity. The humanity that builds a secret library. The hands that lodged it between the stone and timber of an active gold mine. The generations that learned a new language to become citizens of the nation that blossomed and shuddered above their heads.
Under the table, I felt my feet begin to burn inside my shoes. They felt hot, like fire from a burning bush was singeing this sinner’s toes. I was tempted, against all decorum, to take off my shoes. Kick them off, I thought, kick them off!!
I sat still.
But listening to these people, hearing their nigh-forgotten stories… there are some days I can’t deny I’m standing on holy ground.
The final book suggestion — Working, by Studs Terkel (1974) — has arrived.
Working is a collection of oral histories from people with ordinary jobs in the 1970s. Terkel's subjects include mail carriers, yacht brokers, jazz musicians and grave diggers. Each entry spans a few pages as the worker details their daily life in their career. The first entry I read detailed the career of a sex worker, how she began as a well-groomed call girl and slowly disintegrated until she worked in Mexican sex house, addicted to heroin. The last one I read was about a jazz musician who refused to retire until he was in his late seventies because he loved his music.
I've been reading these suggestions as I expect future readers would consume our book: for twenty minutes before bed, a bit bleary-eyed from the day but aware that they would rather read than scroll themselves to sleep.
As I read, I've been asking myself… How does Svetlana "go cold" during a description of a tragic death? When did Terkel realize how captivating the voice of a grave digger could be on a page? How does Brandon use voice to communicate humor? How have oral histories changed from the 1970s to 1990s to 2010s? What questions does Brandon ask to get someone he meets on the street to spill a story about mental illness, a broken relationship or a step-father's abuse? How does Svetlana use place as a character? How is Brandon using multimedia to convey these stories?
I'll admit, I'm not exactly sure how to become a surrogate for another person's memories.
The process for writing The Price of Gold stories thus far has gone something like this: study public records about the Homestake Gold Mine's raging success and ultimate closure, interview someone who lived it, transcribe 2-3 hours of audio per interview, edit the story to condense and simplify, while maintaining the voice of the storyteller and the authenticity of the story as it was told.
Despite the trepidation I feel being entrusted with the memories of the people I've only just met, I can't imagine them disappearing from humanity completely in twenty, thirty years.
Book suggestion #2 has arrived:
Voices from Chernobyl, by Belarusian Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich (1997)
This book collects the stories of people impacted by the devastating tragedy of the nuclear power plant breakdown in 1986. Alexievich interviewed more than 500 eyewitnesses, including firefighters, members of the cleanup team, politicians, physicians, physicists, and ordinary citizens over a period of 10 years. She won a Nobel Prize for her effort.
I'm forced to tread lightly through this one, as it is heart-wrenching.
Suggested book number one was in my mailbox today:
Humans of New York: Stories, by Brandon Stanton (2015)
Stanton interviews and photographs the people he meets on the streets of New York City. In his Stories edition, photographs are accompanied by cheeky one-liners, revealing quotes and long form stories. The photographs are snapshots, not of people, but of personalities. There’s a remarkable difference.
Wondering how to format the book. Format by theme—a section on the price of gold, a section on the hilarious horseplay, a section on deaths? Or format by person—all the stories a person had to tell, conglomerating into one chapter for themselves. The risk here is giving the quieter folks—the ones who don’t spill their lives to strangers like me (dare I say, the sensible ones)—less room. Would they seem less human because they didn’t tell me about their darkest memories and brightest moments when we invaded their home, recorded their words and took their photograph?
I guided a reporter from Popular Science through science spaces on the 4850 Level of Sanford Lab. He had been an editor for several magazines in NYC and for Popular Science, but now he is a freelancer based in California, working on a story about dark matter. Currently, filing this experience under "Times this job afforded unprecedented access to amazing human beings."
I watched how he interviewed scientists about dark matter, loved to see that he, too, stumbled to ask the right question despite mounds of apparent research. When we got to the surface, each having reached our mental capacity for learning about particle physics, the conversation became a little more human. With our respective jobs completed, we related, not as a tour guide and visiting media, but as writers.
We talked about interviewing experts, the pain of long transcriptions and the difficulty of explaining yet-unproven science to the public. Then, I shared about the side project I've been working on… Rather than giving me direct advice, he pushed me toward the masters, suggesting three books that have defined the art of writing oral histories over the last fifty years.
Thanks to Amazon, they will soon be in my mailbox.