Unforgettable lines

Metro Times: I often talk to my fiction writing students about the importance of place in fiction. It’s essential that they find a place — be it a city block, a bowling alley, a river, a bedroom or a barn — that they can own outright on the page. Joan Didion says, “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”

Lolita Hernandez: Let me add to that: She who tells the story, rules the world. We need to tell our own stories and claim this world for our own. In my early attempts, characters floated in space until I learned that they, like me, walk the earth. I eventually began to understand that using the details of place also gave me control of the story. Describing place and the characters in them means getting out of your own miserable head long enough to really observe the world around you and connect some dots. I am so thankful that I captured so many details of the Cadillac plant, because most of those buildings are no longer there, but they exist still in the pages of Autopsy.

MT: Are your characters creatures of your invention, or are they based on real people? I’d love to believe that someone like Garlic Baloney Joe once stood up and had the unique pleasure of exclaiming, with his fist raised in the air, “Hey, that story’s about me!”

Hernandez: All of the characters are based on real folks. Everyone knows Big Mama, and she has attended readings and proudly announced her role in the book. Some characters are composites — the Rock/Tree/Cat Lady, for example — but in her case, Cadillac workers claim to know exactly who she is. I actually ran across a man who was one of the men in the pit at the last body drop. I always tell people that the characters are all me. Someone once claimed that couldn’t be true in the case of the man who died in the plant. I replied, “That was me.”

MT: How many stories went untold in your encounters with the real people you met and worked with inside the Clark Street Cadillac Plant? How often did you find yourself saying to one of them, “You should write that one down”?

Hernandez: One of the most frequent comments from my co-workers, whether or not they were from the plant, is that they too wanted to write about the factory. It really is unbelievable in there. It’s a world of its own. I think a lot of folks have stories to tell; the question is how to tell them and finding the time. Factory work can leave you drained. And, too, we all know the stories; they are nearly the same from plant to plant. How does one write them so that we as factory workers learn something new? That’s the problem I grappled with in writing Autopsy.

MT: You will soon be a visiting writer at Western High School through a partnership between the InsideOut Literary Arts Project and the PEN/Faulkner National Writers in the Schools program. Many of those students who live in the neighborhood of the Clark Street plant might not even know that it existed. How important is it to you that a legacy of sorts lives on, through your stories, for this younger generation, some of whom will actually very soon become your readers?

Hernandez: Legacy is very important. One of the problems we have in this country is that we don’t know our own working-class history. Others have been telling our story and muddling class distinctions and enflaming race, ethnic and gender issues, of course, for their own ruling class aggrandizement.

When I was working with some of the youth in the area on the Cadillac/Fleetwood Arts Project, I would always take them by the former plant to let them know that something grand was once there. They need to know how the ruling class destroys indiscriminately in its insatiable drive for profit. Once again, he who tells the story rules the world. That would be my message to the students.

Peter Markus is a poet whose most recent book is The Singing Fish. He is also senior writer at the InsideOut Literary Arts Project. Send comments to [email protected]

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