The late Rodney Dangerfield once quipped, “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.”
You might expect some fisticuffs at a hockey game, sure, but you generally don’t expect a fight to break out at a book signing. At Thursday’s presentation by David Maraniss, author of the best-seller “Once In A Great City: A Detroit Story,” Maraniss was verbally assaulted by at least three audience members who took issue with his new book. “Once in a Great City” details Detroit’s history from October 1962 to May 1964, before its fall from grace.
Clearly, this wasn’t Maraniss’ first collision with audience members on a mission. One woman, who demanded a microphone to ask her question, was verbally abusive and challenged him on issues which weren’t in the book. Despite her aggressive tone and demeanor, he was polite in asking, “Do you have a question?”
The woman was escorted from the auditorium but shoved Jim MacLean, Capital Area District Library’s director of community outreach, on the way out. The police were called, but she left before they arrived.
A couple of questioners pushed Maraniss to answer questions about the role of unions in the fall of Detroit, and another questioner droned on about urban policy, pointing to examples from a book — not Maraniss’ book, unfortunately. Maraniss politely but pointedly told the questioner that the book in question was actually Thomas Sugrue’s landmark book, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis.”
Book signings, especially by high profile or controversial authors, are more and more often turning into verbal slugfests between questioners — not necessarily readers — and the author. At a recent event in Ann Arbor, singer and memoirist Patti Smith, author of “M Train” and “Just Kids,” got in a heated exchange with several questioners after they asked inappropriate questions. She told one poor kid to “get a job” and answered a vague statement about the passion Detroiters have for work with, “I’m from New Jersey, where we know how to fucking work.”
A few years ago, at a book signing by Charlie LeDuff, journalist and author of “Detroit: An American Autopsy,” several audience members made the mistake of getting into it with LeDuff. He rebuked them soundly.
This activity, although not new, has increased, and publicists at major publishing houses are now training authors on how to get a wandering or issue-driven questioner to sit down. To avoid this situation, many venues have gone to screening the questions by having audience members write their questions on index cards. A moderator, or sometimes the author, then looks over the questions, tossing away inappropriate or off-topic questions.
Prior to the turbulent Q&A, Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize winner, provided the 400-plus guests at the packed Kinawa Middle School Auditorium with one of the best presentations an author could give. His 45-minute multi-media presentation — which even featured the dramatic 2011 “Born of Fire” Chrysler Super Bowl commercial featuring rapper Eminem — captured the audience’s attention. The author was born in Detroit and lived there a short time before his father, a writer for the defunct Detroit Times, moved for a job.
Maraniss, 66, said he was in tears when he saw the ad and at that moment decided he needed to write a book about his hometown.
“I have to be obsessed before I write a book,” Maraniss told the audience.
His obsession began with that ad and the line Eminem delivers in front of the Fox Theatre: “This is the Motor City, and this is what we do.”
Maraniss’ book follows four themes and their interrelationship from October 1962 to May 1964. During his presentation, he discussed the importance of the four themes: creativity, civil rights, cars and unionized labor.
By taking this multi-pronged approach, he hoped to show “the tension between creativity and decay.”
The music of Motown was the obvious choice for the creative role, while the automobile industry played the part of decay.
As he walked the audience through the stories in the book, Maraniss showed 1963 film clips of then Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh extolling the great city — while we all knew that a major problem, boiling just beneath the surface, would be ignited just a few years later.
The author said he has made 14 visits to the city, first for research and then for book promotion activities. Maraniss, who said he set out to write the book “to honor his own memories,” is a great storyteller — both in person and print. While the book was not meant to be prescriptive or cheerlead for the city, a line in the Chrysler ad seems to resonate with his message: “It's the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.”
Author David Maraniss was a guest on the Nov. 13 episode of "City Pulse Newsmakers," which can be viewed online at lansingcitypulse.com.