Just like the mills towns of New England that preceded them, the steel towns of the Rust Belt set loose a diaspora that spread across the country. Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood portrays a moment in time: the last gasp of the industrial north where European immigrants had raised families and built communities and cities, but saw the end of their way of life looming on the horizon.
Last week, I had an exclusive interview with Paul about his new book and his upcoming visit to Pittsburgh during which he will read excerpts from his memoir in front of a hometown crowd.
CB: In addition to studying writing, you have worked in steel mills, studied law, clerked in government, been a line cook, served as criminal investigator, and traveled extensively. As a result of all of your experiences, you’ve written for a wide variety of media outlets and won awards. At what point did you focus on developing a writing career? Can you pinpoint any particular event or experience in your life that has helped you more than any other as a writer?
PH: I first started freelancing for magazines while living on a remote farm, 30 miles from the Canadian border in Vermont. My wife had a decent job at an artists’ colony, but my work choices were: a) a talc mine; b) a line cook; c) a book store. I chose c and started reviewing books for a local radio station.
CB: The epigraph to Rust Belt Boy is a quote from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. In some ways, your book resembles hers, but your working-class upbringing was a far cry from the privileged childhood she had. What made you engage the comparison with Dillard right from the beginning? Can you address any problems or advantages you may have encountered working within her shadow?
PH: Although it appears in the beginning, the epigraph was one of my last creative decisions. I had read her memoir years earlier, and though I didn’t feel her influence while writing, I did feel the need to shine light on the communities and lives that lay within the shadow of her work. Annie Dillard is a powerful writer, but I didn’t recognize her Pittsburgh, and she admittedly “never had the occasion” to visit mine.
CB: My reaction to Rust Belt Boy is visceral; the gustatory descriptions especially transport me in ways few other books have. Only once, however, when describing your meeting with real estate developer Robert Moltoni, do you specifically refer to food as metaphor. Can you comment on how food functions as a unifying device in the book?
PH: At its best, food is always unifying. People cook together, eat together, talk about food endlessly. It can also be a point of distinction, difference, and identity. For me, food works its way into stories and characters because, regardless of how heavy or slight the role it plays in our lives, eating remains the single most sensual — and dangerous — thing we do, several times a day. For those of us who grew up within a particular ethnic culture, food is an essential part of our story. At the same time, I’m cautious about over-using food as a direct metaphor, preferring it as a scent, a spice, a sauce. (There I go again.) After all, in the end, it’s simply sustenance.
CB: You draw the book’s characters – that is, your friends and family – with a tender hand. Presumably, you changed some names to protect identities. I was struck by your reference to your parents by their first names, Betty and Milt. Did you refer to them that way growing up or was that a technique necessary to see them as individuals for the purpose of the book? How did seeing yourself as a character in your own history impose perspective onto the narrative?
PH: I reserved referring to “Mom” and “Dad” for direct address and for conversations with my siblings. They were Betty and Milt to everyone else and were full-fledged individuals in our community, beyond their roles as parents. As for myself as a character and narrator, any first-person account or personal essay is laden with bias. For the sake of veracity, I go back and forth between diving deep within my heart and psyche, then backing away and seeing myself in context, in relationship to others and my surroundings. By energetically doubting my views and memories, I take the role of a skeptical reader, and try to settle on perspectives that I’ve tested and ring true. Finding a narrative I, myself, could believe in, took hundreds of drafts. I had to extract the bullshit I’d been telling myself for years.
CB: Chapter 20, “Of Heroes and Helpers,” is the climax of the story when you dramatically realize that your pursuit of a heroic destiny was a boyhood dream. Subsequently, you begin a series of leave-takings and goodbyes that results in emigration from Ambridge to a New World of your own choosing. Despite your travels, both figurative and literal, how have you remained a “rust belt boy”? How did your emotional relationship with your past change as a result of writing a memoir?
PH: When I first left, I saw being a milltown kid and a steelworker as something of a stain that made me provincial. But as a saw more of the world and learned how adaptable I could be, some of my insecurity melted away, and I began to see that stain as badge. That acceptance coincided with the Rust Belt falling into obscurity, as if the rest of the nation couldn’t bear to look the mess our industrial appetite left behind. Attention poured into the Sun Belt, the coasts, and New England, leaving the once-mighty industrial heartland suffering from exploitation and abandonment. I found that insulting, and wanted, without being a cheerleader, to offer a clear-eyed portrayal of the region’s dignity while exalting the contributions immigrants have made and will continue to make to the cultural, social, and economic evolution of the U.S. Once I started researching and writing, publishing some of the essays along the way, I became increasingly grateful for where I grew up, the way I was raised, and all the love that has come my way.