Follow What Moves You

A displaced furniture factory worker. A veteran with PTSD. A group of Somali Bantu refugees who are finally getting outside the public housing apartment they’ve been stuck in for five years and doing what they loved before the war tore their lives apart: digging in the dirt. For 25 years, I’ve been privileged to report on these stories — mostly for The Roanoke Times, in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. I also write for magazines, radio and online journals; from locations ranging from a mobile home in Bassett, Virginia, to a crowded cholera ward in Limbe, Haiti.

“Before this farm, I was just an old man; I could barely bend over or squat,” 72-year-old Maha Mudi (far right), told me. “But now…if I could, I would sleep here.” Photo by Faduma Guhad

I love what I do. I’ve eaten ceviche in Sauta, Mexico; hung out in rural Virginia nursing homes; plunked myself on a tenement floor to get a battered African refugee to look me in the eye. I’ve witnessed birth and death and joy and suffering and, while I’m not exactly rolling in the dough, there’s pretty much nothing I’d rather do than talk to strangers and then describe to other strangers what I’ve witnessed and heard and felt.

I believe what Annie Dillard said when she wrote that: “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

I love Anne Lamott’s advice about writing shitty first drafts, and keeping it real, and, above all, if you really want to see your name in print, stop whining and start writing.

I believe Will Durant nailed it when he defined civilization as a stream with banks: “The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record; while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks.”

A rare light moment during the storied 1937 flood that put a hurt on Bassett, Va. The creation of the Philpott Dam in the ’50s, a $13 million project that finally kept the Smith River silt out of factory workers’ homes. Photo courtesy of Bassett Historical Center

The daughter of a factory worker mom and housepainter dad (an eighth-grade dropout), I was the first in my family to go to college. So when a displaced furniture-factory worker gives me her elderly mother’s phone number — because her own phone is about to be turned off — I recall exactly how that feels. My current project is a book for Little, Brown & Co. called “FACTORY MAN,” about a black sheep furniture-maker from the storied furniture-making family in Bassett, Va., who gave cheap imports from China the middle finger and kept his Galax factory workers employed.

It will publish July 15, 2014, and you can pre-order it here. To read the story behind the book, here’s a Q&A about conducting tricky interviews and another about the challenges of turning a newspaper article into a book. Click here to view a video about John Bassett III produced by my talented colleague Ryan Loew.

For a roundup of pre-publication reviews, stories and blurbs related to “Factory Man” — and some really cool photographs I’ve collected — please see and “like” my Facebook author page. I’ll be regularly updating the list of readings and book events here, including the July 15 book launch featuring Parkway Brewing Company’s newest beer, a book tie-in and session brew called Factory Girl IPA.

It’ll give you a lift at the end of your shift!factorygirl

I wrote “Factory Man” with the help of historical documents, interviews with family members as well as by talking to the workers who were laid off when their factories closed — and the lucky ones who were not. I also traveled to interview their replacements, those managers and workers in Asia who produce the furniture that used to be crafted in southwest and southside Virginia. The book won the 2013 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award, culminating with me on a panel at Columbia’s J-School, seated at a dais between two of my nonfiction heroes, Robert Caro and Andrew Solomon.

Keep digging, was the gist of it, and follow what moves you.

I love talking to students, readers and  journalists alike about the importance of covering diverse communities. I’ve spoken in venues as varied as a South African newsroom, to my class of Nieman fellows at Harvard, to young students from Penn State to James Madison University, as well as to myriad church groups, journalism organizations and writing workshops.

I figure I’ve been reporting since I was 4 years old. That’s when I ran away from home with my tricycle and my beagle mutt, Tessie — to the grocery store (a great story-finding place, by the way). A neighbor spotted me there, chatting up the butcher and staring longingly at the Popsicles, and returned me to my frantic mom. Six years later, I got my first newspaper job — delivering the Urbana Daily Citizen from my 10-speed.

I still run all over the place being curious, only now they actually pay me to do it. I’m privileged to get to follow what moves me most of the time.

  • Advance praise for “Factory Man”:

    "Beth Macy's extraordinary reporting and narrative skills, and her deep affection for the people of the rural Blue Ridge Mountain region, come together in a compelling story about a gritty Virginia furniture maker who refuses to allow his family's company and its workers to become victims of globalization." — J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress citation
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  • Lee Smith on “Factory Man”:

    "The epic struggle of Virginia furniture manufacturer John Bassett III (JBIII) to save his business has given crackerjack reporter Beth Macy the book she was born to write. Longtime champion of the downtrodden and the working American, Macy brings globalization down to a human scale, giving a real voice and a recognizable face to everyone involved, from factory worker to government official to Chinese importer. Thorough reporting and brilliant writing combine to make FACTORY MAN an exciting, fast-paced account of a quintessentially American story that affects us all." — Lee Smith, author of "Guests On Earth"
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