David Maraniss, a journalist with the Washington Post who has been nominated for three Pulitzer prizes, won one in 1993 and has also written nearly a dozen books, spoke Saturday at Saline District Library. About 40 people, including many from outside Saline, came to hear him speak about his most recent book, “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story.”
Maraniss’ forte is writing history and biography. He has written books about Roberto Clemente, Vince Lombardi, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama. He has chronicled the 1960 Olympics, the Vietnam War era and the glory and decline of Detroit.
The renowned author came to Saline as part of the Library of Michigan’s 2016 Michigan Notable Authors Tour. Authors of selected books will make appearances in 50 libraries across the state this year.
Maraniss was inspired to write about Detroit while sitting in a New York City bar in 2011 watching the Super Bowl. Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” commercial featuring Eminem came on and it moved him to tears.
Why did the commercial affect him so deeply? Perhaps it was because he was born in Detroit and spent the first seven years of his life there, Maraniss suggested.
This experience did not motivate him to go out and buy a car, but rather to write his own ode to Detroit.
When Maraniss writes a book about a place he always spends time there, so, in spite of his wife’s misgivings, they moved to Detroit for a time to do research. Going there is one of the four pillars that define his writing process: go there, get the primary documents, interview as many people as possible, try to see what is not obvious in the documents and interviews.
He typically confines his writing to a particular period of time in the life of a person or place in order to tell a larger story. For the Detroit story he chose the period from the fall of 1962 to the spring of 1964. This was the peak of Detroit’s glory and the beginning of its breakdown.
“The discipline of creating a structure gives me freedom,” Maraniss said.
The principal contributions of Detroit relate to the automobile industry, Motown music, the labor movement and the civil rights movement. All of these were in motion in and around 1963.
The history of Motown records on Maraniss’ mind while writing his book.
“I usually write my books in utter quiet,” he said, “but for this book it was Motown all the way.”
He speculated about how Detroit came to be the center of such musical creativity and productivity. Four factors he cited were: the influx of African Americans from the south who brought their music with them, the genius of Berry Gordy and his sisters, the presence of pianos in so many single-family homes (often from the Forte Piano Company of Detroit) and the excellence of the music instructors in Detroit schools.
Though Maraniss said he is “not a car guy,” he did extensive research for this part of his book. He focused especially on the introduction of the Ford Mustang, which was in the planning stage in 1963.
Curiously, the original name proposed for the Mustang was to be the Torino and the marketing motto was to be, “Torino – Imported from Detroit.
Of course 1963 was an important year for the civil rights movement. The events that happened in Birmingham that year galvanized the nation. Detroit was also a vital city in the movement. Reverend C.L Franklin (the father of Aretha Franklin) arranged to bring Martin Luther King to Detroit where he gave an early version of his famous “I have a dream” speech.
John Kennedy opened his presidential campaign in Detroit and introduced his Peace Corps plan in nearby Ann Arbor. He was scheduled to be the 1964 commencement speaker at U-M before his tragic death in November 1963.
Lyndon Johnson came in place of Kennedy, stopping in Detroit and calling it, “a herald of hope for the nation.” In Ann Arbor he gave his famous “Great Society” address.
Maraniss is meticulous in his research, including many intricate details and little known bits of history. One such bit was his description of how Detroit almost became host of the 1968 Olympics.
An audience member at the library asked how he feels about Detroit now after having spent so much time researching it.
“It’s had a powerful effect on me,” Maraniss said. “My connection to it is much stronger than it was when I started after watching the Eminem commercial.”