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New books by gazette Reporters

Coop author and Gazette reporter Frank Haberle.

By Lauren Mechling

It only takes so much exposure to the shopping floor loudspeaker to know that the denizens of the Coop are an articulate bunch. Our aisles teem with wordsmiths, some of them professional—if you think you recognize your favorite young adult vampire author or long-form journalist behind the cashier, there’s a good chance your mind is not playing tricks on you. 

The Gazette had a chance to catch up with two member writers (and Gazette reporters) who published books during the pandemic. Frank Haberle, who recently celebrated his 25th anniversary as a Coop member, just released Shufflers (Flexible Press), a novel in vignettes that follows Danny, a gig worker getting by in the 1980s. From New York City to Alaska and sundry points in between, Danny seeks out friends of friends and lines up short-term gigs, in a poignant work that reads like Nomadland by way of Raymond Carver.

Christopher Cox, whose name you might recognize from The New York Times Magazine, where he works as an editor, released The Deadline Effect (Avid Reader Press) earlier this year. Mixing his research in psychology and sociology and plain old engaging storytelling, this book unpacks the concept of a deadline and makes a case for a best-by date for work in progress. If you’re a procrastinator, or simply operate under the assumption that, like that Indigo Girls lyric, “everything in its own time,” this book just might change your life. 

Frank Haberle, author of Shufflers, published September, 2021

What’s your elevator pitch for your book? 

Shufflers is a book about young transients trying to find a sense of place and purpose in the minimum-wage, spot-work world of the 1980s. The 48 interconnected stories follow its drifting lead character Danny cross-country while he scrapes by as a fry cook, factory worker, ski lift operator, dishwasher, carpet cleaner, fisherman, and in other itinerant work settings. The characters he meets within and between these settings inspire him and build his resilience and fortitude as he pushes toward a life beyond the endless ‘shuffle’ of low-wage, seasonal work.

What were the hardest and best parts about having a book come out during a pandemic?

The hard part has been that, because of the pandemic, I couldn’t organize and run live events and push my way into bookstore readings. But this is also the best part, because it took a lot of pressure off me. I’ve enjoyed pulling together alternative, creative Zoom events. For example, my friend at the Creative Center at University Settlement, where I run my writing workshop, staged a dramatic reading using real actors to recreate a segment from my book. This was a lot of fun and much more creative than a normal book launch, and the actors were amazing!

Today, if you want to take a chance and go somewhere new and different, you can instantly look it up and know everything. But back then, when you took off for Alaska, you really took off. You had to rely on your instincts, on internal navigation systems, on your ability to judge if the guy who picked you up hitching is a serial killer, or just crazy. Everything back then was a game of risk. 

Frank Haberle

Why did you decide to set the book in the ’80s? 

I liked the feel of the Schaefer beer cans, the cassettes, the soundtrack of the time, and the absence of email and instant information. The ’80s were a challenging time to be adrift, but it was also rich with possibilities. Today, if you want to take a chance and go somewhere new and different, you can instantly look it up and know everything. But back then, when you took off for Alaska, you really took off. You had to rely on your instincts, on internal navigation systems, on your ability to judge if the guy who picked you up hitching is a serial killer, or just crazy. Everything back then was a game of risk. 

Danny gets by, city to city, gig to gig. Have you worked a series of odd jobs, too?

I had a lot of the jobs that Danny had—fry cook, loading docks, construction, auction house, dishwasher, ski lift operator. (I was never a Mall Santa—that story, thankfully, is fiction!) My favorite job ever, which I had twice, was carpet cleaner. It was very rewarding, and it prepped me for my first ten years at the Coop as a Sunday maintenance squad leader, taking out boxes and swabbing the deck.

What was the original inspiration for Danny, and when did it come to you? 

A lot of these stories were originally first person, but when I strung them all together, I wanted a lead character—Danny—to have the characteristics of a lot of people I knew in the ’80s. Danny emerged as a hybrid of a number of people I knew and admired back then—he is a lot cooler and even-keeled than I was. 

There’s a great line where somebody says to Danny, “I just don’t think I’ve ever met anybody so busy doing nothing.” I felt like that captured the beauty and success of the collection. Its in perpetual motion, and the reader is in a perpetual state of concern. Can you speak to that?

When I put the stories together and “ironed them out,” it became more evident that Danny is running away from something, which keeps him moving. This “something” could be alcohol, or loneliness, or “fear of competence,” or an inability to connect and belong—or all of these. I liked letting the “feel” of the stories tell that story, rather than state something obvious. I appreciate the reader’s concern for Danny—I was concerned about him, too!

Haberle’s collection of interconnected stories portrays transient workers in the 1980s.

One of the themes of your book (and Christopher Cox’s book, actually) is the plight of getting by in America. How would you say “the situation” has evolved since the days the book takes place? 

I really appreciated learning about Chris’s book and his tackling this issue from an entirely different angle. I would say that in the post-digital age, this kind of story is a totally different story. While a $3.35 minimum wage seems unthinkable, it’s a lot easier to “be adrift” when rent is $55/month, a pitcher of Rheingold beer is a dollar, and cigarettes cost $0.85 a pack. It’s almost unimaginable to think of what it is to be stuck scraping by in today’s service and gig economy. My heart goes out to people who are fighting their way through these jobs today.

How long did it take you to write the book, from start to finish? 

15 years! I’m pretty sure I wrote one chapter, “T-Shirt Lady,” fifteen years ago. I’ve been writing and publishing stories since then. I pulled the book together during the first month of quarantine, and I wrote the long sequence in Gettysburg—when Danny gets caught up with the local meth industry, circa 1982—during the second month.

What is your worst habit as a writer? 

In between flunking out of college (three times), I took classes in set design that I was really, really into. I worry that sometimes the scenes I create in fiction are a little too set-heavy.

What shifts have you held as a member?

I was a Sunday maintenance worker for the first 10 years; then I became a writer for the Gazette for the last 15 years.

How would you describe your family’s Coop shopping strategy? 

My wife goes one time a week and gets almost everything we need; I go three times a week, but I always forget everything we need.

What Coop snack was most important to writing of the book? 

Chips and salsa, straight up.

What do you do when you’re not writing books? 

I’ve worked for 30-odd years as a grant writer and development worker with community-based organizations in New York, for the past six with New Settlement in the Bronx, which I love. It’s a long ride by subway, but the community and the people up there are amazing. One program at New Settlement I identify with is our workforce programs for out-of-school, out-of-work youth. Although I grew up in a different world (Long Island, then Boston) I definitely identify with that feeling of disconnection they start with.

You are donating 25% of proceeds to the NY Writers’ Coalition. Thats so cool! What is it about their work that you find most compelling? 

I’ve worked with the NY Writers Coalition for 20 years as an advisor, then Board member, then workshop participant, then volunteer workshop leader. I’m totally committed to them and happy to support them. It’s a remarkable nonprofit organization working here in Brooklyn and across the city that helps people from nontraditional backgrounds find their voices through creative writing communities. Beyond raising three kids, I’d easily say the workshop I lead, for people with lifetime illnesses, is the most rewarding thing I get to do every week. 

You’ve been on the Gazette team for how long now? What was your favorite story to report?

I think I’ve been reporting for the Gazette for 15 years now, and it’s been through a lot of changes. I really enjoy reporting on Coop members working in programs and projects to better our community, and I’m joyous any time I get to write an article about the farmers who supply our food. Especially the Hepworths, Gail and Amy, of Hepworth Farms. They are the coolest farmers in the world. They are my favorites. I can’t help it.

Are you working on a new (non-Gazette) project? 

I have another book coming out in February with House of Hash Press. It’s called The Biggest Slide in the World, and it’s about two orphaned boys sent off to a strange New England Boarding school in the 1970s. Like Shufflers, I wrote a lot of it during the confining first months of the quarantine. Quarantine was awful, but it finally pulled a few books out of me!

Coop author and Gazette reporter Christopher Cox.

Christopher Cox, The Deadline Effect, Avid Reader Press, July 2021

What’s your elevator pitch for your book?

The book began with a question: Why are some organizations good at meeting deadlines and some hopeless? How does a magazine like Harper’s, where I spent many years as an editor, not miss a single issue, month after month, for more than a century? It’s not because Harper’s is an inherently efficient organization (trust me). Meanwhile, a project like the Sydney Opera House can run millions of dollars over budget and ten years behind schedule. Why? As I looked into this question, ultimately embedding in nine different workplaces and reading thousands of pages of studies from psychologists and economists, I found the answer boiled down to two things: how seriously the organization took their deadlines and how interdependent the workforce was—that is, the more you have someone else relying on you to get your work done, the more likely you are to stay on schedule. Each workplace used those insights in slightly different ways, and the book explores those differences in detail. 

What were the hardest and best parts about having a book come out during a pandemic?

It’s hard to think of anything good about it! I did feel lucky, in the tiniest way, that the book came out at the beginning of July, during that brief post-vaccine, pre-Delta window. That meant I got to do a few in-person events before everyone hustled back to Zoom. I spoke to a crowd at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and it was by far the liveliest event of the whole publicity tour. People were just so excited to be out talking to each other again. Plus, Saratoga is such a strange, wonderful place—if you’re into horses and water that smells like sulfur. 

The material about productivity is really just a Trojan horse to smuggle in an examination of the economic life of the nation, from a lily farm in Oregon to a jet assembly plant in Alabama. Though the productivity tips ended up being surprisingly useful for me and, I hope, for anyone who reads the book.

Christopher Cox

In your book you talk about the A story (deadlines!) and the B story (the plight of getting by in America). Which would you say took on a new relevance since your completion of the book?

I turned in my first draft in March 2020. There was a period that spring and summer when I thought half of the companies I covered would disappear before the book came out. The workers I got to know were either laid off or furloughed. The truth is, Story B is the one I was most invested in from the beginning. The material about productivity is really just a Trojan horse to smuggle in an examination of the economic life of the nation, from a lily farm in Oregon to a jet assembly plant in Alabama. Though the productivity tips ended up being surprisingly useful for me and, I hope, for anyone who reads the book.

How long did it take you to write from start to finish:

Thirteen months. I made a detailed schedule of when I wanted to finish each chapter and stuck to it. It was clear to me from the beginning that failing to meet my own deadline would not be an option for this book.

What is your own worst habit, the one that you were hoping to find the magic fix to via your reporting?

I’m capable of procrastinating like all the rest of us—though I do it much less now, thank goodness. It’s not a magic fix, however: I have to remember to be deliberate about everything I learned while I was reporting or I slip into the same old bad habits. 

How long have you been a Coop member?

I’ve lived within walking distance of the Coop for 15 years, but I didn’t join until 2016. Something happened in November that year that made the idea of embracing cooperation and solidarity more appealing.

Cox prescribes using deadlines to improve productivity and enhance your life.

How would you describe your family’s Coop shopping strategy? 

My wife shops, mainly, because she knows I become paralyzed by abundant choices. I wore a uniform from kindergarten through high school, and I’m convinced that rule bumped up my GPA by a point or two. These days I’m good for a quick Coop run to get a single item (coffee, usually), but beyond that I’m useless.

Does a deadline come into play?

You know, we don’t use deadlines to time our shopping trips, but obviously we should—we basically wait until we’re running out of everything and then go for a big haul. If I were the regular shopper I probably would impose some sort of system on it, but I’m not, so I don’t. 

What Coop snack was most important to the writing of the book?

I wrote most of the book in the New York Public Library’s Allen Room, famous (to me) as the place where Robert Caro wrote The Power Broker and Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique. They don’t allow snacks in there, though.

What do you do for work when you’re not writing books?

I work as an editor at Orion magazine and The New York Times Magazine. Though I do consider “writing books” my main job right now. The next one is about flooding in California—a perverse choice of topic, I know, in the middle of a historic drought. 

Has thinking about deadlines helped you wrap your head around getting your Gazette work done efficiently?

For sure. It’s affected the way I do just about anything, from answering emails to writing book proposals, to booking vacations. Efficiency is the right word: I try to set an aggressive deadline and get the Gazette work done early and quickly. People think they hate deadlines, but what they actually hate is procrastination. The period in which you’re actually working hard on a project is usually at least somewhat satisfying, if not outright pleasurable. 

Theres a section where you discuss the positive effect cooperation and teamwork can have on productivity. How have you seen this principle at play at the Coop?

The Coop is definitely a good example of interdependence in play. Pre-pandemic, it was something of a marvel to watch this grocery store reassemble itself each day out of the unskilled hands of folks like you and me.

You write in the book: “If I had to summarize this book in seven words, I might choose: ‘Set a deadline, the earlier the better.” For the Coop member whose livelihood does not depend on handing in writing assignments, what else can this apply to? (Bonus points if you can think of things relevant to the out-of-work and parents of young children.) 

That mantra applies to anyone trying to get something done, whether it’s creative work, or your taxes, or filling out the forms from the DOE to send your kid to school. By setting a deadline that feels perhaps uncomfortably early, you’re both increasing the chance that you’ll actually finish what you started, and you’re eliminating the opportunity to procrastinate. If you do that, you gain something that’s more or less the opposite of procrastination: free time.