Today I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with Frances Stroh, author of the forthcoming memoir BEER MONEY: A Story of Privilege and Loss, about the downfall of Stroh’s Beer and the Stroh family fortune. Keep an eye out for BEER MONEY in May of next year.
MW: What was it like growing up a Stroh? Paint a picture for us.
FS: Growing up in my family was emotionally complex. While there was this sense of abundance on some level, there was also a sense of scarcity—the feeling that there would never be enough—and this was something that permeated our daily lives. My father spent money with abandon, collecting antique guns, vintage Leica cameras, and art that caught his fancy, while my mother was very careful with money, always warning my siblings and me that we wouldn’t have enough to last. We witnessed my father’s lavish lifestyle, often from the sidelines, and lived in a pretty big house but also wore hand-me-downs and, while on a road trip with my mother to Florida for spring break, sometimes spent the night in the car or on a community center floor. If my father was along on the trip he would always book a motel, but my mother was more of a free spirit. The dawning of my awareness that we were a known family—because of Stroh’s Beer—took hold when my father did a series of very frightening kidnapping drills with me as a young child. He would drive the car past me on the sidewalk, pretending to be a kidnapper and holding a chocolate bar out the car window, and I was meant to run away, back into the house. In those days children roamed free in the neighborhood, and yet kidnappers were feared because of our last name—and because, as my father told me, my parents wouldn’t be able to afford the ransom they’d be forced to pay to get me back.
MW: Why did you decide to write a coming-of-age memoir that included the story of the downfall of the Stroh family business?
I view the memoir as a love letter to my past, and a book I needed to write in order to reconcile with that past. As we live our lives through the years, it can seem as if things just happen, the events not necessarily connected. But as I wrote about my life and regained some of my lost feelings from the past, and even feelings that couldn’t be felt at the time (such as my grief over my brother Charlie dying), patterns began to form, links that connected events that had never before seemed connected—such as the simultaneous unraveling of my family, our business, and Detroit. A new kind of understanding took hold within me. I call it “strange alchemy.” Only through the writing of the book did I come to see how these links were all there, all along, on a somewhat epic scale, making the story of the family, our livelihood, our hometown, and our shared destinies a kind of American story. It became something bigger than my own personal story, while at the same time it’s told in a very personal voice.
MW: Before you became a writer, you were a visual artist. What led you to change to change your medium?
FS: My visual work often explored issues of identity, point of view, and the mythologies that define us—such as the family video installation described in the prologue to the memoir, in which six video screens with monologues of each of my family members, telling the family story from each of their points of view, play in a room simultaneously. This piece clearly lays out six divergent perspectives on the same issues, and yet a new story emerges between all six, somewhere at the center of the room, where the voices overlap, contradict, and recontextualize each other. Much of my visual work used or referenced narrative in some way, so segueing, over time, into writing narrative was a way to extend the concerns in my visual work and to explore them more deeply.
MW: Detroit is ever present as a backdrop to your story, a kind of slow motion catastrophe, because your family lived and brewed beer there for five generations. What do you envision for the future of Detroit?
FS: Detroit will occupy a smaller, more sustainable footprint and boast multiple industries—and ultimately, a healthier economy. While the wealth produced in Detroit was once staggering, it was largely dependent on a single industry—the automakers and their supply chains. That’s all changed, with the car companies having moved to the suburbs and abroad, and smaller, more diverse, more grassroots companies taking hold in their wake, as well as real estate developers and, most excitingly, artists. Creative people and entrepreneurs are coming to Detroit in droves because of the low overhead and the explosive sense of potential. So there’s already a more diverse base for the economy to grow, perhaps not anywhere near the levels it once enjoyed, but in a healthier, more sustainable manner.
MW: Shebooks published a chapter from your memoir as a short ebook. Would you recommend authors seeking representation and publication publish chapters of their books, too?
FS: Publishing a chapter of the memoir as a Shebook was an excellent way to test the waters and begin to build an audience in anticipation of the book release. It was also an introduction into the world of publishing—working with an editor, a publicist, getting reviewed on Amazon—it all amounted to gaining a pretty good idea, albeit on a smaller scale, of what the publication process would be like with the full-length memoir. I would not recommend, however, that writers publish large sections of their books in advance of selling them.
MW: What was the most surprising or difficult thing you’ve learned about the publishing industry through the process of shopping and selling your book?
FS: I’ve been very fortunate through each stage of the process thus far. I’m working with a champion of an agent—Rob McQuilkin—who got multiple offers for the memoir in the middle of August, when the publishing industry goes on vacation—a real feat. Working with everyone at Harper has been a wonderful experience as well. In fact, the way the book has sailed through each stage of the process has been the most surprising part of it all, given that I wasn’t expecting this. On the other side, publishing an excerpt of the memoir, and then agreeing to an interview with an unvetted journalist at a major business publication, sparked a series of sensationalized articles about the Stroh Brewery Company and the family that unsettled us all, and succeeded in distorting the message in my forthcoming book. This has been the most difficult part of the process thus far, but also an invaluable publicity lesson in advance of the book’s release.
MW: What advice do you have for writers aspiring to publish their books? Do you recommend they hire an outside publicist? What can they do to give themselves an edge?
FS: I do recommend that writers hire personal publicists, if they can, but suggest that they carefully vet their candidates and choose wisely. Not all publicists have a writer’s best interests at heart, particularly if they subscribe to the motto, “All press is good press.” Make sure a publicist reads your book before you interview her, and understands your publicity goals. This is particularly important for a memoir writer whose family or friends could be impacted by the publicity. A publicist who is sensitive to these concerns, and who can help to steer the writer toward journalists and media outlets who will treat the material with equal sensitivity, will be the best choice.
MW: What are you working on now?
FS: I’ve become very interested in the phenomenon of online shaming, as well as other forms of public shaming—how it can ruin the lives of some, but not others, and why—and what is at work in a society that allows such shamings to take place. Everyone seems complicit in this—journalists, citizens, everyday social media users; it’s a new kind of public stoning or whipping. Lives can be ruined, others seriously damaged. I plan to write a novel that gets at the heart of these issues, and inside the minds of both the “perpetrators” and the “victims.”
Frances Stroh was born in Detroit and raised in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. She received her B.A. from Duke University and her M.A. from Chelsea College of Art in London as a Fulbright Scholar. She practiced as an installation artist, exhibiting in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and London before segueing into writing narrative. Frances’ work across all media explores issues of identity, point of view, and the mythologies that define us. Frances’ memoir, BEER MONEY: A Story of Privilege and Loss, will be published by HarperCollins in May, 2016.