What role does fiction have to play in the class struggle? Should the left be making a stronger case for the political importance of reading literature? In this special Working People episode, which has been months in the making, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez talks with writer and editor Sarah Lazare about her novel Testimony, which she co-authored with her late father, Peter Lazare. Testimony is a leftist crime thriller that takes place in Springfield, Illinois, at the height of the “war on terror” panic in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It is also a deeply moving story about trust, commitment to everyday people, and fighting the corrupt, self-serving, and nefarious forces that weaponize fear for their own gain.

As the back cover of the book describes, “Testimony isn’t about One Great Man taking on the system, but about one okay, flawed person working with a rag-tag team of other okay, flawed people to combat a system of cynicism and greed much bigger than them.” In this deep and wide-ranging conversation, Alvarez talks with Lazare about the book itself, about her father and the long process of getting the book ready for publication, and about the important role genre fiction has to play in our collective fight for a better world. This episode also features segments of dramatic readings from Testimony performed by Alvarez, Lazare, and friends of the show Adam Johnson (Citations Needed) and Mel Buer (Morning Riot). And a special thanks to Working People producer Jules Taylor for all his hard work editing the episode!

Additional links/info below…

Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive at freemusicarchive.org): Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song”


Transcript

Maximillian Alvarez    All right, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership within In These Times magazine and the Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and supported entirely by listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network, so if you’re hungry for more worker and labor-focused shows just like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the great shows in our network.

And if you want to support the work that we’re doing here at Working People so that we can keep growing and keep bringing you more important conversations, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts, share these episodes on your social media, and share them with your coworkers and friends and family members. And of course, the single best thing that you can do to support the show is become a paid monthly subscriber on Patreon for just five bucks a month. Just head on over to patreon.com/workingpeople. That’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/workingpeople, hit the subscribe button, and you will immediately get access to all of the awesome bonus episodes that we’ve recorded and published over the years for our amazing subscribers.

My name is Maximillian Alvarez, and we’ve got a really special treat for y’all today. Now, this episode has been months in the making and I am so excited to finally share it with you guys. So I’m going to try to keep this intro short and sweet, so we can get right to the good stuff. Back in July, I got the chance to be on an incredible panel for a very special book launch event that was titled “Why The Left Should Engage Fiction: A Conversation With Radical Thriller And Mystery Writers.” I mean, I was just honored to join these accomplished writers like Aia Deleon, Bill Fletcher Jr., and Kate Rafael to collectively come together and celebrate and discuss a brilliant new novel by none other than Sarah Lazare, a dear friend of the show and in real life. And the book was also by her late father, Peter Lazare.

Now, I have just a million and one lovely things to say about Sarah and the incredible work that she does as a writer and web editor for In These Times and about this novel, which is called Testimony. But I do spend a good deal of our conversation in today’s episode embarrassing Sarah and heaping praise on her and this book. So I’ll spare you guys from having to hear that twice in one episode, but suffice it to say that Sarah is truly an incredible, brilliant, compassionate person whom I’ve been honored to get to work with throughout the time that Working People has been partnered with In These Times. And suffice it to say that you should absolutely check out Sarah and her father Peter’s book Testimony, which is not only good leftist noir thriller fiction that takes place in Springfield, Illinois, at the height of the war on terror panic 20 years ago, but it’s also just good fiction, period.

You guys know that before I was doing this podcast, before I started working at The Real News, I was, and always will be, an unapologetic literature nerd. Reading and discussing literature has always been my favorite thing in the world to do. And it’s really depressed me, frankly, that over the past few years, my career in media has basically given me way less time to do it. And you can get so consumed by your day to day work and you can go so long without reading a full piece of literary fiction or nonfiction that you can actually start to forget how much you love it and why you love it so much. And that is why I am just so eternally grateful to Sarah and Peter, because they gave me a really special gift. Honestly, reading their book and getting a chance to discuss it with Sarah for this special episode, helped me fall back in love with literature again. And I hope that this episode can help others reconnect, or connect for the first time, with the joy of reading and thinking. Because, as I hope Sarah and I make a strong case for, both of those things are pretty important for surviving this harsh world and remaining committed to building a better one.

So on that note, let’s go on ahead and get to today’s super special Working People episode which features an incredibly stimulating conversation that I got to have with Sarah about her book and about the role of genre fiction in the class struggle. So, see, it’s not just that I wanted to talk about this book, but there is a lot of connective tissue there with the stuff that we talk about every week here on Working People. And if that wasn’t good enough, this episode also features segments of dramatic readings from Testimony that were done by none other than yours truly, by Sarah, by her husband, the great Adam Johnson from Citations Needed, and the wonderful journalist and host of the excellent podcast Morning Riot, Mel Buer.

You know, I had so much fun doing these dramatic readings and I want to give a huge shout out and express my sincere gratitude to Sarah, Adam, and Mel for doing them with me and for being such great sports about it. And of course, all the praise in the world needs to go to our amazing producer, Jules Taylor, for taking so much time and care to edit this episode and turn it into something truly special. And it goes without saying that this episode is dedicated to the late great Peter Lazare and his loving daughter, Sarah. This is their story.

Sarah Lazare:        Hi, my name is Sarah Lazare. I am a reporter and web editor for In These Times, and I am also the co-author of the left-wing political noir book, Testimony. I co-authored it with my father, Peter Lazare.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Well, Sarah, I am so excited that we were finally able to do this. I’ve read your and your father’s amazing novel that you just mentioned, Testimony, which is out right now with Strong Arm Press. And we figured that we would release this fun, special episode complete with exciting dramatic readings from sections of the book around the 20th anniversary of 9/11 because the book itself actually takes place in the wake of 9/11, and the noir kind of uses that background, I think, in a really compelling way. And it becomes a very interesting part of the plot and the characters’ motivations and all that good stuff. But we’re going to dig into that in a little bit, but I’ll start by saying to everyone out there, if you were looking for something to read, you should absolutely go buy Sarah’s book. Again, it’s called Testimony. It’s a novel.

I actually had the honor of joining Sarah and a number of other brilliant writers for the book launch event where we talked about why the left needs to take genre fiction seriously, like all the beautiful and important things that genre fiction can do for left political imagination, all the importance that fiction has in politics. And it was one of the most invigorating discussions that I’ve had in a long time, and I thank Sarah for inviting me for that. And so I wanted to really then bring Sarah onto this show to talk about the book itself.

There’s a really interesting backstory to how Sarah and her father put this book together, but also for Working People listeners. You guys know that I’m a big literature nerd, you know where my politics are, and you obviously know what this show is about. And I think that Sarah and Peter’s book actually fits really, really well into that crosshair. So I think that everyone who listens in to this show will really, really enjoy this book. And I hope that you’ll really enjoy our conversation with Sarah today about it, about left fiction, and all that good stuff.

So, Sarah, I don’t want to go on too much because we’re really here to talk to you and learn from you about this book and what you wanted to accomplish with it. So I wanted to maybe give listeners that background story, because you and I have talked about how this book came to be in the world, but listeners may just be hearing about it for the first time. So could you give us, I guess, in the storytelling vein, could you give us the origin story of this book?

Sarah Lazare:     Absolutely, I’d be happy to. And also, Max, thank you so much for those kind words. It means a lot. This book is very, very dear to me and the level of engagement you’ve had with it has just been so tremendously appreciated so, really, thank you. Yeah. So my father, Peter Lazare, before he passed away in 2018, he wrote the first draft of Testimony. And I spent the two years following his death adding to and editing the manuscript, really viewing it as a writing collaboration. And the result is a radical political noir that’s a combination of both of our politics and both of our voices. And I tried to continue some of the political conversations that we had when my dad was alive. My dad and I were really close, and my dad was a really interesting person. He was very involved in the radical movements of the seventies and the eighties, he protested the Vietnam war.

He was a labor organizer and he was part of the back to the factory re-industrialization era of the socialist movement. So in the late seventies and early eighties he worked in a garment factory in Chicago as part of the Socialist Workers Party, as part of a deliberate effort to send members into factories in order to organize workers. And that was a very intense, very challenging process for my dad. He ended up getting really burnt out and then ended up getting a job, so he ended up stepping away from movement and deciding that he didn’t necessarily believe in it anymore, or believe that that particular corner of it was on the right path. And then he ended up getting a job as a utilities regulator in Springfield, Illinois, after. It wasn’t an immediate process, there were a few other steps in between, but the whole family wound up in Springfield, Illinois, where my dad was working as a utilities regulator.

He did that for 20 years and had a lot of critical reflections on the corporate capture of the Illinois Commerce Commission where he worked, and a lot of critical reflections on this general culture of subservience to companies. I want to be clear that wasn’t the only thing he was doing at the time. He co-owned a coffee shop with my mom called Grab a Java. He always found ways to be thinking and writing and politically engaged, but he always really struggled with unresolved questions about, is a better world possible? He never lost his critique of capitalism and society, but he really struggled with, well, what is it we’re fighting for and what can we create? And then the maybe four or five years before he passed away, he started working extremely hard on a novel. He would go to the library and just sit for hours and hours. And my dad was always really good at trying new things and taking big risks, and this was definitely one of those circumstances where he did that. And he wrote this amazing draft that I then got to work with after he passed away. So that’s my roundabout way of explaining how the project came to be.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Man. It’s really incredible to hear, especially for anyone who’s read the book because as we’ll talk about, and I guess to give listeners like the back of the cover synopsis… I might as well just read it right now, actually. So now, after you heard Sarah’s description of her father and how Peter came to write this book, here’s what the back of the book actually says. “It’s 2002, the height of the war on terror panic, and Sam, a lifelong left-wing radical, has had enough. He finally decides to stow his black ski mask and move to the uneventful mid-size city of Springfield, Illinois, to settle down and sell out as a gas utility regulator. His plans to coast and collect check, however, are complicated when the pipe of a major gas provider he’s tasked with overseeing explodes, killing a school janitor and sending an overfunded security apparatus into full-on John Milius mode, looking for terrorists who aren’t there and using ‘homeland authority’ to mask their self dealing.

Soon, Sam discovers the real problem isn’t outside threats, but a culture of casual negligence and an opaque system of ‘charity’ and ‘public/private partnership’ that diverts money away from public safety and into the pockets of government and corporate higher-ups. With the help of a sarcastic local reporter, a kind but jaded office chum, and a mix of other outcasts, Sam realizes that going with the flow may come at too high a cost. Testimony isn’t about one great man taking on the system, but about one okay, flawed person working with a ragtag team of other okay, flawed people to combat a system of cynicism and greed much bigger than them. Testimony is a sardonic political noir about corporate regulatory capture, a midsize city finding meaning in security theater, and the reluctant rediscovery of lost idealism.”

Also, that’s just a really good back of the book blurb. Normally the back of the book blurbs are kind of crap, but that was one that actually made me go like, okay, I want to read this.

Sarah Lazare:      Oh my gosh, thank you so much. I’m so glad you say that because it’s always a really big struggle to try to summarize a project like this, so I’m so glad you like it.

[DRAMATIC READING BEGINS]

Female Narrator:      Sam fidgeted with his seatbelt before looking up. The man behind the wheel had the paunch of a former high school football player with wide shoulders, a thick neck, and light blonde hair buzzed into a crew cut so tight the sides and back faded into pure scalp. There was someone in the passenger seat in front of Sam. He saw a head of wavy brunette hair moving as the person turned around to face him. Sam felt his blood rush to his chest. The woman from the energy conservation meeting.

Wendy:          “Here is your mission, should you choose to accept it.”

Female Narrator:     She said in a husky voice, holding a grave expression for a few seconds before her face crumpled into high pitched laughter.

Wendy:                 “Seriously though, has anyone told you what we’re doing here?”

Sam:                        “Totally in the dark. Also, hi, I’m Sam.”

Female Narrator:       He could feel his pulse drumming in his temples and wondered if it was visible beneath his head of curls, which were more subdued in the dry weather.

Wendy:                   “Wendy. I work on the other side of the fourth floor, assistant to our fearless leader, Charlie.”

Female Narrator:      Sam was surprised by her exuberant tone and confident smile.

Keith Landry:           “I’m Keith Landry from inspections. I mostly do gas lines. You’re both helping me on a very important task today.”

Female Narrator:      He spoke in a crisp, rural Missouri draw, his voice higher pitched than Sam was expecting. Dark layers of clouds blanketed the sun, which looked like a small silvery pool reflecting some other source of light. Outside the window, the wind sent dry leaves spiraling up then crashing back down to the sidewalk. Downtown Springfield looked like a ghost town, with old timey signs advertising popcorn, fudge, brew house bar, gag gifts for holiday pranksters, but no one outside. The car pulled up to a stop sign and Keith turned around.

Keith Landry:          “We’re inspecting the new security measures at the water sanitation plant. We need to make sure it’s fully protected.”

Female Narrator:      A pickup truck behind them screeched its brakes and Keith hit the gas.

Sam:                       “Protect it from what?”

Female Narrator:       Asked Sam. Keith blew air out of his pursed lips making a spitting sound.

Keith Landry:          [Blows raspberry] “Do you read the papers? What doesn’t it need to be protected from, son?”

Female Narrator:        Keith began speaking slowly and quietly as if patiently explaining something to a child.

Keith Landry:            “Al-Qaeda computers seized last year show terrorists are on the verge of turning the internet into a god-damn weapon. They could get remote control of our water systems, gas pipelines, electricity grid. Imagine 30,000 volts of electric power in the hands of Al-Qaeda. We’re talking about mass bloodshed events, sir.”

Female Narrator:       Keith paused for dramatic effect.

Keith Landry:            “There is a credible threat. They could poison our water.”

Female Narrator:       Wendy turned around and, catching Sam’s eyes, opened hers wide, a look of mock concern that told him, yes, Keith was serious. Sam resolved not to ask any more questions. It was always hard for him to bite his tongue, but he had to be careful. He was in the presence of a true believer, one with a direct line to his boss. But maybe he also wanted to be quiet because of Wendy, because he wasn’t sure if he could return her bright smile. He couldn’t quite tell what she was thinking. Sam laced his fingers together and looked out the window. As they headed west, downtown gave way to strip malls and then big box stores. They passed a Walmart that looked like a small village. An American flag maybe 15, 20 feet long snapping in the wind above a packed parking lot. Then the stores gave way to harvested corn fields. The brown stubs of broken stocks protruding from the earth in neat rows, all leading to a single point on the horizon.

After 10 minutes of silent driving, Keith turned right, and after another five, they slowed to a stop in front of a 12-foot tall concrete wall topped with barbed wire. The barrier wrapped around the perimeter of a facility that looked to be about the size of four football fields. Above them, towering two, maybe three stories over the entrance way was a guard tower, a stock of muted, green gray steel that gave way to a bulb on top. Inside, a man wearing all black. Sam squinted. Was that a rifle on his shoulder, an automatic weapon? Jesus, Keith wasn’t the only person hunting for terrorists in the corn fields of central Illinois. Keith got out of the car, shut the door behind him and immediately began huddling with three men who emerged from a gate in the wall. Sam and Wendy stood by the car out of earshot of the others.

Wendy:                “Water engineer, district manager, and head of security.”

Female Narrator:       Said Wendy, pointing her finger three times.

Sam:                       “I don’t understand why I’m here.”

Female Narrator:       Said Sam.

Wendy:                 “There’s nothing to understand. They need to make it seem like the Commission is inspecting the plant’s security progress. All you have to do is walk around and look at whatever they tell you to. And once in a while, nod your head like this.”

Female Narrator:      Wendy furrowed her brow and slowly nodded as though Sam had said the most important thing in the world. Sam meant to chuckle, but it came out a harsh bark, a laugh of disgust. Sam covered his mouth.

Wendy:                “I was supposed to be at a United Gas luncheon at the Hilton.”

Female Narrator:        Said Wendy, with the slightest note of agreement.

Wendy:                     “Instead of white tablecloths and wine, I’m out here playing boy scout.”

Female Narrator:       The tour started at the wall.

Head of Security:       “12 feet of concrete topped by razor wire. This bad boy stretches all the way around the perimeter.”

Female Narrator:     Said the head of security.

Head of Security:       “We cleared our blueprints with the FBI’s new national infrastructure center.”

Female Narrator:       Wait, he’d heard that before. The fifth floor conference room, the man’s hand on his back, the binder. Sam wrote in his notepad.

Sam:                 “National Infrastructure Center.”

Head of Security:       “They’ve identified the Smith Illinois water plan as a potential Al-Qaeda soft target.”

Female Narrator:     The head of security added, his voice grave.

Head of Security:      “Do you know what a soft target is?”

Female Narrator:      Before they could respond, he continued.

Head of Security:       “It’s a target not normally secured that terrorists could attack to create panic and mayhem. It’s vital to their broader war on terror strategy.”

Female Narrator:      Wendy chimed in.

Wendy:                       “Out of curiosity, how many soft targets are there?”

Head of Security:       “Approximately 9,870 in the United States, ma’am. That’s what makes this so important.”

Female Narrator:      Sam jumped in.

Sam:                      “If we’re one in 10,000, wouldn’t that make it fairly unimportant by definition?”

Head of Security:        “Did you see the president’s speech last week?”

Female Narrator:       The head of security said.

Head of Security:    “Everything has to be treated as a potential target, and everyone a potential terrorist. We’re at war, and securing the homeland is just as important as Afghanistan.”

Female Narrator:      Keith stood with his hands on his hips, squinting as his head moved up and down and side to side.

Keith Landry:           “Not bad, boys. This has come a long way.”

Female Narrator:      Wendy caught Sam’s eye and he looked down at the wilted brown grass to stifle a smile. Sam fastened the top button of his coat as the wind made a rusting sound and a cloud cast a shadow over where they were standing.

District Manager:       “When Prairie Water says we need to protect consumers, we mean it.”

Female Narrator:       Said the district manager.

District Manager:      “100% of those rate increases went into building that wall.”

Female Narrator:       Sam again scribbled.

Sam:                  “Rate increases.”

Female Narrator:       This was the first Sam had heard of Al-Qaeda threats being used to justify spiking prices for consumers, no less for something like water, which people cannot live without. Sam wasn’t sure what he believed anymore, but he knew that private utility companies were not to be trusted, that his job was to guard the public from their greed, even if all he was offering was a thin layer of protection. Slightly greater odds, people wouldn’t be forced to choose between heat and paying rent, but water and sewer weren’t even his purview. God, what was he doing here?

[DRAMATIC READING ENDS]

Maximillian Alvarez:  You did a really brilliant job. You didn’t give too much away. You still managed to make energy regulation in Springfield, Illinois, sound like a still intriguing topic for a noir book, which is definitely no small feat. So yeah, kudos to you. And this is, I’m going to say it a million times during this conversation, but I’ll try not to embarrass Sarah, but I mean the writing, especially in this book, is incredibly good. It’s not too heavy-handed. It has just the right amount of detail. It surprises you with these shocks of poetic language that are all the more striking for how selected they’re used. And they really stick in your brain, like a splinter somewhere in your brain.

And it’s also just a really compelling narrative that you breeze through. It’s a page turner. So again, that’s all really no small feat. And I want to talk with you about that writing process. But I guess to hop back for a second. So listeners heard you talk about your father, Peter Lazare, and his life, and then we read the back of the book, and so I’m sure people are making some of the connections. But I think herein lies a really interesting question, because there’s the old adage that we all know, anyone who’s ever tried to write has grappled with this question of write what you know. I think that that adage has never quite sat well with me, because in so many ways, writing is a form of discovery. Writing is a form of probing. Writing is a way of taking what you know, and taking who you are and expanding it into a universe of your own making.

And so it’s a lot more complicated than I think people think when they hear the adage, write what you know. So I guess I wanted to ask just from your perspective, obviously having known your father better than practically anyone, and having worked on this book more closely than anyone besides your father. What is your take on how much the write what you know applies to this book and to your dad’s process of getting it going?

Sarah Lazare:         Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. So for me, the writing process was much more about getting to live in this shared world with my dad. So my dad and I were really close. My dad was pretty much my favorite person in the world, and it was really tough when he passed away. I feel like that’s an obvious thing to say, it’s always really hard when you lose people. But during that period of time after he passed away, all I did with my free time was work on this book. So I would go to coffee shops and just sit for hours and hours. I would work after my day job. I would work all weekend. And I got to go into this space where the characters that my dad created were still there, were still living, breathing people who I could interact with, who I could think about, who I could build on.

And there was definitely some of write what you know. I mean, I got to revisit things about my dad’s life based on what he had written. A lot of it was really familiar. There are definitely anecdotes and pieces of information that actually did happen in his life or that mirror some things that happened – To be clear, it’s a fictional book. But there’s one funny anecdote from my dad’s bar mitzvah that was in there, where… My dad was a real smart ass, especially as a kid. And at his bar mitzvah, the rabbi was trying to come up with some high minded play on words, where he said, you grow in size, but also in sighs, S-I-G-H-S. And then he asked my dad if my dad’s suit fit him well. And my dad said, no, he didn’t go along with it. He was supposed to go along and play along. And he basically tortured this poor rabbi and made fun of him in front of everyone and made everyone laugh uproariously. And so stuff like that is in there.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Oh, yeah, Sam, the main character, Sam, is definitely a smart ass.

Sarah Lazare:         Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. But then there’s also an element of getting to leave my mark on the characters too. Because we did… I did make changes. When I say we, my partner, Adam Johnson, helped me out a whole lot. I feel like I really need to give him credit. He was incredibly supportive and present during the whole process. He helped with really complex plotting out of the narratives. And he helped a lot with making sure that we were avoiding cliché and avoiding tropes that are… It’s hard to even put into words the extent to which Adam helped me, so when I say we, I’m thinking of him as well.

Maximillian Alvarez:  I was just going to say, I know one of Adam’s features that I have a real fondness for and always cracks me up is when Adam is inspecting something, his brow furrows and his eyes narrow in a very particular way. And so I can just imagine him reading a manuscript and finding a cliché there and narrowing his eyes at it, and you’re like, all right, fine. I’ll fucking take it out.

Sarah Lazare:      Oh, yeah, totally. And you have to be really thick skinned and really willing to hear it. I mean, I remember when I first started working on it, I was incredibly nervous and didn’t know if it was something that I had it within me to do. And I came to him with 1000 words of the very beginning of the book. And it was the 1000 words that my dad had written the first draft of, and then I had modified and added to. And I came to Adam and I was like, is this good enough to continue? Should I continue? And he read it and he was like, yes. I think you have it in you to write this.

But yeah. One of the things I was touching on before is that it was really cool to get to leave my own mark on characters that my dad had created, and to make some changes, add to them, get to be in conversation with them, have political debates. So one aspect of my relationship with my dad was that we had constant political discussions and debates. He really pushed me in ways that were very challenging. He often accused me of having politics that were a bit vague. And he would always say that it’s so much easier to know what you’re against, but what you are for is so much harder to define. But you have to be able to define that clearly because if you’re going to ask people to take risks to join your movement, to be in a political struggle with you, you have to be clear about what it is you’re fighting for. Otherwise, that’s not fair.

So those are the kinds of discussions that we would have all the time, questions about whether.. What alternatives to capitalism could be, whether they’re attainable. And so it was cool… There were times that I felt like I was getting to continue that dialogue just by allowing the characters to explore some of those big questions. But there was an element of write what you know too. There are certain life experiences of mine that I also brought. For example, the main character, Sam, at the beginning when you meet him, he’s a burnt out ex-radical who was part of the global justice movement, protesting the World Trade Organization in Seattle. And he walked away after 9/11 feeling very burnt out and deciding that he was going to take a big step away from those movements. And those were movements that I caught the tail end of. I was too young to be in Seattle in ’99, but I definitely was part of the global justice, anti WTO movement in the early 2000s, and so that’s just one example of my own experience that I was able to bring.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Well, and to clarify, pushing against the common wisdom or the common interpretation of the write what you know axiom, it doesn’t mean that it’s like, oh, you should write about what you have no fucking idea about. All writing in some way really stems from who you are, what you know. But the difference is writing is a way of figuring out. So it’s almost like write what you want to figure out. And so I can feel in these characters, in the ways that they develop, and the ways that you and your dad must’ve developed them. It sounds like clearly there is a lot of both of you in these characters, in this fictional world that you create in this novel. But it’s also like it provides that literary laboratory to articulate. Like your dad was saying, it’s easy to… It’s hard to define what you’re about, what you’re for, to really put that into words. In the same way, you’re forced to do the same when you’re writing a novel.

If you are going to get people to buy this, to read it, to enjoy it, to appreciate all that you are trying to communicate in it, there is a process where it forces you to take what you know about yourself and the world that you’re in and articulate it perhaps in a way that you never have before. Not to project onto you, but I know that’s certainly how it works for me when I’m forced to write. I’m like, I don’t know. I know what my argument is, but when it exists only in my head, I don’t have to use language to communicate it to myself. It’s just this multicolored feeling and flash of lights in my brain. But when I have to try to put it onto paper, when I have to try to make it live through different characters who are believable, that, like your dad pushed you, I don’t know, that pushes me to write more than what I know, but writing becomes the process of coming to know. I don’t know if I’m going too highfalutin with this. Does this make sense?

Sarah Lazare:    It does make sense. I mean, for me, the whole writing project was step by step, taking one step beyond who I was and what I thought was possible, and just slowly and surely going on this journey of telling a story and figuring out a story and doing that with what my dad had created and doing that with support from Adam. It felt like I was in the tall grass and I didn’t know where I was headed. But you just take one step and then another, and then take a moment to try to do some big picture thinking, and then keep moving forward. And you’re figuring out the story as you do.

And then all of a sudden you get to the end and there’s a whole story that you’ve told that has this incredible emotional meaning, but also hopefully is a good story. Because there were a lot of political messages, a lot of political questions that I wanted to share and that my dad wanted to share, but all of that is moot if you’re not telling a good story, if you’re not making people want to read it. So figuring out how to weave together these larger political themes, but also in a container that’s just a good, interesting story with characters who are real and flawed and having all of their good and bad qualities play out in this sinister post-9/11 corporate, corrupt environment was a big challenge.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Oh, yeah. I mean, I can only imagine, especially when you’re also… Your dad really put you guys… He made a tall mountain for you guys to climb by knowing that you had to do that while also working with a novel that takes place in an energy regulation office in Springfield, Illinois.

Sarah Lazare:         Yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez:    So you had that additional struggle.

Sarah Lazare:       Yeah. Well, when people think about thrilling, they don’t often think about utility regulation. That has a reputation of being extremely boring and the opposite of thrilling. But the challenge with this book is to take something that seems ordinary and mundane and actually show how it’s incredibly high stakes and incredibly important, and something everyone should care about, and package it in a way that demonstrates all of that without being preachy and sloganeering. And I think that we’re seeing more and more today just how high stakes and important utilities are. Right now while we’re talking, huge sections of New Orleans are still without power because Entergy, which is the Fortune 500 corporation that owns and operates New Orleans’s grid, has totally failed. And we’re seeing private utilities and the power of utilities be an incredibly destructive force. I mean, PG&E out in California was responsible for wildfires that killed people. We saw the privatization of the Texas grid just unleash disaster during the winter storm that happened there.

And so this stuff is actually really high stakes, lives are on the line, people have to choose between paying for their heat bills or paying for their medicine. And then there’s the underlying reality of the climate crisis and a lot of power utilities being sourced by coal. And when you actually stop to think about it, it’s incredibly important. And it also really invokes questions of: What is a just way to run an economy? Should private companies have monopoly control over goods that are fundamentally needed by the public? Or should those be in public democratic control? Should they be wrested out of private hands? And so the book really tries to find ways to touch on this stuff, but in ways that, yeah, are not whacking you over the head with it, but instead, in ways where those questions are woven into the fabric of the lives of our characters.

Maximillian Alvarez:    So I want to dig into that in a second, because I think now we’ve given listeners a lot of good background to start digging in more to the substance of the story itself. But before we get there, I meant to ask this earlier, and I feel like I would kick myself if I let the conversation go without asking it. But I was just curious if it’s okay to ask, what the experience was like reading the first draft of it, and thinking of yourself as a writer, as your father’s daughter. I guess what was it like to read that after your father had passed, and then to also feel like this was a project that you wanted to carry on and add to and ultimately see through to publication?

Sarah Lazare:        My dad was an amazing writer and he taught me everything I know about writing. He was really good at political writing, really good at analysis, really good at economic writing. And I am thoroughly convinced that he had many, many books in him. And I’m glad that one saw the light of day, but I think that there are many more he could’ve written. So yeah, reading the book, it was interesting. I decided to, I think it was maybe a month or a month and a half after he passed away, I decided to print out the entire book. So I went to a Kinko’s and got it printed and had it bound, so that it actually looked sort of like a book manuscript. And then I just slowly read it. I gave myself time. I took notes. And the original manuscript covered a whole lot more ground than the novel that we wound up with.

So my dad’s first draft was way, way longer and was not just a thriller. There was this whole other part that was a novel about people’s lives and about many of the life experiences he had had, reflecting on them, but also adding to and changing them. And so while I was reading it, all of that stuff was great and fascinating. At that point, I was just so hungry to be thinking about my dad and in conversation with my dad. I mean, I still am. That stuff doesn’t change or go away. So I was so happy to read all that other stuff. But then when I got to the part of the book that was the noir thriller, I was like, oh, wow. This has heat. This is really good. So there was just a certain point in the novel where something changed and it clicked. And I was like, wow, buried within that larger novel is this really, really tight, good thriller.

So I sat with that for a while, and then didn’t share that with anyone. And I asked Adam if he would read the book just to see if he came to the same conclusion. And he read it, and he totally came to the same conclusion. And so that was the point at which I was like, okay, I’m going to do this. And it’s interesting, I totally loved the experience of reading stuff of my dad’s that I hadn’t read yet, and I am to this day very hungry to learn about new stuff he’s written that I haven’t read. I’ve gone through articles that he’s written. He wrote a really amazing article about economics that I read and studied and used some of that background for the novel. And I’m also just really hungry, there are old notebooks of his that I was able to find and read through.

There’s old testimony of his that you can still read that’s… He was really funny when he had to testify, testimony. Testifying for a rape case is really unpleasant because you get cross examined by the company’s lawyers. But my dad would make all these snarky jokes during the process. So you can read through what he said, and that’s just really fascinating. But yeah, I mean, I want to read and reread anything my dad wrote. It’s one of the ways that his memory lives on and one of the ways that I can still be in dialogue with him.

[DRAMATIC READING BEGINS]

Male Narrator:        It was 15 minutes until a mandatory office-wide meeting. Finally, Sam saw an opportunity to get a word with Wendy, who’d been elusive and busy throughout the day, working with other assistants to personally raise funds for Raphael Sanchez’s widow. He found her in her office on the other side of the fourth floor counting cash and change.

Sam:                    “Hey.”

Male Narrator:       Sam gently knocked on the already ajar door.

Wendy:                     “Oh, hey. Been meaning to see you today.”

Male Narrator:         Wendy brushed her hair aside and turned her head.

Sam:                      “So.”

Wendy:                 “So what?”

Male Narrator:       Had Sam had his thunder stolen by a faulty pipe? A terrible thought to think, but he couldn’t help but be irked his bold gesture of defiance was overshadowed.

Sam:                    “So.”

Male Narrator:         He managed to get out.

Sam:                    “How’s the fundraising going?”

Wendy:                 “Meh, some serious cheapskates here.”

Male Narrator:         Said Wendy.

Sam:                      “You said you wanted to see me.”

Wendy:                   “I did.”

Sam:                      “Yeah.”

Wendy:                     “To donate. When I came by earlier, you weren’t there.”

Male Narrator:            Wendy swung around in her chair, now facing Sam.

Wendy:                    “I’ve hit up everyone but you and that creepy guy in inspections who only wears yellow ties.”

Male Narrator:         That was it? She baited him to go after United and he did, and now it was just going to end there? While unemployed last year, Sam caught an interview with Mariah Carey on one of those dopey afternoon shows where she complained how her film, Glitter, tanked at the box office because it was released a week after 9/11. Was he coming off like that? Was this his Glitter?

Sam:                          “I’m good for 50 bucks.”

Male Narrator:         Sam said as he sat down beside her. He pulled out a checkbook and began scribbling.

Wendy:                  “Wow, generous. Thank you.”

Male Narrator:          Wendy said, still all business. Sam decided on the choose your own adventure route, remaining vague and letting her bring it up.

Sam:                        “So what do you think of the incident?”

Wendy:                   “Which one? The one I’m fundraising for, or the other one?”

Sam:                    “The email wasn’t impulsive if that’s what you’re thinking, at least it wasn’t completely impulsive. It was more of a –”

Wendy:                   “Stop talking.”

Male Narrator:         Sam looked on, confused.

Wendy:                   “You just don’t get it. Last night I talked to you like for real because we were outside of work.”

Sam:                      “I’m sorry?”

Wendy:                     “The walls here are paper mache. Keith is a one man NSA. These types of things are meant to be discussed after work is what I’m saying.”

Sam:                           “You want to hang out after work?”

Male Narrator:        Sam felt a trembling in his chest, but tried to keep his face calm.

Wendy:                        “Not on a date or anything.”

Male Narrator:           Said Wendy.

Sam:                    “Oh, no. Of course not.”

Male Narrator:           Sam swallowed.

Wendy:                    “Yeah. Keep in mind that I don’t know you or trust you, but I also don’t want you talking about these things out in the open to me at work.”

Male Narrator:      Sam shifted in his seat.

Sam:                            “Last night you said I thought this town was shitty. I don’t think that.”

Wendy:                    “No?”

Sam:                     “I’m very much on the fence and I was hoping a local of some sort could show me around, point out the good food and places with good people?”

Wendy:                     “Okay. Maggie’s Diner tomorrow at 6:00 PM. And I don’t mean to play up the cloak and dagger angle, but don’t tell anyone. You got a giant target on your back, and I don’t want to be known as a woman who associates with –”

Sam:                         “Radicals?”

Wendy:                       “I was going to say malcontents who send company emails drunk at 1:00 AM.”

Male Narrator:         Sam stood up, unable to contain his grin.

Sam:                      “Great. I’ll see you there. Oh, and I wouldn’t suggest cashing that check until Thursday, either that or tomorrow –”

Wendy:                   “Don’t worry. I can pay.”

Sam:                        “Perfect.”

Male Narrator:           Sam backed out of the office, caught up in their back and forth, he’d completely forgotten Greg’s warning about Wendy. But what harm could a single night out do?

[DRAMATIC READING ENDS]

Maximillian Alvarez:    So you mentioned before that the original manuscript that your dad wrote for this was much longer, and you read through it, and you really started to notice that there was this tighter, noir story within that larger draft that ultimately came to be the book that I’m holding in my hand right now. I wanted to dig in a little bit to that noiry substance of the book for listeners.

Ultimately the goal here is to make this conversation that folks who haven’t read the book can still enjoy and learn from. But obviously, our ulterior motive here is to get people to go read the book. And again, if you listen to the show, I’m 99.9% positive that you’re going to really enjoy this book. If you don’t, give me the goddamn book and I’ll give it to someone who will like it. So let’s talk I guess a bit about… We don’t have to give a full synopsis of it. But I guess what are the… What’s the setting? And what are the themes that you feel are really swept up in this book?

Sarah Lazare:          Yeah. So there are a few themes. There is the corporate capture of utilities regulation and the way that the main character, Sam, tries to navigate not losing his soul within that environment. Also, the book takes place in 2002 in the buildup to the Iraq war, in Springfield, Illinois, which is a pretty conservative place, relatively speaking, especially more conservative than Chicago, where I live now. And that was an incredibly jingoistic time, especially in places like Springfield where there were just flags everywhere, real fear mongering about terrorists, real social pressure to support the war effort, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And so we really try to capture that as well. And the way the plot goes, it’s hard to talk about because I just don’t want to give away too much.

But what I will say is that the ways in which corporations and government officials exploited post-9/11 fears allowed them to get away with some really nasty, nefarious stuff in the book. And that’s a big theme that I think is really important. Sometimes I worry that that whole time period just goes down the memory hole. People like George W. Bush get to rehabilitate their image and emerge as this cuddly, cute grandfather who you want to go get a beer with. But I remember so clearly the politics of death he just drove forward, and all of the ways that post-9/11 fears were exploited to push through incredibly right-wing policies that government and corporate players already wanted to push forward before 9/11 happened. And then they saw their opportunity, so that is also a big theme of the book.

But it’s also just a story of Springfield, the town where I grew up. Well, I grew up mostly there. I was born in Chicago and lived a few other places, but most of my youth was spent in Springfield. And just looking at how ordinary, flawed people deal with these huge, nefarious forces. And I like to refer to it as a noir. I think in some ways, it’s pretty different from other noir books or films because often, noir is about ordinary people taking on big corrupt systems. But often, the heroes are law enforcement, police officers, detectives, whatever. But that very much is not the case with this book. And in fact, the book includes law enforcement as part of the big, nefarious forces that our flawed heroes are up against.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Well, and I mean, like you were saying earlier, it’s in a lot of ways depressing, but the world that we live in has demonstrated the ongoing relevance of the things that you guys talk about in this book.

I mean, like I said, we’re releasing this around the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and as you also said, it’s very easy, I think, for all of us to really have a warped reflected memory of what that time actually was. It’s hard to communicate, but I think that you really do a great job in this book, you and your dad. Again, not in an over heavy-handed way but really in like a measured approach that gives you these little hints about the low-grade hysteria that captivated and captured so many of us. Whether that was the flaunting of nationalism, like flying the flag high, playing all the country songs that came out around that time.

Whether it was people looking over their shoulder and really buying into this fear that the terrorists were everywhere and always around the corner. Everywhere. Even Springfield, Illinois, and its energy system could be a terrorist target. There was so much talk about, they hate us for our way of living. And so people ended up developing this weird defense of the ways that we live, like the ways that we live suddenly took on a new significance that… I don’t know, just ended up making people go a little bit crazy, I think.

Sarah Lazare:        Yeah. Yeah. And I think there’s a big extent to which rank and file people who bought into that were themselves victimized. And one thing that we tried to do in the book was like punch up and not down. So a lot of the people pushing these narratives knew that they were bullshit and were instrumentalizing people’s fear pretty nakedly, and were just totally cynical. And then people who were actually upset and scared had this entire universe of right-wing solutions to grab onto. And I’m not saying it’s okay, and a lot of really awful stuff happened during that period. That’s totally unjustifiable. There were all sorts of violent attacks on people who were either Muslim or who were just perceived to be Muslim. There was a lot of really racist, dehumanizing language towards people in Afghanistan, people in Iraq. And so I’m not saying it’s at all justified. But there was an extent to which ordinary rank and file people were themselves victimized through the process of buying into this whole hodgepodge of right-wing policies and ideas that hurt them, too. And so that was one thing we tried to show.

Maximillian Alvarez:     Yeah, no. And I think you did a beautiful job of it. Obviously, as we were saying you show people with all of their flaws, and people interact with one another through that lens of paranoia… Seesawing between paranoia and jingoism, suspicion and very close connection to folks as Americans, as free livers at this moment. So there is, I think, a really delicate way to go about… Showing that in a way that’s convincing, and that doesn’t mark characters from the get go with the red X as unsalvageable. Even some of the most jingoistic characters have their really endearing human qualities.

And I think that yeah, that was a really great accomplishment of the book, was to show how that hysteria preys on people. Even the good qualities that people have. And that was something that did resonate with me. I did not grow up in a leftist family, I was raised very conservative and I wholeheartedly bought into that post-9/11 hysteria. And it took quite a long time and quite a lot of unlearning for me to learn to see the world differently. So it was a really interesting experience for me talking about that write what you know stuff. I was really projecting a lot of my former self onto this book. And like there’s something else about it that I think is really, really interesting.

Because like you said, the noir genre aspect of it, I wanted to focus on that for a second. Like you mentioned that one of the conventions of like crime, thriller, these dime novels that you find at used bookstores and stuff, there is very much yeah, like a centrality of law enforcement or the beaten and battered detective in the dark and unforgiving city rooting out the corruption, rooting out the conspiracy, and that kind of stuff. Like law enforcement in noir almost functions as this like…

I don’t know, like deus ex machina, Like there’s always some way that the law and the people who embody the law are able to triumph over the worst plot devices that an author can throw at them. And your dad’s novel does something very interesting by flipping that on its head and shows that struggle for justice, how that takes place in the lives and actions of, yeah, very ordinary people working in very mundane settings. And I wanted to ask if you could talk a little bit more about how that flipping of the genre, what that means for the novel itself.

Sarah Lazare:          Well, that’s a really good question. So I think that noir and thriller genres… Maybe this is self-serving for me to say, but I think they are really well suited to exploring radical ideas and radical responses to the problems in our society. And part of why that is, is because it’s a great vehicle for examining oppressive overarching systems and figuring out how they function, and then figuring out how one can respond to those systems and change them and band together with other people. And the genres are constrained by a certain amount of reality. So there’s not magic happening. There’s not science fiction. It’s the rules of this world you’ve created that the characters have to abide by. And there’s something really powerful about that because it can be a mechanism for exploring hope and fear and despair and collective action.

So in this book, it takes a while to figure out exactly what’s so wrong about the Illinois Commerce Commission, and the power utilities it works with, and the people who run the town, and this larger climate of war on terror hysteria. It takes a while to figure out how all of those elements are working together to create a very particular public health danger and coverup. And the process of learning what’s going on is a way that you can make an argument to readers about how you think the world works. At first, you can tell something’s not quite right but you don’t know what exactly it is. But then you get another piece of information that shines a little more light. And then our main character, who’s fumbling and eager, but all over the place, slowly and surely figured that out with the help of this hodgepodge of other characters. A janitor named Angelo, a coworker named Wendy, a coworker named Greg, a journalist named Allison.

And when you build that kind of world, you’re making a case for what you think is wrong with our society and how it could be better. And then you can really explore questions of collective action. One of the things that we tried to do with the book was to be hopeful and to make the argument that you can change things for the better, but also not be unrealistic and not portray the world as though you can just wave a wand and make everything okay. But ultimately, we tried to make the case that even if you can’t make things all better it’s still worth fighting. Even if you make them just marginally better, that’s still important because we’re all we’ve got and you certainly have to try. And I think one of the big themes that the main character struggles with is whether it’s worthwhile to protest the Iraq war because it seems like it’s going to happen no matter what people do.

And certainly it was the case. There were huge global protest movements against the Iraq war. They were unprecedented in scale internationally, but the war still happened. But still, when we look back at that period, we can still identify that it was the right thing to do to protest that war, obviously. And so those are some of the political reflections that I think noir is really good at getting across that… It’s a genre that can be cynical and nihilistic where you can just make the argument that the whole world’s a corrupt and awful place and all we can count on is the individual good of one person. But what happens when you try to do noir, but not be cynical about it and try to have a heart and try to really grapple with big questions.

[DRAMATIC READING BEGINS]

Female Narrator:       The rain had stopped and Sam biked carefully around puddles to Maggie’s diner, hoping to avoid sporting a fresh racing stripe of brown water down his back. There was no bike rack out front or seemingly anywhere in this town, so he locked it to a stop sign. Sam saw a homemade sign taped to the door. In large black lettering, it said Springfield together 11 2 2. And beneath it, Rafael Sanchez RIP.

Sam:                     “They got that up quickly.”

Female Narrator:      Sam thought to himself. Sam spotted Wendy sitting at a booth by the window, her face amber in the glow of a neon orange open sign. Voices blared from four large televisions hovering over the bar to Sam’s left, and old photographs of route 66 decorated the walls.

Sam:                         “Wouldn’t it be weird if someone from work saw us here?”

Female Narrator:      Said Sam, as he sat on a wooden chair, it’s back digging into his shoulder blades. Wendy swatted at the air between them.

Wendy:                     “Not a chance. This place is too low brow for them.”

Sam:                          “I think it’s nice.”

Female Narrator:       Sam put the thin paper napkin in on his lap, glad that he’d remembered to do that, and leaned his elbows on the table which looked like it had been scrubbed with Shout.

Wendy:                       “Wait until you try the horseshoe, I already ordered one for you.”

Female Narrator:        Wendy said.

Sam:                      “The what?”

Wendy:                       “Only Springfield’s world famous culinary specialty.”

Female Narrator:          Her eyes were bright just like earlier in the meeting, but now there was a spark of mischief. “Can she turn it on and off?” Sam wondered.

Sam:                       “Well, I’m in the right place.”

Female Narrator:     Said Sam.

Sam:                           “So…”

Wendy:                 “So what?”

Sam:                        “I know it’s horribly cliche, but I have to ask, who was that guy last night?”

Wendy:                 “Sam.”

Sam:                       “He just seemed wholly disinterested in helping us with the papers, and I wanted to make sure you’re not consorting with a serial killer.”

Wendy:                “I can assure you he’s –”

Sam:                     “Callousness towards the helpless and weak is an early sign.”

Wendy:                 “That so?”

Sam:                           “I read it in Newsweek.”

Wendy:                     “You are helpless and weak?”

Sam:                          “After four beers, yes.”

Female Narrator:     Wendy’s expression turned sad.

Wendy:                      “Sam, you didn’t have to do what you did last night, sending that email to half the city.”

Female Narrator:     She had lowered her voice. Sam leaned back and crossed his arms.

Sam:                           “You think I did that because of you?”

Female Narrator:      Before Wendy could respond, a short busser who looked to be in his early twenties with cropped hair and a worn green t-shirt placed a plate in front of each of them. As he was walking away, Sam looked closer at the back of his t-shirt. In faded black letters it said ‘1999 Healthy Future Scholarship Winner.’

Sam:                       “Did you see that guy’s shirt?”

Wendy:                 “No, why?”

Sam:                          “It said he won the Healthy Futures award.”

Wendy:                        “Oh, good for him.”

Sam:                    “I just went to their gala, strange coincidence.”

Wendy:                      “Yeah.”

Female Narrator:        Sam hadn’t touched his food yet.

Sam:                         “Why would he be working here busing tables if he won some big scholarship?”

Wendy:                  “I don’t know. Anyways, your food’s getting cold.”

Female Narrator:       Sam looked down at a plate heaping with fries smothered in bright, orange cheese sauce that looked like it had to be composed of at least 40% plastic. He poked with his fork and found beneath the pile, a piece of soggy white bread topped with a beef patty.

Sam:                       “I think my cholesterol went up just looking at this.”

Female Narrator:         Wendy laughed.

Wendy:                       “It’s a great cure for hangovers. But the problem is, it also gives you a hangover.”

Sam:                    “An amazing piece of Springfield culture. You’re from here?”

Wendy:                       “Unfortunately, yes.”

Sam:                           “And you say I’m the snob.”

Wendy:                      “Well, if you grew up in this town and stayed, it generally means you have no money.”

Sam:                              “Moving all the time can mean the same. My debt collectors literally don’t know where to find me.”

Female Narrator:         Sam picked up a cheesy fry with his fork and gingerly put it in his mouth.

Sam:                      “What you said on the street the other night, it’s not that I dislike Springfield or people in it. It’s just, I don’t want to get too attached since if my history’s any guide, I won’t be here long.”

Wendy:                  “Ah, yes. A rolling stone.”

Sam:                      “The strangest thing happened the other night. I didn’t have a key for my apartment door because my landlord is kind of a scatterbrain, but she eventually got me one. But when she tried to hand it to me, I just froze.”

Wendy:                    “Over a key?”

Sam:                    “The key chain had these big block letters, Home of Lincoln. And it just seemed to me that once I had it, it was real.”

Wendy:                   “Like it was a sign of your commitment?”

Sam:                         “It’s stupid, I know. In my mind, I’m still in Chicago living another life.

Female Narrator:       Wendy put down her fork and looked at Sam.

Wendy:                   “What are you trying to do?”

Sam:                          “Avoid choking on a pile of lard.”

Wendy:                      “I mean, with the United case.”

Sam:                              “I don’t know, I think the most I can do is make people’s lives a little better. Offer an extra layer of protection.”

Wendy:                        “What if you get fired first?”

Female Narrator:       Sam pierced the patty with his fork and cut it with his knife. It felt rubbery unlike the bread, which was as soft as mulch.

Sam:                          “You think they’re going to fire me?”

Wendy:                        “They’re already trying to. But you’re so new, they haven’t built a file yet. They can’t make it look like retaliation.”

Female Narrator:         She paused, picked at her own patty.

Wendy:                        “I shouldn’t be telling you this.”

Female Narrator:         Sam exhaled.

Wendy:                        “But it’s not too late.”

Female Narrator:        Continued Wendy.

Wendy:                     “Phil said –”

Sam:                           “You talk to Phil?”

Wendy:                        “Apparently you do too.”

Sam:                            “We were in Seattle together around the same time. Got caught up in activism together. And after things went bad, he stopped talking.”

Female Narrator:          Wendy didn’t say anything. It was as if she already knew.

Sam:                        “Anyway, I know what Phil wants me to do.”

Female Narrator:         Sam added. Wendy bent forward.

Wendy:                    “For God’s sake, they’re leaning on the dead janitor’s poor wife what’s her name about her being undocumented. Trying to get her to not talk to the press, to go along with the, you know, story.”

Sam:                       “What? It’s an inside job now?”

Female Narrator:       He let out a grin. Wendy didn’t smile back.

Wendy:                   “They’re looking at a major lawsuit, Sam. But listen –”

Sam:                     “Right. But so long as it’s terrorism or people suspect it could be. We’re not talking about delayed maintenance schedules, deferred upgrades, lack of reinvesting in safety tech. We’re talking about higher fences and background checks and information sharing, the whole Goddamn thing is a multi-tool. Good for whatever.”

Wendy:                    “Look, they don’t –”

Sam:                            “They. You keep saying, ‘they.’ ‘They’re’ leaning on the widow. ‘They could get sued.’ I can’t tell where United ends and the FBI and Eagle security begin. Did they fire that guy from inspections?”

Female Narrator:        Sam felt a pang of tenderness as he watched Wendy take a breath and collect herself.

Wendy:                    [exhales] “There was a journalist, a journalist who’s asking questions.”

Female Narrator:          Said Wendy.

Wendy:                 “Has she contacted you?”

Sam:                          “I’m sorry?”

Female Narrator:       Sam wondered why she suddenly shifted focus.

Wendy:                      “Has a journalist contacted you?”

Female Narrator:         Sam held his fork in mid air. Was this the real purpose of her dinner invitation?

Sam:                       “Funny enough, no.”

Female Narrator:     Sam stared straight at Wendy, hoping he seemed convincing.

Wendy:                 “Hmm, surprising. She’s been contacting everyone. Did you check your email in the past few hours?”

Female Narrator:         Why wouldn’t Wendy drop it? Sam’s stomach suddenly felt heavy. How much potato and cheese had he ingested to enjoy the company of a woman who was just looking for information to help her boss? Or was she? Maybe he was being paranoid. After all, she had warned him that his job was at risk. But were her warnings, her veiled indictments of United, calculated to win his trust? For the first time, Sam looked over at the television. He caught a glimpse of a reporter at the school before the scene cut away to a breaking bulletin about a police officer who had saved a kitten from a tree. Sam looked down at his hands resting on the edge of the table, then back at Wendy.”

Sam:                    “Why are you so interested in this reporter?”

Female Narrator:       Wendy half opened her mouth like she was about to say something. Then shut it.

Wendy:                         “So seeing Phil again, that must be wild for you.”

Sam:                         “Phil?”

Female Narrator:         Confusion flashed across Sam’s face. Why was she diverting from his question?

Wendy:                    “Knowing someone when they were radical and seeing them turn into Phil. I’ve only known this Phil. I’m having a hard time imagining him throwing tear gas back at cops.”

Sam:                    “Wild is one way of putting it. He really did a 180, but in retrospect, it’s not a total shock. One day, we showed up to a meeting to plan for a major shutdown and poof, he’s gone. But then I met him a few years later and he’s some hot shot corporate guy. Makes you wonder.”

Female Narrator:        Wendy ran her fingers through her hair, brushing it away from her forehead, exposing rows of faint wrinkles.

Wendy:                      “I don’t have access to his file because he is at United, but people talk. It’s a small town.”

Sam:                               “So I’ve noticed.”

Wendy:                “Word is, he wasn’t a snitch if that’s what you were implying. He was a scared kid, got arrested, and they offered him a clean slate if he did snitch. But he took 90 days in jail instead, came out, and his parents put him at a job at United. His father’s cousin or something. That, or they’d cut him off.”

Sam:                           “Yeah, well not everyone has that safety net.”

Wendy:                     “But if you did, would you have turned your nose up at it?”

Female Narrator:       Sam stared back with a blank expression, not wanting to let her know he wasn’t sure. He had to admit that there were a lot of things he wasn’t sure of. Why had she been so quick to defend Phil? And why the deflection about that journalist? Greg’s warning echoed in his head, even if he didn’t want it to be true. Wendy was a shock of fuchsia among [dim] shades of gray and white. He wasn’t ready to turn away from how she filled him with a dreadful sense of aliveness, a feeling of being in motion, even if she was bad news. Torn between the urge to protect himself and the desire to continue following this thread, Sam knew which choice he’d make. It was predetermined the second she walked into that fourth floor meeting. He noticed Wendy was looking down at her phone, holding it just below the table line.

Sam:                           “Do you need to take that?”

Female Narrator:       He mumbled.

Wendy:                        “Actually, I…”

Female Narrator:       When she looked at him, her expression was a twist of anger and worry.

Wendy:                  “I’m sorry, I have to go.”

Sam:                          “Oh, that’s fine.”

Wendy:                     “Yeah, I just…”

Female Narrator:         She trailed off.

Sam:                            “It’s okay.”

Female Narrator:         Said Sam.

Sam:                            “You don’t have to explain. You know what, let me pay please, while I still have a job. You should go.”

Wendy:                     “Thank you.”

Female Narrator:         She said as she put her phone in her purse and snapped it shut. When she stood up to put her coat on, Sam noticed she’d barely made a dent in her horseshoe, which was steaming in the fluorescent lighting. As he watched her walk through the restaurant then push open the door, a branch quivered in his chest. “Well, it’s clear I like her.” He thought to himself. “And that I’d be an idiot to trust her.”

[DRAMATIC READING ENDS]

Maximillian Alvarez:    Hell yeah. And I think that another reason why this book ends up being so compelling is that it also shows what you just described, how that search for the good… Like that struggle for the good, that struggle for justice, for kindness. However quixotic need to push against what feels like just a relentless onslaught of grift and fear and exploitation. Like you said, it’s not like you need some sort of superhero, like the superhero movies that we see so often these days, to come and take the… It feels like we need a superhero to take on the size of this super awful system.

But what this novel does… And I think it joins a really long and beautiful literary tradition of focusing on the quote unquote “every man”. One of the things that really excited me as a Russian literature nerd… Listeners may remember that in my past life, I was literature, academic, and very much wanted to be a literature scholar at one point. But my first great love was always Russian literature. And this made me think of one of the classic characters in 19th century Russian fiction written by Nikolai Gogol. One of my favorite authors in a short story called The Overcoat. He has a character called Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, who’s like a government clerk. You think of Melville and Bartleby, the Scrivener. You think of José Saramago and his beautiful book, All the Names, a very similar kind of character in that book as well.

Someone who is like tucked in a completely forgettable corner of this large bureaucratic apparatus. And yet, still like has this deeply human yearning for connecting to the people whose names are on the papers that he shuffles through every day. And you actually see in this novel, in the people that Sam talks to, and the folks who are being exploited right by the United gas company, by the people in government who are working hand in glove with this private company. You see the human toll that their corruption takes, you see, like you said, how it makes people have to choose between turning their heat on or paying for their medicine. And, anyway, this is a long roundabout way of saying that there is something that I found just tremendously beautiful, compelling, and has really stuck with me, that there’s so many ways within that seemingly inhuman bureaucracy, that seemingly boring…

In the same way that the boring bureaucracy of a government office, like the one that Sam works in. The boringness can pave over just a tremendous amount of inhumanity. You show the opposite side of that. That you can actually show a tremendous amount of love for humanity even in the most manila folder-filled corners of a dinky government office in Springfield, Illinois.

Sarah Lazare:     Yeah. No, I appreciate that. There are a few things I want to say in response to that. So one of them is that our main character, Sam, who had some qualities in common with me, some in common with my dad, is a very flawed person. He’s neurotic, he’s too sarcastic, he’s impulsive. He is a pretty smart guy, but really lazy when it comes to details. He’s kind of flailing around. But he’s able to really achieve great things not alone, but through working with other people. And you end up having all of these people who are greater than the sum of their parts when they work together. We tried to present that as a theory of change, as a theory of how things can get better, is by people working together and banding together.

There are all sorts of characters, there’s Mrs. Belinda who is on a fixed income. And when her heat bill went up, she had to turn up the stove and crouch near it for warmth. There’s Angelo, he is a sanitation worker at the Illinois Commerce Commission. He is the steward of his union, he talks about how two-tier contracts have made a really awful hierarchy and he wants to change that in the next contract. And then when something really horrible happens to one of his coworkers, he is incredibly upset and there’s a whole plot that unfolds from that. There’s Allison, who is a really intrepid journalist who works for an alt weekly in Springfield, but is also keyed in with the independent media center movement of the time. She works with the Urbana-Champaign independent media center on a story.

So there are all of these people and they all are really interesting and compelling, but also people who can at times seem a little bit lost or a little bit fumbling. But then when they figure out how to work together, just total magic happens. And not the kind of magic where everything’s okay, but the kind of magic where they’re able to achieve a lot. And then another thing is… So Sam is like a smartass, he’s sarcastic, and he can be a little too judgemental.

He comes from the East coast. He is not from Springfield. When he first gets there, he thinks it’s a conservative place, a small-minded place. He can be pretty judgey. And then one of his big character arcs is discovering, hey, not only am I not better than people here, there are amazing people here, the best people I’ve ever met. And it’s not the people in this town who are the problem. It’s the people who run this town that are the problem. So there’s a way to engage with his flaws and his snobbery and you hear characters push back against him and try to put him in his place. And then you see that slowly shift over time. And it’s this funny thing where it’s the process of discovering just how horrible the people who run the town are that he finds out just how great the people he’s met there are.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Yeah, I think that’s beautifully put. And I’m interested and I guess by way of folding this into the next question, because I don’t want to keep you too long, but you mentioned that there’s a theory of change buried in there in that dynamic between these different characters in the ways that they find one another, the small acts of kindness that they show to one another, the ways that they deduce how to tell who’s on the right side and who isn’t. I mean, I’m curious to know how you see that theory of change playing out in this book and also how that connects to something that you had mentioned earlier, and something that we talked about at your book launch event.

Is when we think about the importance of fiction. Not just genre fiction, but all fiction, but if we’re talking about genre fiction right now. When we think about the importance that has for politics, for the ways that people think politically and the imaginations that we have, the feelings that we feel, there are certain things that genre fiction has, certain, you could even call them restrictions that genre fiction has to work within that you don’t have to work within in other realms of political thought or political imagination. If you’re up there giving a speech, it is different than writing a novel that someone is going to be easily able to put down if they don’t like it. If it’s not a compelling story, if they don’t feel that the characters are believable.

So I wanted to ask, I guess first about how that theory of change lives in and through the characters that you were just describing. And then also, if you could talk a little bit about how working that theory of change out through fiction, what that gives you that maybe writing articles about it doesn’t give you.

Sarah Lazare:      Oh my goodness. I feel like I want to answer that second question first –

Maximillian Alvarez:    Go for it.

Sarah Lazare:          …Because I feel particularly mired in it right now. So for my day job I’m an editor and writer for In These Times, and lately my beat has really focused on US militarism and the harm wrought by the US Empire. And that is a very bleak beat. And there are infinite things to critique, to expose, to point out is horrible, from war profits [hearing] companies, to the horrible actions of the US military around the world. And there’s definitely a lot of reporting to do about how people are resisting and pushing back and doing amazing anti-militarist organizing. But once in a while it’s nice to get to just step into a genre where you can let your imagination run wild and to take organizing in a direction that it’s maybe hard to imagine it going in real life, not impossible, but hard.

And I just found that it was like a bomb for my soul to get to work on fiction. You’re not constrained by having to fact check every sentence. You’re not constrained by some of the tougher realities. I mean, you create a world that has its own set of rules with how it functions, but you can push things just a little farther and have maybe just a little more success at shaking up the system than you would otherwise. And I just found it very, very refreshing to get to work on that. And it was really, really hard to come up with an ending – That I will not reveal here – But what I will say is an ending that both acknowledges the power of when people work together, but also acknowledges that they’re up against evil systems that are incredibly good at reproducing themselves. And so that’s both hopeful because they were able to push the envelope further than they would’ve otherwise, but also realistic because there is so much more work to be done. And they’ve traveled an inch when they’ve got miles and miles to go.

So as far as how the theory of change played out through the character, I mean, I said before that Sam’s big character arc was realizing that there are really amazing people in the town. And I think he starts to blossom when he starts opening up to and trusting other people. He has trust issues. He was part of the global justice movement that was infiltrated by law enforcement, which unfortunately was a reality, and not all of his efforts to trust people in the book were rewarded. Like not everyone is trustworthy, but his process of slowly opening up and being willing to take risks and be brave is vital to moving the plot forward. And his bravery takes all sorts of forms. His bravery is impulsive. One of the bravest things he does is at 1:00 AM when he is drunk, and his bravery is foolish sometimes, and his bravery is really, really messy, but nonetheless it propels him forward.

And then the bravery of other characters plays off of his own. And it’s like this truly ragtag team of people who are just getting to know each other that ends up taking on these incredibly powerful, sinister forces that are much, much larger than them, just systems of overwhelming greed and corruption. And they do it just by being brave in their own very flawed ways and they’re able to help each other be brave. And I think that’s how all of the movements that I respect most really function. Organizing is messy and it’s hard.

And the best of it is just led by people who are being really brave in making themselves bigger and helping other people make themselves bigger and taking risks together. Anyone who has been around labor organizing or anyone who has been around, all sorts of just like grassroots organizing knows that those really powerful moments come when people who have been told to shut up and sit down their whole lives or people who have been disrespected their whole lives say, you know what, actually I have something to say, and you need to listen to me. So we try to capture a little bit of that in the book as well.

[DRAMATIC READING BEGINS]

Male Narrator:    Sam ran around the corner, so focused he didn’t notice the hard pellets of rain until they dripped down his forehead into his eyes. He pulled out his phone and, shielding it with his other hand, dialed the number, but it was disconnected. The inspector’s name, Isaac Jones, would surely turn up too many entries in the yellow pages. There was only one thing left to do. Sam simply left. Like he’d seen Charlie do so many early afternoons and like Charlie, he waved to Deedee on the way out.

Sam:                        “A meeting.”

Male Narrator:           He mouthed as she talked on the phone and she gave him a nod. Sam rode his bike under wide shadows of clouds, a thin ribbon of robin’s egg blue at the horizon. The rain had led up, the puddles sent water streaming up his back, and he knew the back of his only suit would be splattered with muck by the time he got to the East Side. The house was on an unremarkable block, its stoop decorated with potted plants, exterior the color of butter. Sam rang the doorbell, but no one came. He rubbed his hands together and then held them to his face, his breath forming small clouds. He tried again, but still no one. So he knocked hard, imagining the sound echoing through an empty house. About 30 seconds later, he heard footsteps, and then someone opened the door just a crack, but not enough to see who was on the other side.

Tiana:                     “Can I help you?”

Male Narrator:         The voice belonged to a woman who did not seem like she was in the mood to help anyone.

Sam:                    “I’m looking for Isaac Jones.”

Tiana:                        “He doesn’t live here anymore.”

Male Narrator:          The woman closed the door. Sam knocked again, this time lightly.

Sam:                         “Sorry to bother you, but could I have a minute of your time? I’m from the Commerce Commission.”

Male Narrator:         The door flew wide open. A woman who couldn’t have been more than 25 was standing with a baby on one hip, her eyes furious. She was slender, probably just over five feet, with tight braids that reach just past her shoulders.

Tiana:                       “What do you want with my father?”

Sam:                       “I’m sorry to intrude. I know it must be weird having a random white guy show up to your house.”

Tiana:                          “It’s weird having a random any kind of guy show up to my house.”

Sam:                       “Right. Of course. This is the only way I knew how to find him, is the thing.”

Tiana:                          “Well, he’s not here. Thanks to y’all.”

Male Narrator:    The woman was speaking with forced constraint, and Sam saw the baby was undisturbed, smiling widely.

Sam:                           “I’m so sorry. That’s what I wanted to ask about.”

Male Narrator:       The child let out a giggle then lunged for Sam’s nose. He smiled as he jerked his head away to avoid the baby’s touch.

Sam:                        “How old?”

Male Narrator:       He asked, the woman looked Sam up and down with an expression that wavered between skepticism and pity. Sam knew he probably looked like a stray cat, his hair stringing and flat from the rain. But maybe this woman is the kind who helps strays.

Tiana:                   “She’s nine months. You rode your bike here?”

Sam:            “From six and Capital.”

Tiana:                  “What is it you say you do?”

Sam:                           “I’m a rate analyst, brand new.”

Male Narrator:     The woman said nothing.

Sam:                        “I’m on the United gas case and I’m unsettled by some things. I wanted to know what happened to your father.”

Male Narrator:          Sam blurted out. The woman put hand on the door, probably to shut it in his face, Sam thought. But to his surprise, she opened it wider and stepped aside, gesturing with her arm.

Tiana:                      “All right, come in. My name is Tiana.”

Male Narrator:         They sat on folding chairs around a plastic table, and Tiana handed Sam a cup of Swiss Miss. He took a big gulp, letting the chunks of powder dissolve in his mouth as the warmth made his fingers tingle. Across from him, Tiana held the baby on her knee, which never stopped bouncing. Before Sam knew what was happening he was telling her everything about the testimony, [Infoguard], the conversation with Allison. He knew if he was caught discussing confidential information with someone outside the Commission it would get him fired, but he had the feeling he could trust this woman. With each piece of information, Tiana noded encouragingly, but her expression turned to sympathy when he described the dinner with Wendy.

Sam:                     “Am I being paranoid?”

Male Narrator:         He asked, realizing he hadn’t mentioned his suspicions of Wendy to anyone yet. Not even Greg.

Tiana:                   “I don’t know.”

Male Narrator:          She said, but the expression in her eyes made it seem like she did. By now, Tiana had softened to him, and Sam was emboldened to ask again what had happened to her dad. Tiana’s tone was as matter-of-fact as a court stenographer reading back dialogue.

Tiana:                        “My father was an inspector. His training is in engineering. That’s what he was paid to do. When he reported the condition of United’s gas lines, he was told, thank you very much, we’ll take it from here. And when they did nothing, he asked questions.”

Male Narrator:           Tiana paused. When she spoke again, her voice was trembling.

Tiana:                  “My father was never aggressive or unprofessional.”

Sam:                     “What did he see?”

Tiana:                    “What did he see? Exactly what you expect. Why else would you ride your bike all the way here?”

Male Narrator:        Tiana laughed for a moment. Then stopped herself.

Tiana:                  “Those gas lines are a mess.”

Male Narrator:          She said.

Tiana:                      “They are not safe, and United knows it. And so does the Commission.”

Male Narrator:          The final sip of hot chocolate burned all the way down. Tiana’s matter-of-fact tone was gone.

Tiana:                       “It makes me so mad, because they’ll never pay for what they did. But my dad had to move to a whole new city, whole new state. After the things they said about him, no one would hire him. They chased him out of town, not a small price to pay given that I’m his only family. He had to move all the way to Madison to have any hope of salvaging his career. And even then he had to start over, spend a few months waiting tables to get by.”

Sam:                      “They were able to do that to him? But how?”

Male Narrator:            Sam’s voice trailed off. “Where can I run to?” The Commerce Commission was supposed to be his start over. During college, Sam spent his summers back in Connecticut working at a garment factory in Norwalk. It was his job to cut pockets and he was paid by the piece. He could still feel the dull panic as he raced the clock to produce enough to make a decent wage, and yet willed that second hand to move faster so he could go home. 10 minutes felt like an eternity, but somehow the time was always too short or his hands too clumsy to cut enough. That job, no doubt, would be waiting for him, along with a bed in his old room. When Tiana responded, she startled Sam out of his reverie.

Tiana:                     “Everyone in this town who’s in a position to hire knows each other. And when something goes wrong, they cover each other’s asses as if it were their own. They all golf together and dine together and donate to each other’s causes. My dad, in his older years, he’s gotten a bit naive.”

Male Narrator:          How’s that?

Tiana:                       “He doesn’t say it, but he does things, weird things, that make me think he thinks it’ll all blow over and that he’ll come back. He still has his mail forwarded here. Still pays a YMCA membership every month including a locker, which isn’t cheap. Like he’s just on a long vacation. I love him of course. But after six months it’s just denial, you know?”

Male Narrator:        Sam paused.

Sam:                      “Do you think your dad would talk to me?”

Tiana:                    “Not possible.”

Male Narrator:           Tiana’s voice grew quieter.

Tiana:                     “They made him sign an NDA. His lips are sealed or they’ll sue him for the measly five grand they gave him on the way out. In fact, I’m not supposed to be talking to you. My dad said not to open the door for any of y’all.”

Male Narrator:          Sam could have stopped there, but he thought of Allison’s question. The look in her eyes.

Sam:                          “Did he ever write any of his complaints about the commerce commission down?”

Tiana:                    “That was his job.”

Male Narrator:          Sam’s heart quickened.

Sam:                        “Do you know where I could get my hands on any documents at all?”

Tiana:                      “Why?”

Sam:                       “I think I’m going to try to do something about it.”

Male Narrator:        Sam was surprised to hear himself say those words and was not entirely sure if he meant them. The baby began softly whimpering, and Tiana stood up and bounced her on her shoulder. Once the baby quieted, Tiana spoke in a sing-song voice.

Tiana:                   “If you find anything and anyone asks about it later, you’ll tell them you stole it from me.”

Sam:                     “Stole it? Yes.”

Tiana:                    “I don’t want those United lawyers shoving that NDA up our asses. And if you took the documents without my knowing, they can’t. Understand?”

Sam:                       “Understood. Thank you so much.”

Male Narrator:            The garage smelled like dust and rain, and about 12 boxes formed a small hill on the opposite side.

Tiana:                       “If the files are at this house, this is where you’ll find them, along with all the other stuff he left behind.”

Male Narrator:          The baby’s soft whimpers crescendoed into long wails, followed by gasping.

Tiana:                      “I’ve got to put her down. Good luck.”

Male Narrator:          Tiana walked out and shut the door behind her. Sam walked to the pile of boxes, each marked in black sharpies: clothes, books, photographs. At the foot of the pile was a black suitcase. On top of it, a bright blue gym bag. In the suitcase, 1970s clothes that Sam speculated Isaac would never wear again, but couldn’t part with. Sam always found it funny how much people held onto fashion from their peak years. In the gym bag exactly what he expected. Worn out shoes, pool goggles, a small locker key, a rolled up towel. Sam walked to the other side of the pile, where there was just about a foot between the boxes and the wall, more books, and more clothes.

“This man left a lot behind,” Sam thought to himself. Sam saw a small box, a few feet away from the pile. He walked over, but couldn’t find a label. He carefully tore off the tape and opened the box. A photo album with a single picture on the front. A man smiling in a graduation gown, holding a baby in one arm. His other slinked around the waist of a young woman, her head resting on his shoulder. He picked up the album and gently put it aside. He found a child’s sticker book, a journal, and then, beneath that, an unmarked manila envelope. He sat down on the ground and gently unclasped, the envelope emptying the contents onto his lap.

But the pages that fell out were rejection letters for job applications. From St. Louis, Michigan, Alaska, Sam felt the stack. There must be 40 in here. “I’m not the only one,” he thought, remembering the bitter gratitude that someone had taken the time to mail him a note on the company’s letterhead, carefully signed, telling him he wasn’t the right fit.

Sam put the contents back in the box and reached for the next one. It was roughly the size of a file cabinet. This could be it. But when Sam pulled the tape off, releasing the flaps, plumes of dust flew up from a stack of old records. He ran his fingers along them. Muddy Waters, The Beatles, Lead Belly. Sam shut the flaps and pulled the dusty tape over them, sealing them closed.

He reached for a box of a similar size expecting it to be records. But when he tore it open, there was a binder resting at the top. When Sam opened it, he saw a stack of files. The first was labeled ‘Commerce Commission,’ but when he pulled out its contents, he just found an acceptance letter. Sam thumbed through to see what the other files were named. Insurance, W2s, when he saw one labeled ‘inspection reports,’ he felt light and heavy at once, as if underwater. But when he reached into the file, there was nothing there. “Why was every work file here except the inspection reports?” He wondered. Couldn’t just be a coincidence. Could it? Sam did a 360 degree scan of the garage. Then let out a deep breath. He’d come up empty. As he stood, Tiana opened the garage door.

Sam:                     “Don’t worry. I’m leaving soon.”

Male Narrator:             Sam said.

Tiana:                     “I think it’s great what you’re trying to do. It’s just the baby.”

Sam:                        “I understand. Just one more thing. Earlier, you said you weren’t supposed to talk to any of us. Who did you mean by us?”

Tiana:                           “Commission people. My father mentioned people from the Commission might come by, snooping around trying to find stuff they could use against him.”

Sam:                             “So why’d you let me in?”

Tiana:                       “The men my dad was talking about, the ones who silenced him, they don’t ride around on bikes, stumbling around soaking wet.”

Sam:                              “Oh.”

Tiana:                            “No offense.”

Sam:                        “None taken, too bumbling to be evil is the schtick I’m going for these days. You said your father was getting naive in his old age, that he did things that gave you the impression he thought he was coming back.”

Tiana:                      “Uh, yeah?”

Sam:                       “I think he was maybe the opposite. Extremely careful and mistrusting.”

Male Narrator:       Sam began walking to the opposite end of the garage

Sam:                           “You said he paid his YMCA bail every month. Did he tell you this?”

Tiana:                    “Well, no. They send the receipt in the mail, in the mail he still sends here. It’s a strange thing to hold onto. They charge him 15 bucks a month.”

Sam:                        “I think he has his mail sent here because he doesn’t want to be found. And as for the YMCA locker?”

Male Narrator:           Sam picked up the gym bag and set it on a pile of boxes in front of Tiana.

Sam:                            “I think I know why he kept it, but I need your permission to check. I have a hunch.”

[DRAMATIC READING ENDS]

Maximillian Alvarez:     Hell yeah. I think that, again, you capture it beautifully, and I cannot recommend to folks listening highly enough that you go check out Sarah and Peter Lazare’s book Testimony. I hope that this conversation and the fun dramatic readings that we got to do – Shout out to our comrade Mel, shout out to Sarah, shout out to Adam for being good sports and helping us do those dramatic readings. I had a whole lot of fun doing it, and I actually want to do more of them. But that’s… We’ll talk about that another time.

But by way of rounding out, Sarah, I can’t help but think about the fact that as we’ve already mentioned, it’s been 20 years since 9/11. We have all been witnessing the end of the US war in Afghanistan. And we’ve seen a lot of the same ghouls who were there 20 years ago cropping back up, beating the same war drums, constantly thirsty for endless war to fight an endlessly expanding enemy. And on top of all that, we’re still living through COVID-19, we’re watching New Orleans get flooded again. Freeways are flooded in Philadelphia. Apartments are being flooded in New York. There’s a lot of depressing shit happening in the world right now that, I imagine a cynical beaten down character like Sam in your book might have a lot of thoughts about.

And so I wanted to ask by way of rounding us out and propelling listeners forward, if Sam/your father Peter were here to give you some of that tough talk about where we need to go or what sorts of questions we need to sit with, what do you think someone like Sam would say about our world right now?

Sarah Lazare:    Yeah, well, you mention someone like my dad or like Sam, and Sam and my dad have things in common, but I think I want to answer what I think my dad would say and then Sam. My dad was always very surprising and sort of hard to predict what he would say, because he was a very unique, surprising person. But one thing that he always, always told me was that we really have to prioritize curbing climate change. Anytime there wasn’t a climate story at the top of the In These Times website, my dad would call or text me and be like, why isn’t there anything about climate on the website?

So I know my dad would say we really need to prioritize tackling the climate crisis. As far as Sam, the main character of Testimony, I’m going to answer for the Sam at the end of the book, after he’s gone through his transformation. I think he would say something snarky. I think he would have a joke about how shitty and tough things are. But I think that he would suggest that you keep fighting, because that’s the only choice you have, because all we have is each other in this world that we inhabit. And our only choice is to try.

Maximillian Alvarez

Editor-in-Chief

Maximillian Alvarez is the editor-in-chief of The Real News Network, and the host of Working People, ​“a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.
 
max@therealnews.com
 
@maximillian_alv