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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

My Interview with Connie Schultz About Marriage, Campaigning, and Putting It All Into a Book (Part One)

I sat down with Connie Schultz at the Phoenix Coffee Shop in downtown Cleveland in the afternoon on January 29th to talk about her new book. At that point the U.S. Senate campaign of her husband Sherrod Brown was long over, the excitement of the swearing in ceremony had passed as well, and Schultz was nearing completion of the draft of her manuscript. Titled "and His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman beside the Man," the book will be released in hardcover on June 19th. This is the first of two parts of the interview.

Yellow Dog Sammy: When and how did the idea [for the book] come up, and what was your original concept?

Connie Schultz: I was already under contract with Random House for the first book and that had not come out yet. That was a collection of my columns. So, let's see, Sherrod announced in October, [former Plain Dealer editor in chief] Doug Clifton did the column in December. Did you ever read the column he wrote about Sherrod and me, about how it’s not going to be a problem because Connie …

YDS: I think I just heard about it, I don't know that I read it.

CS: Yes, well, he wrote that and then my understanding is that Anna Quindlen … Anna and I have the same editor at Random House, our editor is Kate Medina … and Anna has been very supportive of my career, for a long time ... and she either called or wrote Kate and said "Sherrod Brown is running for the Senate? Well, I know whose book I want to read, and it's not the candidate’s.”

So, Kate called me, I went to New York, we met in January … it might have been December, now that I think about it, I don't really remember the time frame, all time is warped through the prism of the campaign … it was either December or January, by then we knew that I was going to write a book. And, I don't have an agent, because Random House came to me for the first book, so I just have a really good lawyer, and she negotiated it for me. I think we had a signed contract by March. And all we knew was, in all honesty, the financial concern [of taking a leave of absence from the Plain Dealer] was erased for me, and I've always been very honest about that, but it did make it easier to make that decision, independent of financial considerations. But, the idea was [for it to be] a memoir. And, we didn't know what it was going to be called. Yet.

That title came up … I think I sent an email to Kate Medina, probably in mid-May, early June, and said, you know, “If one more person introduces me as ‘the candidate’s lovely wife,’ that just might have to be the title.” I was just saying it plaintively. And she sends back an email two days later, saying “We love it! Everybody mulled over it and we think it’s a great title.” So that’s how the title came about. And it was from the road, being introduced so often [that way]. Not up here, but south of Akron, most people at that time didn’t know who I even was. Which was really a humbling experience for somebody who thought she had pretty much carved out a career for herself!

Then, it might have been before that actually because I was on the Today Show [in May] and that sort of got the word out more so I think it was probably before that this happens, although I still got introduced like that all through the campaign. And the point being that, I’m really fortunate that I have a pretty big megaphone. Most women don’t finish with their husband’s campaigns and get to do what I did. And I’m hearing that a lot from some of the new Senate wives, as a matter of fact.

YDS: Now that you’ve written the draft, does it square with what you thought you were going to be writing, or was there a change during the process?

CS: Well, first of all, I didn’t know the ending. Although, I had a pretty good idea of the ending. But you know, it was kind of hard to think about how to write that book until the election was over, to be quite blunt with you. I took a lot of notes, all the time, filled tons of notebooks. And typed a lot. And I was able to use some set pieces, because sometimes … I mean, I’m a writer, you know? So sometimes something would happen, and I would immediately think, “That goes in the book, and that’s a perfect set piece,” okay? I knew that I had a whole scene, all full of dialogue. I used narrative a lot, because [the book is] in chronological order, essentially. It’s a memoir.

But I try to be funny with it, whenever I could. Part of it [was that] I had to live up to the title. The title is pretty cheeky. And, it was hard to be that funny, until it was over, to be honest with you. And neither Sherrod nor I really anticipated how exhausted we would be by the time the race was over, we were just really wiped out.

YDS: In terms of your style, in your column and your first book (which was selected columns), you are very present in the pieces you write, and also you deal a lot with emotion. “Dealing with sentiment without being sentimental,” is what somebody said.

CS: I hope that is true, because that’s the goal in a way.

YDS: Did you go into this book thinking of it as a continuation of that style, or were you trying to write it a different way?

CS: My editor here, Stuart Warner, gave me really good advice. He said, first of all you are a journalist, so go out and report. And that’s what I did throughout the campaign. Now, obviously, it’s a story from my perspective, but it’s my perspective not only as a wife but as a journalist.

And, I’ve had some thoughts about journalism, and political journalism in particular, that were sort of unformed thoughts before I was involved with [the campaign]. But in terms of telling a story, it was always going to be the same thing. It’s from my perspective, it’s first and foremost always a book about a marriage. And a marriage [going] through an incredible trial.

YDS: Uh huh.

CS: And we survived it beautifully. More than survived it, really. We were a new marriage, as I think you knew. We’d only been married a year and a half when Sherrod got in.

YDS: Yeah, that really kind of shocked me when I thought about that. The decision on the campaign came [so soon] after you were married …

CS: And I was the holdout. Which has kind of gotten out in bits. The Washington Post piece that Peter Slevin did on me [in October] talked about how I had been the holdout. And I had wanted Sherrod to say that from the beginning when he was getting hammered, when he got in [the race]. I said, “Why don’t you tell them that I didn’t want you to, that I wasn’t ready for you to," and he didn’t want to do that. He’s a great husband, he’s a devoted husband. But I just thought it would save a lot of time if he could just blame me, you know, just do the Yoko thing, and let’s get it over with. [Laughter.]

YDS: Well, that was a huge thing for you to agree to, right? That early in a marriage, and given the scope of it.

CS: You know, in any marriage at any time. You talk to some of these Senators’ wives. The new batch of us. It’s a hard thing to do no matter when you do it.

YDS: So, you mentioned the notebooks, and I remember in July you told me … in fact, I think you may have showed me … you used Moleskine notebooks. How did that work as a method, and would you do it the same way next time? Writing every day like that?

CS: Well, first of all, I have to write every day, because it is what I do. And I needed to have some sort of organized way to collect them, and … well, just the other day I found some notes in a glove box, my glove box, and it was crucial. I had been wondering where I had put them. I had forgotten [that] it was before I had left the Plain Dealer, so I wasn’t using Moleskines all the time. But I found it. It was about how I was falling asleep in the car a lot. I would turn the car off the road and sleep a bit, before I had left the paper. But, I would do the notebooks, and part of why I used them … I remember showing you, they were very thin.

YDS: Yes. Totally portable.

CS: They were totally portable. But they’re thin, because I didn’t want to risk losing too much material if something happened to one of the notebooks.

YDS: Ah.

CS: And I learned a little technique, I would share this with other writers as well. I used to write on both sides. Now, I only write on this side, because I find that then I have additional thoughts, and I have that side open to do it. Also, now, if I have stuff on the left, it’s a completely different story I’m telling. There’s one story that’s running on the left side, and there’s another story that’s running on the right side. So it was a way to set it up so I had space to add notes. Because, sometimes I took a week’s worth of notes, and I’d pull it out to take a look at it one afternoon, and I thought, “You know what, I didn’t know then that this was going to happen to me later, and I want to make a little notation so I don’t forget that." Yes, because I wasn’t able to transcribe … usually when I do series (I have done several big, narrative series) I transcribe as I go, as much as I can. This time, I did almost all my transcribing later. Sometimes I would do it late at night on the road. When you’re running in Ohio, it’s a lot of time in the car.

YDS: Yeah.

CS: A lot of state there. And I was too tired at night to do a lot of original writing, but I’d do transcribing then sometimes in the car.

YDS: So when it was all over and you went back and looked in the notebooks, were you surprised by what you found in there?

CS: Oh, yeah. Sherrod has said the same thing. I’ll read sections to him as I’m writing, and sometimes he’ll say “Stop,” and he’ll need to get up and walk away for a little bit. Because it was so hard sometimes, and we’d forgotten. But it’s real easy now to just think about when things started to pick up and things were going better. We had some very difficult times, especially toward the beginning. We had things [happen] that no one will know about until the book comes out, because we weren’t going to be public about it.

And, I can’t get over how much I would have forgotten had I not been taking notes. But part of that was compounded by fatigue. We really, by May, we were so tired, and you never get better. You just keep getting more tired. Part of it is probably a function of age. Sherrod and I, friends of ours tease us because we have so much energy, both of us. But this was just unlike anything either of us had ever done. So, yeah, there’s a lot we’d never have remembered [but for the notebooks.] Are you much of a journaller? A journal keeper? I really recommend it for people.

YDS: Ah?

CS: Really! Because you have these insights that you only get later, and you’re not going to have them at all if you don’t remember things.

YDS: I don’t want to ruin the suspense, but for my readers, do you have any teasers about shockers that might be in the book?

CS: I don’t know that I would call them shockers. I think one of the things that people usually see in Sherod is that he’s very upbeat, very confident, and we had some moments where he really … he was not filled with doubts so much as sometimes he was scared.

YDS: Uh huh.

CS: It was never about winning or losing, it was about [not] letting people down. He really took that seriously. There was also some stuff with the [Paul] Hackett stuff that we weren’t going to … we wanted to stay on the high road. In short, we said nothing. And I’m really glad that Paul came through in July and apologized, that meant a lot. Um, we went through a lot to get there. [Laughter.]

I will certainly be writing about the bloggers, somewhat. I’ve learned a lot, about … I have a column coming out tomorrow about all of the journalists who have been killed around the world, and we’ve got to lighten up about how upset we get when bloggers write bad things about us or readers get ugly with us, because we’re not dying for the job we’re doing, and it’s really important to keep perspective. And it was easy to lose perspective, sometimes, in the campaign.

For a little while there I just wanted to paint with a wide brush [about bloggers] because I was so upset at some of their behavior, at some of the lies that were [told]. But then, I learned over time some were really taking their jobs seriously, and some were really growing into their jobs as bloggers. [Speaking of you and Chris Baker, along with several others, we] came to really trust you. Because, it wasn’t that you always agreed with us or supported us, it was that you were fair.

YDS: Mm hmm.

CS: And, I think for me, as a journalist, I really struggled with bloggers. Because we have accountability issues in our profession. We've got attribution, we’ve got a name attached to every piece we write. And, it was very hard for me to think that anyone should be taken seriously if they go by some goofy name or if they make up stuff, and then others run with it without any checking. It was just a whole other world I had never experienced before. I felt I had to know about it, because some reporters were reading them, and starting to ask questions, and …

YDS: I’m sensitive to what you are saying, and I want you to know that there was a point where I realized that I couldn’t just be Yellow Dog Sammy, so I had to publish my name.

CS: Well, you also introduced yourself to me by name, as did Chris Baker. Part of it was that you came up to me in public, put out your hand, and told me your name.

YDS: [You're writing] a book about politics, and I’m wondering, are you writing it for political junkies, or for people who don’t know that much about politics?

CS: No, you know who I’m writing it for more than anyone else? I’m dedicating the book to every woman who ever felt anonymous.

YDS: Ah ha.

CS: And I never write for the privileged, they already have all their spokesmen. This is another version of what I do, it’s write for people who often don’t have a voice. It's been interesting, in Washington, so many of the members’ wives, both Senate and House, keep coming up to me and say, “Are you going to mention this? Are you going to talk about this?” You know, I’m not going to do one of these feel-good books. So many spouses have done [those] books. I don’t believe for a second that they’re as happy as they are [portrayed], or that certain things don’t make them unhappy. They just keep a lot out, or they allude to it without saying it.

I’m going to talk about what it’s really like to have all these different things go wrong in a campaign, or just the tensions or the demands of it. But also the most rewarding aspects of it are meeting the people that you are going to represent. And also the difference between working class voters and how genuine they can be, and the educated voters, who think they are just the smartest person in any room, when you have Q and A.

The whole thing has been so interesting. And I’m bringing my sensibility, my roots … I’m working class, as you know, from my roots … and those same sensibilities followed me on the campaign trail. I’m not writing for the political junkies. They may be disappointed if they are hoping for me to address every poll that came out. I’m going to address polls in general, but I also make the joke [that although] I have not started menopause, I now understand the mood swings and the hot flashes just from trying to keep track of the polls, and what it does to you.

I’m going to make fun of some of the stuff that people take too seriously, and really go after the things they are not paying attention to. And so, journalists … some … are not going to be happy with me. Journalists in Ohio are not going to be happy with me, I suspect. I think I’m fair, I think I’m as fair as I can be, conceding that I am Sherrod’s wife, and that some things bothered me. But I thought that Sherrod deserved to get hammered on some things, and I’ll be honest about that in the book.

YDS: In terms of format, is [the book] going to be like [your] columns? I mean, short piece, and sort of a hook, and then move on to the next? Or are you writing long chapters?

CS: That’s a good writer’s question. It’s kind of both. I mean, every section has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I pride myself on my walkoffs. But some of them are short. I just talked to my editor last week and asked, “Is it a problem that some of my pieces are longer and some of them are short, set pieces?”

Like, as an example. Short piece. Sherrod and I get up, at 5:30 I think, it was April Fools Day. And new polls come out showing us pulling ahead, but we don’t want our staff to get over-confident. We’ve got all these fundraising concerns, we’ve got a full day’s schedule, I think we’ve got six events that day. It was a weekend day. So, what are we doing? We are arguing, in the bathroom, over how to use the toothpaste tube. And, he’s giving me this lecture on putting the cap back on, and why you’re supposed to squeeze from the bottom, and I’m saying I don’t really need you to give me a lesson. And all of a sudden we just caught ourselves in the middle of it, and we realized this had nothing to do with toothpaste. This had to do with feeling like we were out of control on everything that we’re [doing]. People are giving us orders. We have the staff, half our age, telling us everything that we should be doing. And we still had control over the toothpaste. And the walkoff to that is, so far no staff has intervened.

The reason I like that piece is first of all it does show how silly it can get, but there’s not a married couple, or any couple living, for that matter, who can’t identify with that scene, okay, in terms of arguing about something inconsequential because you’re really feeling the weight of something looming. But it also just shows you how campaigns can really get to you, and … it was fun to write! I love to write, and I want to have fun when I write sometimes, and the dialogue was just in my head. I went to the car and wrote it all out and read it to Sherrod, and he was laughing with me about it. So it’s a mix of those kinds of things, but then we have very serious moments … one of them … I don’t want to go into detail on tape, but … it happened right before the City Club debate … that I think will really move, especially, men. About my husband.

YDS: Okay. Let’s just talk about campaigning. This leave that you took, was that a good thing, do you think, for your writing? You come back to writing your column …

CS: No, I’m not going to argue that it was a good thing for my writing. No. It was not a good thing.

YDS: Was it a hard thing not to be published during the …

CS: Yes. It was a hard thing to lose my voice. I used to joke – half-joke – that I went from being a woman paid to give my opinion to giving my husband’s, I mean for free, everywhere I went. And if you don’t think that was a hard fit!

I had some women occasionally pull me aside and say, “You really shouldn’t let people know that you miss your job and this has been hard, and I said, “I just think that’s baloney!” There’s not a career woman out there who doesn’t believe that this isn’t hard, but they also understand why I did it. I love my husband. And I also had a very strong set of standards for myself, and I was concerned about the ethics of it.

When I wrote my exit column I said, sometimes what’s right for everyone around you doesn’t feel right for you, and I really felt that was the situation for me there. My husband needed me, they told me that he did better with me on the road with him. I was almost always with him on the weekends. When he was in Washington I campaigned without him. A lot of times when he was in the state I’d be with him, but almost always on weekends.

Campaigns always want to split you up as much as possible, especially if they think you know how to speak at all. But, I had a marriage that I was going to fiercely protect, and Sherrod felt the same way, and frankly, very early in the campaign, once [campaign manager] John Ryan was on board, he sat down and said to me, “Sherrod does better when you’re with him, he needs you there.” There’s just something about [having] a partner, and nobody knows you like that person, and he was my only agenda. All I cared about was how Sherrod was doing on any given day. That’s it!

YDS: Aside from the demands that you would otherwise have in this kind of campaign, there was a lot of loss around you. Your father died in the spring, John Ryan’s father died, Sherrod’s close friend John Kleshinski died right afterward ....

CS: A friend of mine from work died … I think she was found on November 1st … of a heart attack. 37. Died on the soccer field.

YDS: How did you accommodate the emotional demands with trying to campaign?

CS: You don’t, and one of the things I think I’ve struggled with in trying to meet some of the deadlines on the book is coming to terms with losing my Dad.

I remember this moment so vividly, on the campaign. I was on book tour, and it was the only time I did not have a Random House driver. My best [friend] Jackie Cassara, I write about Jackie a lot, was with me on the road and we were heading to Dayton, we were going to do [an event]. We had an extensive Ohio tour because of the campaign.

YDS: The [first] book came out during the campaign?

CS: Oh yeah, it was scheduled before Sherrod even announced, and it came out in April. April 19th, and my father had a heart attack a few weeks later. He had just had both his carotid arteries cleared, the [second] one had been a week ago. And my sister left a message, it was just hysterical, it was just awful. “They’re here, they’re trying to revive him, they’re going to take him to the University Hospitals.” And I hung up the phone and Jackie said, “Maybe it’s not as bad as it seems, Con,” because she was turning the car around, we’re calling Random House, and they’re going to call the bookstore and the TV station … [but] I just knew.

The thing is, he never regained consciousness. He was attached to a lot of machines. I knew he wouldn’t wake up. But I have three siblings who needed to come to terms with it as well. And I really, really wanted my husband there. But, there were some important Intelligence votes.

YDS: Ouch.

CS: And Sherrod said, “If you want me home, I’m coming,” and I said, “If you miss those votes, I’m going to spend the rest of the campaign listening to you explain why you had to miss those votes. Because you know that DeWine is going to go after you on that. And I don’t think I can do that."

It was so hard, to be there those two days and not have my husband with me. And to know exactly why. And then, my Dad didn’t want to have a funeral. My Mom had had a funeral and 800 people had come. Everybody know her, it was a small town. He didn’t want that. So we buried him two days later. We got home, and … my column ran in the Plain Dealer, I don’t know if you saw that … the Plain Dealer asked me to write a column about my Dad dying. So I did write it, but it ran on a Saturday, which is when we buried my Dad.

We got home, and somebody had put a Bush sticker on my car, in the driveway. In the driveway! And it wasn’t over my Sherrod bumper sticker, it was over my bumper sticker that said, “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History.” So it felt really misogynist, on top of it all. And, my daughter was very upset about the bumper sticker. It was like, “Can’t we have just a moment’s grief, without …?” And I said to her, and I said this in the book, it was a real reminder (and I kept the bumper sticker as a reminder to me) that the campaign never stops, you get no breaks from the campaign.

And Sherrod’s friend died, John Kleshinski. He was with us nonstop the last two weeks. He was the greatest thing that could have happened.

Sherrod had warned me that during the last two weeks of the campaign, you will make a pact with the devil if you can have it over with now, you are just so sick of it. And John, for him it was the privilege of a lifetime, it was a party, he just loved it. He was 55 years old, he had been diabetic since he was thirteen, and [he] died in his sleep two weeks after the race. His wife called, she was out of town, he wasn’t answering his phone … it was the worst circumstances you could imagine. And I had to tell Sherrod.

So, we always had these reminders throughout [the campaign] that real life happens. You know what we did? The day after my Dad died, my friend Jackie said, “You would love ‘Six Feet Under.’” It’s all out on DVD. We were at Costco, [and] I said, “Oh, I’ll get all of it.” And, you know, we watched it, for weeks. Sherrod and I. I said, "You know what, Sherrod, we’ve got to watch this, because it’s such a reminder that real life is going on all around us." And we’re trying to get people’s attention. I mean, they’ve got so much more stuff in their lives going on, than caring about who’s going to be the next Senator.

YDS: You said “real life,” but it’s also really black humor.

CS: Oh, it is. But it was such a nice distraction.

YDS: The outrageousness of it was helpful?

CS: Yes, and Sherrod would say, “Are we going to watch one tonight? Are we going to watch one?” Sherrod would sometimes watch it on my laptop. And Sherrod actually met one of the producers of it, one time at one of these fundraisers. And he said, “I don’t know what to think about it at this point, but we really love watching it.”

READ THE SECOND PART OF THE INTERVIEW

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