Interview: Ten “Fresh” Questions
Made “fresh” for the website!
Why did you write this book?
I started writing it to get down some of what I had experienced personally in the 1990s as a deli clerk at a Tedeschi’s convenience store and as a sacker at a Market Basket supermarket. In fact, it was way back in 1997, at the Millay Colony for the Arts, that Bernard Malamud’s classic The Assistant inspired me to start writing a novel about a character named Ray who works at a supermarket deli in small-town New England. But the book just sat there undeveloped until the Market Basket supermarket protests of 2014—which sparked the book’s completion.
What about the Market Basket protests inspired you?
You don’t need to know anything about Market Basket to read, enjoy, or understand Ring On Deli. It is a self-contained work of fiction, not a book about Market Basket or anyone affiliated with that company. But since you asked:
In the summer of 2014, employees of the Market Basket supermarket chain took to the parking lots demanding the reinstatement of their beloved CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas. The protests were all over the news, and I was personally very curious about them because I had worked at Market Basket as a teenager, and only a couple of years before the protests, by mere happenstance, I had met and worked for Arthur T. Demoulas, who was a client at my old law firm. My wife and I attended one of the rallies in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, and I followed the protests closely.
Certain qualities made Market Basket special. Writers and scholars like Robert Reich and the authors of We Are Market Basket explored these deftly. The company’s leadership had strong core values of loyalty, compassion, and service that filtered down through the ranks. More intriguing to me, Market Basket tended to run its stores in a decentralized way that empowered workers to try out new ideas and to move up internally at the company.
No place is perfect, of course. But it seemed to me that a supermarket—not Market Basket but a made-up one, which I called Bounty Bag—could serve as a fruitful metaphor for certain ideals (American, but not exclusively) that may seem lost, endangered, forgotten, or not yet realized. The fictional Bounty Bag supermarket also allowed me to work with certain notions from ancient Greece about direct democracy’s promise.
What the heck does a supermarket chain have to do with democracy?
A supermarket is not a democracy. In fact, with its clip-on ties, strict hair regulations, and color-coded coats and smocks, Bounty Bag is in some ways more like a platoon, scout troop, or karate academy. Or as one writer friend (Herb Childress) put it, it’s a world of “closely-monitored ranking systems” and “job titles as precisely hierarchical as earl and viscount.”
But Bounty Bag’s spirit is fundamentally tolerant and democratic, and its bottom-up business model allows workers to play an important role in shaping, for better or worse, their shared destiny. Maybe the Bounty Bag associates only have a taste of this economic democracy in their day-to-day work lives, but when the chips are down and they seize control of the company—pushing it to the brink in order to try to save it—they engage with vigor in democratic practice.
How does Bounty Bag’s business crisis affect deli-clerk Ray and Patrick, his younger brother, for whom Ray serves as legal guardian?
Ray would like to think that it won’t affect him at all! He’s attached to supermarket life because every day is the same, and, as it says in the novel, Bounty Bag’s sparkling lights serve as a “reliable antiseptic to shadowy ruminations—on past, present, or future.” Ray’s big crisis comes when he needs to decide if he should join the protestors’ struggle and potentially destroy this static world that he has come to depend on.
Patrick has different problems, high among them Ray’s pedantic “stay on the sunny side” parenting style. But he eventually gets drawn into the chaos at Bounty Bag too.
Ring On Deli is also about the small New England town where Ray’s store is located. Can you tell us a little bit about how the fictional burg of Pennacook, Massachusetts, fits in here?
As a counterpoint to the relatively well-functioning Bounty Bag supermarket, I fashioned the grotesquely dysfunctional Pennacook, a town of marauding wild boars, a dead mall, rigged electoral districts, a dilapidated sewage-treatment plant, and a dominating ethos that is decidedly backward-facing. (Not to mention seven Chinese restaurants and an 18-and-over strip club that serves only juice!) I hope it leaves something to mystery if I say that Pennacook embodies a whole other set of American and democratic concerns, and yet it is not always as it seems.
What’s at stake in Pennacook?
Pennacook relies heavily on Bounty Bag for its tax base. So when Bounty Bag hits choppy waters, Pennacook gets splashed. The town’s immediate dilemma, however, is whether to pass a tax-cap override, or TCO, to fund the construction of a much-needed new high-school building. It’s the mission of Dr. Chong, the principal of Pennacook’s Andrew Johnson Memorial High School, to get that TCO passed, but in some ways she’s her own worst enemy.
Where did the idea for all those wild boars come from?
Software, partly. Back in the summer of 1997, I edited a travel guide for Let’s Go. At that time, there was a desirable add-on to Microsoft’s Windows product that had pigs crawling all over your screen while you tried to revise youth-hostel write-ups. Today we would call this a virus. Twenty or so years later, while I was writing Ring On Deli’s first draft, the pigs came back to me, clogging Pennacook’s streets. The decades had not been kind! Where once they had been cute pink cartoons, now they were tusked wild beasts, with purple dripping gum-lines. Soon enough, they were everywhere.
The other main inspiration for them was my hometown of Billerica’s early history as a “pig town.” I also did some research and found some problematic contemporary wild-boar colonies in southern New Hampshire, and as a metaphorical-resonance bonus, I discovered they are very common in Tennessee, the home state of Andrew Johnson, whose sinister spirit mysteriously haunts the town of Pennacook.
What’s the role of Eaton, Massachusetts, the book’s other town?
Eaton is very different from Pennacook and plays a smaller role in the book than either Bounty Bag or Pennacook. Connected to Pennacook seemingly via a wormhole, Eaton is a sort of unholy Concord-La Jolla hybrid. Rich people live there, but also not-rich people like Dr. Chong, who moves there to scoop up the French-milled soap and to avoid extracurricular contact with Pennacook’s residents and her faculty. There’s another, nested world that Dr. Chong gets a taste of in a romance subplot: an elite but feudalistic boarding school that functions as a sort of “Eaton within Eaton,” as Dr. Chong eventually realizes.
You’re releasing this novel during the COVID-19 pandemic. Has this development affected how you think about supermarkets, their workers, or your book?
I wrote this book before the COVID-19 pandemic but its subject matter and themes seem, in this respect, perhaps more relevant than anyone would wish. Like much of the world right now (I’m writing this on June 5, 2020), Pennacook suffers from economic paralysis and depends on supermarkets as almost the last bastion of normality and abundance. The valiant and sometimes fatal willingness of grocery and other essential workers to report for duty during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention their grace, warrants our deepest gratitude and admiration.
Why don’t you tell us more about Ring On Deli’s main characters and its plot?
I would prefer not to. It’s not a difficult book, and it’s better for readers to draw their own conclusions. If I said more, it would spoil the fun!