“Eliese dreamed of escaping Cleveland and achieving greatness in the convent as a nun.” Instead, as a steelworker at ArcelorMittal Cleveland, she “discovers solace in the tumultuous world of steel, unearthing a love and a need for her hometown she didn’t know existed.” *
Rebecca here, so thrilled to share this author interview with you! A little backstory first: several years ago, when I was interviewing author David Giffels about his memoir, Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life, he told me about a writer to watch, a young woman who worked in Cleveland’s gargantuan steel mill. Actually he called her a “Cleveland steelworker-slash-amazing literary star.” Growing up in the Cleveland area, I knew of the steel mill, its flare stack’s tall orange flame a potent symbol of Cleveland industry–and grit. And I’d read steelworkers’ stories. But never one by a woman. My interest was piqued.
Reader, Eliese’s memoir exceeded my high expectations, balancing harrowing tales of hard times, hard work, and hard-won revelations with gorgeous, lyrical prose.
Meet Eliese: Eliese Colette Goldbach is the author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, published by Flatiron Books in 2020. Rust is the author’s debut memoir. The award-winning writer now works at John Carroll University in Cleveland, where she lives with her husband.
*Trigger warning: this interview contains a mention of sexual assault
Eliese, place is so central to the story you tell in this memoir. And you give your reader access to a place most of us will never know as an insider: Cleveland’s nearly 950-acre steel mill. As a steelworker there, your personal story got wrapped up with the story of the mill. Is there a story that didn’t make it into the book you could tell us?
There were so many stories that never made it to the pages of Rust. I worked in a wide variety of jobs during my tenure at the steel mill, and I probably could have written a book about each one. I learned to put rocks into giant receptacles in a dusty place called The Bin Floor. I spent some time as a “Rough Rider” in the Basic Oxygen Furnace, where the molten steel was made. Every day, I hopped into a tow motor and whizzed around the mill, replenishing the raw materials that were used in the process. I even did a brief stint as a crane operator in the Hot Mill, where glowing slabs of steel were pressed into sheets. It was one of the most interesting—and terrifying—jobs I had ever worked. You spend your hours in a tiny box that smells like body odor. There’s a wonky captain’s chair in the middle of the space, and the walls are covered in a yellowish substance that rubs off on your fingers when you touch it. I later learned that you shouldn’t touch the mystery substance. It’s the sticky accumulation of everyone else’s nicotine tar.
On one of my first nights flying solo behind the controls of the crane, I had a rather frightening experience. A mechanic asked me to move a three-hundred-ton contraption to the other side of the building. At first, I protested. My crane was only rated to lift one-hundred tons, but the man brushed off my concerns. He told me that the three-hundred-ton thing was rigged up to a bunch of pulleys and levers that would supposedly lighten the load, so I conjured up vague images from high school physics class and told myself that everything would be fine. Famous last words, right?
When I started working the gears and levers necessary to move this three-hundred-ton thing, it barely budged. My crane, on the other hand, started to struggle immediately. The gears were grinding. The motor was moaning. I could feel the whole crane begin to buckle in the middle, which wasn’t good. Keep in mind, this crane weighed as much as a blue whale—it was beyond huge—and the mechanic who had asked me to move the three-hundred-ton thing was on the ground, directly below the crane. He was right in harm’s way, and I was still pretty green as a crane operator. I knew that I needed to stop what I was doing, but I didn’t react fast enough. Right before I eased off of the controls, something snapped. Metal twisted and pinged. The hook of the crane went flying. All I could think about was the man on the ground below me.
When everything settled, I opened my window and called down to him. Thankfully, he was okay. The pulleys that were attached to the contraption had shattered—and huge shards of metal had shot off in all directions like gigantic bullets—but luckily the renegade pieces hadn’t hit him. Disaster was avoided, and I whispered a prayer of relief. But the experience shook me. The mill never stopped reminding you of its dangers.
You write, “This place [the steel mill] never failed to remind me that power is double-pronged. The very forces that could rip everything apart were the same ones that tempered something strong and resilient…” Would you say being a female steelworker helped you find your own power—in and out of the mill? How?
I definitely learned a lot about my own strength in the steel mill. It wasn’t always easy being a woman in the mill. There were many subtle (and not-so-subtle) displays of sexism, and I really think that the experience taught me to be more assertive when I saw something that went against my values. I also found a vibrant community of other women in the mill, which reminded me of what we can accomplish together, and the strange jobs I performed gave me a sense of self-assurance that extended into other areas of my life. If you can run a hulking crane for twelve hours a day, then you can manage just about anything. When I think back on my time at the mill, however, I know that one of the most important things it gave me was a respectable paycheck. They say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but I don’t necessarily agree. Making a good living can give you confidence and security and independence. It can provide you with opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have, and it felt especially good to know that I was working in a field where men and women were paid the same.
Your having grown up as a Catholic school kid, aspiring nun to steelworker was quite a change in career trajectory. Like many children, you aspired to greatness, to being known for making a difference. You write, “…the religious life seemed to be the only vocation worthy of its power.” Today, your chosen vocation is teaching. Can you tell us what you love to teach the most? What you like to impart to your students—about writing about place, itself, or writing about their place in the world?
I love teaching the nuts-and-bolts to beginning writers. It doesn’t matter if we’re working with academic essays or creative pieces. I like showing students the beauty of a well-crafted scene, a tight bit of dialogue, or a perfectly-wrought thesis statement. I also enjoy giving feedback to students at all levels. It’s so much fun to dive into a piece of writing in the hopes of offering encouragement and constructive criticism, and it’s even more fun to watch students implement those suggestions in revision. Overall, I think the biggest thing that I’d like my students to take away from class is a sense of self-efficacy and personal power. Writing gives us the ability to create meaning and empathy and wonder. It allows us to see our surroundings in a new light. It helps us understand the roles we play within those surroundings, and it gives us the opportunity to reach audiences that we may never meet in person. I want my students to understand just how influential the written word can be, and I also want them to feel capable of putting their unique stories down on the page.
Your own college experience was shattered when you were raped by a classmate, after which point you were diagnosed with mixed-state bipolar disorder. You talk in the book about the rape taking away your faith. Yet, your book is filled with the language of religion, images both harrowing and redemptive. How, as a writer, do you sit with such seemingly disparate aspects of life, including faith in humanity and utter distrust in the same? And what do you hope the story of your mental health journey does for readers?
The most interesting stories are always the ones that let contradictions breathe. Nothing in life is as simple as we’d like it to be, and the core of good writing lies in those moments of ambiguity when something raw and gritty and human is revealed. Lately I’ve been going over a lot of old books that I read back in college, and I happened to re-familiarize myself with the pages of Plato’s Phaedo the other day. I can’t help but be reminded of this great line: “What a strange thing that which men call pleasure seems to be, and how astonishing the relation it has with what is thought to be the opposite, namely pain! A man cannot have both at the same time. And yet if he pursues and catches the one, he is almost always bound to catch the other, like two creatures with one head.” I just love that image. Two creatures with one head. I think it relates to so much more than just pleasure and pain.
You can’t have faith in humanity if you don’t also doubt its goodness. You can’t have hope if you don’t also invite despair. And I’m talking about real hope here, not the cockeyed optimist kind that’s divorced from reality. Real hope has an axe to grind. Real hope has bloody knuckles. I like to think that’s a lesson I’ve learned from living with bipolar disorder. I’ve struggled through the bleakest kinds of despair, but those moments were never the ones that scared me. Despair is just hope earning its stripes. It can always come around the bend. The true enemy doesn’t seem to have a name. You might call it emptiness, or perhaps apathy, but it isn’t really either of those things. It’s this sensation you get when you’re content with a blackness that has not bottom. You feel like a shadow that can no longer be stitched to a body. There’s no despair, no emotion, no longing. It’s a frightening place to be, and I hope that my story can speak to anyone who’s grappling with that place now. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like.
Take it from a kindred soul: It’s possible to survive. Just hold onto something and don’t let go.
Eliese, as I read your memoir, I kept forgetting it wasn’t a novel, because all the tension and suspense I expect in a good novel were there, keeping me feverishly turning pages. In addition to your story as a steelworker reclaiming your home and yourself after much struggle, there is also a compelling and very real love story here. For us writers, can you talk about how you decided to structure your memoir—if you set out to structure it like a novel?
Structure is the thing I struggle with most as a writer. I’m still traumatized by my 5th grade English class, when the teacher called on me to answer a simple question: “What’s the climax of Where the Red Fern Grows?” I froze. My mind went blank. My palms got sweaty. The whole class was staring at me, but I just shrugged my shoulders. In my mind, there were a thousand tiny climactic moments throughout the novel. How could I possibly pick one? Even now, I’m always overwhelmed by the sheer possibilities of structure. You can use the same material to tell a million different stories, and sometimes I want to tell all of those stories at the same time. As such, I inevitably cycle through a lot of failed drafts to figure out the structure that fits the material best.
With Rust, I experimented with everything. I tried making it an essay. I tried making it a chapbook of prose poems. I played around with footnotes. I wrote a pretty long and miserable draft that incorporated tons of research about irony. There’s even a notebook in the back of my closet that contains a feeble attempt to imitate Anne Carson’s Nox. Those drafts took a lot of time and energy, but they gave me a little distance from the lived experience of the steel mill. As a nonfiction writer, it can be difficult to see the shape of a story when you’re still living parts of that story in your daily life. Most of Rust was written while I was still employed as a steelworker, which made it difficult to see where the book needed to end. I kept wanting to add more anecdotes. I kept wanting to change the climax. Luckily, I had an awesome editor and an amazing agent who helped to usher me in the right direction. And once I was able to take a step back and analyze everything I’d written, I realized that a novel-like arc already existed inside the material. From there, the structure settled into place. Sometimes it takes time and revision (and lots of feedback from trusted friends) to discover something’s shape.
*Quotes from the book jacket copy; all images used with permission of the author
Stay tuned for Part II of my interview with Eliese Colette Goldbach, coming soon…
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