Deb Hosey White’s novel, Pink Slips and Parting Gifts, described as a fictional story based on the sale of The Rouse Company is now available on Amazon Prime. Former residents of the Columbia-Baltimore area, Deb and husband, David White relocated to NC in 2008. Deb’s second novel, Magic Numbers is well underway. Her newly published e-book, Beyond Downton Abbey: A Guide to 25 Great Houses co-authored with her husband David, and the 4th edition of Let’s Take the Kids to London: A Family Travel Guide, have been published just in time for travelers headed to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Jan: Deb – your novel, Pink Slips and Parting Gifts – published in 2009 – tells a thinly disguised fictional story about the events leading to the sale of a company founded by an idealistic couple whose strong community commitments are legendary. This story really does sound like events surrounding the Rouse Family; the sale of the Rouse Company here in Columbia, MD a few years ago rocked the community. So why is it fiction? And how did you come to a decision to present this story as a novel, rather than a nonfiction account of events?
Deb: A stellar nonfiction book had already been written on the subject of mergers and acquisitions—Barbarians at the Gate by Brian Burrough and John Helyar. As an insider, writing based on personal experiences and a particular viewpoint, I did not want Pink Slips and Parting Giftsto appear one-sided or cathartic. And I really wanted to tell a story about all the parties involved in this kind of situation. As a novel, I could fill in the blanks that were beyond the official record—individual motivations, emotions, and personal consequences surrounding a well-known and documented event—much like historical fiction writers. This was not intended to be a business textbook.
And honestly, my novel is not a verbatim telling of the sale of The Rouse Company; the book is also based upon other business and life experiences during my decades of work, as a human resources professional, as well as stories that sprang solely from my imagination.
Jan: Your book looks at the underside of corporate structure and the greed surrounding mergers and acquisitions; a topic that certainly has gotten much press over the last decade. How do you approach this in a way that draws readers into this topic? That’s a tough sell for a novel. Lots of people read novels to escape the headlines. How is your novel different?
Deb: Certainly there are plenty of people who read to escape, and it’s true there are no vampires in Pink Slips and Parting Gifts. But there are people who enjoy reading works that reflect their own experiences. With so many individuals in the U.S. who have experienced a corporate merger in recent years, the subject seemed ripe for an additional novel. The New York Times and London Telegraph have both noted a dearth of quality workplace fiction, with obvious exceptions such as Up in the Air, Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Devil Wears Prada.
My goal is to draw readers into the subject with an empathetic, understandable portrayal of the human consequences of a corporate merger. Like the story of the Titanic, there are first class, second class, and third class passengers (employees) aboard a corporation when the rush to the lifeboats begins. And whether you love or hate the individuals, they face challenges and their ultimate fates make an interesting story.
Jan: Your novel is filled with quirky, but oddly realistic characters. You’ve worked with human resources and had a number of roles in the corporate world, so I must assume that some version of each character exists out there in the corporate jungle of your experiences? Tell our readers about several of your favorites and the inspiration for these people?
Deb: Yes, real people inspired many of the characters, and some are the compilation of multiple people. I’ve made the acquaintance of more than one phobic executive over the years, including a germophobic CEO. I have a soft spot for the corporate pilot because he’s so out of the loop and without peers. T. J. Clarke, the compensation director, is a good example of a fact-based character with a fictitious “moment in the sun” monologue. The joy of writing fiction is that sometimes you get to let the characters have opportunities they may never experience in the real world.
One of the memorable characters in Pink Slips and Parting Gifts is a homeless man who lives on the loading dock behind the corporate headquarters after the merger. He is not a part of the corporation, but he is living off the downstream detritus from the company’s sale and downsizing. In fact, this character is completely fictional and did not exist during the real events behind the book. But the character was plucked from an experience I had years ago in my career as I walked through the streets of Washington, D.C. on the way to a meeting. He finally found a home in this novel.
As to the blurring of fact and fiction: In one of his essays Michael Chabon talks about the ultimate litmus test of good fiction. For him, it is having readers think they actually remember some fictional event or place the writer has invented. I have to agree. When Pink Slips and Parting Gifts was released, there were several former Rouse employees who claimed to remember the CEO’s yellow sofa—which was purely a product of my imagination.
Jan: I think about mergers as involving golden parachutes and executive entitlement that allows rich executives to pillage a company’s assets and strip away everything that isn’t nailed down. These events usually seem to leave loyal employees stranded, ruin communities and bring an end to positive growth. And yet, you use humor strategically to make some excellent points. Humor is difficult. Tell our readers how you manage to use humor, irony and satire to get at the heart of the impact of greed on individuals loyal to the original company.
Deb: In any stressful job situation, whether it’s a hospital emergency room or bomb disposal unit, gallows humor tends to evolve as a coping mechanism. I tried to capture some of that humor in Pink Slips and Parting Gifts when characters were forced to laugh, rather than cry. For every heartbreaking person and event in this novel, readers will find an amusing or satirical counterpart: the legal assistants pep squad chanting for their pensions; the maintenance workers accumulating office castoffs to build a nest for themselves post-merger; the corporate pilot without a plane; and regular, unsuspecting employees left to cope with merger aftermath.
I think what made me laugh were the many incidences of unbelievable absurdity that happened during the real events behind Pink Slips and Parting Gifts. In fact, many parts of the story that readers think must be fictional—because they are so absurd—are more likely to be fact-based.
Jan: You have a new novel underway. I understand it will be a very different novel. You’ve described it as both a love story and a mystery set in the Baltimore area. Tell us more about it.
Deb: Here’s the teaser for my next novel, Magic Numbers. “The state pension plan isn’t the only thing DOA. Retirees are missing. In the barren scrub of the Sonora Desert there are shovels, dead bodies and sunburn. And behind their Ray-Bans, the actuaries are armed and dangerous.” The protagonists are a couple of young outsiders finding their way into adulthood in the face of an eroding American dream.
Jan: I understand that you and your husband, Dave, moved from the Columbia – Baltimore area to NC in 2008 as early retirees to follow you writing dreams. The publishing business has been a tough place for writers during the past four years. How did your previous work experiences prepare you for this decision? And what have you learned from this adventure that you would like to share with readers.
Deb: Dave and I spent a lot of time over the years planning for an early retirement. Part of achieving that goal involved living somewhere outside the Washington, D.C. area. In many ways we were lucky with the timing of our transition into second careers. However, the exception to our good fortune was the collapse of the economy in 2008, and the fracturing of the traditional publishing industry in 2009. As in most jobs — except perhaps CEO —many things are beyond your control. You can produce a good product based upon your expertise, but not necessarily control the outcome.
Jan: I plan to get an interview with Dave posted this month to talk about the large research project you’ve both recently completed and that has produced a new book, Beyond Downton Abbey: A Guide to 25 Great Houses. And this is not your first joint project. You and your husband, Dave published a fun little book a decade ago called, Let’s Take the Kids to London, which was just released in the 4th edition this month by Roaring Forties Press in Berkley. Tell our readers how this book evolved. Also – if possible, can you offer a few quick tips to traveling with kids?
Deb: Let’s Take the Kids to London, in its first edition, was written completely by David, although I served as a “constructive critic.” But I was certainly a part of the travel team that inspired the book: our family’s adventures in London and beyond. As Dave and I have transitioned from full-time careers in the Baltimore-Washington area to our current writing ventures in North Carolina, we’ve continued to travel and we have helped each other with editing, proofing, marketing and consulting on our books. However, Beyond Downton Abbey was jointly written and we had a lot of fun seeing this project through to publication.
A family travel tip: It’s important for parents to realizing that a good trip is comprised of planned and unplanned time. Try not to over-schedule your vacation so that children can have down time and the chance to really experience their surroundings. Don’t skimp on the little stuff: shopping for postcards to send home, finding a playground, noticing the sounds of your travel destination, feeding the swans, climbing a tree, having a picnic lunch. It’s amazing how it’s often the small moments of a trip kids remember and talk about later in life.
Jan: You’ve said you always wanted to be a writer and now that you are successful, what is the worst advice you’ve ever heard about writing? And what words of encouragement can you offer to any aspiring writer?
Deb: The worst advice was that in fiction that anyone can write and publish a book. While that may be technically true, especially in today’s marketplace, the truth is that not everyone can write and publish a good book. I’ve met many new authors who feel they do not need to go back and edit, revise, and rewrite their work…that multiple drafts are a thing of the past. Sadly, you can tell from reading their books.
It requires a certain amount of skill, craft, and command of language to write well. Not to say that this cannot be learned. One of the best ways to learn about good writing is to read a lot. Read fiction and nonfiction. Read new authors and classics. Read the Atlantic fiction selections. Read outside your favorite genre. Perhaps the best advice to aspiring writers is to understand that learning to write well is an ongoing process. It requires tools and time and assistance that reach beyond simply having a story to tell. And the lessons of writing well are a lifetime journey.
More About The Author:
Deb Hosey White writes… I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. Early in my childhood I began writing poems, puppet plays, and short stories. I was among a handful of English majors in my college class not seeking a teaching certificate—because somehow, somewhere, I wanted to write.
I have had a successful lifelong career in human resources management and consulting. I figured if I could read and interpret Beowulf and Shakespeare, I could do the same with government regulations. I owned a boutique-consulting firm in the Baltimore-Washington area for fifteen years and wrote thousands of pages of policy in plain English, handbooks, and benefits brochures for all types and sizes of organizations. I spent an equal amount of time employed inside Fortune 1000 companies. And yes, within any organization, all the best stories end up in human resources. These days I consider myself a writer first; but I still provide some individual job coaching and consulting, and I serve on the board of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Greensboro. My husband (and co-writer/co-publisher) David and I met in a January term poetry class in college. So when people ask how two writers can exist under one roof, I explain we’ve been writing in the same room and critiquing each other’s work for a very long time.
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Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at: