[Interview] Charles Derber

Charles Derber is a professor of Sociology at Boston College, a private university in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, in the United States.

So far, he has written and published 12 books, among them, The Wilding of America (Worth Publishers, 2006); Hidden Power (Berrett-Koehler, 2005); People Before Profit (Picador, 2003) and Corporate Nation (St. Martin's Griffin, 2000).

In this interview, Charles Derber talks about the factors which compel him to write.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I was trying to get tenure at a major university. That required a book. I also found writing something like a meditation. It calmed me and centered me. I also found it a way to think and communicate about issues that I was passionate about.

My first book took five years and I started in the early 1970s. It’s called The Pursuit of Attention and it’s about who talks and who listens in ordinary conversation -- and focuses on how people subtly shift the topic of conversation to themselves. It became a classic and Oxford published a 20th commemorative edition a few years ago, selling more than 70,000 copies.

How would you describe your writing?

I write idea-driven non-fiction books focused on politics, culture and social justice. I try to write simply and clearly about issues that matter. I think of myself as a public intellectual, a relatively small breed of writers who move out of their technical specialties and influence the public.

My target audience is the literate general public, especially those interested in the link between personal life and politics.

I want my writing to help shape the public conversation about moral values, economic justice, and how to change the world. My audience includes social movements for justice and the activists in these movements who are trying to understand how change happens, as well as Democratic Party activists and thinkers who are trying to make the Democratic Party more of a serious change agent.

Who influenced you most?

Originally, America’s most famous 20th century sociologist, named C. Wright Mills. He defined sociology as the study of the relation between private troubles and public issues. Since then, I would say writers like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn have had major impacts on me. I would say movements as well as individuals influence me: the peace and environment movements, the women’s movement, the labor, civil rights and participatory democratic movements.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

I’ve been writing for thirty years and I’ve always written about values and issues that affect me personally.

My experience as an activist in the sixties was a formative event, as I developed a critique of American capitalism and hope about how to change it. My experience in the South as a civil rights activist thirty years ago, and then an anti-war activist, had a major influence.

My relation with two groups -- students and social justice activists outside university -- keep me alive and informed. Students ask the right questions and activists are often the smartest, most knowledgeable critics.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

As already noted, I want to write about serious issues in a simple and electric way that engages the general public. It’s a challenge to straddle popular and serious non-fiction writing. It’s a special niche that a profit-driven publishing industry does not encourage as it looks only for the celebrity or how-to dumbed down book.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

It’s to keep up hope in a period of war and depression, of mass corruption and propaganda. And that means sustaining my own hope and optimism as well as nurturing those feelings in my readers.

Do you write everyday?

If I’m working on a book, I usually work everyday. I used to write on the morning; now my academic schedule makes it easier for me to write later in the day. The main thing is to have a few hours of uninterrupted time to draft a few pages each day.

What is your latest book about?

The latest is The New Feminized Majority: How Democrats Can Change America With Women’s Values. Paradigm Publishers released the book in February, 2008; it’s very time right now for the elections. Katherine Adam, formerly one of my undergraduates at Boston College, is the first author, and the book evolved from her senior honors thesis. This is very rare and a great accomplishment for her.

The book offers a serious treatment of the relation between women’s values and political change, as well as a strategy for how Democrats can win and change the country. It is a dramatic shift from the focus on Evangelical Christians as the only “values voters” in America.

Paradigm was a great choice because it could get the book out to the general public very quickly as both a trade book, and also as a book for students in college courses. The publisher and founder of the press, Dean Birkenkamp, is an intellectual who understands ideas and authors -- and is willing to devote a great deal of time to the books he publishes.

It is a small press, so it doesn’t have the clout and finances of the biggest [New York] N.Y. houses with which I have also worked. But what Paradigm lacks in those departments, it more than compensates in the close, collaborative and long-term strategy it develops to get its books out to the world. I haven’t felt any disappointments and recommend them enthusiastically.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Writing itself is always demanding. Working with Katherine made it a lot of fun. The difficulty was mainly timing -- getting the book out quickly enough to ride the wave of this year’s amazing election. And then the hard work of publicizing the book with the publisher is very time consuming, although also very rewarding.

Which aspects did you enjoy most?

In this case, it was writing with Katherine, who has accomplished something as an undergraduate that rarely happens in America. It’s also the fact that the book has such a provocative and important argument.

What sets the book apart from other things you've written?

The unusual collaboration with Kathernine I’ve already described. Also the intense focus on gender as a major source of morality and change in politics.

In what way is it similar?

Like all my work, it is directed to issues of political and social justice; it is popularly written; it is timely; it has important historical elements; it can help transform the public debate about where America and the Democratic Party and social movements can go.

What will your next book be about?

I think it might have a new focus on the relation between the environmental crisis, the progressive movements and the new existential crisis facing the world as a whole. But I haven’t decided for sure -- I have many topics rattling around my brain each time I think about starting a new project and it takes a while to sort them out.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I’d say it’s the entire corpus of my work that moves the conversation on social justice a bit further in the U.S. Each book adds a different piece of the picture and I feel a great sense of satisfaction about each of them.

How did you get there?

Obsession, hard work, polishing the craft of good writing, and the misfortune of living in a troubled world that is in desperate need of healing through creative new thinking and action.


Vanessa said…
Charles Derber is an extremely important and poignant writer of our time. I was lucky to have had him as a professor at Boston College as he is fervently passionate about the global justice issues that he so often writes about. Though I have not gotten to read 'The New Feminized Majority' I strongly recommend his new book 'Morality Wars'. It specifically concerns many of the current issues that we as a citizens of a global hegemon are directly implicated in.

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