It began with a freelance writer talking to his editor over dinner.
The editor, Colin Robinson, described how he got fired from a large publishing house, how impersonal it felt. How he got to pack up his belongings but could not take them with him; security would have to go through them first. How it felt driving home, telling those close to him, facing the future.
“Hey,” said writer D.W. Gibson, “there's a book in this. And I'm the guy to write it.”
Turned out there was a movie in it, too. Gibson spent the summer and fall of 2011 driving across the country, from Orange County, Calif., to New York City, interviewing more than 200 strangers about the day they got fired. He took along M.J. Sieber to film and help edit the interviews.
His inspiration was Studs Terkel's 1997 book, “Working,” in which Terkel interviewed people about what they do and how they feel about it. Robinson was a protege of Terkel's editor.
Robinson and Gibson struck a deal within a couple of days, and off Gibson went. The movie and the book, both titled “Not Working,” feature several Nebraskans and an Iowan prominently.
Terry Baseler, a former Omaha insurance worker, eloquently spoke of the American dream imploding. Randy Badman of DeWitt, Neb., saw his Vise Grip company sold and the work moved to China, devastating a community. Doug Messenger of West Des Moines, an architectural draftsman in his 50s, was displaced by software and lean times.
A year later, Gibson returned to the Midlands to touch base with those he interviewed and to circulate newly published copies of the book, which Penguin released earlier this month.
He also did a book reading, along with one of his interview subjects, at House of Loom one evening last week.
Wendy Hamilton of Omaha lost two development jobs with nonprofits in less than a year and a half.
“D.W. treated my story with so much respect, it boosted my confidence,” Hamilton said last week. “It's that community effort, the people who listen to you wail on about it, that lifts you back up and puts you on your feet.”
With a master's degree and plenty of job offers, Hamilton was flying high until the Great Recession hit in fall 2008. Suddenly, donor pledges at the museum where she worked were not rolling in. The staff was cut in half.
“I wasn't scared,” she said of the anticipated layoff. “My boss was crying, and I felt like I was comforting her. I thought I was fine, a big fish in a small pond.”
But she wasn't fine. It took nine months to find a job, and she had major credit card debt. She loved her new job, only to lose it seven months later. This time, she felt the fear.
“My heart was racing, my stomach flipping, my mouth went dry,” she said. “And I'm thinking, ‘What did I do wrong? How did I fail?' I just started weeping.”
It took a week to tell her mother. She edited what she said to friends, so they wouldn't worry about her. She's still getting over it, though she has a new job.
Gibson, reading from the book's intro, said the layoff has become an integral part of the American experience.
He talked to a mortgage broker who learned he was laid off when he found a padlock on the office building's front door. A human resources worker who had laid off hundreds suddenly found herself in the other chair. A husband talked of being laid off two weeks after learning his wife was pregnant. A wife told of laying off her own husband.
“Our work is tied to our sense of identity,” Gibson wrote. “What happens when that center post in our lives is yanked?” Getting laid off, he said, may be no fault of yours, but “all you hear is, ‘You don't want me here anymore.'”
In this election year, with the economy hanging tough, the subject of being fired, laid off, let go, downsized is red hot. Gibson is talking to several major distributors of documentary films about a deal, so keep your eyes peeled.
It's a bit like World War II, when everybody knew somebody who had lost a relative in combat. Death, like a layoff, affects many, many people besides the decedent.
What did Gibson learn from talking to all these people?
“The project was apolitical,” Gibson said. “I never brought it up during the interviews. But it's made me more nervous about our leadership — not Republicans or Democrats, but our political system. There's been a severe weakening of my faith in that leadership.”For his subjects, he said, the lesson was more immediate. They reconfigure their lives. The question quickly becomes: What can I live without?
“I'm finding that simplicity in my own life as well,” he said.