1. What is your book about?
Small Business, Big Heart is the story of a business model based on kindness. Sal and Cindy struggled to find balance in their careers in the family-unfriendly restaurant industry. It drove them near bankruptcy and nearly destroyed their marriage until they reinvented themselves, placing less value on profits and more on their family and their religious faith. But the profits came not despite, but because of those counterintuitive business decisions. A breakthrough to their success came when they intentionally started hiring refugees and people in drug and alcohol recovery programs. They didn’t give these employees second chances out of a sense of being do-gooders, but because they found in them a workforce of loyal employees who shared their vision of the compassionate version of the American Dream.
2. What inspired you to write this book?
In my career with not-for-profit organizations I regularly heard the phrase, “Doing the right thing can be good business.” No, I would think, it IS good business. When Sal and Cindy came to tell their story to my church Sunday School class, I saw living proof of that long-time belief of mine.
3. What are some of the more powerful themes in your book?
—see people for what they can be; don’t stigmatize them
—have high standards for yourself and others
—when you give second chances, it pays off
—treating people with compassion can be incredibly hard work, but it pays off
4. What type of reader would enjoy this book?
People looking for balance in their life; people who want to avoid the work, family, or personal parts of their life overwhelming each other. People looking for inspiration about how the decision you make to invest in others can pay off. Business people interested in how a business model succeeds when it is based on treating employees with compassion.
5. What do you hope people learn from your book?
That you should give people a chance—don’t operate off your preconceptions. That making a discipline out of treating people kindly will make you happier, and a better business, family, and spiritual person. It will make the world a better place. Heck, Sal and Cindy’s story proves that giving people second chances can even save lives.
6. What was your biggest challenge writing this book?
Learning to trust myself, and my writing voice. I would regularly lose my nerve in large ways—“is this whole project just an enormous waste of my life?”—to daily small ways—“Can I write this sentence that way? Will it make sense to people? Is it worth saying? Can I really have this much fun?”
7. Who is your favorite author and what are some of your favorite books?
Robert Caro wrote the best book I ever read, The Power Broker, a massively in-depth biography of Robert Moses, who for decades was the most ruthlessly powerful man in New York City, as head of the parks, roads, and bridges. Caro is currently partway through an equally outstanding multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Next best is Roger Kahn’s Good Enough to Dream, about a year of a minor league baseball team filled with huge talents who would never make the major leagues because, as good as they were, they were only good enough to dream. For kicking back I like hard-boiled detective novels, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books.
8. What was the hardest part about writing for you and why?
Interviewing. A major professional difficulty of mine is a combination of not being outgoing and of being controlling. So I’m scared to death of interviewing people. I treat each one as a command performance, trying to script it ahead of time, terrified I’ll ask questions in a way that won’t get good answers, and at the same time dreading having to talk to someone, and not wanting to wast their time. With a book that ended up based on nearly 80 interviews, that got exhausting.
9. How much research went into writing your book?
The 80 interviews with a total of about 30 people were the basis. There was also a huge amount of combing through files on the Internet, old newspaper stories, and I ended up loving Wikipedia for the unreal variety of questions it can answer. To write this book properly I had to learn details about areas way outside my experience—I’ve never worked at a restaurant; had no experience with drug and alcohol treatment programs; never been even near a refugee camp.
10. When did you first know you wanted to write a book?
I spent my life writing, even the hard work part of it came easy (sitting for hours alone with a keyboard is a welcome way for an introvert to spend time), including 20 years as a magazine editor. But when people would ask if I was going to write a book, I always said nope, too hard. I also knew the book publishing industry has very different rules from periodicals. But when I heard Sal and Cindy tell their story to my Sunday School class, I heard something I thought more people should hear. Over the next weeks, talking with my wife, I started thinking that writing about their experience was something maybe I could do, maybe even needed to do. I e-mailed Sal and Cindy, saying I thought their story could be a book and Sal replied, “We do too, but we’re not writers, so we consider your e-mail to be divine intervention.” And that was that. I was 64 years old at the time.
11. What is your writing process?
I’m a morning writer. First step is to make a pot of coffee. Next I read a few newspapers—leisurely if there are no pressing deadlines, quickly if I’m, feeling anxious that day to get to work. I don’t do rough drafts. Oh yes there are multiple passes over my work as part of the editing process, but I cannot write a sentence unless I believe it’s in its final form, flowing, in-context, fact checked, and hopefully at least a bit poetic. No fill-in-the-blank-later sentences for me—at my first newspaper job they nicknamed me The Stone Cutter. Most of my substantive research I need for what I’m working on at the moment I keep in multiple open documents on my computer screen—I do a lot of minimizing and switching among open windows. On an old-fashioned physical clipboard, I jot down fragments of ideas and rough outlines on a piece of paper, so I have an idea where I’m headed. Also, when I write my mind enters a different state—my consciousness goes to the time and place I’m writing about. I visualize myself actually there. By about noon that’s about all the intense concentration I can handle at once, so I need to eat lunch, head to the gym and otherwise spend the rest of the day on less thinking-intense activities. I don’t believe in writer’s block—writing is just plain old hard work. When I am stuck for a big idea, like the first sentence of a story or chapter, I change my mental and physical perspective. Usually that means leashing up the dog and heading out for a neighborhood walk. That tactic has never failed to return with a solution.
12. What is the best advice you have received about writing?
Please excuse the crudity, but it was, “Show your ass.” The less-salty version of that is to reveal yourself. Your unique personality is not only what makes your writing interesting, it makes it a unique contribution to the world. Take the risk, dare to expose your hopes, fears, dreams, and sense of humor, and how you view the world.
13. What advice would you have for anyone getting ready to write a book?
Know why you want to write it. You’re in for possibly years of single-minded work. When I had trouble figuring out how to write the next thing or my motivation left me, I would renew my energy by returning to my original reason for wanting to write the book: the world needs to see this evidence that doing the right thing is good business.
14. What is the most surprising thing you discovered about yourself during the writing process?
That I was following instructions from something outside myself. All my writing before was more craft-oriented and less inspirational, carrying out the assignments of others—ghost writing a column, meeting a magazine deadline. My spirituality is too complicated a blend of the mystical, Christian, and practical to explain here, but with Small Business, Big Heart I regularly felt guided. Many times, that made it easier to know what to write.
15. What is next for you as an author?
I’m going to have to wait for the next inspiration. My goal right now is to tell as many people as possible that kindness and compassion pays dividends. There are many people I had to leave out of this book in order to ever finish writing. Maybe I’ll be going back to tell their stories, or maybe there will be another unforeseen bolt from the blue. I’ll keep writing my blog—scroll down to check out some of my first blog posts in addition to my latest ones at the top. But I will be writing something. It’s what I do.
16. Where can people learn more about you and where can they buy your book?
Go support your local bookstore, or go to paulwesslund.com where you’ll be able to click to buy it, and learn more about where the book came from, and developments on where it’s going.