Upcoming book is inside observer's look at the Detroit bankruptcy


Author Nathan Bomey conducted hundreds of interviews and poured over thousands of documents in writing his book on the Detroit bankruptcy that “gives a sweeping account of financial ruin, backroom intrigue, and political rebirth in the struggle to reinvent one of America’s iconic cities.”

by Tom Kirvan
Legal News

“Rebirth” and “renaissance” are just two of the “R” words making the national rounds in describing post-bankruptcy Detroit.

“Resurrected” is a term that former Detroit Free Press reporter Nathan Bomey prefers, particularly since it serves as an apt title for his 325-page book on the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

The book, to be released in late April by the New York based publisher W. W. Norton & Company, is titled Detroit Resurrected: To Bankruptcy and Back. It is expected to be the first among a series of books published on the historic case, which was played out over a nearly 17-month period from July 2013 to December 2014.

Bomey, now a business writer for the nation’s largest newspaper, USA Today, had the proverbial front row seat for the bankruptcy proceedings, covering the case for The Free Press during his stay with the Detroit daily, which also is part of the Gannett chain. An Eastern Michigan University alum, the 31-year-old Bomey originally was assigned the General Motors beat for The Free Press, but expressed interest in helping the paper cover the impending bankruptcy when the city’s financial situation deteriorated in early 2013.

“I have been fascinated by bankruptcies, particularly the back stories and how they unfold,” Bomey said in a phone interview from his USA Today office in McLean, Va. “When I worked in Ann Arbor, I helped cover the Borders’ bankruptcy, and, of course, there were still stories to write about GM’s emergence from bankruptcy.”

But the aftershocks from a municipal bankruptcy, especially involving a major industrial city, became a “far different ball game,” Bomey acknowledged. He learned as much while piecing together a “forensic audit of how the city went broke” as part of a story he wrote in the summer of 2013 with Free Press colleague John Gallagher.

“We conducted a sophisticated analysis of the city’s financial collapse, which involved going through dusty old records at the Detroit Public Library in an effort to understand what happened to its financial state over the past 50 years,” Bomey explained. “It was a very intimidating task, but we were able to develop a financial database that was the foundation for our reporting. It wasn’t easy, since most of the information was not accessible online, but we just kept digging and reading until we had a clearer picture of what happened.”

What surfaced led to the paper’s award-winning coverage of a true American tragedy, the kind that leaves thousands of city workers, pensioners, and creditors in its wake. For months, the case dominated the local headlines while also attracting national attention from the print and broadcast media as Detroit’s financial fate hung in the balance.

Bomey, the son of a minister, admits that he became a “little obsessed” with covering the bankruptcy story, dissecting the financial fallout from the case in daily detail for the print and digital readers of The Free Press.

“There were so many tentacles to the case, particularly the impact it was having on city government, Detroit residents, and its institutions,” Bomey said. “Then there were all the key decision makers – the judges, the emergency manager, the mayor, the governor – and their various backgrounds and personalities.”

For a bankrupt city, ironically, there was an untapped wealth of stories begging to be told, most of a very compelling kind, Bomey soon discovered. In short, it had all the makings of a book, a possibility that Bomey began to “mull over” in early 2014.

By the summer of that year, Bomey’s thoughts were starting to turn to reality when he was contacted by a New York publishing agent about writing a book on the Detroit bankruptcy.

“It was a bit out of the blue, but she said that she had been reading my coverage of the case and thought that it had book potential,” Bomey related.

The agent, Bomey said, asked him to put together a written “pitch” that she could take to publishers. The 10-page outline impressed several publishing houses, including W. W. Norton & Company, which counts best-selling author Michael Lewis of The Blind Side and The Big Short fame among its stable of writers.

“I was offered a book deal last fall (2014) with the goal of submitting a first draft in the spring since we figured that interest would remain high about the case,” Bomey said.

His first draft came in at some 105,000 words, nearly 30,000 more than the publisher’s target. He then began some judicious cutting, trimming nearly a third of his original manuscript before submitting it to his publisher.

“It’s obviously easier to cut than to add, but it was still hard to trim that much without sacrificing the quality of the entire story,” Bomey acknowledged. “Fortunately, I received great feedback from my editor who recommended that I restructure the first couple of chapters to make the book unfold in a different way.”

After submitting his second draft in May, Bomey has been involved in the tasks of line editing, copy editing, and proofreading at various stages over the last few months in anticipation of an April 25, 2016 national release date.

The publicity wheels are already turning for Detroit Resurrected, which is being billed by W. W. Norton as “the inside story of the fight to save Detroit against impossible odds.” The author, according to publicists, “provides a gripping account of the tremendous clash between lawyers, judges, bankers, union leaders, politicians, philanthropists, and the people of Detroit themselves.”

The book, as it is promoted, tells of a “battle to rescue” Detroit that “pulled together those who believed in its future – despite their differences. Help came in the form of Republican governor Rick Snyder, a technocrat who famously called himself ‘one tough nerd;’ emergency manager Kevyn Orr, a sharp-shooting lawyer and ‘yellow-dog Democrat;’ and judges Steven Rhodes and Gerald Rosen, the key architects of the grand bargain that would give the city a second chance at life.”

Bomey, who began his newspaper career as a freelancer for The Saline Reporter in the fall of 2000 while a high school junior, quickly moved up the writing ranks, working in various reporting roles for Heritage Newspapers, The Ann Arbor Business Review, and AnnArbor.com before joining The Free Press in 2012.

Last June, Bomey made the move to USA Today as a national business reporter after his wife, Kathryn, a former reporter for The State Journal in Lansing, accepted a position in the Washington, D.C. area in communications for The Nature Conservancy.

Come spring, Bomey expects to return to metro Detroit to promote the book, complete with radio and TV appearances. He is almost certain to appear on a Detroit public radio show hosted by Free Press editorial page editor and columnist Stephen Henderson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Henderson gives Bomey’s book a glowing review:

“No one covered Detroit’s historic municipal bankruptcy more closely than former Detroit Free Press reporter Nathan Bomey,” Henderson wrote in an endorsement. “And his unpacking of it here is superlative – not only the sordid history and mechanics of how and why Detroit went broke, but also how it got through court-supervised restructuring and emerged in a position to do better by its residents. With deep reporting and incisive insights, Bomey takes readers inside the process in a way only he could. If you care about cities – past, present, or future – Detroit Resurrected is a must-read.”

The book can be pre-ordered through Amazon and other major publishing outlets, and Bomey said he eagerly awaits the national reviews.

“As a first-time author, I am not sure quite what to expect, but my hope is that readers will find the narrative interesting and will be offered insight on how Detroit was given a second chance at life.”