December 2008

Jon Fullmer

features

An Interview with Matt Weiland

“The country is way bigger, way stranger, and way more interesting than we ever acknowledge.” So said Matt Weiland, Senior Editor of HarperCollins imprint Ecco, reflecting on what he missed most about America after moving to London in the early 2000s. And this sentiment is just what he and co-editor Sean Wilsey, author of Oh, the Glory of It All, set out to reveal in their latest anthology, State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. The collection brings together fifty of our finest writers and graphic novelists -- including Dave Eggers on Illinois, Barry Hannah on Mississippi, Jhumpa Lahiri on Rhode Island, and Jonathan Franzen on New York -- to explore what America means to them, one state at a time.

Largely inspired by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s and '40s, Weiland and Wilsey decided to create their own version of the WPA state guides -- a government-funded project that ascribed numerous writers to explore each of the then-48 states in separate volumes through oral history, essays, photography, and tourist information -- only compacted into a single collection. The WPA guides, though for the most part written anonymously, likewise included contributions from a number of familiar names: Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, Studs Terkel, and Richard Wright. Weiland, a fan and longtime collector of the WPA guides, revisited the series after his years abroad caused him to long for the distinctive facets that have composed America’s story. He returned to the States to serve as the Deputy Editor of The Paris Review, and he and Wilsey immediately began working on the book.

When Powell’s bookstore heard about the project they slated State By State to become the third installment of their Out of the Book film series. Nineteen of the contributors gathered together in Harlem in New York, not only to celebrate the release of the book, but also to read about and discuss their states. The result was a poignant and entertaining film that Weiland and Wilsey screened as they toured the country with various writers to promote the book.

In addition to his positions at Ecco at The Paris Review,Weiland has worked as an editor for Granta, the New Press, and The Baffler. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New York Observer, The Nation, and The New Republic. He is also the co-editor, with Sean Wilsey, of The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup and, with Thomas Frank, of Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler.

In the following interview, Matt Weiland defends the memoir, tells why Sean Wilsey is the most persistent man in American letters, and discusses the election and what he loves most about America: the people, the history, and the stories that bind us all together. I met Mr. Weiland at a State By State event at The Book Cellar in Chicago; he later spoke with me over the phone from his former Paris Review office in New York.

Tell me a little about the video. I watched it again the other day and really enjoyed it. I think Powell’s did a great job with it, and it looks like you guys had a lot of fun making it.

We had a ball. I think all credit to Powell’s. When they said they were really enthusiastic about the book and that they wanted to make a film of it, obviously Sean and I were pleased, but I’ve got to say I was dubious. You know, how do you make a film that anyone would actually enjoy watching, with many, many writers talking about different states? They said, Leave that to us. We’ll rent out an old American Legion hall in Harlem, and if you can get as many of the writers there as possible, we’ll make a day out of it. So Sean and I did that; we had nineteen of the writers there, and of course they provided free beer, which is a very good thing, and the folks at the American Legion hall cooked up a hell of a good barbecue lunch. After that, things just sort of fell into place. It's amazing what good barbecue and beer will do for nineteen writers to put them in good spirits.

I also think they not only did a good job of making the film entertaining, but making one that captures the spirit and the sound of the book. I think anyone seeing that film would be inclined to agree with the fundamental argument of the book, that America retains a surprising degree of variety from one state to the next, despite all the pressure from big box superstores and interstate highways and commercial radio and all the rest.

What are some highlights from the tour?

One thrill was going back the Minneapolis Central Library where I grew up. There were a couple hundred people there. They built this great new beautiful library. I remember going to the library there when I was just a little kid, and it was just a gas to show up there and to support the library that way.

In Milwaukee, in addition to Harry Schwartz, the great old independent bookstore, we did an event at a local high school. They invite visiting writers, and we went, and it was amazing. It was for the high school assembly -- there were like four-hundred students -- and the thing is, we were really late getting into town because we had to drive from Minneapolis. The assembly, we were told, would begin at 1:05 sharp, and we drove up to the school at 1:04. It was the only time in my life I felt like a politician or something, where they rushed me and two of the writers onto the stage, and the students erupted into applause. It was an amazing scene [laughs]. It was really fun, and they reacted really well. I wasn’t sure what high school students would make of it, but we were careful to select the pieces with the most drinking and the most sex.

Yeah, that is surprising. It’s great to see high school kids caring about that sort of thing, treating writers like celebrities.

Totally. It didn’t hurt that it was the day after the Brewers made the playoffs. I laid it on them that I had been a Brewers fan in 1982, when they last made it, so I think I got some credit for that. Although 1982 is pretty much before they were born. It would be like saying I like the Red Stockings from 1894.

At what point did Powell’s get involved? When did they contact you guys? Or did you contact them?

It was six or eight months ago, in the winter. I know the folks at Powell’s, and had been in regular touch. I had told them I was impressed with the first two films they had done -- one about Ian McEwan and one about David Halberstam -- and I told them what we were up to and that they should have a look. After that it was all them. They read the book and saw promise in it.

How did that relationship affect the development of the book? Did it change any of your plans or your ideas of when or how you wanted to get things done?

The book was pretty much done when we gave it to Powell’s to read, so the facts of the film didn’t change what was in the book. It definitely made promoting the book a lot more fun. I don’t know about you, but I’m bored at most readings, even for writers I really admire on the page -- they are not usually that entertaining to go see at a reading. But a film, people respond to, especially a well-made one like this. So that’s made it a lot more appealing.
 
By the same token, I think both Sean and I feel that as great as the film is, and as much as we and people all over the place seem to enjoy it, I don’t think it’s a substitute for the book. I think it’s kind of a taster. I hope people will turn to the book and find something fuller and different. Because print is just much deeper and slower and more subtle, I find. That’s why I work in print.

I absolutely agree. I definitely got that sense the first time I watched the film. It made me want to go back and revisit the essays I had already read and to check out the ones I hadn’t gotten to yet. It’s definitely a lot of fun, but I don’t think it distracts from the book itself at all.

In retrospect, I wish that all fifty writers could have been there, which would have been impossible for many reasons. There’s been some talk about trying to expand the film, but in a way it’s such a perfect distillation of that perfect day that that might be tough to do.

Yeah, kind of like going back and redoing a favorite film of yours. It would be hard getting everyone to act the same...

Yeah, Be Kind, Rewind, you know.

What are some pieces that caught you off guard? Maybe you were anticipating something specific, and a writer just blew away all your expectations?

I think Josh Ferris is one that just lit me up right away. I think everybody knows from his first book what a good novelist he is, and he’s going to be writing great novels for a long time to come. But when we assigned him Florida, where he in part grew up, I wasn’t sure what we would get; I think what we got was one of the most moving pieces in the book. It’s an account of all the things he learned from working in a scummy Key West diner, and how the important things -- really, the essential things that formed him while growing up in Florida -- are things he learned from the dishwashers and the older waitresses and the addicts, and the people who didn’t have much in common with his own life, but had much to teach him, besides. And I think in that way it’s kind of a profound piece about how a place makes you, and that place is not just the topography or the climate or the mythology. It’s the people you meet there, and that’s a theme that runs throughout the book. I think he tells it as well as anybody. But it’s also a really funny piece, and I suppose that won’t surprise readers of his work. I think his is one of the best in the book.

What are some others that you consider to be exemplary of rest of the collection? Any you suggest people to begin with to get a sense of book as whole?

I’d say one oddball one that I like to point people to is the one on Delaware. Obviously, it’s a book with a lot of writers whose names we’re familiar with -- Jonathan Franzen and Barry Hannah and S.E. Hinton and Jhumpa Lahiri, and on and on -- but the writer from Delaware isn’t one that’s so well know. His name is Craig Taylor, and he’s a playwright and an oral historian. He’s a great fan of Studs Terkel’s books, which I know you know right there in Chicago, and I’m a huge fan of Studs’s books from when I worked at The New Press. I felt it was really important to get some oral history into State By State, and Craig Taylor did a marvelous job. I mean, Delaware is a place no one really knows much about, other than the fact that credit card companies are based there, and that it’s a place to set up a business because of its tax policies. Nobody knows much about it, or at least Sean and I didn’t, and so we sent Craig down there for ten days, and we told him to meet everybody you can and come back with a piece of writing that captures this place, which is what we said for the whole book. But what he came back with is -- well, I think this piece is still going to be read fifty years from now, because it is so memorable and so vivid. Everyone he talked to, from black single mothers at a bus station in Wilmington to a couple of Mexican fishermen fishing in the shadow of a nuclear reactor right on the canal, right on up to the former governor of the state -- he went out and did the work. It’s a great example of pavement-pounding reportage, but also the example of Studs Terkel -- that is, listening to what people have to say and asking good questions about their lives, and realizing that people have real stories to tell, stories that are not just true, but particular and specific to who they are in the place they live. So I think that is a great place to start; an unlikely place, perhaps, Delaware not being the point in the book most people would think of turning to first. But I recommend it. And I really love that piece.

I suppose it is interesting that Delaware was our first state, so maybe that’s part of why it’s a good place to start.

That’s appropriate, exactly. I should have thought of that. You’re exactly right. The first state for a reason.

Can you talk a little more about the origins of the book? In your introduction to the book, and also in the video, you make it very clear that it was largely inspired by the WPA guides, but what events or ideas came together to say that this book needed to be written now?

There were a few things that came together. I spent four years living abroad. I was working at Granta magazine as the deputy editor there in London, and I loved it -- I loved living in London. I was proud of the magazine, but over time I found that I really missed America in ways that surprised me, in ways I couldn’t quite pinpoint. Of course I was really happy to be away; it was the heart of the Bush years, and so politically I was very glad to be somewhere else. But they were just small things, vague things, American things that weighed on me: space, or the ability to just get in a car and go, or the sound of American talk and how it varies so much from one place to another.

I grew up all over the Midwest, and I somehow missed that feeling. Like I said, it was a vague thing. I couldn’t express exactly what it was, but I found myself looking back at the old WPA guides, which I’ve always loved and collected, and that sort of reminded me of local things, specific things, like the memory of driving around Indian mounds in Ohio, or heading up to the iron range in northern Minnesota. Or tooling around Pullman on the south side of Chicago. These are things I didn’t even remember liking, necessarily. I just missed the sound of the people you’d meet along the way. I once went for a long drive along the Mississippi and met a man who sold typewriters in a store on the Iowa side of the border, and things started reminding me of people like that. It got me thinking of the WPA guides, and happily, Sean liked them too.

We’d done the previous book together, The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, and that had gone really well. The folks at the publishing house, you know, if they like one thing you’ve done they’re very keen that you will do it again. Originally, the second thing that came together was that the election was approaching and we all knew that 2008 was going to be a very big deal. This was even before any of us knew who the candidates were going to be, so the folks at Ecco were very keen on us doing a similar kind of book in time for the election. Originally, we said no because I didn’t want to do a book just to do a book. I didn’t want to do a book that I wouldn’t myself want to buy or read or own. And besides, what would a thinking fan’s guide to the election even mean? But the more we thought about it the more we thought we could do something a little different, not having anything directly to do with the elections, but after all reminding us what the elections are for, who they’re for, and why we bother -- which is that we’ve got a country that is made up of enormous variation; robust, cacophonous variety, which is, after all, what we love about it. And what we complain about too. So that’s how the idea took shape. And to be honest, we went back to Ecco and said we don’t want to do anything directly related to the elections, but here’s this other idea we want to do, and we thought they were going to say thanks, but no way; that’s going to be a very long and very expensive book. And fifty writers, who could sell that? You know, all the things that publishers usually say, and happily Dan Halpern, who’s a great, great editor, and has been for a long time, was really enthusiastic and understood right away what we had in mind. So that’s the back-story.

So when did you guys actually begin working on the book? What was the process like, as far as getting a hold of and working with all the writers, et cetera?

We started a little more than two years ago. I was still in London, and that’s when we decided it was what we wanted to do, and Ecco was excited. Right after that we started contacting writers. It really took us about a year and a half to round up all the writers and get the essays into shape, and Ecco produced the book in about six months. And here we are. It was a mad dash, a crazy rush. And in the middle of it I moved back to America to come work on The Paris Review, which is great -- and meant I was back in the country we were writing about, which was a fruitful thing. Of course it made me miss London. [laughs]

So is that next, maybe?

[laughs] Maybe, maybe.

I was curious about some of the responses the book has received in regards to the election. How have some people been upset or excited by the book, or how have those responses captured some of your expectations?

That’s a good question. I’ll answer that in a second. I’ll just toss in, as for what’s next: it’s not for me or Sean to do, but this same sort of thing could be done on a smaller level. I mean, just think about Chicago itself, which is made up of so many different neighborhoods; which is made up of really great, varied histories. Josh Clark, who did the Louisiana piece for us, has done a book like this on Louisiana, and indeed has done the same thing for New Orleans. I would love to read a book about Chicago, you know, fifty or however many writers on the neighborhoods in Chicago. That’s not what we’re going to do next, but that sort of thing would be a lot of fun.

And I think that leads into your question about the reactions. For one thing, people have reacted to it really enthusiastically. The book, I’m told by Ecco, is selling really well; it’s been reviewed in pretty much every place it could possibly be reviewed. Except, for the record, my hometown newspaper, The Minneapolis Star Tribune. Annoyingly, pretty much every other paper in America has reviewed this book, but my hometown paper has decided not to. Go figure. But people also reacted how Sean and I hoped they would, which is: this is great, but the piece on my state doesn’t capture everything -- it doesn’t capture where I’m from. And that’s all to the good. I mean, we’re pretty print savvy, but I’m hoping someone will set up a site for people to tell their own tales about their state, and corners of it, and jokes, or recipes, or anecdotes that no one else has ever heard. Because I think that’s the point of the book, to elicit that sort of thing.

Yeah, what a great way to capture that, the idea of unifying Americans in our differences.

That’s right. Remember, that’s in the very motto of the country itself: all are one. And let’s not forget the many part of it in a rush for the one. And then as far as the election goes, I don’t know about you, but it was a very, very long campaign. There was a different state in the news every day. Much was made of the conventions in Colorado and Minnesota. But for all that, what do we really learn about those places? Speaking of Colorado, how many millions of dollars were spent on the political conventions? And they’re on network TV, and everything. And yet, do we know anything more about Colorado and Minnesota than we did before the conventions? You know, I think instead I hope that readers will take from the book this sense that there’s much more to know about these places, and the political campaigns. I wish it would force us all to find out a bit more about all these places and all the many states we know very little about.

I think that’s a great idea. For me, I grew up mostly in the South, so I feel like I don’t have a mindset that understands where people stand politically in certain parts of the country. Colorado, for instance -- which way they vote.

You grew up in Tennessee? Is that right?

I spent the past eight years there, but mostly lived in Virginia, and in Pennsylvania for a while before that.

Oh, I see. I mean, those are -- all three of those states are examples of places that are enormously varied, even within the state. Tennessee, famously. Three completely different parts. But we felt that way about every state, that the more you look at it, the higher the level of magnification, you suddenly realize that states vary from region to region, from city to city, from county to county, and on and on. I don’t ever want to lose that. I think it’s important that we recognize that and remember it. And even cherish it. Even out of many we cherish becoming one. Those two things are not contradictory.
 
What is your relationship like with Sean? Did you guys have any points of disagreement? What makes you a good team?

I’m glad you asked about that. There’s no way I could have done this book with anyone else besides Sean. Everybody knows Sean is one of our most exciting writers from his book, Oh the Glory of it All; is there anybody who gets as much energy and sheer electricity onto the page? I doubt it [laughs]. But what people may not know is that he’s incredibly curious, and an exceptionally good editor. Not just at the level of ideas, but in coming up with ideas for what writer on what state, and on substantive editing; on working with writers to make their work as good as it can possibly be. And I mean no dishonor to any of the writers to say that we worked very closely with them all to revise as much as possible, to make every piece as lasting and solid and convincing as possible. And I take great pride in that kind of work. I’ve done it on The Baffler and on Granta and now at The Paris Review. And to Sean, likewise, that means a lot to him -- he did it at The New Yorker and continues to do it for McSweeney’s. So we tend to see things very similarly.

He also, like me, feels that memoir as a genre too often gets a kicking and doesn’t deserve to. It’s true that there are a lot of soppy, saggy memoirs, and I’m happy to give those a kicking, as would anyone. But what Sean recognizes, and I share, is this view that when done well, there’s nothing more interesting and nothing more revealing than a great writer writing about her own family. Or the place he’s from. In the hands of a really good writer one can learn a hell of a lot about a place and a time through a piece that is very personal. And call it what you like -- I mean, we grasp the word memoir, a French word, after all, because we have no good word for it in English. Even essay, after all, is a French word. So I think in that way we work really well together, because in pushing writers to be as personal as possible, even while telling stories about other people, their works could be fruitful and revealing and surprising. So in that way it was a lot of fun.

And finally, I’d say Sean is the most fun person to be around you will ever encounter. We had a really good time. And doing a book like this requires spending a lot of time together, going back and forth, and there is no one else I’d rather have done it with than Sean. There’s no one I could have done it with than Sean. And I’d say that even when we differed in some of the writers -- sometimes we felt stronger about one writer than the other did -- but that’s the nature of it, you know? There it is, democracy in action [laughs].

You can definitely sense you guys’ energy together, and Sean’s energy, and the way you guys brought out a lot out of the writers in the film. It seemed like everybody was having fun and that a lot of it had to do with the two of you talking about things and getting the best out of everybody.

We felt that way, and we felt there was a lot of good will from the writers. I think, happily, one thing we discovered in doing it was that it’s not just me and Sean. We were huge fans of the ideals behind the WPA guides—many of the writers we chose turned out to be as well. The filmmaker Alexander Payne -- many of his films are set in Omaha, and we were excited to ask him to do Nebraska. What turned out to be a happy surprise was that he collects WPA state guides. And similarly with Kevin Brockmeier and Jim Lewis, we found the same thing: others were big fans of the books. It all panned out, and I think they saw very quickly we wanted to make a book that would still be read decades from now. We hope so, anyway. And I think the writers recognized that early on, and that meant working with them very seriously and very closely, and not even taking their A-minus work, but pushing them for their absolute best. I think it paid off. I’m certainly very proud to have worked with so many writers I admire and love reading.

I was going to ask you about that, too. I think it may have been when you were in Chicago, you were talking about how you and Sean split the contributors down the middle. Was there any kind of rationale behind who worked with whom? Did either of you get to work with anyone you were dying to work with?

[laughs] Not really. Sometimes we swapped based on timing because we tried to do it on a rolling basis so that we could handle it. I felt strongly about working with Minnesota, my home state, and Sean felt the same about his state, California, where he grew up, and that was great. We didn’t really argue over any places; it kind of worked out fine. By the end, when the last [essays] were coming in, we were beat. We were glad at that point that America stops at fifty states. We decided to do an afterword with Edward P. Jones about D.C., but we were relieved that the territories -- the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Samoa, and Puerto Rico -- were only territories and had not gained state status. That would have been the end of us.

What was different in working on this book from working on your first book, The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup?

Well, I think there was a great risk in this one as opposed to the first, because the first one had this real obvious core, that is, everyone was a fan of international soccer and of the World Cup, so that gave it a sort of grounding. Not that everyone wrote directly about soccer, but at least it gave it an organizing principle. But with this one there was more of a risk because it was too broad. I mean, how do you say anything about a state? It’s an enormous subject. But we encouraged all the writers not to be comprehensive, to choose one good story to try to tell, to brighten one corner of their state -- even to focus on one big joke. And I think that helped a lot, and the writers took that to heart. I mean, Dave Eggers, in his piece on Illinois, is a great example of this. He makes the case for Illinois being number one in so many respects, and it’s a very funny piece, as one would expect. But it might surprise people that it is a really profound piece -- especially as a Midwesterner, I think he absolutely captures some fundamentals of Midwesternness and Illinois-ness at an even more local level. That came from, instead of expanding the essay out, recalling things that had happened to him there. And that was the case with all the best essays; people looked inward to tell larger stories. I think he does that superbly in the piece, and I think that is emblematic of what we had in mind for the whole book.

I was also wondering about the design -- it’s a very beautiful book, very visual. There are photos in the middle; you have a couple graphic novelists who contributed to it; and the artwork on the endpapers...

All of that was really important to us. When we started, we wanted to not just make a good book to read, but to make a good book to own, one that would be attributed in a way to the original beauty of the WPA guides. We said as much to Ecco, and we wanted to be sure they saw it the same way. Thankfully, there is a fantastic art director at Ecco whose name is Allison Saltzman, who was a total pleasure to work with. She just got it right from the start, and recognized that making a beautiful book costs money, more than any publisher wants to spend on any book, no doubt. But quality pays, and I think people recognize handsome books when they see one, and I hope that they buy them.

We gave Alison [Bechdel, contributing graphic novelist], for example, this great old image from a poster that the WPA Writers Project had produced in 1941, and I just love this poster. I found it on the Library of Congress website, which has an incredible assortment of Federal Writers Project materials -- posters you can get reproduced that are really great. I’ve got the Federal Writers Project “Who’s Who in the Zoo” cover reproduced in my little boy’s room, right above his crib so he can look at that. But Alison, she really ran with it; she shared our love for that poster, and she made a beautiful cover out of it.

We suggested making one of those great old maps of the United States, using an icon from each essay for each state. I used to find diners in the Midwest that would use those as placemats, you know, with an ear of corn for Iowa, and so on. We got the excellent cartoonist Seth to draw an original one, and he just loved that, and we love it, and I think it makes the end-sheets really wonderful.

And as far as the photos are concerned, that was totally Sean’s idea. We loved the way the original WPA guides have photos, some of which were taken by great photographers, and even great writers -- Eudora Welty took the pictures in the Mississippi state guide. So his idea was to ask every writer in the book to pick one image, you know, maybe a family snapshot or a found photograph, or maybe even a painting or some image that somehow captures the state they were writing about. And originally, I’ll be honest, I thought, I don’t know if we can get all them -- what happens if you get forty-nine of them, you know? You’ve got to have all fifty, right? And would Ecco be willing to reproduce these in color, and all the rest? But Sean persisted, as is his way -- he’s the most persistent man in American letters -- and got them all. Ecco, on seeing them, they said absolutely, we’ve got to have these in the book. So that’s how that came about, and I’m really glad we did it. I think they’re really beautiful.

On perhaps an even more personal level, how has the collection changed your perspective on America, or anything else -- regarding our country as a whole, or any of the states in particular? Anything that has illuminated some truth to you?

Well, I think truth, like liberal, is a word that’s been demonized, in recent years, especially. Not least of all because the hard right has taken patriotism to its breast, as a word, anyway. And all too often it’s left to be used in the one sense of defending the country from attack from without, from afar. And of course that’s an important meaning of the word, and we may differ over how dire the threat is -- I’ve nothing against that use of the word. But I think there are other uses of the word that we’ve lost, or we’ve allowed to be erased. And this very much goes back to the Federal Writers Project and the WPA as a whole in the mid-thirties, when there was an effort -- a huge effort -- to remind ourselves during the Depression of all the things we had to be proud of and confident about. It started, I think, even earlier than that, with H.L. Mencken’s book called The American Language -- defending, really for the first time, American-English versus English-English. Later on, during the war and after, of course Harry Smith’s great anthology of American folk music made the case that indigenous American music was something to be proud of, not to hide away as improper art. And the same of course was true of the state guides, and the Federal Writers Project in general. It came to reawaken a kind of raw American patriotism and pride in local culture.

So all this underlies State by State, and has meant for Sean and me a kind of reminder of the many things we have to be confident about. I think chiefly what comes out of the stove is that the immigrant pieces are the most buoyant, I think some of the most exciting and funniest among the pieces. This is a book where you read about Bosnians in Missouri, and a Bangladeshi family in Rhode Island, and Koreans in Indiana, and Chinese in Georgia, and even a Ghanaian in Michigan. And that was very much by design -- we wanted to get those stories. But what surprised us was just how buoyant they are, how robust, how dynamic. And that’s us. That’s what I’m left with. Despite many reasons not to feel optimistic, chiefly during the last eight years of the Bush administration -- deep down, I think we’re all right.