Today I interview the author of one of the year's most talked-about nonfiction books, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. His first book, The Last Cowboys at the End of the World, was published by Crown in 2002. He has written for Harper's, Food and Wine, Outside, Fast Company, and Details.
For those who haven't read your book, how did you choose Oelwein Iowa as the setting of much of your book? And how did you find it?
When I first started reporting on meth, it was in Gooding, Idaho, in 1999. I spent weeks in that town following a few characters, and I wrote a book proposal that my agent wouldn't even attempt to sell. Eventually, in 2004, I wrote another proposal, this time about the town of Greenville, Illinois. I sold the proposal, and shortly thereafter the people I'd been talking to in Greenville said they didn't want to be written about after all. So I started over, looking for a place to land, and ended up in Oelwein because I developed a natural rapport with Clay Hallberg who, five years later, people would read about as the main character of Methland. With reference to demographics, socioeconomics, and meth, all three towns are the same. Oelwein is no worse or no better than Greenville or Gooding. It was a matter of finding people with the stomach to be written about, at a time when publishers would be willing buy the rights to the book.
Was there ever a point where you waffled over whether to specifically use Oelwein (as opposed to any other town?) At what point did you decide to pull the trigger?
Once I talked to Clay, he introduced me to his brother, who is the former county public defender. Clay's brother introduced me to the prosecutor, Nathan Lein. Nathan put in a good word for me with the police chief and the mayor. All of this happened in a matter of days, and I never looked back. A book has to begin and end with people, and as soon as I had all these willing participants, the hard part was over.
Did you ever consider, at any point during the writing of the book, using a fake name for the town or its people? Did you ever wish you had once it was published?
I never considered it at all. To me, changing people's names undermines the integrity of the relationship I've built with them. It takes incredible courage to be written about--to then change someone's name, in my opinion, degrades that courage. However, Bloomsbury Publishing's lawyer didn't see it that way. He called me a week after I'd sent in the final manuscript--after four years of work, four fresh starts on the book, and never a word about changing anyone's name. He said I had to change the name of the town; the state; and the name and physical description of every character (there are about 25 separate characters in the book). That was three days before Thanksgiving. We argued every day for hours on the phone for a week, and I finally got him to agree to keeping all the names and places real except four people: a bar owner and three meth addicts. It took me weeks to get over that; I don't know that I've ever been so irate with anyone. What helped is that I re-named the worst of the addicts after the lawyer.
How difficult was it to clear the stories that you did use in the book? Did the people who agreed to be interviewed need to sign anything?
No one signed anything. A journalist's notes are his de facto release.
Did you feel that working on this book changed your attitude towards drugs and drug use?
Only insofar as I had no idea when I started the book that drugs could be a metaphor for so many larger issues: globalization, corporate economy, immigration, etc. When I started out, I thought, like everyone else, that what made meth meth was that it could be made in the sink. Turns out there's a lot more to it than that.
In researching the book, did you find anything that ties meth addicts together, in terms of what they get out of meth in particular?
A lot of it is the high itself. Not everyone can stand to be so high for twelve, twenty-four, forty-eight hours at a go. There's a kind of X Games, X-treme vibe among tweakers, like they're at the top of the Darwinian drug ladder. Aside from that, I just think that when your town, your county, and your state is increasingly impoverished, and you think you have the answer to how to survive--make meth, stay high--you band together for the simple reason that you think you know something other people don't, and are therefore wiser for it.
This may be a simplistic question but if meth seems to be a an agent of the type of change you discuss in towns like Oelwein, why do you think a stimulant, rather than depressant, has such appeal? You could argue that stimulants are more popular for people who need to party all night and work the next day, not in parts of the country where less is going on than there used to be.
Stimulants are also--if they work for a day or more at a time--more popular for people who have to work double-shifts in order to make ends meet and can't afford to sleep in between. There's only one stimulant like that, and it's cheap, to boot.
What were your scariest moments researching the book?
When I started the book over for the third time in three years and my editor got fired the next week. I thought the book would be orphaned at the publisher, and all my work--stretching back seven years, to my time in Gooding, Idaho--would be for naught. Fortunately, my editor, who'd been at Houghton-Mifflin when he bought the book, got a job fairly quickly at Bloomsbury. Once there, he bought the book from H-M. So Methland actually had to be sold twice in order to be published, at a time when selling a book once isn't exactly easy.
Did you prepare yourself at all for Oelwein backlash? It's funny (funny-strange, not ha-ha) how a lot of the negative reviews of the book are specifically from disgruntled citizens.
I don't know how someone would prepare for that town hall meeting in Oelwein. That was intense. 400 people waiting to see what I looked like, ask me three hours' worth of very pointed questions, three evening news crews. I'd received many physical threats in the days leading up to the event: that's just a regular Tuesday, I guess, for Britney Spears, but for me--who's only written one other book that sold 3,000 copies over four years and went out of print--it was all new. What came out during the meeting was that almost no one who was angry had actually read the book. Oelwein doesn't have a book store; the nearest one is 40 miles away. So all these people had read newspaper reviews that concentrated almost solely on the negative or sensationalistic aspects of the book: houses blowing up, people burning alive. They had no idea that Methland, in its final chapters, goes into enormous detail about how the town has turned itself around. Once that was established--by an elderly lady who stood up unprovoked in the middle of the crowd, brandishing her copy of the book and accusing her fellow townspeople of having their "heads stuck in the sand"--things went a lot better.
How did you prepare for the reading in Oelwein?
By having three beers and chewing half a tin of Skoal. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony...)
Did this experience change the way you might attack future projects?
Not really. It's not like people there were upset for no reason. They thought they're town had been trashed! It was just up to me to go there in person and explain that that's not the case. Or, as it happened, keep my mouth shut while an elderly woman explained that for me.
Did your research on Oelwein change your perception of your home town, St. Louis?
Yes. Saint Louis isn't that much different, really. It's been affected by all of the same trends in the last 30 years, which I didn't know. I moved away when I was 18, and I didn't grow up in the city, any way. I'm from the county, which is a completely separate world. In moving back here at a time when I'd just seen all of the forces at play in Oelwein, I saw my hometown with totally new eyes.
What's the deal with the City Museum? Have you been there? It's so weird.
The idea that a new busload of under-supervised teenagers gets dropped off there every five minutes during much of the year is a pretty effective deterrent in my book.
What was the hardest part of pitching/selling your first book?
That no one wanted to trust the idea that I could write--or even effectively conceive of--an entire book. Why would they have believed that? I was 26 and hadn't even written any magazine articles of note. How my first book ever got sold is beyond me--the proposal was only 12 pages long (my Methland proposal was 35 pages). Of course, the publisher's risk on Last Cowboys was extremely limited, given how little they paid me.
Are you thinking about making your next project on a lighter subject? Like maybe the thriving caramel-corn industry in small towns?
No, now that my mother is 75, I feel I have a continuing obligation to keep her anxiety level very, very high. It's what keeps her so young and spry.
How does it feel to be the 238th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
It's quite an honor. I'll look forward to being invited back once my next book is sold and written, which shouldn't take more than 10-15 years.