Saturday, November 5, 2011

Matt Weiland on the Panoramic View of America in "State by State"

(This interview originally appeared in the Denver Post in December 2008)

By Dylan Foley

In their new book “State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America” (Ecco, $30), editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey have put together a euphoric collection of 50 writers on 50 states, using novelists like Rick Moody to write about his home state of Connecticut and the journalist George Packer to write about Alabama’s forgotten liberal history.

“State by State” is full of dynamic essays by some of the best established novelists and nonfiction writers, as well as some writers to watch. The book is a homage to the old WPA State Guides published during the Great Depression. Weiland, the deputy editor of the Paris Review, and Wilsey, a founder of the literary journal and website McSweeney’s, give us 51 writers (if you include Washington, D.C) who knit together a collective memoir of the United States.

It turns out that this epic tour through the United States started because of soccer. “Several years ago, Sean and I edited ‘The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup,’” said Weiland from a diner in Manhattan. “We were very proud of that book and it did very well. Our publisher asked us what we wanted to do next. I had always loved the old WPA Guides of the 48 states. We then had this crazy idea, inspired by those guides. Let’s use 50 writers, one on each state. We laughed about it, thinking the publisher would say ‘No thanks,’ but Dan Halpern of Ecco got on the phone and said, ‘I love it. Let’s do it.’”

Meeting at the venerable Old Town Bar in New York City, Wilsey and Weiland consumed numerous pints of beer while narrowing down a list of 300 writers.

“I had a spreadsheet with writers we liked, writers we’d worked with, writers we’d associated with a particular state and writers we thought might share our passion for the old WPA Guides,” said the 38-year-old Weiland. “It became a game. We were drinking beer after beer, saying wouldn’t it be great to match this writer with that state?

In “State by State,” the novelist and poet Ha Jin recounts his life as an immigrant grad student and his infatuation with his first house outside Atlanta. Fiction writer Susan Choi goes on a comic road trip in Indiana with her hapless professor father when she is eight months’ pregnant. The trip is almost an apology for Choi’s rapacious use of her father’s life story in her last novel, “A Person of Interest.” Chef and author Anthony Bourdain writes a bitter, witty piece on his native New Jersey. “State by State” is a truly wild quest for that elusive American soul.

One of the stand-out pieces in the book is Charles Bock’s essay on the rise and fall of his father’s pawn shop and the destruction of the old Las Vegas. “Sean had just read Bock’s novel ‘Beautiful Children’ in manuscript before it was published,” said Weiland. “Charlie's piece is a sad and beautiful one. It is memoir, but it is not self obsessed. What it is obsessed with is the history of Las Vegas, the changing of the city and the state of Nevada over the last 30 or 40 years.”

Some writers stayed close to their favorite subject matter. The novelist William Vollmann, famous for writing about prostitutes and junkies, takes a California road trip that winds up at sadomasochistic sex show.

“The sex show was a surprise, but it is Vollmann,” said Weiland. “For him, that is pretty mild stuff. If you really want a panoramic portrait of America, you need a range of experiences. There has to be an R-rating somewhere.”

Some essays in the book stand in stark contrast of the writer’s relationship to the state. The novelist Heidi Julavits writes about her chrochety home state of Maine and essayist David Rakoff writes about Utah, a place where he has been dropped in for five days.

“Heidi gets to something that runs through the book--when do you get to become a native in the state that you live in?” said Weiland, of a piece that conjures up the typical Mainer’s hostility towards outsiders of any kind. “Maine is the most extreme example. Basically, never.

Rakoff writes with sympathy and a lot of humor about Utah. “I think David Rakoff is an incredibly funny writer, and a very astute one,” said Weiland. “I was determined to get him in the book. It was difficult to fly into a state he had never been before and to capture that state in a dozen pages, but he did it brilliantly.”

Weiland himself was raised in Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa. Many of the essays in “State by State” deal with the writers’ identities and how they were formed by states they lived in.

In Joshua Ferris’ essay, much of his memories of growing up in a sweet and seedy Florida center around working at a run-down restaurant. “A lot of the book is about coming into oneself and learning who you are,” said Weiland. “Often, it’s the people we get to know early on who help form us. In Josh’s case, it’s the dishwashers and waitresses in that scummy Key West diner. Florida made him. I think it is one of the seminal pieces in the book.”

In one of the book’s most devastating essays, a group of ghost hunters go through the restless spirits of the dead in post-Katrina New Orleans.

“For Louisiana, Sean and I felt really strongly that we had to have something about Hurricane Katrina,” said Weiland. “Fifty years from now, Katrina will be one of biggest events from our era. It was tough. How do you assign a piece that will be relevant 40 years from now? Joshua Clark got what we were after. His piece is an unusual one about ghost hunters among the dead after Katrina, but it is much more than that. New Orleans has had an obsession with the dead long before Katrina.”

No comments: