In part 1 of my interview with Monica Hesse, author of American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, we talked about her experiences of the Eastern Shore, where the arsons explored in the book took place. In this segment of the interview we looked at what the arsons might say about America more generally.
So, tell me about the larger picture. You obviously saw this as an opportunity to write a book about a larger American story. What is that story for you?
The broader story is the story of what has always been true about America which is that it is constantly reinventing itself into a different kind of place. What I felt like we saw happen in Accomack with the railroad leaving or we’re seeing different kinds of farming, we’re seeing needs for different buildings, we’re seeing the rural population age, felt like we are constantly learning how to readjust and shift in a new modern world.
I felt like Accomack in 2012 was particularly in the middle of that. I would go to meetings where people would be talking about, “Are we going to let more chicken farms come in and if we do what does that mean and if we don’t what does that mean?” Meetings where people would talk about the school system and changing demographics of the school system. To me it became an opportunity to look at what is it like both in terms of all of the richness and of the struggles to live in a place that represents historic America in many ways and then what it is like to be moving forward and figuring out what you’re actually trying to move forward to.
My own sense, after the election especially, was that places like the Eastern Shore were either becoming a stereotype to the rest of the country or were falling into owning that stereotype. With Heartlands, I wanted to try to find the diversity of this place.
I was really lucky in that in that I finished this book before the election and I know that if I had started to write it after the election there would’ve been a temptation to try to make even more grand sweeping statements. Everyone said, “Oh, what was it like to write about Trump’s America?” and I would think, “Well, I wasn’t writing about Trump’s America; I was writing about Accomack County.” I didn’t have to think of it in terms of broad stereotypes. I felt like I could try to really treat it as the place that it was, which was a place that people have a lot of diverse opinions. That was a relief and a blessing to me to not have to be thinking of the larger focus but of course I think in telling smaller stories we can learn about larger issues.
Right. I mean that’s the hope of every good non-fiction piece right?
Yeah, knock on wood.
In the book, there’s a really good section around page 62, where you’re talking about rural America and you say “the people of rural America had fed the nation and nurtured its soul.” It made me think that it used to be that other parts of the country might have looked at a place like the Eastern Shore and said, “Well, that represents the heartland, the place where we get our identity as a country.” Your quote made me think that that’s changed and that perhaps rural America is a stranger place to the rest of the world now.
Well, in a factual sense I think it is a stranger place just because such a small percentage of America now live in rural communities. I have the statistics in my book. It used to be that the majority of Americans lived in rural places and now it’s a fairly small percentage. So in that sense it is foreign to the majority of America.
I think, moreover, it gets at what you were saying earlier about the divide between places like DC and places like the Eastern Shore, because we do two things with rural America: We either put it on a pedestal and we say, “This is how we should be living. We should all be traipsing around Walden Pond. I need to go become a farmer and that’s the most pure existence of America,” or we make these broad stereotypes about, I don’t know, flannel shirts and pitchforks.
When I went to college in a city and I got there and my roommate asked me if we had cable television (this was in the early 2000s so we had cable television) I thought the next question was gonna be, “Do you let your cows sleep in the living room?” So I think that we have two perspectives of rural America one is really idyllic and one is really derogatory and I think that neither of those is useful because what we do need to do is talk about the people who live there like the people anywhere else. We need to be finding the humanity in every place we write about.
Exactly. Yes. That.