JACKI LYDEN, host:
Evan Wright has become known as the new gonzo journalist, a guy who really puts himself out there, or as one editor put it, unofficial ambassador to the underbelly.
He cemented that reputation with his national bestseller, "Generation Kill." In that book, the former editor at Hustler magazine embedded with a platoon of Marines in Iraq.
He's got a new book coming out, and what's it called, Evan Wright?
Mr. EVAN WRIGHT (Author, "Hella Nation"): "Hella Nation."
LYDEN: And that means?
Mr. WRIGHT: I was traveling with some anarchists in 2000 who had just finished trashing the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, and we'd stop, and the girl would say, wow, this is so hella America, you know, at a gas station. And I said, what does that mean? And she gave me, like, 10 different explanations. They were all contradictory. So, I sort of took that as a title for my book.
LYDEN: We'll look at all your travels in just a moment, but I'd like to start out with focusing on you and how you got your, shall we say, unusual start into journalism.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yes. I was hired by Larry Flynt, and my responsibilities were to review porn movies and write about the porn industry for Hustler.
LYDEN: And what happened in that first interview in the offices of Hustler?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, like a lot of people that come to work in the adult industry, I had a lot of personal problems, and I had tremendous anxiety. At the time of my interview, I was so nervous I took a bunch of Xanax. I blacked out midway through my job interview at Hustler.
You know, I woke up in my bed the next morning, not remembering what had happened, and it turned out they had hired me.
LYDEN: The most autobiographical article in this collection is "Scenes from My Life in Porn," and this is about your experiences writing for Hustler, and you said you probably never used the word woman when you wrote all this copy about them. What was that like, having to sort of bend descriptions of the female into things that were so objectified?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, the full context was I was in couples therapy with my girlfriend in the morning and then going into my office and writing porn copy, where we used every term imaginable for women except for woman.
We used demeaning terms; we used ridiculous terms. When I started the job, I sort of told myself I would separate it from my own identity. And what my article is about, how it becomes impossible to separate one's self from that kind of job. How do you go from writing those terms and then try to use terms of endearment with the woman you're with?
LYDEN: You invented these fictions in Hustler, some of the back pages, in Barely Legal, and you made up complete stories about these women, like "Natanya, Nice and Nasty" And then, you got letters from readers, treating them as if they were real.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. This was the one of the weirdest things about working at Barely Legal magazine, which was a sister publication of Hustler. You know, I would get these Xeroxed pictures of a photo shoot of legal-aged women, and I'd have to give them names and some sort of biography, and I just - basically, I would write to make my fellow workers laugh, you know, make it as ridiculous as possible.
And I started getting letters from readers. Now, some of them were, you know, inmates at the local prison who were interested in these girls, but there were many letters I got from professionals, from - there was a writing professor at a university, and they poured their hearts out to these women.
And I guess what I found amazing was I saw people were taking these objectified, fake images and sort of putting into them this human meaning and sensibility that wasn't there.
And I began to feel that there is a component of pornography, this terrible loneliness that is sort of lurking about in society, and there are some guys out there who actually try to look at porn as a means of intimacy with women.
It doesn't really make sense, but that's what I saw.
LYDEN: Earlier, you talked about covering the WTO protests in Seattle. Let's talk about one of the stories from that time, and this one's called "Wingnut's Last Day on Earth." Tell us about this guy, Wingnut.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, Wingnut, he was a warrior, an eco-warrior, and I met him in Seattle in late 1999 during the World Trade Organization protests that paralyzed the city. And Wingnut was, if you will, a sort of leader of the anarchists.
LYDEN: He is a disciple of the Unabomber, and he calls pacifist protestors peace Nazis.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. Well, this story was a real revelation for me because it was the first story I had worked on that was a media story. I had pitched this story to Rolling Stone, way before the protests occurred, and there was going to be tens of thousands of peaceful protestors that had organized. They were going to wear costumes, march through the streets.
LYDEN: They were going to be owls and turtles, you said in your…
Mr. WRIGHT: They were going to dress up as endangered species. And I wrote this pitch to my editor at Rolling Stone, and he said we don't really - they passed on it.
And what was interesting is that the moment the anarchists started smashing those windows, and this was put onto television, my editor from Rolling Stone called me and said why aren't you writing about this story?
So, right from the start, when Wingnut had this sort of disdain for peaceful protestors, he actually was kind of right. The media would not have focused on Seattle in the way it did without the anarchists smashing windows.
LYDEN: Well, you also, as an observer, questioned the impact of your own presence on the violence that's going on.
Mr. WRIGHT: Yeah. You know, you have to gain the trust of your subjects, and he had me accompany him early on in Seattle one night when he went out and tried to smash the window of a Starbucks.
And you know, my question wasn't just was I inciting him, but was I a participant? You know, I determined - and I've seen this again and again, that actually if you're not carrying a camera, subjects don't really care that much about you. I think cameras are much more inflammatory than a notebook.
LYDEN: Extreme alienation is a phrase that you use to describe some of the people that you write about in "Hella Nation." What do you think sets them apart from the average alienated typical person?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, all of my subjects, in one way or another, are people who are running away from something and maybe trying to reinvent themselves.
I call them rejectionists in some parts of the book. It's people who - they're not disenfranchised because they don't want to be enfranchised. They reject everything, and those people really fascinate me.
LYDEN: So, if this makes you unofficial ambassador to the underbelly, do you think you'd ever write about Main Street?
Mr. WRIGHT: I believe these people are Main Street. It's just they're not depicted in televised versions of Main Street. You know, I have this real obsession. I really dislike television news. I think it gets America wrong, but I think it's the defining medium, obviously, for the country.
I've been asked so many times, like, hey, wouldn't it be cool if you carried a video camera and made like a video documentary? That's the last thing in the world I would do. I believe the only way to really understand what's going on in this country is to go out there and write about it and read about it and turn off the TV.
LYDEN: And put it on the radio.
Mr. WRIGHT: And put it on the radio.
LYDEN: Evan Wright's new book is called "Hella Nation: Looking for Happy Meals in Kandahar, Rocking the Side Pipe, Wingnut's War Against the Gap and Other Adventures for the Totally Lost Tribes of America." Evan Wright, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.
Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you for having me.