A Portrait Of The U.S., 'State By State' Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey talk to host Andrea Seabrook about their new compilation, State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. The book is inspired by the Depression-era Federal Writers' Project, which sent the great authors of the day out on the road to write a series of travel guides.
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A Portrait Of The U.S., 'State By State'

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A Portrait Of The U.S., 'State By State'

A Portrait Of The U.S., 'State By State'

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

If you happen to be traveling to North Dakota, the official tourist guides might send you to the Toy Farmer Museum or the Emter Family Music Theater, but wouldn't you really rather go ditch skiing?

(Soundbite of essay)

Ms. LOUISE ERDRICH (Novelist): (Reading) Ditch skiing involved a rope tied to the rear fender of the family station wagon.

SEABROOK: Novelist Louise Erdrich on growing up in North Dakota.

(Soundbite of essay)

Ms. ERDRICH: (Reading) A child on a pair of giant wooden skis would hold the end of the rope, give her father the thumbs up, and brace herself as he started the car. Towed along at blinding speeds of six to 12 miles an hour while gulping snirt, half snow, half dirt, was a matchless winter experience.

SEABROOK: That's from Louise Erdrich's essay in the compilation called "State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America." The new book brings together writers like Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, and my colleague Jacki Lyden. Each author writes a personal essay about one of the 50 states. "State by State" was inspired by the American Guide Series of the 1930s. The Works Progress Administration sent authors on the road during the Great Depression to create a series of travel guides.

Mr. SEAN WILSEY (Editor, "State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America"): Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, Neale Hurston.

Mr. MATT WEILAND (Editor, "State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America"): Richard Wright.

SEABROOK: That's Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland, the book's editors.

Mr. WILSEY: Ralph Ellison.

Mr. WEILAND: Jim Thompson.

Mr. WILSEY: John Cheever, who complained about it and actually didn't think that it was a very worthwhile endeavor. But they all were young writers in this program, and the books they produced reflect their literary talent, and portray the country in all its variety and texture. And we wanted to do a book that paid homage to that, but yet was personal, because their voices also tended to be flattened because they had to write for a book that had to be a guide literally to how to drive around a state and the history of the state. We wanted, you know, the writers to be able to express themselves and do what they do best, which is to show what they have at stake in their writing.

Mr. WEILAND: And to create instead of a literal guidebook, a kind of guidebook to the soul of each state.

Mr. WILSEY: I learned a lot about the country working on the book. This is Sean, by the way. Alexander Payne who wrote about Nebraska writes this piece that I think a lot of us would think of Nebraska and think of it as almost the bland state right in the center. And he talks about it, even the WPA guide describes Nebraska as the state that's always driven through and that nobody stops in.

SEABROOK: One of the square states.

Mr. WILSEY: Yeah. I mean, it's like one of the perfect - exactly, it's just been drawn by a draftsman. And he talks about how so many people that he knows, including himself, he's moved back there part-time, return to Omaha after going away. And he quotes a friend of his who says that he did it to be, quote, "woven more deeply into the fabric of life."

SEABROOK: Let's listen to a little bit of Alexander Payne.

(Soundbite of essay)

Mr. ALEXANDER PAYNE (Writer): (Reading) Unlike Americans on the coasts who flaunt even what they don't have, Nebraskans would never wish to appear - bend over backwards not to appear - better than anyone else, or to possess more than what they seemingly need. The state motto is "Equality Before the Law." But one could add equality before others. People are surprised to learn that Warren Buffett still lives in the same middle class house he bought in 1958 for $31,500. But to us it's perfectly normal, textbook Nebraska. My parents bought our house two blocks away in 1956. They still live there, too.

SEABROOK: So, do all the writers write about where they're from?

Mr. WEILAND: No. We felt that it was important that it not simply be a kind of beauty pageant where all the writers write about their own state, and it'd be a kind of a celebration of each state that way. So we sent some writers to places they'd never been before, because I think a great writer, you know, with fresh eyes and a deadline can tell us things about a place that even natives can't. So, for example, the wonderful Mexican-American writer Dagoberto Gilb who lives in Texas, we sent him to Iowa where, of course, there are many Mexican migrant workers working in the cornfields. And Dagoberto went up and spent some time working with them and seeing what their lives are like. I think it's one of the most moving parts of the book.

SEABROOK: Let's listen to some of that one.

(Soundbite of essay)

Mr. DAGOBERTO GILB (Writer): (Reading) This is about the tortilla. This is about corn grown in Iowa. This is about the people who are in the campos of Iowa picking the vegetables and walking the cornfields. Those people are Mexican people. They are of the culture where hand-ground masa was first patted into tortillas. And because of that, it is said that the physical body of any Mexicano is at least half corn. They're from a civilization that worshiped the corn plant as a god in some regions, such as what became known as Guatemala the God, the image of God.

Mr. WEILAND: This is Matt again. I think, of course, corn is a huge subject these days. But when do we ever hear enough about the young Mexicans who are working in those cornfields, and how their work goes, and what they think of their new lives in America? That goes throughout the book. There are a lot of immigrant stories. This is a book with tales about Bosnians in Missouri, Chinese in Georgia, Bangladeshis in Rhode Island, Koreans in Indiana.

Mr. WILSEY: Ghanaians in Michigan. And as Matt points about Dagoberto, he's a Mexican-American writer, but he's just an incredible observer, and he's able to talk to people.

SEABROOK: One of the things that I just love about this book, and my editor and I sat around reading statistics out of the back of the book. I'm looking at them now. You've got rollercoasters per capita along with the violent crime rate, breast feeding rate...

Mr. WEILAND: We had a lot of fun making that appendix. One of the things that came out of it is that, you know, again a fundamental point of the book is that states vary, and they vary a lot. We may all think that places are becoming more and more the same, and that's true if you stay on the interstates and you only go to big box superstores, and so on. But what was remarkable about those statistics is you can put them in order, and it's amazing to see quite the disparity from high to low.

Mr. WILSEY: And the portraits that are drawn by those statistics are astounding to me. We tried to give a variety of states the number one slot, so we really were looking for different tables that would do that. New Hampshire, you know, rollercoasters. Crazily enough, Wisconsin, number one, you might think dairy or something like that, but it's alcohol consumption.

Mr. WEILAND: My own state of Minnesota, I'm proud to say, is number one in voter participation rate.

SEABROOK: What's your favorite?

Mr. WILSEY: Toothlessness for me.

Mr. WEILAND: Toothlessness is always - how can you not love toothlessness? It's just - the poor West Virginians.

Mr. WILSEY: The people even kept track. And then it's West Virginia. You know, it's interesting when cliches end up being true. And I think every writer in the book kind of explores how cliches can be very revealing. And of course you want to look deeper than the cliches, but they exist for a reason.

SEABROOK: On a more serious note, you know, it does seem like to those of us who do travel a little bit that everywhere you go there's a Wal-Mart, a Target, an Exxon station, a Sally Beauty Supply, a Best Buy, and a PetSmart. And it just seems like...

Mr. WILSEY: I see where you're shopping!

SEABROOK: It seems like, you know, the culture of America has become homogenized.

Mr. WEILAND: I think that's true to some extent. But it's only as true as we allow it to be. Local difference and variety and local culture persists in the face of enormous pressure. And that if we would only see it and recognize it and champion it, it would have a chance of winning out.

SEABROOK: Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. They are the editors of the book "State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America." Thanks so much.

Mr. WEILAND: Hey, thanks a lot. That was a lot of fun.

Mr. WILSEY: Thanks. That was a lot of fun.

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