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Interview with Sean Wilsey

Sean Wilsey is the author of the memoir Oh the Glory of It All (Penguin, 2005) and the co-editor, with Matt Weiland, of the newly released State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, which features original writing on all fifty states by the U.S.’s finest novelists, journalists, and essayists. Rail contributor Jed Lipinski recently met with Mr. Wilsey to discuss his new book.

Portrait of the author. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Jed Lipinski (Rail): The publication of a book that explores, deconstructs, and humanizes every one of the fifty states, both red and blue, seems particularly well timed. How did you come up with the idea?

Sean Wilsey: Matt and I are fans of the WPA guides to the US, for which writers like Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Richard Wright, and Saul Bellow had written as part of a New Deal program that gave jobs to writers. Although the books are sometimes pretty dry, and it’s not like you’d ever want to read one from cover to cover, they contain flashes of brilliance, and they’re great to dip into.

Rail: The WPA essays weren’t signed, were they?

Wilsey: No, you never know who you’re reading. I just learned that Jim Thompson, the great pulp writer, wrote for the Oklahoma guide. But he hated the experience. And so did John Cheever. He described his job editing the New York guide as “twisting into order the sentences written by some incredibly lazy bastards.” So it was this big bureaucratic project that had some great ideas in it, but also had a lot of flaws, and we thought we could do an updated, even improved, version of it. My favorite kind of writing isn’t memoir exactly, but writing with a personal voice where you know what the writer has at stake. We wanted to do the book as a kind of collective memoir of what it means to be an American. So we started coming up with a list of American writers we thought were the modern versions of the writers who worked for the original project.

Rail: Are the contributors to State by State all from the states they write about?

Wilsey: No. Jonathan Franzen isn’t from New York, yet he’s got such a deep connection to it, one that’s both historical and personal. Alexander Payne, who did Nebraska, grew up there. William Vollmann is as native as a Californian gets. He lives in Sacramento!

Rail: What writers turned you down?

Wilsey: [Laughs] J.D. Salinger. I attempted to get in touch with him through his son, and had the door firmly shut, but politely. Franzen initially said he couldn’t do a state because he had another book due, so we asked Don DeLillo to do New York. He wrote back saying that he couldn’t write something that didn’t originate in “my own dim interior.” Thomas Pynchon said no, but recommended we talk to Annie Proulx about the difference between Iowa and Minnesota, weirdly enough.

Rail: Not all of the writers in the book are writers, per se. Carrie Brownstein, for example, from Sleater-Kinney, wrote about Washington.

Wilsey: She’s a great rock musician, but isn’t known as a writer. At least not yet. She’s a really good stylist, so observant without ever falling into cliché. We also have two graphic novelists, Alison Bechdel and Joe Sacco, who write about Vermont and Oregon, respectively. They had to work twice as hard, both writing and drawing.

Rail: What was the experience of writing your introductory essay to the book?

Wilsey: I started out with 10,000 words of notes about crossing the country in a 1960 Chevy Apache pickup truck with my friend Michael and my dog Charlie. There were so many tangents I wanted to go on, particularly about the oil industry: how is gas made and marketed; is there any difference between kinds of gas; who’s making money on this stuff. Researching the oil industry in this country was like trying to figure out something about the Soviet Union back in the fifties. David Sexton, the president of Shell Oil, was particularly deft at not answering questions. But I wrote the essay as a narrative, not an exposition, so most of that information had to be cut.

Rail: Do you have a favorite state?

Wilsey: Texas.

Rail: Why’s that?

Wilsey: Texas is a profoundly blighted state. My mom was born in Texas and I have family in Houston—probably the ugliest city in the country. And yet I feel at home there. I was recently driving through Houston and found myself changing lanes really easily, anticipating lights and intersections, navigating really well, and I thought, “Wow, I’m really suited to this. Somehow, I am of this place.” It’s like what it means to be an American: You can hate it, but you also work with it. So I like Texas. Texas is not bullshitting you. Also, my wife and I have a house in West Texas, where the landscape hasn’t changed in 250 million years. It seems permanently beautiful. So maybe it’s the contrast of Texas that moves me.

Rail: Is there a state that you just sort of detest?

Wilsey: I hate Maine.

Rail: [Laughs]

Wilsey: I hate New England. It’s so claustrophobic, no vistas, the landscape is constantly choking you. The people in New England just don’t seem kind; they’re all hardened and beaten down by the harsh winters. As a Californian, you’re not always kind, but you're always nice, and within the framework of niceness you can either be mellow or stoked. I’m a stoked Californian. New England somehow flattens that. Granted, I went to boarding school there for three years, and those were some of the worst years of my life, so that’s probably a big part of my dislike for it.

Rail: As an editor, did you notice any themes that kept coming up?

Wilsey: Universal hatred for Wal-Mart and what it’s doing to variety in America. And lamentation about the tragedy of Indian massacres. It’s almost impossible to come from any state and not be aware that much of the state has been named after Indian things—but where are these Indians? In his essay, John Hodgman describes the massacre of the Wampanoag tribe, this horrible bit of history, in a footnote, saying, “Did you notice how I put it in a footnote? That's our little joke." Yeah.

Rail: What sort of reactions have you received to the concept of the book?

Wilsey: Most people are excited about it, because they have some familiarity with the WPA guides, and I think we’ve produced a deeper, more readable and interesting book than a WPA guide. Some object to the personal point of view. But the book isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide to the US. It’s supposed to feature different versions of the American experience in different places. Like Ha Jin’s take on Georgia, an experience shared by a lot of immigrants. When he lived in China, which has a similar climate to Georgia's, he’d never had adequate housing. So in the American South he was obsessed with houses, even after he’d bought one of his own, and finally he felt like he had a home.

Rail: To get back to your essay for a minute, since your truck went a maximum of 45 mph, you must have caused some big traffic delays from Texas to New York City.

Wilsey: Yes. And what I found most interesting was that, thinking about 9/11, it occurred to me that if someone really wanted to wreck the country they wouldn't have to do anything violent. All they'd have to do is go out there with some like-minded people and drive really slow for a couple years. Gradually they'd bottle up the entire transportation infrastructure and the economy would collapse. Also, in the course of researching the piece, a guy at the American Trucking Association said, "You could have been delaying high dollar army loads, like 1.1, 1.2 or 1.3 explosives.” Asked to clarify what those designations mean, he said, “They can mean whatever you want them to mean.”

Rail: That's strange.

Wilsey: Nobody knows what's really happening in this country. I also came across some very bleak stuff, like a quote from Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart: “The smaller the paychecks of our employees, the more important the roles those people play in the ultimate success or failure of our company.” Astoundingly cynical!

Rail: That sounds like good material for one of David Foster Wallace’s corporate stories. Had you asked him if he wanted to be in the book?

Wilsey: He was the first person we had in mind. But he said he couldn’t do it because he was committed to not doing any non-fiction until 2009.

Rail: You’d met him several times. What was he like?

Wilsey: Fun and kind. He liked to sing show tunes. And he had a vast repertory.

Rail: That’s nice to hear. I thought he might have been gloomy in real life. His writing can be pretty sad.

Wilsey: Well, yeah. Nobody gets at what makes America the extravagantly sad country it is like Wallace did. He was our conscience.

Contributor

Jed Lipinski

JED LIPINSKI used to play tambourine in the band Hexa.

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