Literary Hub

Meet National Book Award Finalist Sarah Smarsh

The 2018 National Book Awards will be held on Wednesday, November 14 at the 69th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. In preparation for the ceremony, and to celebrate all of the wonderful books and authors nominated for the awards this year, Literary Hub will be sharing short interviews with each of the finalists in all five categories: Young People’s Literature, Translated Literature, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction.

Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, a memoir of Smarsh’s childhood as part of a poor farming family in Kansas, is a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award in Nonfiction. Literary Hub asked Smarsh a few questions about her book and her writing life.

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Who do you most wish would read this book? (your boss, your childhood bully, Michelle Obama, etc.)

I am grateful when people from very different worlds than the class and place described in Heartland tell me that the story opened their eyes, their minds, their hearts in some way. My greatest wish, though, is that people who have lived the story—farmers, workers, laborers, teen mothers, hard-luck diner waitresses and so on—find the book. They are not marketed to, as a book-buying demographic. There are many reasons for that, from culture to lack of purchasing power. But part of their absence from the contemporary book space is that, if you never see your place and your story validated in narrative, you’re less likely to be a book person. On my book tour, people come through the signing line saying, “this is my first book event” or “I’m buying this for my dad who has literally never finished a book but wants to read this one.” This is the honor of my life.

As for a specific person, I have a little fantasy that President Obama might read it. Like me, his single mother was from working-class Wichita and his grandparents helped raise him. I have a sense that he identifies with the unfussy Midwestern ethos and think he would recognize a lot of the book’s touchstones.

What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?

I’ve been fortunate to talk with incredible journalists and interviewers in recent months. Most understandably want to talk about the book’s timely themes: class inequality, rural America, poverty, the simultaneous racial privilege and economic disadvantage I try to articulate. But I didn’t pick up writing to tackle these topics. Rather, I am a writer first, and this is the story I felt pressed to tell. In a world without problems, I’d still be a writer just for the joy and beauty of language. So I love it when, occasionally, someone asks me about structure or character development or metaphor and I get to nerd out about craft for a little bit.

How do you tackle writer’s block?

There is no tackling it, in my experience, only a waiting through it. Lessen the frustration of it by considering that it might be your ally—forcing you to pause when you think you know the story but you don’t yet. In practical terms, there are deadlines and finite opportunities for productivity with which we contend. But, having spent 16 years on Heartland, some of which was a quite tortured process; having known since I was a child that I would write it; having spent a decade being turned down by literary agents; having internally kicked and screamed that the creative process should move more quickly than it did, this I know for certain: a book doesn’t give a shit about your timeline. Keep making space for it, whether it seems “productive” or not, and it will reveal itself.

Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?

It’s not part of my life now, but as a teenager I was a huge, slightly obsessive X-Files nerd. As in, show me a single frame and I can probably tell you the season and maybe the title of the episode.

One of the lead characters, FBI agent Dana Scully, was inspired by Clarice Starling, the protagonist of The Silence of the Lambs. That was a formative film and book for me. Starling is from rural, working-class West Virginia, “gets out” with her intellect and ambition, and then her serial-killer foe unsuccessfully tries to crack her by shaming her accent and her cheap clothes. As a child one doesn’t understand why a particular story inspires, but it’s absurdly obvious now!

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

On the intentional choices and turns we employ as writers, and the lightness with which they should land on readers: Readers might not know what you did. But they will feel it.

You have reported many stories—how did it feel to report the lives of your ancestors and parents? Has it changed the way you might handle the stories of non-relatives going forward?

I started formally interviewing my family for this book at the outset of my professional career as a reporter. I got my first research grant to dig up family history in 2002, the same year I graduated from college and entered the newsroom. So those two skills developed in tandem.

But it is indeed a particular challenge and feeling, to bring forth facts and subjective truth from people who have loved and hurt and saved you since birth. It felt quite uncomfortable, often, for the same reasons that any family conversation about the past might feel uncomfortable. For me, that process was shaped by my family’s culture. Generally speaking, German Catholic, Midwestern, rural, working-class people are not raised to talk about themselves or reflect on the “why” or “how” that the urban middle-class frequently considers in the therapist’s office. I was asking for answers from people who aren’t secretive but rather never had anyone care enough ask. Often they hadn’t even asked themselves.

Because my journalism subjects often come from a similar experience, the book didn’t change my strategies as a reporter. But it did fortify my sense of responsibility and reverence to the subjects of my writing. Whether journalism or memoir, I view someone else’s name and story as a sacred thing. The limitations of those crafts are such that one can never tell the whole story or truly do right by the complexity of lived experience. But I believe a writer’s intention imbues the outcome, and my intention is always to get it right both in facts and feelings.

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