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Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey Retire the Coaches’ Shorts and Whistles, for Now

Sean Wilsey is best known as the author of Oh, the Glory of It All, which Kirkus Reviews called, "Honest to a fault, richly veined with indelible images: a monumental piece of work."

Those traits could just as well describe State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America.

Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey With a resume that includes Granta, the Baffler, and the New Press, Matt Weiland is Deputy Editor of the Paris Review. He and Sean, the co-editors of State by State, "both respond to people who write about something out in the world," Weiland says, "place, history, landscape, buildings, other people — through the prism of their own lives."

"And tell us what's at stake for them," Wilsey chimes in, on a conference call connecting each of their New York offices with Powell's in Oregon.

Seventy-odd years ago, in the 1930s and 40s, the Federal Writers' Project created a series of guidebooks to the forty-eight states of the day. More than five hundred pages per state! Each volume included a short, unsigned essay by the likes of John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison.

Following conversations that began in 2006, Weiland and Wilsey coaxed fifty authors to update the telling. They assigned each writer a state. Anthony Bourdain wrote New Jersey, for example. Susan Orlean, Ohio. John Hodgman, Massachusetts. S.E. Hinton, Oklahoma. Louise Erdrich, North Dakota. Dave Eggers, Illinois. Ann Patchett, William Vollmann, Jhumpa Lahiri, Joshua Ferris, Sarah Vowell... A veritable Olympic squad of scribes.

We liked the idea so much that State by State became the subject of Powell's third Out of the Book film. [Watch the trailer.] On a long, sunny day in June, nineteen contributing authors converged to read and talk and eat and drink. All the while our cameras rolled.

Three months later, as the book's publication and the film's synchronized premiere approach, Weiland and Wilsey discuss divvying up the states, working with the authors, discovering a few reoccurring themes among essays, and stumbling upon some pleasant surprises along the way.

[Editor's note: Sean is married to Daphne Beal, a novelist, who wrote State by State's Wisconsin chapter.]

Dave: In another interview, Sean, you talked about reading Daphne's essay. You said, "I finally get Wisconsin, and I love it, because the person I love is who she is because she comes from there."

Can you recall a particular detail that helped you make that connection?

Sean Wilsey: Weirdly, the thing that I think of, there's one moment in that piece where she's in her grandparents' closet banging rocks together, and a particular kind of coat hanger is jingling around up above.

And I thought, That's such a Midwestern coat hanger. We don't have coat hangers like that in California.

There was such comfort in the world Daphne grew up in. Everybody knew their place, everybody shared their struggles. It's so different than the world I knew growing up. I don't know anybody that grew up in that world in San Francisco. Though I know people who grew up in happier families than mine. Lots of people.

Her piece was a portrait of a happy family, and how that family was happy in a very specific place. That's what really resonated for me.

Weiland: Her last line gets at something a lot of us feel. She speaks of Wisconsin being a kind of ballast for her.

I think for a lot of us, even though we may no longer live where we grew up or identify closely with those places, they stay with us and form us, and remain part of us. That's hugely important to many of the writers in the book.

Wilsey: Unless you're from California! Then you have to marry somebody from one of those places.

Dave: Carrie Brownstein was referring to people from Washington state in general and Kurt Cobain in particular when she wrote, "Exposure can be strange and disorienting for people who spend most of the year under cloudy skies. And when you feel exposed the urge is to disappear." That made sense to me, as a ten-year resident of the Pacific Northwest.

Wilsey: Her portrait of the Northwest helps you understand it in a different way. I never had much of an understanding of how much trees influence everybody up there, and mud and moss.

Weiland: And it speaks to something general throughout the book, which is how weather informs character. How place informs character.

Yes, most people know that it's rainy in the Northwest, but Carrie's piece speaks to a deeper truth, not just that it's rainy but how it affects the people living there, how it affects their view.

Dave: At the end of the State by State film, Joshua Ferris sums up the day. He says, "I've learned that when you bring a bunch of people together and talk about America, nobody is going to agree about anything." He goes on, "You can't get people to agree on what constitutes America, but you can do it in a very agreeable way."

Weiland: Greatest quote ever. I love that.

Wilsey: It's perfect.

Dave: Everyone has an opinion. A friend of mine from Ohio saw the film said she kind of wanted to pick a fight with Susan Orlean.

But this is exactly what you wanted. Animated dialog, people talking.

Weiland: I'm amused by this essentialist view that some people are, for example, more Ohioan than others. That's like saying only a king can play King Lear on stage. Obviously, there are different views.

Someone from a state can say things about it that no one else would know, but it's equally true that somebody that's never been to a state and goes there for the first time with open eyes and a willingness to talk to people and look around will get things that are true and deep and essential about the place that even someone who's been in a state for generations wouldn't.

Susan Orlean gets at the core of Ohio as well as I can imagine anyone getting at it. I say that having lived there part of my youth. But it's certainly true that any other editors would come up with a completely different book.

Wilsey: They probably wouldn't end up with Ha Jin writing about Georgia.

By the same token, I gave the State by State sampler to a woman I met from South Carolina. She started reading Jack Hitt's essay and she said, "Oh, my God. This is exactly right."

Dave: I loved Ha Jin's essay.

Wilsey: Isn't it great?

Dave: He starts by explaining:

I don't have a hometown. I grew up a People's Liberation Army brat, moving around with my father. I can say that I am a northerner, since my first twenty-six years were spent in the northeast of China, but that is the most I can associate myself with a place.

Georgia, he says, is where he had his first home. His experience might be an outlier in terms of how it represents Georgia, but it will strike a chord with many Americans, in lots of places.

Weiland: I think one of the points of doing this book is to focus on what people perceive as outliers. Ha Jin's experience is enormously typical. This is a country of immigrants who come here and buy their first home.

That's exactly the kind of story we don't hear enough of in news reports, in magazine journalism, and on TV. The book as a whole is designed to be a collection of exactly that sort of thing. Ha Jin may seem an outlier at first glance, but in fact his is a typical American experience.

Dave: If all the writers' families had lived in a state for generations, they wouldn't be representative of the population.

Wilsey: And I think what Matt says is true. It's so perfectly American. There's no other country where someone could have that experience Ha Jin had. I can't really see that happening anywhere else but America.

Dave: It made me think of Dave Eggers' book, What Is the What. A completely different context, coming to Atlanta from China as a student or from Africa as a refugee, but not so different in the bigger picture.

Weiland: I would add though that it is quite a Georgian story. The place he's writing about, Lilburn, is a one of these lovely little suburbs of Atlanta. It's echt-Atlanta.

And the house he bought, when he talks about doing the yard work and how other people are watching — that is such a typical American story. There are so many immigrants coming to Atlanta, and they're bringing some things they know that a lot of the people who've been living in Atlanta for generations don't. That's Georgia now. That's important to show.

Wilsey: And weather plays a role there, too. He has a whole bit about how the weather was so similar to places in China, which made people from those places want to go there.

Dave: I'll name some states. Talk about whatever strikes you as memorable about the essay.

North Dakota.

Weiland: North Dakota, Louise Erdrich.

Wilsey: Her essay is so funny. It isn't necessarily where you would have expected the comedy to come from.

Weiland: That's right. I'm not sure I would have guessed that it would have been Louise Erdrich and North Dakota where a flipped bikini top would come up.

Wilsey: And I love her opening, where she says, "The coldest, the emptiest... the birdiest." Listing all these things which are true, or mostly true.

Dave: What about Nebraska?

Weiland: There's a case of a writer who is of course very well known but not for being a writer. Alexander Payne is one of our finest filmmakers. I think anyone seeing his films would expect that he'd do a fine job, but I don't think anyone would expect him to hit it out of the park as he did.

He starts with a wonderful image: how whenever anybody writes about Nebraska, they write about driving through it. Even the WPA guide talked about it that way.

I hope some people will come away from the book and want to read more by Alexander Payne, thinking of him as a writer in addition to a filmmaker.

Wilsey: I think he had a good time writing it, too, and that comes across in the piece. He's a huge WPA fan, which is probably the one reason he wanted to write it more than anything else, that connection to the WPA.

Weiland: When we picked writers and started talking to them, we discovered quite a number that collected old WPA guides the way me and Sean do. Kevin Brockmeier, who wrote Arkansas, is a collector of them. Philip Connors, who wrote about Minnesota, collects them. Jim Lewis, who wrote about Kansas.

Wilsey: William Vollmann.

Weiland: Vollmann has many of them, I think.

Wilsey: He was like, "I'll do this. But I will not be returning the WPA guide."

Weiland: He was very happy to get that.

Dave: What essay do you find yourself using over and over as an example when you talk about the collection?

Wilsey: I like talking about the New York piece. It's so funny, and it's an ingenious solution to How do you write a piece about New York?

When we started talking to people, Franzen wasn't even on the list. He said he couldn't do it because he had another book to do. Roger Angell at one point said, "New York? It's like a whole Europe. How are you going to do New York?"

We even talked about just doing upstate, right?

Weiland: That's right.

Wilsey: The Nation had a project that did the fifty states, and they split New York in three! Upstate, New York City, and Long Island.

Franzen came up with an ingenious solution. New York is the most famous state, some would say, so it's gotta have a publicist and a lawyer and a geologist... All these people who are going to intercept him, Jonathan Franzen, before his interview with the state.

He manages to tell the whole history of New York from geologic time up till now, and also his personal experiences in first coming to New York. It's beautiful and funny and really creative.

Weiland: He really plays with form. It's written in dramatic dialogue. Sean and I told writers early on that you shouldn't feel like you have to represent the whole history of the state in a straightforward essay. It should be a piece of writing that lives on the page and lasts a long time.

But the piece I keep talking about first — because it sticks in my mind and it's just such fun to read — is Josh Ferris's piece on Florida.

It's a very sophisticated and moving piece about growing up in Key West, and surprising in a number of ways. Contrary to expectation, it's about growing up in scummy, dirty, crummy Key West, working in a lousy diner, and remembering the people he knew in that diner, the waitresses and the back bar staff, the cook and the dishwasher, sharing drinks and drugs and time with them, and how their particular Florida lives made him who he is.

Wilsey: It's so Florida.

Weiland: Exactly. It's such a Florida experience. Like Daphne's comment about Wisconsin being a ballast — I don't know whether Josh would say Florida is a lodestone or a weight or ballast or what, but it's certainly part of him.

Dave: It's one of my favorites.

Wilsey: It's one of the funniest.

Dave: As editors, how did you work with Joe Sacco and Alison Bechdel? The process they're using to create graphic essays is much different and, I would assume, very hard to finesse once frames have been set and so forth.

Wilsey: Matt worked with Sacco, and I worked with Bechdel.

Weiland: Typically when working with graphic novelists and cartoonists, they'll present a draft script that the editor will respond to and comment on. That's how it worked with Joe. We'd talked several times about what sort of piece he'd be interested in doing, and then he turned in a draft script before he'd drawn anything.

It was similar with Alison, if I remember right?

Wilsey: Kind of similar. We talked about it a lot. Then she did sketches and talked about layout.

I know that Joe being in the book was very reassuring to Alison.

Weiland: In one of the advance reviews, those were the two pieces they highlighted.

Wilsey: I know Alison worked very hard on it. She's such a good writer and she's such a good artist. Most of us only have to do one of those things. She had to do both.

Dave: Right.

Wilsey: By the time she got to the end, she was so tapped out. But we'd been talking about her doing a map of the whole state. I thought the map was really important to tie it together, but I also felt like we were slave-driving her, she was working so hard.

I did beg her to do that map. And it's so great.

Weiland: That map is one of the most beautiful pages in the whole book.

Wilsey: In the whole book, I agree.

Dave: Speaking of: the book's endpapers are fantastic. Who was the illustrator?

Wilsey: Aren't those great?

Weiland: That's the cartoonist Seth, who's a friend of a friend. He's Canadian, I should confess. He's a first-rate cartoonist and a huge fan of the period. I think he also collects WPA guides. He did the cover for the Penguin reissue of The Portable Dorothy Parker.

Sean and I looked at some of his stuff and showed it to the art director at Ecco, who, by the way, deserves a huge shout-out. Alison Saltzman. She was great throughout, on the endpapers, on designing the jacket and the interior, all of which mattered a lot to us. We wanted to make the book in keeping with the original guides but not slavishly follow their look.

Dave: I expected John Hodgman's essay to be funny and smart, but I wasn't prepared for it to be sweet and sensitive, too. I didn't see that coming.

Weiland: We've talked about exactly the same thing.

Wilsey: I've known John for a while because of McSweeney's. He was the first guy that agreed to be in the book. I ran into him at a bar right after Matt and I decided that we wanted to do this thing.

I'd read a couple of his stories. He had a story in the Paris Review about fifteen years ago that I loved. It was not the least bit funny. It was beautiful and sincere, and perfectly crafted. And he had another in One Story about a Sci-Fi writers' conference that was hilarious but also a real narrative piece of work. It wasn't overtly comic; it just was funny. I mentioned those to him and asked if he'd ever want to go back to that style.

When the piece was finally done — we'd worked on it a little bit — he wrote me and said, "This is a good piece. Who wrote it?" He couldn't believe it was him.

Weiland: It's inventive and funny, but it's also pretty profound. A number of the pieces are surprisingly profound.

Dave: When I first read Susan Choi's piece, I thought, This could wind up in Best American Essays.

Weiland: I do sort of hope all fifty are in the next Best American Essays. But that one is a good contender.

Dave: The other day I quoted from an essay in State by State and asked a friend to guess what state was being described. The line was,

The history of our planet is one of absolutely relentless change.

I knew he would never associate that line with the state it was describing. You don't recall, do you?

Weiland: Just that line? Can you, Sean? I can't.

Dave: It's Idaho. I'd never think to equate Idaho with relentless change. But the deeper truth is that few people associate Idaho with much of anything.

Weiland: That's Anthony Doerr. Tony takes a long view, you know.

Dave: He does.

Weiland: When his piece came in — and I think it's a splendid piece — I called up Sean and said, "Man, it's amazing how many writers turn to writing about American Indians."

Wilsey: No kidding.

Weiland: For a moment, I confess, I thought, Geez, maybe too many. But the more I've thought about it, the gladder I am. The fact is that American Indians are not only a very large part of American history but they remain a very large part of the American experience today. And when do you ever, ever read anything about American Indians today? There's so little. Ian Frazier's On the Rez, but can you name many others?

It's astonishing, really. I was kind of pleased by that. I'm sure someone will slag us for liberal guilt or something.

Wilsey: Liberal outrage.

Weiland: Phil Connors writing about the biggest mass execution in American history on Minnesota soil. And Tony Doerr on the Tukudeka. And others.

Dave: What do the two of you have in common editorially? How do you work together?

Weiland: For my part, I can't imagine having as much of a good time and ending up with anywhere near as good of a book doing this with anybody other than Sean.

We both feed off this kind of writing, complementing each other in some ways, overlapping in loads of others. We did this in part because we had such a good time working on The Thinking Fan's Guide, and we're really proud of that book.

Wilsey: For me, I think it's total faith in Matt's taste. I just know that if he likes it, I'm going to like it, too.

Weiland: We both have a lot of faith in a kind of writing that doesn't have a good name. Memoir is a lousy word, and it's revealing that we have to use what is essentially a French word.

We both respond to people who write about something out there — place, history, landscape, buildings, other people — through the prism of their own lives.

Wilsey: And tell us what's at stake for them. I just think it's more honest writing, really.

Weiland: And truer, more revealing. People who aren't afraid to...

Wilsey: ...lay it on the line.

Weiland: Lay it on the line. We both love that kind of writing. And we recognize that that kind of writing is hard to do.

Wilsey: There are so many opportunities to fuck it up!

Weiland: There really are.

The other thing we share is that we like getting under the hood of even the best writing and working very closely with writers, sometimes at the risk of making them angry or annoyed. But we feel strongly that every piece in the book should look its absolute best and be as convincing and solid and lasting as possible. That means working very closely with writers on multiple drafts.

Wilsey: We're magazine people.

Weiland: We're magazine people, that's right.

Wilsey: Although I should jump in here and clarify. When Hodgman said, "Who wrote this piece?," that didn't have anything to do with me or my editing. He just couldn't believe that he'd gone there.

I think the best magazine editors — Dave Eggers is a really good example of this — give people a lot of freedom. As much as we're interested in getting under the hood and working on pieces, we're more interested in letting people do exactly what they want.

Weiland: And letting them sound like themselves.

I mention in the preface that it's a messy book. It's a cacophony, quite deliberately. We wanted fifty writers who don't all sound the same, who have a style, have a sound. Partly because that sound comes from where they live or where they come from or where they've spent time, which is after all part of the point of the book. That's really important to us both. Writers are individuals, and we give them space to be that.

Wilsey: I'm sitting here laughing, thinking, I love this country, man.

Dave: Do you have your hand over your heart again? [Editor's note: See the film.]

Wilsey: I kind of do!

You know, I have that stupid map up as a window shade in my office. So I'm looking at all the states, thinking, I know so much about the states now. I'm so glad we did this project. Look how big Michigan is! If we could just do this all again...

Weiland: Also, a project like this is logistically comparable to planning the invasion of Normandy — at least it felt that way.

Wilsey: I can't believe we got this done.

Weiland: And that's partly because one of Sean's many traits is that he's the most persistent person I've ever met.

Wilsey: God, I felt like such a motivator. I've never hustled so hard trying to get people do to stuff.

Weiland: The whole year and a half we worked on this book, we wore those coaches' shorts, the short, tight ones. And we had whistles around our necks.

Wilsey: We haven't talked about Nevada. I don't have anything especially illuminating to say about it, but that's an interesting piece. People have been responding to it.

Dave: When people see the film, the section with Daphne and Charles Bock [who wrote about Nevada] always gets a reaction. There's a real emotional depth to it.

Weiland: Another piece we haven't talked about that really sticks out in my mind is Craig Taylor on Delaware.

Sean and I are both fans of Studs Terkel's oral histories, which are a great inspiration. Terkel worked on the Federal Writers' Project, on the Illinois guide. We both felt strongly about getting some oral history into the book.

Craig Taylor is a really talented playwright and writer and oral historian. When we sent him down to Delaware — in part because we couldn't for the life of us come up with a writer from Delaware — I think we both hoped he'd go down there for 10 days and come back with something surprising and funny.

Wilsey: This is another example of totally trusting Matt's taste. I'd never heard of Craig Taylor before. Matt was like, "This guy's going to come back with something great, trust me."

Weiland: And what he came back with was so extraordinary. For a guy to just show up in Delaware and end up with a piece that includes the Mexican men fishing in the shadow of a nuclear reactor, right on up to the former governor, all speaking about the state in detail...

Wilsey: I've heard great things about that piece from people who've read it. Maybe you guys won't agree, but it reminds me of the Alaska piece in a way. It's funny that those are the two VP states. But I love the Alaska piece. Paul Greenberg is a really good reporter, and he got great quotes.

Weiland: That's a good example of a different kind of writer, fundamentally a reporter, but line-by-line a pleasure to read; and in the course of the essay you learn something about the state and something about him, which is really the Holy Grail for a piece like that.

Wilsey: He and Taylor both make the states so vivid and weird. It's not even in his Alaska piece, but it's in the movie where Paul is talking about the walrus tusk getting sawed off.

Dave: I don't know if I told you guys, but the night before we filmed I accidentally left my State by State sampler on a bar top in New York. I forgot it when I was ordering a drink. Some time later, I looked up from my table and saw the bartender reading State by State. Wait, I'm thinking, the book's not out yet. How'd she get that? Wait, no, that's my copy. Sure enough, my copy wasn't on my table.

It turns out she was reading the Delaware chapter. That's where she grew up. So I asked, "What do you think?"

She said, "It's spot-on, the whole northern and southern divide."

The group Taylor meets in the butcher shop tells him that people from northern Delaware make fun of them for talking so slow. Delaware is like a city in the north, they say, and several speeds slower in the south. So I asked the bartender, "What part of the state are you from?" She looked at me and said, very slowly, "Southern," and laughed at herself.

Weiland: She's a Slower Lower.

Wilsey: The state's the size of a fingernail, too. It's crazy.

Dave: But she was totally familiar with the distinction.

Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey spoke from New York, each in his own office, on September 4, 2008.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Oh the Glory of It All Used Trade Paper $2.95
  2. State by State: A Panoramic Portrait...
    Used Hardcover $9.50

  3. The Thinking Fan's Guide to the... Used Trade Paper $3.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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