“My office is one block from my home in the City of Saint Louis, in an old house. Aside from me, there are seven other businesses in the place: a hair salon, a prom dress maker, two jewelers, a photographer, a vintage clothing store, and an event planner. When I first moved in three years ago, four of those spaces were unoccupied, so things seem headed in the right direction.
My office is very basic. I don’t have any desire to want to be there, so I don’t dress it up and pretend it’s something it’s not. My goal is to go there, work as quickly as possible, and leave. Having a neat desk helps! The photos I have on my desk and on the walls represent places I’d rather be and people I’d rather be with: a satellite image of Tampa Bay (where I used to fish a lot); my dad, smiling inside our duck blind, with a strap of birds between him and the camera; my wife talking on the phone the night we got engaged, our chihuahua Jolene next to her.”
was born in Saint Louis, Missouri, and received his B.A. in Creative Writing and English Literature from Northwestern University in 1994. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from N.Y.U., where he was a University Fellow from 1995 til 1997. He lived in New York City for thirteen years, where he worked as a magazine editor, a graduate school professor, and a freelance writer. His first book, The Last Cowboys at the End of the World, was published by Crown in 2001. Methland is his second book. He has written for Harper’s, Food and Wine, Outside, Fast Company, and Details. He lives with his wife and son in Saint Louis, where he teaches creative writing and journalism at Washington University.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work? Are you a creature of habit?
NICK REDING: I’m very much a creature of habit, probably to a pathological extent. Every morning while I read the Times, I eat the same breakfast at the same place in the same seat at roughly the same time. As weird as it may sound, I think of this as the most important part of my workday for the reason that writing about a single subject for years at a time gives me some serious tunnel-vision; each morning, I need to get out of my head at the same time that I put things in a larger context. Talking with the other regulars at my breakfast spot accomplishes the first task; reading the paper and seeing what’s going on in the region, the country, and the world accomplishes the second.
I’ve learned that I need limits or else I’ll report forever…
FYD: Your proposal for Methland was 35-pages. How did it differ–or perhaps what did you learn–in comparison to your first proposal?
NR: Proposals are funny. I’ve done five and sold three and still can’t say for sure how to write one. On the one hand, there’s this notion of a traditional book proposal which is more of a business plan, really, that winds a well-worn trail to an editor’s heart. First is a scene of a few pages, then a Why This Book section, followed by a Chapter Summary and, finally, the billboard, which compares your (unwritten, years-away) book to others that it will be like and says how successful those were and then says that yours will be more successful because it taps into something deep at the same time that it’s totally unique.
It’s sort of a bullshit process. For instance, how can you write a chapter summary of a book you haven’t written yet, and probably haven’t even BEGUN to report? I think it’s more an exercise in demonstrating an ability to think a certain way–critically and with an eye to organization, but on a big, messy canvas–and have a certain unhealthy willingness to pursue something to utter distraction.
That kind of short (12-page), direct, sectioned, traditional format was how I sold Last Cowboys
back in 1998. Methland
was very different. I identified as little as I could of what I was going to do, where I was going to go, who I was going to talk to. Basically it was a proposal for a book with no characters, no plot, and no place. My editor described it to me as less a proposal and more of a “state of mind.” I took that as a compliment, though I’m not sure he meant it that way. My instinct is to be as loosey-goosey as possible, but I’ve learned that I need limits or else I’ll report forever, to the point that I can almost convince myself that if I just stay out on the road enough, they’ll pay me any way and I won’t ever have to sit down and actually write a book.
Seems like “truth” and “journalism” are supposed to go together.
FYD: Author Daniel Woodrell was recently on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations (they dined on squirrel pot pie) mentioned cooking meth was down for the first time (in his immediate surroundings). What are the current stats of meth use in Missouri?
NR: Missouri now produces 25% of all the domestically-produced meth in the United States. That’s orders of magnitude beyond where we were five years ago, and we’re only headed further in the wrong direction. Most of that production is centered in the counties around Saint Louis, KC, and Springfield, for the reason that interstates and population density in those areas make distribution easier for larger operations.
The Ozarks is and has always been its own thing. I’d locate that half of Missouri in a region of its own that includes Southern Indiana and Illinois, Western Tennessee and Kentucky, and Northern Arkansas. That area is remote and reclusive and has a unified history and economy that’s far different from here, close as it is in distance. I think meth is typical in that regard: there, it’s local; here, it’s big business.
NR: Seems like “truth” and “journalism” are supposed to go together. Not because truth is universal, but because, through sheer effort and diligence and ethics, you’re supposed to work hard enough and long enough to think that what you write is truthful, if not necessarily universally so. You’re supposed to get it as right as you humanly can, and to suppress your biasses and subjectivities as much as possible.
These days, a large portion of “journalism” is nothing but blatant politicking. I’m thinking of television here mostly, regardless of stripe; Fox is as bad as CNBC and CNN. Rather than truth being seen as inversely proportionate to one’s subjective instinct, the opposite is true. The louder you yell and the more you bend facts, the right-er you are. Maybe truth journalism is just a term that responds to that, but to me it’s just journalism. That said, this is still the best place on earth to be a journalist. There are lots of examples, as you point out above, and continue to be more. Sometimes it’s easy for me to forget that against all the yelling in the background.
FYD: How did your University Course: Methland at Emory develop? The course was the first of its kind. How did you structure your syllabus?
NR: The Methland course was the idea of Emory law professor, Morgan Cloud, and Laurie Patton, a professor of religion. The notion is that, instead of a university teaching specialization, there ought to be courses that bring all disciplines together to look at a specific problem in a general, full-picture way. Each week, a different professor from a different discipline–economics, religion, criminal law, sociology, etc.–teaches the book. The twenty-plus students in the course, too, are from all areas of the university, both undergraduate and graduate. One week mid-semester, I was the professor, and also gave a public lecture the evening before. It was a huge honor. Never mind that Methland was the basis, it just seems like such a neat idea regardless of the book.
These days, a large portion of “journalism” is nothing but blatant politicking.
FYD: You teach at Washington University. Do you place emphasis on research, class participation, heavy reading….or a culmination?
NR: I teach “literary journalism” at Washington University in Saint Louis, that being one of several open-ended terms–including “fictional nonfiction” and “creative nonfiction”–for the kind of stuff I write. The open-endedness means I get to run the course how I want. Most of the 12 students in my classes aren’t from Saint Louis–Wash. U. draws heavily from South Florida, Chicago, New York, and the Mid-Atlantic areas. On the first day of class, I have them draw a map of town. Despite having been here 2-3 years so far, no one can draw much more than the university, the baseball stadium, the brewery, and maybe the riverfront bar area that Wash. U. students famously frequent. Many don’t know, for instance, that Illinois is the state on the other side of the Mississippi, less than a mile away from those same bars, or that East Saint Louis isn’t in Missouri, or that Saint Louis was founded in the 17th century, or that Missouri was a slave state during the Civil War.
The only two stipulations of my class are that they have to write one good, heavily-revised piece of plot-based journalism that’s strong on a sense of place and character, and that the piece must take place in Saint Louis. Memoir is forbidden. The rest of the semester is spent helping them find a story, follow it, spend time with the people who make the story come to life, writing and revising it–all the same stuff I do, along with any other journalist. It’s very rewarding, they have a much better idea of where they’re living when we’re done, and, as a result, they teach me things I never knew about the place I grew up and where I’ll hopefully live for a long time to come.
Missouri now produces 25% of all the domestically-produced meth in the United States…and we’re only headed further in the wrong direction.
FYD: What’s next?
NR: Methland was part one of a two-part series. Right now, I’m working on the second part, Heartland, which will try to imagine what the Midwest will look like in 40 years, given some of the economic and social trends outlined in Methland. It’ll be a couple-three years before it’s out. At that point, Bloomsbury will re-release The Last Cowboys, which is currently out of print. Hopefully by then, the BBC will have finished shooting the movie version of Methland. Meantime, I’ll keep teaching journalism at Washington University in Saint Louis.
Visit Nick’s website, Methland
. Find him on Facebook here
, read an excerpt of Methland here
and the new paperback version is available here.
(*Black and white Bulldog Park and open field photo Highway 18, Algona, Iowa by Nick Reding.)