Conditional Optimism in Our Towns: An Interview with James and Deborah Fallows

by    /  May 28, 2019  / Comments Off on Conditional Optimism in Our Towns: An Interview with James and Deborah Fallows

This past February, James and Deborah Fallows visited City of Asylum to speak about their book Our Towns and to celebrate its paperback release. In their narrative, the Fallows travel across the country in their small Cirrus prop plane, exploring America’s small towns and cities. Their experiences counter the current national climate of political polarization and distrust, showing that progress and optimism has flourished in towns neglected by major news outlets. One stop on the Fallows’ journey was Pittsburgh and City of Asylum, to which a chapter of the book is devoted. After discussing many of the book’s central themes and lessons with the audience at Alphabet City, James and Deborah answered a few extra questions from Sampsonia Way in an e-mail interview.

I. On Travel

Throughout your careers, you’ve often moved to places that turn out to have historical significance at that moment. If younger journalists and writers had the same notion and could go anywhere in the world to report right now, what places do you think should be at the top of their lists and why?

JF: It’s an important question, and an impossible one. Important because the experience young reporters have in their early years — let’s say 20s and early 30s, before too many real-world complications limit their options — can be so valuable and formative. And impossible because almost any place, or experience, or immersion can be valuable. I can imagine a case for spending one’s mid-20s in China — or any country in Africa, or in Mexico, or in Brazil, or in Kansas or Wisconsin, or joining the military, or working as an EMT in one’s hometown. Almost every place is full of interesting and significant possibilities. The value of these pre-head-of-household years is having more freedom to explore and take risks than most people do later on.

What is “home” for you two? How do you keep yourself “grounded” to a place and/or people when you travel?

JF: Ah, another important and impossible question. Important, because people’s sense of “from”-ness really affects their view of the world. Impossible, because we’ve been on the road so much for so long. I will always be “from” inland California. Deb will always be “from” the small-town Midwest, mainly northern Ohio in most of her conscious years. But we’ve had a house that we love, in a neighborhood we love in Washington, D.C. for the past 40 years — and our kids started elementary school there and finished high school there (with Japan and Malaysia in between). So they are always “from” D.C. — whereas we’ve lived in D.C. for roughly half the time since the 1970s. 

Weirdly, I think our sense of grounded-ness may come from a sense of being American, heightened by the long years we spent living outside the country. We view the U.S. as an extended home territory for us — and really enjoyed the time we spent in Seattle, in Austin, in Berkeley, and elsewhere along the road.

 DF: I think I would quote our grown kids, who once said, when we were trying to figure out where we should get together for the holidays, that home to them was wherever we, their parents, happened to be.

II. On Writing

Mr. Fallows, you’ve written extensively as both a journalist for magazines and an author of books. How do these different mediums affect your writing process? You did some reporting for magazines as you travelled — what was the process like of taking that reporting and adapting it for Our Towns?

JF: The basic process of journalism is the same in every medium, every location, and every story. That is: showing up in a new situation, being alert to what you see that you hadn’t known before you arrived, asking people there to explain what’s important or what outsiders may not realize, and then conveying that information to people who aren’t there, or haven’t had a chance to ask these questions themselves. This applies whether you’re doing a blog post, a radio report, a long magazine article, or a book.

The main process difference in moving from the web posts and magazine articles to one sustained book is simply the discipline (and mental torture) of actually writing a book. It takes so long and you get so tired of your own voice — in general you think, “Why did I ever imagine this would be a good idea?” But my maxim is, the only reason to write a book is if you feel you can’t not write it. And we felt we couldn’t not describe what we’d seen through these years on the road.

Language is vital in the book. Mrs. Fallows, you especially take note of local language and the “discourse” around progress and identity. How has your work in linguistics shaped the way you interview and the way you write?

DF: My background in languages and linguistics shapes not just how I work and write. It is part of the experience of everything I do every day. The best thing about studying so much about language is that I believe it has made me an attentive listener. For example, I listen to the words people use, both individually and more collectively in their communities. Do they use positive language or negative language? Do they signal action, with words like “collaborate”?  Do they use localisms or do they use the words they’ve heard a thousand times in the national media?

Often, a town will adopt some vocabulary that reflects their shared values, as in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where “Family Day” was the shorthand for Sunday, when shops were closed and you reserved that time for the family. Or in Greenville, South Carolina, where the first question asked was “Where do you go to church?” as a way to place people in the questioner’s own cultural, political, and socioeconomic world. 

You’ve mentioned your dedication to parenting and sharing family responsibilities despite the hectic life of writing and reporting. How is writing like parenting? Has parenting — and grandparenting — made you better writers? How has it changed the way you think about America and the future?

DF: On the surface, the years that we raised our sons may look quite conventional. I chose to primarily stay home as a full-time mom until the boys were grown. Jim was primarily the working parent and writer. However, what was unconventional is that Jim spent a tremendous amount of his working time at home. That meant he was acutely aware of the ebb and flow of everyday life with kids, and he was engaged with the hands-on care of them much more than most dads of that generation were.

I started to write as a kind of self-therapy effort; the late 1970s and early 1980s were an era when the choice to stay home to raise kids was considered a kind of surrender to the idea that you weren’t strong enough to both raise kids and work at the same time. I wrote my first book (over many years-time!) as a way to work through my reasons and choice to buck the trend of the times and do what I believed in. So, I’m not sure if parenting affected Jim’s writing life, but it launched mine. I think that anyone who has kids can’t help but think about the future of the country without the special filter of feeling responsible and hopeful for the next generation.

JF: In regards to writing and parenting, I find it impossible to answer, or to know. The reason is that everything we’ve done — all the places we’ve lived, all the ups and downs in our personal and professional lives — no doubt have left a mark on the way that we think, perceive, and write.  During the roughly 20 years from when our first son was born, to when our second son went off to college, almost everything about our life was affected by our role as parents. And in the years since then, we of course continue to be their parents, and now the grandparents to their children.  Those roles affect everything about our view of the world, but I can’t really say what our view would have been if we hadn’t had children. I can hardly stand to think what life would have been like without our sons!

III. On Towns

A lot of the national conversation around progress deals with gentrification. Many of the hotels, restaurants, start-ups, art galleries, etc., compete for space with housing projects, convenience stores, and other mainstays of underprivileged communities. How have you seen towns negotiate between the two? Where have you seen the most success in progress with equity?

JF: The problems of economic growth are real problems. You can see them in hyper-extreme form these days in San Francisco and Seattle, and you can see them in milder (though still real) versions in any place that has attracted new residents, from different backgrounds, with more money than the people who were there before. It struck us that it was worth holding two contradictory ideas in mind, at the same time, when dealing with these challenges of gentrification.

Firstly, these are a better kind of problem to have than their opposites — the consequences of depopulation, of the departures of businesses, of property values that are falling all around. Any small town that is watching its median age rise and its business count fall would be grateful to deal with the challenges of gentrification.

But secondly, these are nonetheless real and serious challenges — and worth anticipating and trying to head off.  Of places we’ve seen that are trying to juggle these challenges, no one stands out as a spectacular success, but I can tell you that leaders in Fresno, California, and Greenville, South Carolina, Riverside, California, and Columbus, Ohio are trying to deal with them, using tools from affordable-housing programs to equity in transit and in public schools.

You write that one of the most important factors in a booming town is optimism. Successful towns have big plans for the future. What’s something you’ve recently heard, seen, or read that made you optimistic about the future of America?

DF: I feel optimistic about the future of America when I see the next generation stepping up to take responsibility for what comes next in the well-being of the nation, by running for office, by experimenting with new kinds of schools, by volunteering, by creating new models of work-family balance, by making decisions that help the environment, and more.

JF: Just to give a local Pittsburgh-area example, I think the new documentary film by John Miller and David Bernabo about Moundsville, West Virginia, gives a sense of the realism and “conditional optimism” with which Americans, even in very troubled regions, approach the future. What is “conditional optimism”? It’s not the assumption that things automatically will get better. It’s the idea that they can improve, with enough effort by enough people. 

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