Interview: State By State's Matt Weiland

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The lovely Matt Weiland is the co-editor of State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, an anthology he and Sean Wilsey brought out this fall. The book is, among other things, a partial homage to the original WPA state guides, artifacts of Roosevelt's now sorely-missed Federal Writers' Project. The originals employed Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and Ralph Ellison, among others; State By State, for its part, features George Packer, Benjamin Kunkel, William Vollman, and scores of other talent on every state in the union.

Weiland (who is now a senior editor at Ecco Press) and I spoke over the phone last week about State By State, and about what's happened in America and in New York since the book first came out, a few months ago. You'll find more context in this month's Lit Seen column, devoted to this same subject. In the meantime, an abbreviated version of our conversation is below.

If there's one theme that runs throughout State By State, it's a kind of low-level mourning for the type of regional specificity and diversity highlighted in the original WPA Guides--now presumed mostly vanquished. On the other hand, your introduction to the book amounts to an impassioned defense of America's continuing dynamism, variety, and intensity. A reader could get confused...

Well, I think it's both. You know, it's very easy to become demoralized as you drive along the interstate and stop off for a cup of coffee, which inevitably is at some fast food chain. And as you pass over into the next state you're not sure what's changed until you see a sign. It all kind of looks the same. Certainly, one city to another looks more and more alike these days. And I think it's very easy to be demoralized about it all and to feel as though the whole country's becoming more homogeneous--it is! There's no doubt about that. On the other hand, I think it's important to recognize how resilient independent stores, independent magazines, local culture, accents, cults, and private forms of religion are. I think it's remarkable; if you actually look around it's a wonder the country isn't even more homogeneous than it is.

One thing that's interesting about the book is that it already has some time-capsule elements: It's a little bit pre-Obama, and a little bit pre-economic catastrophe. It's funny how prelapsarian parts of the book already feel.

I hope that doesn't mean you think it's dated, because I don't think it is. It may be the case that the time we're in is a time of transition. I think a lot of people would date from the early '70s to now as a kind of period--culturally, financially, economically. And I hope the book is maybe not prelapsarian but the beginning of something better, something that hauls us into the future as much as it looks to the past for inspiration.

The original WPA guides were produced in the very depths of the depression. And in one way, they looked back, to a smaller, more traditional America, but at the same time, they very much looked forward, to an America that was vibrant and vital and dynamic and active once again as it became during and after the war, and that recognized its own charms and pleasures. I hope that's the same thing we've done, on a smaller level.


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