From INDenver Times (Part One of a two-part interview)

NDenverTimes’ Benjamin Whitmer recently interviewed Nick Reding, the author of Methland. Here is the first part of the interview.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: One of the things I like most about Methland is that it draws a complicated picture of the conditions that create methamphetamine use. Methland is not only about the spread of methamphetamines in the heartland, but also the economic decimation of the region, of which rampant methamphetamine use is a symptom. Were you surprised at the level of complexity of the issues surrounding meth use once you started to dig in?

Nick Reding: Yeah, I think I was. When I started out in 1999, I was much more interested in life in a small town with a meth problem, than I was in the idea of meth in a small town. So for me interest in the town came first, and meth came second. That’s the book that I ultimately was able to write, but that’s not the book I was able to sell. The one that I sold was meth as a true crime story. And that’s a very simple story. Find somebody who goes to jail and figure out why. I went through four iterations of that book and it wasn’t working for the reason that I didn’t want to be writing about meth in that way. I wanted to be writing about the town first and meth second. So ultimately my editor and I were able to get our minds together and change that.

When I first started reporting on this I had no idea what kinds of forces were out there in the world bearing down small towns. That was surprising to me. As I reported this meth thing and kept trying to do it as a crime story, I kept realizing that it was those things bearing down on Oelwein that were driving the meth market. So it was kind of a double eye-opener I got through the eight years it took me to write this book.

The ultimate conclusion to me was that meth was really a symptom of a larger issue. And that issue is one of economy. I was truly kind of amazed at how the economy and the everyday life of a town in Iowa are affected by those national, and really global, elements. And the meth market there is affected by those exact same things, so that they’ve become so interwoven together that they’re almost the same thing.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: For those who haven’t read the book, could you describe a little about some of the broader issues that affect the meth epidemic? The impact of corporate farming, illegal immigration, globalization, etc.?

Nick Reding: Really what it comes down to is that between the vertical monopoly and the economic consolidation of the food business, people are being paid less and less for jobs in that industry. So, if you pay people less and less, then there are fewer people who are willing to do this stuff, and people start to leave towns like Oelwein because they can’t make enough money. As people leave, and wage rates fall, there is less tax revenue, and as there is less tax revenue, you become less able to educate your children or even keep the streetlights on at night – in Oelwein even that was not a foregone conclusion. And then these food business companies, to cut the bottom line even further, bring in illegal immigrants to work. Because if you technically don’t exist then you have no rights, and the company can pay you whatever they want to, and you have no legal recourse to do anything about any sort of abuse. This further reduces the bottom line, and it further impoverishes the town. And as this is happening, organized crime in Mexico is using the same illegal immigrants to distribute their drugs.

In Oelwein, Iowa, the effect is that the wages are low, the people have left, there is no tax revenue, and the people who have come to take the few remaining jobs contribute absolutely nothing to an already battered economy, and are bringing in drugs. It’s a kind of perfect cycle of economic and social degradation.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: Illegal immigration is a pretty hot button issue, especially around Denver right now. Have you met any resistance because you’re pointing out some of the realities that some don’t want to admit exist at all? Things like drugs coming in via illegal immigrants?

Nick Reding: Y’know, if I can sell it, that’s actually what my next book is gonna be about, and I’m kind of holding my breath over the next two weeks to see if that’ll work. But I expected for there to be much more conflict about that aspect of Methland, and, for whatever reason, nobody has really brought it up, except a few people have said that they didn’t realize that was a part of what was going on. I expected there to be a lot more angry people on both sides. People have been mad about enough other stuff that I don’t know what would stop them from being mad about that.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: What have people been most mad about?

Nick Reding: Interestingly, a lot of people who live in places like Salt Lake City, places that are not small towns by any means, have given me a lot of shit. I mean I’ve gotten a lot of emails that say “shame on you for writing about a drug in our small town.” And it’s funny because that sense of ownershio comes from guys in towns like Salt Lake City, which has to have a million people, and is a thousand miles away from Oelwein, Iowa, and is culturally very different. It’s kind of amazing. I’ve gotten a lot of negative stuff just for the fact that I’ve associated a drug with a small town.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: So it’s almost a sense of ownership about the myth of the small town rather than the small town itself?

Nick Reding: I think that’s right, yeah. And this is just my sort of theory, but I believe it’s because many of us, or our parents, or our parents’ parents, have come from these places and have either moved to the coasts or the Denvers or the Kansas Cities or the Salt Lakes of the world, and have brought with us this idea that everything is okay and will remain okay in the place we came out of. The only way I know how to explain that is that we all know the place we came into is not okay. Everybody accepts that things are fucked up Compton, Watts, the Bronx, Houston, wherever. We accept that things are not okay there, but we have a real hard time accepting that things are decidedly less okay in Oelwein, Iowa.

And that’s the truth. Statistically there is much higher likelihood of unemployment, of drug addiction, of household abuse, of all these things that we have somehow tricked ourselves into associating with the urban United States, in the rural United States. To me the whole trick is economics, and I don’t know why people don’t see that. Maybe it’s because they don’t spend time there. Or just because they don’t want to see it.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: The story of Oelwein seems almost ubiquitous. The decent jobs relocate elsewhere – usually overseas – and the small towns and medium-sized cities that depend upon them are left to go to hell. The solution seems fairly obvious to me: decent jobs need to be created to provide decent local economies. However, that would mean the dismantling of the global economy as we know it. Do you think there’s the political will in the current administration to take a serious run at agreements like NAFTA that create that global economy?

Nick Reding: I agree with you one hundred percent. I think that we are in a state that I would call late-stage capitalism where our economic system no longer adheres theoretically or realistically to a capitalist dynamic. It’s an oligarchic dynamic. What they don’t tell you in the manual of capitalism is that it has to be restarted every now and again. That’s what Theodore Roosevelt did, to some extent. But at this point all we’re doing is proving Marx right.

Is there political will to address some of these things? I don’t know. I think the man has got so many fucking problems right now that if he can see clear enough to kind of call a spade a spade on this I think it would be astonishing. I mean, the good news is that finally, after ten years, we’re beginning to look at domestic issues again as though they matter instead of these fucking wrong-headed wars. I think that there’s hope in that. But politics doesn’t support a culture of complexity. Politics supports a culture of simplicity. They have to say that meth is the problem; it’s actually not these other nineteen things that fit together, because if they admit it’s the nineteen things, well, then they have nineteen problems instead of one.

Whether it’s a question of political will or just a question of getting an SUV to do what a race car should do, government is slow and plodding and requires simple answers. For that reason I’m not sure anybody will see their way to doing what you and I think needs to be done.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: Do you think it’s even possible to radically reform economic policy in such a way as to create and retain jobs in places like Oelwein?

Nick Reding: I think it’s possible to do, not through will, but through long-term reorganization. I’m thirty-seven, and in my lifetime things have reorganized themselves in the way that we now call globalization. Did somebody have the blueprint somewhere thirty-five years ago? I doubt it. But things have reorganized themselves. So I think it is possible. But it’s not going to happen because we say we need to correct this and here’s how.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: Opposition to globalization is almost universal outside of Wall Street and Washington, and yet the concept has become nearly beyond criticism in the mainstream media. What do you think accounts for this disconnect?

Nick Reding: My guess is that it’s the same answer as the question about political will. If you completely rejiggered your manufacturing line from beer to bowling pins, and you’ve retrofitted all of your equipment from beer bottles to bowling pins, it’s hard to admit it’s not working. What’re you gonna do, retrofit to something entirely new? This is what we’ve committed to, a global economy. This is how we run things. The motivation to see that through is immense.

That would be one way of putting it. A more cynical view would be that we’re gonna run the ship into the fucking iceberg whether or not we know it’s there. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I don’t think people are that evil. But I also think that government is run in one town and despite the fact that it’s run by people who are supposed to be representing the state of Indiana, for instance, or the state of Iowa, they spend the bulk of their time in a place that has nothing to do with Indiana or Iowa. I think it’s impossible for them to see the everyday effects of policy, so I think in a lot of ways their information is not up-to-date.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: What were you reading while you were working on Methland? Did you take a look at any other books dealing with the rural working class, like Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus or Jim Goad’s A Redneck Manifesto?

Nick Reding: I’ve never even heard of those books, but they sound interesting. I actually kind of made it a point not to read much of anything that was not just part of the reporting. The reason is that when I wrote my first book, I loved Cormac McCarthy and I read a lot of his work, and when a friend read that first draft, he told me, “wow, you would win a Cormac McCarthy contest, but we have no idea what Nick Reding sounds like.” That was sort of my cue to start that book over.

The takeaway for me is that I am easily influenced and vulnerable to other people’s voices, and I’d best not read anything while writing one of my own books. So if it wasn’t some research oriented kind of shit, that or the New Yorker, I didn’t read it.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: Did or do you have any interest of the anti-globalization stuff by Naomi Klein or Noam Chomsky?

Nick Reding: I do now, in this window between books, but I can’t tell you I’ve read them, because I haven’t. I’m the most poorly-read writer anybody will ever meet. I don’t read. I read the New York Times every morning, and I generally get through the New Yorker every week, selectively. If I read fiction, I read short stories. I haven’t finished a book literally in years.

The only defense that I have for myself is that I kind of know what I see and I try to figure out on my own what I think about it. I don’t read a lot of other people’s theories about how the world works. I just have this deal where I try to go out and figure it out on my own.

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