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

INDenverTimes’ Benjamin Whitmer recently interviewed Nick Reding, the author of Methland. Here is the last part of the interview.The first part is available here.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: I don’t know how much of what’s on the internet is true, but I read that some residents of Oelwein were pretty angry about the book, in part because they hadn’t had access to copies of it yet and were relying on media coverage. Have things calmed down as more residents have read the book and become aware of Methland’s broader concerns?

Nick Reding: I think that things have calmed down significantly. Early June, the Oelwein librarian and mayor and I don’t know who else decided they wanted to have a townhall meeting, knowing that there would be a reaction to the book. It was set for July 20th. The book came out in mid-June, and by July 20th there were a lot of really mad people. I was getting all kinds of threats, lots of emails. Oddly enough, few of them came from people who lived in Oelwein, it was always from people who had lived in Oelwein and moved away twenty-five years before. That’s based on the emails and phone calls I got. The threats, I don’t know who they came from because they were, you know, too big of a coward to tell me who they were.

In any event, we had this townhall meeting, which I thought was a good idea, because the town’s the number one character in this book. All 6,000 or 7,000 people didn’t agree to let me write about their town, so I thought they had a right to tell me what they thought about the book. As it turned out, it was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had. There were three television crews, four hundred people showed up, and they just asked me questions for three hours. There was a lot of hostility, but what became very clear very quickly was that most of them hadn’t read the book.

Oelwein doesn’t have a bookstore, the library had three copies of the book, and by the time I got to town there was a forty-six person waiting list for those three books. The nearest bookstore was forty miles away and they were sold out. Amazon was sold out. Nobody could get the book. What they relied on were book reviews and stuff on the internet, all of which concentrated on Roland Jarvis and said nothing about Oelwein’s recovery. It was a roomful of people who thought I had told the world that Oelwein was the most meth-addicted place on earth, and hadn’t had a chance to find out otherwise.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: I’ve read a little bit about that townhall meeting. How’d it go?

Nick Reding: It was intense. It turned out great, though. About halfway through this elderly lady stood up with the book in her hand and I thought, “oh man, I’m about to get reamed by an eighty-year-old woman.” But it turned out that what she said was, “if you haven’t read the book you have no right to criticize. And if you have read it and you think every word isn’t true then you’ve got your head buried in the sand.” As soon as she said that it kind of opened the drain valve on all this other emotion. The sole addiction specialist in the town of Oelwein came up to the front of the room and just reiterated what the woman said. And then a cop stood up and said the same.

One of the weird things is that the only person I wrote about who won’t acknowledge the book in any way is the police chief. So, at this townhall meeting there was no police presence. There was no acknowledgement that it had ever taken place. Had I been able to plan it knowing that, I would have done it differently, but I still don’t know what his deal is. He hasn’t said he’s mad, he hasn’t said anything.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: You forged relationships with a few of the residents of Oelwein that seemed more than strictly journalistic. I’m thinking mainly of Nathan Lein and Clay Hallberg. Have you kept in touch with any of those folks since finishing the book?

Nick Reding: Yeah, I have. In fact, at this townhall meeting Clay was on one side of me at the table and Nathan was on the other. The mayor was supposed to be there, but he wasn’t. I consider all three of those friends. Nathan and Clay, in particular. Now that I don’t write down everything they say we’ve been allowed by circumstance to become friends.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: Have you gotten any sense of how they’ve received the book? Did they feel that Oelwein was fairly represented?

Nick Reding: I’ll tell you, when I got the very first copies of the book I sent one to every person who was a major character in the book. I was really, really nervous about that whole process, but particularly about Clay and Nathan. I mean, we talked ad nauseum over the course of four and a half years. I sent them my first book and said, “imagine that the two main characters are you guys. Are you sure it’s okay that I say this? Are you sure it’s okay that I say that?” And every time they’d say, “well, yeah, I told it to you.” But I knew that nobody’s ever prepared to be written about, and nobody’s ever prepared to read about themselves. Because who could be? And, frankly, I joke with them now because with all the publicity the book’s gotten, I’m in their shoes. I mean, I told them, “you’re never gonna be prepared,” but I wasn’t either.

In any event, I sent a copy to Clay and Nathan and I told myself that I wasn’t gonna call them. That if I wasn’t hearing from them it’s because they hadn’t read it or they’d read it and needed some time to cool down. But I couldn’t resist after ten days and I called Nathan and said, “y’know, did you get the book or what?” And he said, “when I saw that the first two words of chapter one are Nathan Lein, I became angry.” So I said, “well, what did you think? I mean, the whole book is Nathan Lein. You’re the main character, man.”

Anyway, the point is that Clay and Nathan and I have remained good friends, but there was a period in there where we had to work at it a little bit. They were both kind of shocked. But Nathan has said repeatedly that everything in the book is one hundred percent true. And Clay said the biggest thing that I’m proud of, that he actually learned things about the town that he grew up in that he didn’t know. He also said that the portrayal of him in the book actually made him want to close the family practice and devote himself entirely to working in the emergency room.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer:  What do you think about the media reception to Methland thus far? It could be just me, but it seems like a disproportionate amount of coverage has concentrated on the more sensational stuff, especially Roland Jarvis’ story of blowing himself up in a methlab.

Nick Reding: People like to keep things simple. The only paper that really covered all of the stuff in the book is the only remaining freestanding weekly book review that I’m aware of, The New York Times Book Review. That’s because they’ve got the space to write that long of a review. Most papers don’t, so they concentrate on the most pyrotechnic parts of it. That’s my only explanation for it.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: Did you consciously balance the sensational elements with the more analytic material?

Nick Reding: Yeah, I did what I thought was the most honest portrayal possible. I’d be a liar to tell you when I first met Roland that I didn’t think that from a journalistic standpoint it was a home run. I mean, it just was. If you’re gonna hitch your buggy to anybody it’s gonna have to be Roland. It was the same way when I met Clay, because he was probably the most quotable person I’ve ever been around, and I found the dichotomies of his life fascinating. The same with Nathan. And, frankly, the same with the mayor.

But back to the Roland thing. The parts of the book that were the most interesting to me to report on were the big picture stuff and the everyday lives of the non-addicts. But I knew that I had to come up with a face for meth, and that’s Roland. And I had to come up with something that would keep people reading, so that it was not just too much economic analysis. So, enter Roland.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: Some of your critics have latched onto claims that Methland is rife with factual inaccuracies. As far as I can tell, there aren’t that many, and they’re pretty minor – misidentifying the largest city in Iowa, for instance – but they’ve created a bit of a furor on the internet. What’s your reaction to these claims?

Nick Reding: Well, I’m embarrassed that I called Iowa City the largest city in Iowa. It’s embarrassing. It’s a mistake. I don’t really have any defense for it, except that I was wrong and it’s easy to fix in the paperback. The reality of the book business is that every hardcover has errors that are fixed in the paperback. The other reality is that journalism is less about fact than it is people’s opinion about fact. For instance, are there 6,126 in Oelwein or are there 6, 772? Well, there are two different census figures. So, if I pick one of those and exclude the other, which I have to do, than am I a liar? I wouldn’t say so, but I have to pick the one of those that I think is right.

But it gets more complicated the more you get into it. There was a whole section of the crowd in the Oelwein townhall meeting which was made up of former and still-using tweakers. There was a guy who said when I was signing his book that he had just gotten out of prison 16 hours before, and he was tweaked out of his gourd. No question about it. Not that his physical attributes should be used to prove the fact that he was tweaking, but he was an Aryan nation white guy, shaved head, Nazi tats, super-muscular, hardcore tweaker, and he was telling me that the book was right on. And the thing that was so interesting about it was that there were people five feet from him who wanted to say that there is no meth in Oelwein, Iowa. To those people who are willing to look at the tweaker next to them and say there’s no meth, well, my book is a lie. That’s when opinion as fact comes into play. So, my reaction is to look at it philosophically and say, “okay, I understand your point, but I’m not swayed by it.”

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: Here in Denver, we’ve seen the Montana Meth Project’s billboards popping up all over town. One of my favorites shows a picture of a bloody sink and a razor blade with the tagline “NO ONE THINKS THEY’LL TRY TO TEAR OFF THEIR OWN SKIN. METH WILL CHANGE THAT.” What do you think of the efficacy of that sort of scare campaign?

Nick Reding: You know, I’ve been asked that question before and I really don’t know the answer. I would frame my answer by saying that anything that people wish to try, I would never criticize. Their hearts are in the right place. Because we’re talking about a problem that is really a symptom of a much larger one, I think that whatever you do that only treats the topical nature of the problem is ultimately not gonna have an effect on the cause. But I would never criticize someone for doing what they think is right.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: They always seem kind of reductive to me, in that they don’t talk about any of those larger problems, and make meth only an issue of personal culpability, removing the socioeconomic side. It seems a kind of sleight-of-hand.

Nick Reding: What’s frustrating, and it hasn’t happened yet, but I know it’s going to, is that people are going to say, “well, look, Oelwein came back, so really it’s up to these places to take care of themselves, to fix themselves.” I can already hear Representative Souder saying that exact thing. That’s gonna be their political takeaway, I fear, to say “look, if only you try hard enough you can lift yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Well, you can’t continue to do that ad infinitum when the sky is being lowered closer and closer to your head. If you have no room to stand up, bootstraps or not, you can’t do it. That’s what I’m bracing myself for.

If, in fact, anybody continues to give a shit about this book, which they may or may not.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: Along with the billboards, we’ve also been subjected to lots of rhetoric by public officials claiming that meth is uniquely addictive and destructive, more so even than crack-cocaine and heroin. I’ve lived through too many drug scares not to be a little skeptical. What’s your take, having studied it for four years?

Nick Reding: I don’t think there’s a way to prove that one way or another. I think any addiction specialist would have a hard time proving that any one drug is more powerful than another. However, to me, it’s reasonable to suggest that something that keeps you more profoundly high for a longer time is, in fact, very possibly more addictive than something that doesn’t. And meth definitely fills the bill. There’s no comparison to crack or cocaine in that way. The longevity and intensity of the high just isn’t comparable.

But does that mean that everybody who does meth once is addicted? Of course not. I’ve met all kinds of meth addicts. I’ve met very few meth addicts who don’t have most of their teeth. That whole meth-mouth thing is bullshit. I’ve met recreational users of meth. I’ve met people who’ve been long term every-now-and-again users. But, also, I would say that a disproportionate number of people who are addicts went through every other drug first, and when they finally met meth, that’s where the buck stopped. I think that speaks very strongly to its power.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: Rumor has it that you had to change the names of a few of the folks in Methland, and named one of the town’s worst addicts after one of your publisher’s lawyers. Would you mind telling the story?

Nick Reding: Yeah, I did. I had sent the final draft in and the book was done. I mean, I know that when a book is done the first thing you get is a publicist and the second thing is a lawyer, but the book was done. And I did not anticipate, and nobody I knew anticipated what ended up happening, which was that three days before Thanksgiving this guy calls me and says that, “hey, I’m the lawyer and if I don’t put my stamp on this manuscript it won’t get published.” To which, I said, “okay, well thanks for making it clear what the stakes are here. What can I do for you?” Well he told me that the entire book constituted an invasion of privacy, and the only way to get around that was to change the name of the town, the state that it was in, and the names and physical attributes of every person in the book, which are about twenty-five people. To which I responded, “are you kidding me?”

It was terrible. We’d just moved into this house. It was like a hundred and something years old and it was getting cold, just before Thanksgiving, and we had a bunch of squirrels living between the second and third floor. I would be at home, on the phone, talking to this guy, and listening to these goddamned squirrels running back and forth in the floorboards. My wife was pregnant, and we had all these unpacked boxes. There was a lot going on and I didn’t need that on top of it. Plus the buck opener was on Thanksgiving Day, and I wanted to be ready.

Anyway, I’m a pretty even-keel guy, or at least I try to be, but we spent days arguing on the phone about it. And he never got riled up, but there was one point where he said, “I can understand why it is that you are feeling emotional; however I would feel better if you would stop referring to me as Mr. Unethical Shitbag.” I’m really a pretty mellow guy, but I’d just got to the point where I just, I referred to him as “Mr. Unethical Shitbag.”

Anyway, what we argued down to was only changing the names of about four people. So, just because I wanted to follow directions to a T, I named one of them after him. And when I called him and told him his only reaction was, “touché.”

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: You have been quoted as saying that Wild Turkey is the unofficial sponsor of Methland. Have you always been a bourbon man?

Nick Reding: I have always been a bourbon man. You have to be if you’re from Missouri; it’s an obligation. And I still am a bourbon man, but I don’t get a chance to drink it as often as I would like. Not to put too serious a spin on it, but as you’ve probably read in my book, my wife is a recovering alcoholic, so bourbon is something we don’t keep in the house. Which is good for everyone, probably. But, you know, occasionally I’ll get let out of the coop and have a little bit.

INDT Benjamin Whitmer: Lastly, what do you have in the works for your next project?

Nick Reding: It’s gonna be a book about immigration, and it’s gonna be centered in the middle of the country. But to be honest with you, I’m trying to keep my book proposal as vague as possible, to give myself as much wiggle room as possible as I go. I’m not being coy, but that’s about all I know.

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