J. D. Vance's memoir Hillbilly Elegy touched a nerve and lit a spark this year. The story of Vance's childhood, his family's roots back in Kentucky, his grandparents' efforts to keep him on the straight and narrow, and Vance's ultimate decision to challenge himself by joining the Marines and then Yale Law School, Hillbilly Elegy puts a personal spotlight on the struggles of Midwest manufacturing towns and their citizens to find their place in this new age.
Amazon Book Review: Were there scenes in Hillbilly Elegy that you didn't include but later, after publication, wished that you had put in or kept in?
J. D. Vance: One of my favorite moments with my grandma ("Mamaw" to book readers) is when my younger cousins tried to enforce a swear jar (put a quarter in for every curse word you utter) on Mamaw. She eventually got so frustrated with monitoring her language that she put a blank check in the jar and said, "There, now I can say whatever in the f*** I want." It was Mamaw at her best: funny, irreverent, foul-mouthed, and loving. I had honestly forgotten that story until my younger cousin (now in college) reminded me of it.
But generally, I was really glad with the stories that eventually made it into the book. I wanted to give readers a sense of the characters in my own life without telling every family secret!
You've become a go-to expert on working families in the Rust Belt. What information about the working class do people tend to find the most surprising?
That last year in the Ohio county I grew up in (and many others like it) drug overdoses overtook natural causes as the leading cause of death. A lot of people don't realize how terrible this opioid epidemic is, and how much it's affected the social and political dynamic of these communities.
What do you see as a path for success for working families who currently don't see success as an option?
Education remains the gatekeeper to success in this new century, and I don't expect that to change. I worry that for far too many working families across the country, the pathways are far too constrained—it's go to college or get lucky. I'd like to see our country offer more to families like mine.
Much of Hillbilly Elegy deals with personal family issues. Since your book became a bestseller, have there been ripples in your family dynamics that you didn’t foresee?
I was worried about this, but luckily nothing major has come up. I think that making my family part of the writing process—interviewing them, talking through some of the themes with them, showing different versions of the manuscript—helped avoid that problem.
Are you planning to write another book?
I would eventually like to write another one, but it's such a big undertaking that I'd need to feel a burning desire to do it. I have some ideas kicking around, so we'll see.
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