Jeanne Marie Laskas has been 500 feet down in a coal mine. She’s helped herd cattle in Texas, followed migrant workers during a Maine blueberry harvest and spent time with a long-haul female trucker named Sputter.
These are the stories of real, everyday working Americans who labor behind-the-scenes to make what most of us take for granted—the power when you flick a switch, the hamburgers you grilled last weekend, the plane you took on vacation. All these things require—no depend on—the hard work of dedicated Americans who often labor under the radar, hard hours for even harder-earned pay.
Laskas, director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, follows these Americans in her latest, Hidden America, which takes a closer, more personal look at what makes these people tick and how much goes into their working lives. Once you pick this book up, you’ll never look at a blueberry the same way again.
Many of these essays were initially magazine pieces, starting with the coal miners’ profile in GQ. Was this the start of the project?
That started the whole idea for the book, that experience, that story. It was many conversations like this, that were, “I can’t believe I did not know you people were here, I can’t believe this is going on.” I was bowled over by my own naiveté about this industry that I had no idea, just like normal people have no idea, how vital it is to my economy. What was especially humiliating about it was that it was in my backyard, there were coal mines all around where I live. How do I not know about these people and how they were doing down there?
It starts small, a little thought, until you start walking around with it for any length of time. You start looking around you and going, “All right, how did these vegetables get on my table? Who picked these?” This apple I’m eating, I literally had visions of fingerprints and thought, “Why are we washing apples?”…I wanted to honestly take a breather and think, “Who are these people? Who are we even talking about?”…Everything became so personal to me.
How did you narrow down the kinds of labor and workers you wanted to feature?
It was an endless rabbit hole. I have a list, I can’t even tell you how long, of which ones to collect into a book. Because that’s an important question from the onset. I started compiling it as a book in my brain after I did the coal-miner one. I had certain parameters, certain needs. I wanted it to be not just a blue-collar book, not just about people who did dirty jobs for sake of getting dirty… that wasn’t my goal.
My goal was to write about people who touch our lives who we don’t notice, maybe they’re a few steps away, but somehow important to us…I wanted to do different regions, in terms of climate and culture, that’s why the second one I did, the next one I did was Alaska, I thought let’s go far and completely foreign to my way of living.
Which one was particularly challenging and difficult to do?
Certainly physically, Alaska was the most ridiculously hard. It was like, “OK, I’m going to go live on the moon now.” Really, it was that ridiculous way of life, it was minus 45 degrees, and I was trapped with a bunch of strangers, most of them men, for a really long time, I don’t even know how many weeks it was, probably not that many, but when you’re there 24 hours per day? You’re just gone, so gone from anything you’re familiar with or connected to… that one was just the most physically ridiculous, like being in the sea or being in a submarine.
Writing wise, the one that should have been the easiest was the hardest, Sputter the Trucker. It was probably the only one I allowed myself to be a character in. I have this whole personal drama going on. I tried to write it without that, and it was so flat and dishonest, and I wrote it so many times, keeping my own story of what I was going through…I finally opened it up and said, “OK, I’m going to be a character in this one.” That one was more of a writing puzzle. All of them are puzzles.
In the current economic crisis, how especially have you seen it impact everyday working folk that is different from most Americans? Or has it?
I love this question because I do see it so differently from the conversations going on in the news. I listen to this stuff, and I think this is so abstract the way we are talking about these “workers,” these “jobs, jobs, jobs.” What I’m always advocating for in my brain is, “Can you bring some workers on here to talk about this?” Bring Sputter on TV, talk to Sputter the trucker about what’s going on on the road.
These conversations are so nuanced, of course, they are people’s lives. It’s so much richer than just “who’s gonna put America back to work?” What do you mean? It’s so damn abstract…It’s almost sort of a romanticized version of what having a job is, what it means, a sort of American flag-waving to have a job. If you go inside the culture, it’s going to be different in every world for all sorts of different reasons.
A coal miner is not happy to have a job in the coal mine because he loves coal mining…There are many different reasons they’re there, but it's primarily the love of the money. They need it. Desperately. What do they want their politicians to do? Figure out a way to have the small farmer make a living. They are passionate about their farms, their land, being stewards of the land, keeping their farm and to keep working on it. And those conversations are just not happening.
I think about this book launching now, during the election cycle in September, and if I could do one thing, if I could have a voice now, it’s I want to bring these people to talk so the rest of country can hear. This crap “Joe the Plumber” that was just totally made up, the reason that got such play is because people wanted to hear from the real Joe the Plumber, whoever he is out there, and they never did—they got a puppet…
Those working-class people virtually have no voice…and they’re not described accurately in the media, not because they [the media] are mean and not listening, it’s just that they don’t know what to ask.