Annie Bostrom, associate editor in Adult Books at Booklist, interviewed Sarah Smarsh about her book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth (2018), the sixth Sarah Jessica Parker Pick for Book Club Central. In Heartland, Smarsh recalls her Kansas youth while compiling her families’ histories and turning a journalist’s eye on socioeconomic inequality in contemporary America.
Annie Bostrom: It has been an honorific few months since Heartland’s release. You are a National Book Award finalist! And now Sarah Jessica Parker has selected Heartland—her first nonfiction pick—to share with libraries and their communities through Book Club Central. How did you feel when you found out?
Sarah Smarsh: I received word via email in my home office. I think I might have run to the kitchen and said to my partner, “Oh my god!” It’s been an embarrassment of riches since the book came out in September, from great reviews to award nominations. But this endorsement carries special significance for me as a writer on socioeconomic inequality who grew up in a culture short on books. Book Club Central’s mission to turn reading into an act of community and discussion—activated by librarians, who are heroes to me as guardians of public access to literature and information—is a noble one that I’m honored to join. It’s all the sweeter in that Sarah Jessica Parker has always struck me as centered and tender in spite of the forces that might make a celebrity otherwise. I’m over the moon that she loved Heartland and is sharing it with so many readers.
Bostrom: Throughout the book, you address a would-be daughter: a baby that you might have had while you were young, as your mother had and her mother had before her. At times this child is a person whose life you imagine in concrete ways, and at other times she acts as a sort of conscience. How did you decide to share this very intimate inner conversation with readers?
Smarsh: While Heartland entered the world at a timely moment for its story and themes, I began work on early conceptions of the book in 2002, when I was a senior in college. Along the way I was piecing together family history and making sense of why it might matter to our national story, which made for sometimes choppy shifts between an intimate voice and a more formal journalistic approach. At the last hour—nearly 15 years into the creative journey—I realized that this deep, almost subconscious dialogue in my psyche was a binding agent for those two threads. What could be more personal than one’s body and reproductive experiences--and yet those are shaped by forces of policy, economics, culture. It was and remains uncomfortable to share that real piece of my inner life with readers. But doing so allowed the narrative to click together, and revealed the often harrowing level at which public and private are intertwined.
Bostrom: Letters from your mother’s family written before you were born helped you piece together their many moves and the complex responsibilities they meticulously managed. When did you learn about these letters? And why did you decide to include them in your book?
Smarsh: I might have glimpsed those letters as a teenager, but at some point in my twenties I pointedly asked my maternal grandmother, one of Heartland’s central characters, to let me take them indefinitely for research. It was a boon for my creative process that the women in my family saved written correspondence and other records. Postmarks allowed me to piece together a chronology of places and dates, amid the utter chaos of my maternal family’s impoverished transience, and the stories contained in the letters helped me understand and bring to life decades and events that I wasn’t alive to witness. Heartland is a generational story, and I wanted to be as reverent as possible to the voices of women who came before me. I wanted, in a few places, to preserve those voices directly, rather than through my own retelling. Plus, I just love the natural poetry and turns of phrase of hard-luck women—dry wit for days, which is a triumph of spirit under such difficult circumstances.
Bostrom: You learned early that public messaging didn’t always apply to you. High-fat food was supposed to be bad, but your family needed it to get through long, laborious days. The place to wait out a deadly tornado was in the basement, which your homes didn’t always have. How do you think you learned to parse out the messages that could actually help you?
Smarsh: What an interesting and important question. All of us are inundated with messages every day that seek to shape our actions, sense of self-worth, what to eat, what to buy, whom to love and hate. I often think that the defining blessing of my life was that, as a child, I could sense when some message had the ring of positive opportunity—“study hard” being particularly potent for a bookish kid raised by people who didn’t attend college, “brush your teeth twice a day” having high stakes for a kid who didn’t have dental insurance to pay for cavity fillings. Conversely, and maybe more importantly, I had a good B.S. detector. Mine wasn’t a family where adults were asking the children what they felt or needed or providing much advice along the way. That immense space of a somewhat feral childhood, often in rural isolation, allowed me to feel an inner compass that isn’t learned but is available to all of us if we quiet the noise.
Bostrom: Tell us a little about what you read while working on Heartland.
Smarsh: I worked on it for so many years—my whole adult life!—that this would be a long and not entirely relevant list. So it might be more pertinent to share the books that I now realize were most formative in my approach to writing. Classic memoirs such as Angela’s Ashes, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Liars’ Club, and The Glass Castle were transformative, when I was a teenager and young adult, in that they centered hard-luck, marginalized characters in whom I recognized aspects of my family and myself. They did so, in part, by validating dialects that, like the version of English much of my family speaks, are thought to be “incorrect.” While Heartland is quite different in structure and perhaps intent than those coming-of-age memoirs, they gave me permission to write as though my family and place were important when so many messages told me they weren’t.
Bostrom: What impact do you hope your book will have on readers for whom your experiences are familiar? Readers for whom they are not?
Smarsh: On my book tour and through social media, I’ve heard from people across lines of place, gender, race, politics, religion. and so on that Heartland is in some ways their story too. While it intersects with other aspects of identity in severe ways, economic struggle is familiar to the vast majority of people on this planet. Yet those who have suffered it most keenly rarely end up with a chance to tell their stories, due to the disadvantages of their lives, which leaves a near void in literature. So it is the honor of my life when a reader says, “I’d never seen my life in a book until Heartland.” Meanwhile, I hear from readers for whom the stories in the book are utterly foreign that their eyes have been opened to the complexity and humanity of a place and class often framed as stereotype or caricature in popular culture and the news media. I hope both of those responses—validation and new awareness—will grow.
Bostrom: When you were a young student, what would it have meant to discover a book like the one you’ve now written?
Smarsh: This makes me smile, because I guess that’s what I did: I wrote the book that I sorely needed as a young person. It took me so long, in part, because I was broke most of those years but also because I was trying to create something that I’d never read, exactly—intimate memoir integrated with big-picture research that offers context without being didactic or polemic. And the topic at hand, class, is woefully under-discussed or acknowledged here in the U.S.—it’s just in the last few years, really, that we’re beginning that national conversation after centuries of calling ourselves a meritocracy. What would it have meant to me for a book to show me that my family’s financial, physical, and mental hardships were largely outcomes of societal imbalance and even injustice? Oh Lord. I would have wept reading it. But I wept writing it, too.
Annie Bostrom is Booklist's Associate Editor for Adult Books. Along with reviewing both fiction and nonfiction, she is involved in the magazine’s extensive readers’ advisory programming efforts, including webinars and live events. She is a cat person, but also really likes dogs. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Annie.