Monday, February 24, 2014
Sources of Ordinary Lives
KG: In the text's "A Note On Sources," you mention that the book "owes a literary debt to the novels of John Dos Passos's great U.S.A. trilogy," and I wonder if you could speak more to its influence and more about why you decided to structure The Unwinding in the way that you did, as a sort of collage. To take the question further, do you think or did you want the shape of the narrative in turn to reflect or speak to its content?
GP: When I got started in late 2008, I didn't set out to write a book like that at all. I imagined a more conventional account of America from Reagan to Obama, with a focus on particular institutions in crisis or decline, and certain well-known individuals who represented them. But the task of recapitulating all that familiar history soon bored and defeated me. I was much more inclined to spend my time with someone like Dean Price in Rockingham County, North Carolina, and see what the turmoil following the financial crisis was doing to him and his area. Those conversations were what energized me. I began to wonder if I could cover the same period—late seventies to the present—and the same theme of institutional change and decline, but through ordinary Americans' lives.
For a long time it seemed impossible—such a specific set of requirements!—but gradually I realized that the people I was talking with had lived the history I wanted to illuminate. So it became a book about people the reader hadn't heard of, people shaped by a common history over several decades but in separate places and ways. I looked for a model of this kind of book, and the only example I knew of was fiction—Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy, which I read and loved years ago. I took U.S.A. as my inspiration, which gave me the idea of including short sketches of the lives of some American celebrities who shaped our culture during the same decades (though in a very different form from Dos Passos'), and collages of found texts from certain years along the way .Ordinary Amerikans