Why the title Americana?
The book has the feel of
an extended road trip. I’ve spent much of my life roaming around
observing the quirks of modern American culture. Putting together
this collection has given me a chance to look back on more than
a decade of dedicated wandering. I think “Americana” also reflects
something about the country’s mood right now in this acutely interesting
election year. Since 9/11, we’ve all heard that we live in patriotic
times. As we muddle through two very complicated wars, and deal
with the hue and cry over the Patriot Act, and experiment with
ambitious nation-building on the other side of the planet, we’ve
never been more concentrated on the question of who we are as
a nation. What do we stand for? What are our strengths? What about
us is likeable and unique?
What are some of those
I think of America not
so much as a single country but as a constellation of groups out
there competing for air time, energetically expressing themselves
and luxuriating in their right to govern themselves. Freedom is
that great vaunted word that’s always applied to our country—and
rightly so. It’s what gave us our greatest quality: the impulse
toward invention and the improvisational spirit to push out across
all sorts of frontiers. This book, at its essence, is about American
freedom. It’s about what we do with our freedom, how it gets translated—sometimes
humorously, sometimes nobly—into American life.
Jonathan Yardley called
you "the scribe among our tribes." What did he mean
Much of my journalism is
about subcultures. America is an archipelago of tribes, a land
where people form national families of kindred spirits. That was
one of the most perceptive comments Tocqueville made about America—that
we form our own little fraternities with amazing ease. We make
our own worlds. Observing those worlds has been one of my professional
obsessions. I’ve sort of been an anthropologist of modern America,
in a non-academic way. Whether it’s Marines or Tupperware salesladies,
high-end audiophiles or bike couriers, I’m fascinated by the hallmarks
of the American tribe.
Where do you think
you cultivated this fascination?
It has something to do
with growing up in Memphis, this humid cotton town on the river
where black and white cultures have been in the blender, stuck
on "puree," for a long time. Watching the Elvis pilgrimage phenomenon
well up after his death, the great freak show with the fans coming
to Graceland by the thousands every August—this gave me certain
ideas at a young age about how quickly America spawns national
tribes. It also made me pretty tolerant around odd people. A reviewer
in the Wall Street Journal said my being from Memphis gave
me "an aplomb in the face of exceedingly idiosyncratic behavior."
I like that.
Are there thematic
similarities between Ghost Soldiers and the material in
The central theme of Ghost
Soldiers is the limits of human endurance and the astounding
ways in which people survive in the face of steep odds. That theme
constantly crops up in Americana. Probably the best example
is "Points of Impact," a story that was nominated for a National
Magazine Award, in which I follow the lives of three survivors
of the World Trade Center disaster through their ordeals and recoveries.
In the story "Ghosts of Bataan," I go back to the Philippines
to trace the route of the Bataan Death March with several characters
from Ghost Soldiers. I found it humbling to walk the terrain
with these extraordinary guys who’d survived that harrowing experience
and lived to a ripe old age.
You were going to embed
with the Marines in Iraq but declined at the last minute. Why?
When I wrote about that
for The New Yorker, people assumed it was protest journalism.
It’s true that I had major doubts about the war. But that had
little to do with it. I was just plain scared. I got over there
and learned I was going to be on the front lines with an outfit
called First Recon. If Saddam had WMD it seemed obvious he’d use
them on us, the invaders. I felt like a lab rat, coming along
to observe—and breathe—whatever Saddam might sling at us. I stayed
up all night at my hotel thinking about the disturbing logic behind
this war and realized that—you know what?— I hadn’t signed a contract
with the Marines and was free to leave.
Many pieces here first
appeared in Outside. What are your ties with the magazine?
I’m editor-at-large for
Outside, which means they send me all over the planet on
interesting projects. It’s a dream job, basically. Years ago,
I was a full-time editor there. It’s one of the most adventurous
journals around and publishes some of the best practitioners of
nonfiction—people like Tim Cahill, Jon Krakauer, Bill Bryson,
Ian Frazier, David Quammen. Working with some of these writers
has been a huge influence.
What other writers
have influenced your journalism?
Probably the biggest influence
was the late John Hersey, who while he was at The New Yorker
wrote one of the masterpieces of narrative nonfiction, Hiroshima.
Hersey was a teacher of mine at Yale, and a friend. He got me
to see the possibility of journalism not just as a business but
as an art form. I modeled "Points of Impact" after
Hiroshima. And in the end, I decided to dedicate Americana
Of the pieces in Americana,
which has had the most profound effect on you?
Writing "Points of Impact"
just devastated me. It forced me to understand 9/11 from the most
excruciatingly personal perspective—from the point of view of
three people who barely made it out alive and who will be forever
stamped with the residue of that unbelievable day. I flew to New
York a few days after it happened, and spent months interviewing
people. Until I met these survivors and heard their stories, I
couldn’t fathom this event. It reminded me of the truism that
history is, above all, personal
What were some of the
more bizarre things you experienced during your travels?
Getting kicked out of the
National Spelling Bee headquarters in Cincinnati for being a "satirist."
Witnessing the science-fiction theater the morning the Biospherians
emerged from their geodesic ark in the Arizona desert. Maybe the
most bizarre experience was being in a room full of 5,000 shrieking,
squealing Tupperware salesladies in Florida as the company unveiled
its new product line. It was as though a fever had swept the room.
I was the only man in the whole convention hall, and I felt at
any moment the women were going to turn on me in a frenzy, like
in The Bacchae,
and rip me limb from limb.
Is it true that Ghost
Soldiers is now being turned into a movie?
Miramax has produced a
film that’s based in part on my book as well as on other
sources. Tentatively titled The Great Raid, it’s
supposed to come out in the fall. It stars Joseph Fiennes, Benjamin
Bratt, and Connie Nielsen, and is directed by John Dahl (The
Last Seduction, Rounders). I’m a historical consultant,
and what I’ve seen of it looks fantastic.
Photograph by Camille Hewett