Sarah Smarsh

NEA Big Read author
Sarah Smarsh

Photo © Paul Andrews

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy fo the Free Music Archive.

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed…

Sarah Smarsh: Story is what I was born for.  It’s my birthright as far as I’m concerned coming from the family that I do, and it’s my great privilege that now I get paid to do that the way that the folks who taught me how to do it didn’t.

Jo Reed: You just heard Sarah Smarsh: she’s the author of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.  It was a 2018 National Book Award finalist and it’s been chosen as a 2022-2023 NEA Big Read title. Sarah grew up in rural Kansas—her father’s side of the family has been farming for five generations, but that stopped when his farm like so many other small holdings went under in the 1980s; Sarah is also the daughter of teenage mother who was herself the daughter of a teenage mother, but don’t even think of discounting them—both Jeannie and Grandma Betty are smart, fierce, and determined women. As the subtitle title of Heartland suggests—everyone in the family works hard, but money is always scarce and opportunities are limited—an illness spells catastrophe. And even though Sarah Smarsh is now a journalist and writer, Heartland is not an “up by my bootstraps story”….far from it. It’s a book that deeply explores the mostly silent and thorough way class operates in the United States. Sarah tells the story of her family against a broader background of systemic inequality and generational poverty, of public policies that impact and shape the lives of rural working poor, and how white privilege can exist within economic instability. Heartland combines sharp socioeconomic insights with the deep psychological understanding that comes from a lived experience in poverty. Driven to share this story, Sarah Smarsh spent 15 years researching and writing Heartland.

Sarah Smarsh: You know, we’re talking about years in the making.  Indeed that was the case for the writing process.  There are a lot of reasons it took a long time.  One actually has to do with the heart of the book’s themes, which is that I was living in poverty for much of the writing process, and so I was out holding down two or three jobs and then working on the book.  This is in my twenties.  But if we go back a little bit further, quite a bit further, actually.  The first moment that the book became a sort of spirit in my midst, I guess, I was just a child.  By my grandma’s telling I was all of eight years old and we were riding down a flat country highway in Kansas as we often were doing, living out in a rural area as we did, and I don’t remember this, but according to my grandma, and she told me this many years ago, before “Heartland” came out, I said to her, “Grandma, I’m going to write a book about you,” and when I was a kid that was sort of like my mission statement.  I was largely raised by my maternal grandmother.  She was very young when she became my grandma, was sort of a second mother to me, and I was always paying attention, as a would-be writer perhaps inevitably is, and I got a sense that there was something incredible about her story and the things that she had survived and seen and so that was something that I wanted to share with the world.  I just had this, I don’t know, just an innocent and earnest impulse in that direction as a kid who also very young knew that writing was my calling. 

Jo Reed: You grew up in rural Kansas where money was tight and opportunities were limited. What was the journey to actually writing the book?.

Sarah Smarsh: I was fortunate in that way, I made all of my decisions, Jo, around the, you know, becoming a writer very strategically.  I was first-generation college student and,  I went to journalism school.  I also got an English degree.  I did my graduate work in the realm of nonfiction writing.  I worked for the student paper at the University of Kansas and I also applied for a federally-funded program called the McNair Scholars program, which is created to help boost first-generation low-income and minority students into the academy, but the reason I applied was because they had a research stipend over the summer and I thought, “Heck, if I could be spending the summer researching and working on this book--” that I’ve already been thinking about for a decade at my tender age of 20, rather than waiting tables and bartender and painting houses or whatever, “--that sounds like a great deal.”  So it was just-- it was a very authentic, deep, sincere calling, I felt, and I can’t tell you why but I can tell you that the reason that I had the tenacity to stick with it through the years and the challenges, including about 10 years where agents were telling me, “No” to a largely finished manuscript in my twenties, was that I didn’t really have a choice.  You know, I felt like the book chose me and I had to make good on that calling, whether it would or would not be shared with the world, but I didn’t give up.  It’s a formative journey.

Jo Reed: Well, “Heartland” is both a memoir and a larger analysis of public policies and how those policies impacted your life and the lives of your family.  And one thread that’s woven through the book is that you’re the daughter of a teenage mother who’s the daughter of a teenage mother, and you discuss how that shaped their lives and shaped your life as well.

Sarah Smarsh: Yes.  You know, I mentioned a moment ago that I very first sort of conceived of the book as a story about my grandmother and that was how it began, but then it became much more expansive and I started weaving in, you know, as I matured as a reporter and a researcher and someone who’s in the business of writing about current events, and someone who also chose a profession of journalism for its sort of civic utility.  It was like, “Okay.  Well, there’s this story about my family that I care deeply about, but why does it matter?   I had a sense that there just weren’t very many stories from my place being told in a contemporary way and certainly not being linked to the public issues that were weighing so heavily on my private experience, and so as you say, the interweaving of the two, the personal and the public  forces that are shaping those domestic and private lives for all of us in so many ways, was something that became of interest to me.  It became sort of the core structural challenge of the book.  How do I write a story that’s very much personal?  It’s not a memoir in the classic sense of, “Here’s my experience of things and these are the craziest things that happened to me.”  That would’ve been a very different book.  It was more like, “Oh.”  This thing about me being a first-generation college student and this thing about me being a graduate student on the Columbia University campus, in this rarified Ivy League space and folks make fun of how I speak, or this thing about me being in a newsroom and, there’s nobody who has direct experience of poverty and maybe especially not rural poverty, and that’s to say nothing of race and all the other ways in which publishing and journalism and culture at large needs a diversification of voices.  The piece that I could bring to that puzzle had to do with rural poverty.  I didn’t see that story being told in a responsible, accurate way, as opposed to being leveraged for what by my estimation would be a polemic or maybe even a form of propaganda, and so the question for me then of what’s relevant to keep in the book and how to structure the book is what in here speaks to socioeconomic class in this country?  What about my family’s story and my specific tale, which has everything to do with being the daughter of a teenage mother living next to a windswept wheat field in rural Kansas, where are the pieces of our shared story that were defined and absolutely shaped by policy and culture around class in this country or our inability to acknowledge class as a factor in the shaping of American identity and outcomes?  And so when I start with being a woman in a woman’s body and the way that that interweaves with economic likelihoods and probabilities in this country, if you’re born into a particular rung on the proverbial socioeconomic ladder?  So that’s where I started, and it’s also because I was largely raised by, and most importantly shaped and formed by, women, working-class, working poor, rural women, and that is a space that is whitewashed, in racial terms.  It’s a very racially diverse space, some folks might not fully realize, but it’s also almost always represented by some sort of male archetype.  Usually a white male.  Hard hat, tool belt.  That’s actually kind of my dad. <laughs> You know, like, I know that guy.  A very gentle, progressive, decent version of that guy, as opposed to the prevailing stereotypes, but where are the women in the stories about the American working-class?  That aspect of my identity gives me advantage on rural policy and public policy in this moment and socioeconomic class that seemed important to highlight.

Jo Reed: I would love to have you read from the book, Sarah. Would you read the beginning of Chapter 5?

Sarah Smarsh: Sure.  Chapter 5 of  Heartland. “A House that Needs Shingles.”  “You probably would’ve lived in a strong old house purchased at its most broken moment and fixed with my hands.  That’s because I learned renovation skills from my own parents, whom I now think of as a sort of god and goddess of houses.  Dad was a carpenter who could see the ghosts of the people who died in old homes.  Mom had an eye for transforming interior spaces and got paid to find a house’s next inhabitants.  A construction worker and a poor neighborhood real estate agent aren’t what people think of as artists, but that’s what Nick and Jeannie were.  Dad could draw a home edition on the side of an envelope with a carpenter’s pencil and then make it real with material salvaged from commercial job sites where he made his hourly wage.  Mom could go into an estate sale with a fifty-dollar bill and come out with antique light fixtures and hardware to refit an entire neglected home.  Her effort, the difference between the property sitting on the market for six months and selling in two weeks.  I doubt either of them would’ve worked in that industry if given many other options.  Dad didn’t read books but had a habit of secretly jotting original poems onto lumber scraps.  Mom used the language and humor of an intellectual.  Theirs was not a world where natural gifts and interests decide your profession.  Dad inherited his craft from his father.  Mom was a saleswoman for whom charm was a professional asset and a house was the biggest possible commission.  But they both had talents about houses that school can’t teach and money can’t improve, as well as an appreciation for homes that had been deepened by depravation.”

Jo Reed: Okay.  That was Sarah Smarsh reading from Heartland. I marked that particular passage because it brought to mind something that you wrote in the book. You write, “We can’t really understand what made us who we are.  We can come to understand though what the world says we are,” and I thought of that when I was reading that part of Heartland. of the talents that your parents and your grandparents clearly had, but how limited they were in their choices.  They really didn’t have many opportunities to let those talents come forth, and obviously that is very sad for them, and not very good for society as a whole if I’m going to, you know, take a meta look at this either, and I would just like you to talk about the way people who are poor, people who don’t have a great deal of education, are seen in the culture as a whole.

Sarah Smarsh: I so appreciate that question, because it gives me an opportunity to just, like, love on people a little bit who need loving on, and that’s not just my family but anyone who can relate to their story of being full of promise, full of gifts to offer, and living in a situation in which not only are those gifts left untapped but then simultaneously they’re being devalued and told that they have very little worth.  So it’s like my experience as a kid, particularly with my mother, it’s very easy in a space like that to not appreciate yourself and to believe the messages and to think, “Well, the number on my paycheck somehow correlates to my inner worth, and therefore my worth must be pretty low.”  My mom for some reason, I think I used this phrase in the book about her, she had an “audacious dignity”, <laughs> and she knew she was beautiful, she knew she was brilliant.  She knew that she was strong.  Don’t get me wrong.  She had a lot of problems.  She survived a lot of trauma and I saw the effects of that firsthand, but the good and the strength in her were deeply understood and appreciated by her, and that made the ignoring of that aspect of who she was exquisitely painful for her to experience.  You know, I think that women of all classes, and certainly people of color of all classes, I imagine, can relate to this experience  that for her had to do with being a white woman in poverty.  So she had kind of like two layers of oppression and marginalization going on.  That female poverty, it was like she was dismissed in terms of her intelligence, but then the poverty piece meant that she just-- she had, you know, a few years ago there was that book “Lean In” that was sort of like advice to I guess kind of like middle and upper-middle class business women about, “This is how you kick ass and take names in the workplace and get what’s yours,”  but there’s so many women that they don’t even-- they’re not in that space.  They’re not even have one toe in a space in which one could advocate for one’s self in such a way.  It’s like to be cognizant of your own maybe even calling, you know.  My mother was a very talented creative in a lot of ways.  She was an artist and kind of a natural writer.  She never encouraged me to be a writer, but I always tell people, yes, I studied writing.  A lot of that had to do with getting the credentials that are necessary for the market, but storytelling and language, I learned that from my family.  None of them went to college.  You know, my mom left high school when she was 16 and got pregnant and had me. So, she had a natural gift to give, and she was every day experiencing the gulf between who and what she was and what the society was telling her she was and what she was and wasn’t allowed to do to live on one side of that gulf and have that knowledge and just be watching society keep not giving you a chance, keep not taking what you have to give.  Like you say, it isn’t just painful for the person, it’s a loss for society that those 40-plus million people who are struggling in those ways.  And, to be told, “You’ve got one job,” and it’s to bust your body, basically, whether that’s like, you know, stocking shelves or working in a field or swinging a hammer, and manual labor can be a beautiful thing.  I don’t have anything against it.  Some days I choose it.  But it’s the thing about the choice.  You know, I would love to live in a society where every little kid who walks into a classroom, no matter where they come from, what they look like, who their parents are, just have a chance to give what they were born to give.

Jo Reed: Class is something that is rarely discussed in American society.  In fact, it’s rarely recognized, and you’ve said that your family, though they were broke a lot, would absolutely not see themselves as poor but would define themselves as middle-class, and that certainly was true for me.  By any measure, I grew up poor, and I even hesitate to say that now, because if my mother were alive I could hear her saying, “What are you talking about?  You had enough to eat and you had clothes to wear and you had a roof over your head.  Sure, there wasn’t money for extras,” <laughs> but, you know….

Sarah Smarsh: Yes.

Jo Reed: And this is the woman who would talk 10 blocks to pay the light bill to save a three-cent stamp.

Sarah Smarsh: Yes. <laughs> Yes.

Jo Reed: But if we can’t define it, if we can’t even recognize it, how do you talk about it? <laughs>

Sarah Smarsh: Mm-hm.  Yes, I have been in one way or another writing and talking about class for 20 years now, much more intentionally now than at the outset. The longer I think about it the more I realize that, you know, my job isn’t necessarily to come up with the solutions, it is to, as a professional communicator and a trained writer and someone whose voice is my tool, to look at the language and to elevate awareness of class as, you know, like a missing word in our vocabulary, and not only is it a missing word but then there’s the problem of our incredibly lacking vocabulary for articulating it.  So to your point, like you, and as I wrote in the book, I hesitate even today <laughs> like you, and having written a book about it I have a real sensitivity to, “Well, who’s going to hear me say this?” and poverty is so relative, and there was a moment in fifth grade where I experienced long-term food insecurity, but for the most part I always had food to eat and there was always a roof over my head. And so there are a lot of things going on here.  One is when you are in poverty there is a group psychological defense mechanism that arises for good reason, I’m sure. There’s a big emphasis on counting your blessings and that might mean that sometimes you’re deemphasizing the very real problems, but I have a feeling that might be because how could you possibly keep going on if you were fully, every day, reckoning with the hard truth of the reality?  And so there’s a little bit of a glossing over your own suffering and your own hard knocks, and there’s a lot of, at least in my experience, putting somebody else in their place if they’re starting to, you know, let’s say whine is how, <laughs> you know, where I come from.  You’re just like talking about what the real problem is and it might be 100 percent accurate, but if then you’re waging a complaint?  What do you have to complain about?  You got enough to eat.  I think that the function that serves is to say, “We, in the end, we’re not going to be defeated by this situation,” and that might mean that very real trauma and difficulties are not being addressed in real-time, and how could they possibly be?  And meanwhile, by the way, no one can afford therapy and it’s not even part of the culture, and you’re just, like, putting one foot in front of the other to survive every day, and then that’s happening like within the home and within the community.  Then you zoom out to the society and the culture that informs those realities and you’ve got a country where we were founded on a myth that this is a meritocracy, where all are created equal and if you work hard you reap what you sow and it’s much more complicated than that.  We are not a meritocracy in the purse sense of the term, and one’s ability to access the American dream has everything to do with the skin color and gender and place and class that one was born into.  So that, the fact that we’re living in a country who’s story it tells itself --it’s a denial, and denial does not allow you to see the truth, and denial informs our language and it means that we have three words for class in this country, poor, middle-class and rich. And there have been all kinds of studies that, the vast majority of people-- it’s probably less true now but it’s been true in recent decades-- call themselves middle-class even if by every measure, you know, even if they’re like technically living below the poverty line as defined by the federal government, meanwhile, people who by many people’s estimations are downright wealthy are also claiming that.  It’s a relative experience.  It is a fluid experience, not static.  You can be broke and well off  three different times in the same lifetime, and meanwhile there’s shame attached to every one of those rungs of the ladder in different ways.  It is so hard to define and articulate to begin with, and then we have this culture and this story about ourselves that keeps us from even beginning to try, and so I am heartened by in recent years a little more attention to the topic.  I do think that it being handled terribly is almost worse than it not being handled at all, <laughs> and I do wish that more people would come forward with just kind of like a full-throated addressing of socioeconomic class as an aspect of American identity and experience.

Jo Reed: Because class isn’t just about money, it’s about access.  It’s about, honestly, I think, the ability to make mistakes that don’t utterly alter your life, and about forgiveness and the lack of forgiveness, and I think the difficulty of being able to relax.

Sarah Smarsh: Oh, yeah.  Being able to relax.  You know, <laughs> can I tell you that writing books, and even very well-received books, I’ve been fortunate that mine has been, it is generally not minting millionaires.  People aren’t getting rich writing books.  I still have some student loans and, you know, I’ve got a mortgage and I drive a not fancy car, and yet I am like in a world that is so different from the one in which I was reared in that.  My husband and I took a road trip a couple weeks ago out, kind of classic trip out into the American West and, you know, this is, again, about how relative class is.  There’s some families for whom what we did is like <laughs> roughing it, poor people trip, but for me it’s like to take a week where you’re not working and just enjoy being alive-- it’s like the third time in my whole life that I’ve done that and I have such a deep gratitude for that feeling, you know, to now have the privilege, the immense privilege, globally and even in this country, to have a week where you’re not working is something that is inaccessible to millions and millions of people in this country. You know, that’s the subtitle of my book is “A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.”  That last part, that’s the rub, <laughs> you know, is like this country has got plenty to go around, and not only that, but so much of that wealth is generated by, in labor terms, those same people that are never even going to get a road trip where they camp in a tent in Canyonlands National Park, you know?

Jo Reed: Well, you have the opportunity to give what you were born to give.  You went to the University of Kansas, as you said, the first generation in your family to go to college, and I wonder, given the lack of opportunity your folks had, how that impacted you as you navigated your way around the University of Kansas?

Sarah Smarsh: Well, this is where I first started to realize that we had been poor.  So having been on all sorts of campuses, I know that there are levels of society where, you know, to talk about a state university sounds like not very fancy.  To me it was the fanciest thing I’d ever imagined was like, “Wow, there’s this place full of people who get paid to think and they’re here teaching us how to think and we’re just going to like dwell in ideas for four years?”  You know, meanwhile I was holding down a lot of jobs and some of them involved manual labor, but  the project of let’s explore the arts and the sciences and all of these realms of knowledge that my family didn’t get to access was a beautiful thing, and it turns out even though there’s a stereotype of places like Kansas being all farmers, not so today, and even when I was a kid in the 1980s I was an extreme minority for growing up in an agricultural setting on a farm.  Even rural spaces are largely no longer people working on farms because of the intentional destruction of the family farm, basically.  So anyway, I show up as a first-generation student on this college campus where most kids were from, you know, like a middle-class background, and earlier you said class isn’t just about money, it’s about access, and it’s also about like just, you know, the things these other kids showed up on campus knowing.  I don’t mean like knowledge from books, you know.  I was a reader and my family was self-taught in many ways and I was sharp and I got A’s in the classroom.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  Just things like terms for how this level of society works I didn’t know, so kids kept talking about graduate school and I genuinely, you know, I think I was like a junior as an undergrad and getting A’s and a very high-achieving student before I totally understood what grad school was.  I kept thinking like, “I done went to college.”  You know, “Why are they talking about college after college?” and I, you know, of course I knew that there were certain professions that involved longer study and so on, but just terms like that where like I had never encountered them before. So there was just a learning curve in that way that made me realize, “You know, I might be smarter than some of my peers here in this classroom but they have an advantage in so many ways in that they’re driving the new car that they got for high school graduation.  Their parents are paying their way.”  I’d be in a classroom and the professor would make some offhand comment like, “Be sure to study for this test.  Your parents are paying good money for you to be here,” and it was these things they just, they started digging into me.  They started getting under my skin.  I started thinking like, “Wait a minute.  There is something different about me on this campus.”  Going back to how poorly we articulate class in this country, I had no language for it.  I would say to people, “I’m financially independent.” <laughs> That was like my term that I came up with when I was like 18 to try to explain, “There’s something about our experiences that are different in very important ways that are being glossed over problematically.”  And then it, you know, when I got the language for first-generation, I think, by the time I was a senior.  That was very validating and helpful.  It was a very, very small community that I found of people who were from something similar to my own background.  So it’s where my class awakening began was, appropriately enough, on a college campus.

Jo Reed: That does make sense.  I’m curious.  You’re still very, very much connected to your roots, but you’re also a professional, you’re a journalist, you’re a writer, so you have a foot in both worlds, and part of this book, I think, is a translation of one world to another.  Is that fair and is that part of what you wanted to do with this book?

Sarah Smarsh: That is fair, and I actually think and hope, I suppose, that the book works in two different ways.  You’re right that I’ve got a foot in two different worlds, and that’s the defining reality that allowed me to write this book in particular, which is seeking to kind of integrate levels and understandings within society that are so often segregated in class terms.  So I hope the book operates is twofold.  One is exactly as you say, I want folks who come from a different, maybe better off, as they say, background economically and who, if they’re just reading headlines today, might have one very specific and likely very negative vision of the place I come from. If they read this book I hope they come away with a deeper understanding, a story that’s complicated and nuanced and true beyond stereotypes. But then I also hear from folks for whom the book is a validation of what they lived and what they know firsthand. You know, I just wrote a book that I felt called to write.  I didn’t have a particular audience in mind.  I feel like the book is of service to the national conversation when it opens the eyes of middle or upper-middle-class readers, but the feedback that just like makes me buzz with a kind of full-circle gratitude is when folks who are either in poverty right now who have experienced it firsthand... And sometimes it’s rural and sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes it’s white and sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes it’s born U.S. citizen, sometimes it’s an immigrant story, but that when folks say to me, “There’s something in the story that I lived and I saw it,” and that validation of the people that are-- don’t have enough books, frankly, that are telling their story.  I don’t mean about them and I don’t mean in a rearview mirror by somebody that was passing through, but that come out of their own space and culture and truth.  I think in the end I wrote the book that I wish I would’ve had when I was a little girl, and so the feedback, reader feedback that really gets me in my heart the most, is people who were also that little girl.

Jo Reed: Story is just so important.  You write, actually, at the end of the book, your life’s work is to be heard, and there’s the ability to tell your own story on your own terms, and the importance to see yourself reflected in the culture authentically, I mean, at least sometimes.  And then, of course, it’s also crucial, and this is, you know, all the reasons I love stories so much, is to be able to listen and really hear and to be open to stories that are different.

Sarah Smarsh: Yeah.  Well, one of the reasons that I’m such a big fan of the Big Read program and the NEA and any endeavor to create dialogue around a story, whether it’s experienced by one reader or shared, as a community dialogue. The reason that I have such affection for those programs isn’t just that I’m a writer.  It’s that I’m somebody who very specifically chose to attempt to wield the craft of writing toward civic integrity and progress, and story absolutely is incredibly somehow, I think, the sort of like underutilized timeworn, ancient tool that we have for repairing society, and meanwhile somehow we live in this 24/7 media cycle and the inundation of information and the regurgitation of some stories ad nauseum and actually, that’s usually information that has been torn away from story is, and there’s great function and purpose and nobility in that form of reporting and we need it, to be sure, so I’m not criticizing that structure.  It’s just that somehow we’ve gone so deep into information that we have lost a kind of shared story and a sense of community dialogue that what, you know, in ancient times was a campfire and a very healing way of connecting to remember, “Oh, we are all responsible to one another here in this shared village in this small place.”  This global moment I think   we haven’t yet got our technologies under control in order to, yes, disseminate information and inform the public and bring journalism into its full potential, but to also then temper the worst profit-driven iterations of that and in its place have a deep dive, a deep story, a deep connection, whether at the individual level or shared, with the nuance and maybe, heck, even poetry that goes into a real story.  Whether that’s a nonfiction or fiction one, is less relevant to me than whether we as people are taking them in and talking about them and processing them and letting them into our soul and seeing what they do to us.  Usually what they do to us is make us more able to handle difficult realities when we understand that the truth of this place and this world is nuance and gray areas and questions that can’t be answered.  That’s generally not journalism’s function.  It’s a function of story, that has some sort of beauty that kind of lodges itself in the mind and sticks with you and changes you.  Story is what I was born for.  It’s my birthright as far as I’m concerned coming from the family that I do, and it’s my great privilege that now I get paid to do that the way that the folks who taught me how to do it didn’t.

Jo Reed: And I’m so curious about what your family thinks about the book because you share some lovely things about them, and the book certainly, while fraught in many places, is also filled with a lot of joy, which I like.  But you also talk about a lot of rough stuff in the book, foreclosure, substance abuse.  Did you share the book with them as you wrote it?  Were they, you know, part of the journey as you wrote the book?

Sarah Smarsh: They were part of the journey, and this is one additional way in which it’s not a really classic memoir.  I spent a lot of years interviewing my family reporter style for just the rote details of our family history were hard to piece together because poverty tends to kind of scatter records and nobody’s keeping precious albums and no one’s in, like, the newspaper, and community is very fleeting and it was a very turbulent and transient lifestyle that my family led for generations, most specifically on my mother’s side. And so I did a lot of consulting them just to piece together kind of the nuts and bolts of, “Okay.  How did we end up here?” and “Who did what?” and, “This was when?” and that year and that address.  But then I also interviewed them about things like, “How did you feel when...fill in the blank.?” and those are types of questions that folks in working poverty don’t get asked, reason one being their story typically isn’t regarded as mattering and folks who don’t matter don’t get asked how they feel and so it took some time to kind of get my family to open up in those ways.  What I found was that they, you know, while that experience felt very foreign to them and it was very strange kind of, you know, construction for me to be there as a journalist and they’re there as my family but yet the thing that allows me to write to intimately about them is that we are blood;  but the reason I took that tack is they were uncomfortable with opening up in those ways except that I, if I present it as work, you know, “This is my work,” work they understand and they respect, and it’s like, “Okay.  It’s crazy that this is your work but if this is your work I’ll answer these questions,” and they did so forthrightly and very bravely, and this was over the course of many years.  So yes, they were brought into the process.  As far as the reading, they never asked to read it.  But when it became a reality and.  this is specifically with my close family members, I gave them an opportunity to read it.  They chose not to, including my mother, and I think, is that they knew how hard it would be to read and they also trusted me to do right by them. In the acknowledgements of the book I talk about how my grandmother, who shared very deeply about some just unimaginable traumas that she lived over the course of her life, and she told me the reason that she was okay with whatever I put in the book was, the first reason was because it’s true. <laughs> That’s a very Grandma Betty answer.  If it’s true, it’s true, like it or not,” and two, that it might help somebody else.  So I’m very grateful to their spirit in that regard.  Also, I’m going to add, you know, it wasn’t easy.  It’s not that there weren’t hard moments.  It’s not that there weren’t, like, moments where someone struggled with, you know, “Oh, God.  Somebody’s going to read that thing and now I feel ashamed.”  And there were conversations like that, and I felt that way too.  Maybe more than anybody. <laughs> But they gave me their blessing and that meant everything to me.  There is a school of thought about memoir, if they don’t like it they can write their own version, but that’s kind of a middle-class take.  My family isn’t going to write their own version, because they don’t have the time or the schooling or the access, and so I felt a real responsibility to get it as right as possible.

Jo Reed: Sarah, we’re going to have to leave it there because we’re really out of time, but I could talk to you for hours.  Thank you so much.  You know, again, I’m so pleased that this is part of the NEA Big Read and communities will be reading it.  I’m so grateful that I read it and I’m very grateful to you for writing it.

Sarah Smarsh: I thank you so much for that feedback and I truly, I’m just-- I’m so looking forward to the events and conversations ahead and delighted to be on this podcast.  I look forward to sharing it, and you asked just beautiful questions, many of which nobody’s ever asked me, so thank you for that.

Jo Reed: Not at all.  My pleasure.  Thank you, Sarah.

That was Sarah Smarsh: Her book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth is a   2022-2023 NEA Big Read title. You can keep up with Sarah at and find out about NEA Big Read initiative at—we’ll have links in the show notes.

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get podcasts and leave us a rating on apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed, thanks for listening.

In today’s podcast, Sarah Smarsh discusses her book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, which is a 2018 National Book Award finalist and a 2022-2023 NEA Big Read title. Smarsh discusses her family background in rural Kansas, intergenerational poverty, and the difficulty of recognizing the impact of class in America. We also talk about her decision to tell the story of her family against a broader background of systemic inequality and of public policies that impact and shape the lives of rural working poor. In this conversation, as in the book, Smarsh combines sharp socioeconomic insights with the deep psychological understanding that comes from a lived experience in poverty.

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