James Fallows is a writer and journalist for The Atlantic. He was Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter, and won the National Book Award in 1983 for National Defense. He has since written about China, business, technology, and the military in both books and articles. A Rhodes scholar at Oxford in economics, he also went to Harvard, where he was editor of the Harvard Crimson. He later worked as an editor at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and U.S. News & World Report. In addition to holding a number of honorary degrees, he is also a licensed pilot, and once, long ago, worked as a mail carrier for the USPS. Given this experience, it is perhaps befitting that his latest book is written with his wife Deborah, who narrates, and is titled OUR TOWNS: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America.
Jonathan Lowe) Describe your book tour. Whom did you meet?
James Fallows) Over the past four months, my wife, Deb, and I have spent most of our time on the road across the United States, talking with readers — and a wide range of other citizens. We’ve met business people, teachers and librarians, mayors and other political leaders, immigrants and refugees, artists, nurses and doctors, police officers and judges, architects and construction staffers, farmers and shop owners, reporters and local news staffers, entrepreneurs, brewers and distillers, truckers and delivery drivers, and the others who make up a modern community.
JL) Impressions of America between the coasts?
JF) The more we’ve continued to travel, the more humbled and impressed we’ve become by the breadth and intensity of the renewal efforts already underway in communities large and small. Every American is aware of the problems and failures of the current United States, from bitter division at the level of national politics to economic dislocation and stagnation, and drug-addiction scourges. But not enough people are vividly enough aware of how much innovative energy is being applied toward solutions.
JL) How do you think this will all turn out?
JF) We can’t be sure — no one can — of how the balance between national-level bitterness and local-level practicality will turn out. But the more we’ve seen, the more convinced Deb and I have become about the importance of sharing these stories and letting today’s Americans know about the solutions their fellow citizens are discovering.
JL) You and your wife recorded the audio version of this book, reading the alternating passages each of you wrote. What did you learn from the experience?
JF) We benefitted from the guidance of a skillful producer / director of the recording, Gordon Rachman. Deb says about the experience, “Gordon was a great coach. He turned a famously arduous process —(think of going to the dentist!) — into one that was as pleasant and rewarding as could be. Think of the happy gas!” I agree with Deb, and found the recording process both more demanding than I expected and also more satisfying…in contrast to the tolerance for half-slurred words we get in normal life. Deb and I were trying to tell the story of what we had seen city-by-city as we went across the country. Telling those stories aloud, finally, seemed like the right and natural way to deliver the message. Although I couldn’t help copy-editing myself as we went along, or thinking, “Gee, there could have been a clearer way to make that point!” I am a huge fan and customer of audiobooks, and so I was all the more gratified to be able to participate in this part of the writing and publishing process.
From the Publisher: “For the last five years, James and Deborah Fallows have been traveling across America in a single-engine prop airplane. Visiting dozens of towns, they have met hundreds of civic leaders, workers, immigrants, educators, environmentalists, artists, public servants, librarians, business people, city planners, students, and entrepreneurs to take the pulse and understand the prospects of places that usually draw notice only after a disaster or during a political campaign. The America they saw is acutely conscious of its problems—from economic dislocation to the opioid scourge—but it is also crafting solutions, with a practical-minded determination at dramatic odds with the bitter paralysis of national politics. At times of dysfunction on a national level, reform possibilities have often arisen from the local level. They describe America in the middle of one of these creative waves. Their view of the country is as complex and contradictory as America itself, but it also reflects the energy, the generosity and compassion, the dreams, and the determination of many who are in the midst of making things better. Our Towns is the story of their journey—and an account of a country busy remaking itself.”