One of the facts of life for a historian of drugs in the modern United States is that you’ll frequently be asked if you’ve read the latest best-seller on contemporary drug issues. That was certainly the case when the subject of Points Interview number ten–Nick Reding’s Methland (Bloomsbury, 2009)–first appeared on the best-seller lists. A new paperback edition of the book was released May 25, and we’re able to mark the occasion with the Points Interview.
Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.
Methland is about three years in the life of a small Iowa town with a bad methamphetamine problem. To tell the story, it follows the lives of the mayor, the town doctor, the prosecutor, a meth addict, and a trafficker. It’s about where the meth comes from and what it does, but it’s also about the way the town fights back, along with the personal ups and downs of the principal characters.
What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
One thing people talk to me about a lot is the book’s emphasis on larger social and economic vectors as prime movers in the characters’ addictions as they’re portrayed in Methland. This wouldn’t be any news to drug and alcohol historians. But what might be of interest is the origin of these vectors as they pertain to the town of Oelwein, Iowa, which are largely changes in the American food production business, the pharmaceutical industry, and immigration patterns. I’m not aware of anyone having ever connected, for instance, the rise of meatpacking in the rural Midwest with the production of meth. The book’s argument is essentially that the rural United States, given both its long-term history and the broad-scale changes of the last 30 years, is tailor-made for the drug.
Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
I’ll tell you what I find least interesting is the same big-picture stuff I enumerated above. That’s not to say I’m uninterested in it–otherwise I couldn’t have followed all those leads for four years. I guess I’m proudest of that part of Methland–of the reporting and the detective work. But I’m a fiction writer at heart, and what I love most is keeping things close to the characters. I could have written forever about the doctor and the prosecutor and the mayor of Oelwein, because I found them to be such fascinating people.
Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone from Methland are you most curious to see turned over soon?
The question that Methland begs for me, personally, is, What’s going to happen next? Where do we go from here in the broad and largely-rural middle of America? I didn’t get to address that question in the least while reporting Methland. But now I can, because the question posed by my next book, Heartland, which is Part 2 of a two-part series, is, What will the Midwest look like in 40 years?
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s assume there’s a documentary film based on Methland in the works. Who would you like to hear do the narration?
There actually is a film in the works, insofar as BBC America bought the rights last year. The rumor is that George Clooney’s production company is interested in producing it. If so, and if it then goes the documentary route, let’s hope Clooney narrates it–then we might all actually make some money.
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.