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Interview: 2011 Piedmont Laureate Scott Huler, author of On the Grid

January 20, 2011

Scott Huler; courtesy United Arts

Scott Huler, author most recently of On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make our World Work, was named earlier this month as the third Piedmont Laureate, a position serving a five-county area in central North Carolina and “dedicated to building a literary bridge for residents to come together and celebrate the art of writing, enriching the lives of all our citizens.”

Huler is the first nonfiction writer named to the one-year position. Poet Jaki Shelton Green first held the position in 2009, and novelist Zelda Lockhart followed in 2010. The program is co-sponsored by the City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Alamance County Arts Council, Durham Arts Council, Johnston County Arts Council, Orange County Arts Commission and United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County.

In addition to On the Grid, Huler is also the author of No-Man’s Lands: One Man’s Odyssey Through The Odyssey; Defining the Wind: The Beaufort Scale, and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry; On Being Brown: What It Means to Be a Cleveland Browns Fan; and A Little Bit Sideways: One Week Inside a NASCAR Winston Cup Race Team. He has also worked as a reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh and appeared on National Public Radio, among other outlets.

Laureate events will be posted at the program’s website. Soon after the honor was announced, Huler chatted briefly with me about the position and his own plans for the coming year. — Art Taylor

Art Taylor: The Piedmont Laureate program seeks to promote the art of writing through readings, workshops and more. What particular goals or challenges have you personally set for yourself in this role?

Scott Huler: My goal for the year is to do what I can to wake people up to the stories all around them. I don’t really want to spend a year telling my own stories; frankly, I’ve heard them all before. So we’re trying to organize events that will be highly participatory. We’re interested in getting a lot of writers involved, and especially getting people involved who might not have thought of themselves as storytellers. Since I’m a nonfiction writer, I see the whole world as nonfiction stories. Poets and fiction writers I suppose do much the same, but what I love most about nonfiction is simply getting the story down. “Good prose is like a window pane,” says Orwell, and good nonfiction does simply that: sees something, frames it, and gets out of the way. So we’re trying to wake people up to the fact that all those YouTube videos? those Facebook status updates? those Tweets? That’s all nonfiction storytelling, and we should be aware of it — and try to do it as well as we can.

My most recent book was about infrastructure. On the Grid takes my home and traces from it every infrastructure system — fresh water, wastewater, roads, electricity, cable, so forth — and asks where they come from, how they work, whose idea they were, and so forth. It tries to make the point that your world surrounds you with miracles — and wants to tell you about them. But we remain resolutely uninspired, ignoring all these unimaginably complex and miraculous systems. So since I just spent a couple of years working on waking people up to that, I’ll try to do a bit more of that as Laureate. We’re working on a program that will put QR codes on a few infrastructure spots — a water tower, say, or a stormwater culvert or something like that, something you see but never notice — which will link to a website with photos, maybe a bit of sound or video, but with the story of what that thing is, when it got there, how it got there, what it does. Of course it’ll be updatable so people can continue moving the story forward. We’ll see where we get with that idea.

You’ve emphasized nonfiction significantly. In what other ways do you anticipate that your background not just as a nonfiction writer but also as a journalist will help to shape this year’s program distinctly from previous years?

I’m told the Piedmont program is the only civic laureate program in the country that recognizes nonfiction, and that thrills me. We live in a kind of golden age of nonfiction. We’re told it’s the Information Age, though nobody knows exactly what information is or is supposed to be. I prefer to think it’s an age of story, like all ages — and that all these new technologies will just remind us that it’s narrative keeps us going, not the particular technology we use to share it. I think as a journalist — if you’re going to be any good at it — you quickly learn two things: there are stories everywhere, and you have to let the story tell itself through you.

For the first, you have to learn that everything has a story, and every story is important. That doesn’t mean that every story is interesting to the audience you hope to reach, so you quickly have to understand all those things: What is the story? Who is your audience? Does this interest them? That’s a way to focus that journalists learn, I think.

For the second, you have to let the story come to you. Every journalist has had an editor who sent him or her out to get the story — and told the journalist what the story was supposed to be. Journalism — storytelling — comes when you let the STORY tell you what the story is, not some editor sitting in a windowless room in an ugly building that looks like an air conditioner. This is now more important than ever, because we have so many tools for telling stories: audio, video, photo, print, online, art, animation. Now you have to ask the story not only what it is and what it wants to be but how it wants you to tell it.

So I think that might make me different at this than more artistic writers like novelists and poets. They shape and create — intrinsic to what they do is a kind of artistic command of their material. Not that a nonfiction writer — scratch that. Not that I (speaking only for myself) don’t shape and create, but as a nonfiction writer my job is just to get the story out there as clearly as possible. I think of my work as a lot more craftsmanlike than artistic. Novelists and poets are making sculpture and artwork; I’m making bowls and pots.

While this is a very public position, writing is generally a solitary art. In the midst of your duties over the coming year, what project are you personally working on these days?

Right now I’m finishing a bunch of corporate work, and when I finish that I’ll be hoping to get started on a couple of book projects I’ve been thinking about, but I believe strongly in not discussing what I’m working on until I’m at least working on it, so I’ll say only that I strongly doubt this will be the year I stop writing. I’m just glad for the opportunity to get out of the office and talk to people instead of only interviewing them. A writer spends so much time on the floor in the fetal position crying that having a good excuse to be out and about and talking to people for a lot of this year sounds great. I’m really thrilled to have this position.

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