It seems only fitting that the Texas Book Festival/San Antonio Edition includes, among the 50 authors converging Saturday on the Central Library and Southwest School of Art, a young author with what looks to be the next big book about Texas.
People outside Texas are always in the market for a book that dissects Texans and our culture. Even inside the Lone Star state, we Texans hurriedly analyze every word anyone writes about us. So if you take the time tomorrow to attend just one session, perhaps it ought to be with Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder.
Grieder's debut book, "Big, Hot, Cheap and Right: What American Can Learn From The Strange Genius Of Texas," is right at the top of the PublicAffairs Spring 2013 catalogue.
Grieder will be discussing Texas politics with fellow author James Haley and moderator Evan Smith, the Texas Tribune editor-in-chief and CEO. Their discussion, "Big State, Big Politics," is at 10 a.m. in the Gallery Shop of the Ursuline campus. Check out the full author list and event schedule at saplf.org/bookfestival.
The Rivard Report has published several Q&As this week with bookfest organizers and authors. Here is our conversation with Grieder:
You're a senior editor for Texas Monthly and you spent several years covering the state for The Economist magazine. Did writing for an international audience cause you to see Texas from the outside rather than as a local?
Well, I’ve lived in a lot of states so I’ve had a sort of insider-outsider view of Texas for a while. Working at The Economist did cultivate that tendency – not in a negative way, but if you’re an American writing about Texas (and other states) for an international audience, you have to keep an eye out for things that Americans might understand intuitively, but that need to be made explicit for outside readers.
Although, now that you bring it up, there is an interesting overlap between Economist culture and Texan culture, which is that both are unusually predisposed to look at issues through an economic lens. It’s one of the things that I liked about writing for The Economist and it probably helps explain why they publish a lot of stories about and from Texas – a lot of international press lost interest after George W. Bush left the presidency.
Is it true that you are from San Antonio? Tell us about your roots, what took you away from the city, and how you feel about returning now for the Texas Book Festival/San Antonio Edition:
Yes. I would say yes (that I'm from San Antonio). This can be a tricky question for me because when you tell someone you’re from San Antonio the next question is always, “Where did you go to high school?” and I went to high school in Delaware because I’m a military brat. My parents were both in the Air Force. My mom retired from the service after I was born – I have four brothers, and I’m the second-oldest – and my dad stayed in for nearly thirty years. We moved to Randolph Air Force Base when I was in first grade but moved away the summer after fifth. Then my family moved back when I was in college in, I think, 2001. That’s where they’ve been ever since.
So it’s not an airtight case but it’s certainly more plausible than any of the alternatives. My dad was born in Zürich, but grew up outside Chicago. My mom is from Jersey City. I was born in Illinois, but we moved away six weeks later. San Antonio is a great city and I’m always happy to come back here, even if there’s not a book festival happening that day.
Has the city visibly changed since you left? I wonder if the growing national profile of Mayor Julián Castro means Economist readers might come across references to San Antonio more often? Some would ask the same question about Texas Monthly, although the recent pair of stories by Sandra Cisneros and Mimi Swartz got people's attention here.
Oh, yes. Definitely. The growth was apparent when I started coming back to visit, in college, but especially in the past few years, the city’s commitment to revitalization and renewal has been striking. I mean, I remember the Windsor Park Mall from when I was a kid. It’s awesome what Rackspace has done with that space.
And, as you suggest, in addition to the visible changes the San Antonio has become more visible around the country. There’s always been something slightly below-the-radar about San Antonio. Even in Texas, a lot of people don’t realize that San Antonio is bigger than Dallas. That probably has something to do with Julián Castro’s growing national profile, but his profile is growing in large part because of the work he has done, in conjunction with business and civic leaders and the voters, since he became mayor.
There was an article in the New York Times that called San Antonio “a kind of Berkeley of the southwest”, which I thought was sort of missing the point. Nothing against Berkeley, but it’s a totally different city – tinier, wealthier, whiter, with a long history as a Democratic stronghold in a Democratic state – and if a city like that decides to open a recycling center it’s not really that interesting. San Antonio is far bigger, in terms of population and size. It’s not rich and it’s unusually diverse, not just in terms of ethnicity but in terms of industry, politics, and culture. When a city like that decides to invest in universal pre-k, downtown revitalization, public transportation, and renewable energy and energy efficiency, that’s the kind of story that should compel national attention.
It must be exciting to hold your first book. Did you have an easy time writing it, and then an easy time finding a New York publisher, or do you have your fair share of rejection letters? You'll meet some aspiring young writers this weekend at the book festival. Any advice?
I had an accidentally easy time finding an agent, and as a result, a publisher. I had always thought it would be fun to write a book about why Texas is the way it is, and what that’s like, but I wasn’t sure that anyone in New York would want to publish it. After Perry got in the presidential race, that seemed to change – you remember that brief campaign triggered an avalanche of national interest not just in Perry, but in Texas and the “Texas Miracle.” Journalists in Texas who had been writing about all of this for years were suddenly in high demand. So I made a few calls and it happened that the first agent I talked to was interested, and knew an editor, who ended up buying the book – which was about Texas, not about Perry. So that was pretty serendipitous.
I liked writing the book but it was kind of a horrible and difficult year, if that makes sense. What I mean is that I always liked the material – I love reading and talking and writing about Texas’s history, and Texas today – but it’s a ton of work, and I still had a full-time job, so by the time I turned in the draft I was exhausted.
And so that leads to my advice to young writers who want to write a book: make sure you really care about the project and can take some pleasure in the work itself, because otherwise you’re going to be totally miserable.
So even as defender of Texas, if that's fair to say, what do you think about a state that has been in the grip of the Republicans for what seems like a generation? Is that good for Texas? What about how little we spend as a state on public education, health care, tending our neediest, etc?
It’s definitely fair to say I’m a defender of Texas. I think most Texans are. And the state’s been in the grip of the conservatives for most of its history as a state – when Democrats were the party in power they were pretty conservative, too.
So to the question of whether that’s good for Texas: I always start with the data. I like political philosophy – I was a philosophy major in college – but if I’m going to assess whether a state is doing a good job or a bad job, all I care about is results. And looking at the data, Texas is doing well. The economic data is pretty clear on that, and the economic data is a crucial indicator of how people are doing. Our unemployment rate, for example, has been lower than the national average every month for more than six years. That’s amazing. It’s really good news. And it’s not good news for billionaires; it’s good news for the middle and working class.
As for the other metrics – education, health, poverty – there are a lot of areas where we’re not where we need to be or where we want to be as a state. But I would add two thoughts on that. First of all, in most respects we’re not as bad as people think. On health care, for example, people often talk about how Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the country. That’s true. But in terms of health outcomes, we usually rank around the middle of the pack – in the most recent rankings from the Commonwealth Fund, for example, Texas comes in at 46th for overall outcomes, but 21st for “healthy lives.”
Second: you have to think about where the state’s baseline has been. It’s not as if we used to have better outcomes and now we’re falling behind. A couple of years ago, for example, we had the second-highest incarceration rate in the country; now we’re fourth. I’m not saying we should throw a parade about that. We do have a lot of work to do, and we should guard against being complacent. But I don’t see the evidence that the state’s economic performance has taken a toll in terms of social welfare or justice.
What about Gov. Rick Perry? He fell flat in the Republican presidential primaries, to say the least, and many expected that to be the end of his career as governor and future presidential candidate. Yet he seems strongly entrenched in the Governor's Mansion and there are plenty of indications that he even hopes to take a second shot in the next Republican presidential primaries. How do you explain Perry to your book readers?
Perry is a sort of enigmatic figure. One thing that really colored my view of him as a person was a couple of years ago. There was a conference for conservative bloggers in Austin – I don’t even remember which one it was – and I was there covering it, and he came in, gave a five-minute speech about how great Texas is and how many jobs Texas has, and then went and sat in the audience and wolfed a sandwich. The impression I have from being on his press mailing list for the past six years is that he really does care more about jobs and economic development more than anything else. These press releases are like a steady drip, drip, drip--”40 jobs coming to Tyler.” “300 jobs coming to Austin”, etc. etc. He doesn’t seem as engaged or consistent on other issues.
I would guess he’s not going to run for governor in 2014. Even in 2010, he was already the longest-serving governor in Texas history, so there’s no shame in stepping down at this point, and if he wants to take another swing at the presidential nomination he could use that time to prepare.
Every session of the Texas Legislature seems to produce at least one magazine edition worth of foolishness and foul play. Ever thought about a next book on the Lege?
No, because I’m covering the current legislative session for Texas Monthly and so far it hasn’t been nearly crazy enough to justify a book. Everyone’s just cooperating and working on things. I mean, as a citizen, I guess it’s good, but as a journalist ... God bless Ted Cruz, let’s put it that way.
Erica Grieder is a senior editor at Texas Monthly, based in Austin. From 2007-2012 she was the southwest correspondent for The Economist. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, the New York Sun, The Spectator (UK), and More Intelligent Life. Her first book, "Big, Hot, Cheap and Right: What American Can Learn From The Strange Genius Of Texas," will be published on April 23 by Public Affairs.